P.N. Furbank

P.N. Furbank is general editor, with W.R. Owens, of The Works of Daniel Defoe. His other books include Unholy Pleasure, E.M. Forster: A Life and Behalf.

Graham Robb, who is well known for his biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, has written a history of what he calls a ‘vanished civilisation’, his theme being that in the 19th century, although homosexual love and homosexual fraternising were hardly admitted to exist, except perhaps in court reports, they were an omnipresent and vital part of the national life. Moreover,...

Enfield was nothing: Norman Lewis

P.N. Furbank, 18 December 2003

‘I hate voyages and explorers,’ Lévi-Strauss writes in his Tristes Tropiques (1955). So what is he doing, he asks himself, in producing this account of his expeditions?

Must I relate so many insipid details and insignificant occurrences? Adventure has no place in the ethnographic profession: it is merely a form of servitude, it burdens effective work with the weight of...

Flower Power: Jocelyn Brooke

P.N. Furbank, 8 May 2003

‘An unjustly neglected author’? This was at least how Anthony Powell wrote of Jocelyn Brooke, none of whose books remained in print at the time of his death in 1966. But the neglect was to some degree remedied when, in 1981, Secker and Warburg reissued his Orchid Trilogy as a single volume, with an introduction by Powell, and it is nice to see this trilogy now reprinted as a...

Like Steam Escaping: Denton Welch

P.N. Furbank, 17 October 2002

In 1936 Denton Welch, who was then an art student at Goldsmiths College and had no thoughts of becoming a writer, suffered an appalling accident. He was bicycling from Greenwich down the main Brighton road, on a Whitsun holiday, when a car ran into him, fracturing his spine and leaving him a permanent invalid, till his death in 1948 at the age of 32.

It is of course a tragic tale, but also an...

A Little ‘Foreign’: Iris Origo

P.N. Furbank, 27 June 2002

Iris Origo, who died in 1988 at the age of 86, was a highly esteemed biographer and autobiographer, author of The Last Attachment (1949), about Byron and Teresa Guiccioli, his last mistress; The Merchant of Prato (1957), about a 14th-century Tuscan merchant and banker, and other Italy-oriented works. Her father, Bayard Cutting, came from an exceedingly rich New England family, with a fortune...

I used to have a homosexual friend who puzzled over the phenomenon of the homosexual ‘queen’. The performance – screams, limp wrists, hand on hip etc – was a very familiar one, many of one’s friends would occasionally indulge in it: the puzzle was that it was reputed to suggest a woman, whereas one never saw women behave in the least like it. The impersonation,...

The composer Lord Berners (1883-1950), as a dozen books of memoirs remind us, was very much a name in the Twenties and Thirties, in the sphere in which fashionable society meets the arts. His father was a naval captain and his mother the daughter of an exceedingly rich ironmaster (this last a fact which, with perhaps a touch of snobbery, he does not mention in his autobiography, First Childhood). His mother’s main, if not sole, interest was the hunting field, and Berners’s boyhood, though in general cheerful enough, was plagued by the cults of the horse and of ‘manliness’ – also, at his prep school, by a sadistic headmaster. Fairly early on, he developed a passion for music, first of all from the mere look of it, ‘these black waves of notes undulating across the page’.’‘

Kafka’s Dog

P.N. Furbank, 13 November 1997

It is important not to misinterpret what the disgruntled hero of Kafka’s ‘Investigations of a Dog’, tired of hearing about the vaunted ‘universal progress’ of the dog community, says about ‘old and strangely simple stories’:‘

Confounding the Apes

P.N. Furbank, 22 August 1996

There are several different things one can be aiming at in a verse translation, leaving aside the genre known as ‘Imitation’, in which poets like Samuel Johnson, Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell have done such marvellous things. A verse translation may aim to be an independent modern work in its own right. Or, I ought rather to say, this is what some famous and admired translations have in fact been. If you took Pope seriously as to the degree of fidelity required of a translator of Homer (‘to copy him in all the variations of his style and the different modulations of his numbers … not to neglect even the little figures and turns on the words, nor sometimes the very cast of his periods’), his own Iliad would give you rather a turn. Then again, a verse translation may plead to be read purely as a translation: as a compromise and a substitute, offered as such and hoping occasionally, by some good fortune of language, to reach transparency. (The transparency will, of course, be illusory, since the translator will of necessity be working within a different verse-form from the original; verse-forms do not transplant. But then, illusion is all any reader need ask for.) But thirdly, you can have a translation which is intended neither as a work of art nor as a substitute for a work of art, but as a form of exposition – in the way that you might teach rifle-drill with a dummy rifle. This is what Ezra Pound meant when he said of his brilliant and bizarre version of Guido Cavalcanti’s canzone ‘Donna mi priegha’: ‘As to the atrocities of my translation, all that can be said in excuse is that they are, I hope, for the most part intentional, and committed with the aim of driving the reader’s perception further into the original than it would without them have penetrated.’ Of these three new translations of Dante (not all of them quite new, for Allen Mandelbaum’s was first published ten years or so ago), Mandelbaum’s and Pinsky’s belong firmly in the second class, whilst Ellis’s, which makes a point of the modernity of its idiom, aspires perhaps a little to the first class.’

It was Wittgenstein’s objection to Freud and his Interpretation of Dreams that the procedure might be impressive, but why did interpretation have to end just there, what was to stop it going on indefinitely? On Julian Barnes, who is so addicted to the business or game of interpretations, the question does not seem to weigh so heavily. We perhaps misunderstand Barnes if we take him to be profoundly worried by hermeneutic doubts: by the fictionality of the past and the inaccessibility of truth. When the Flaubert addict in Flaubert’s Parrot writes to the Grocers’ Company to ask whether redcurrant jam was the same colour in the great novelist’s day as it is now, he receives a reassuring answer: it almost certainly was, though perhaps a little cloudier. But there will be no such easy answer, he is forced to realise, to questions such as whether, if the French were shorter in Flaubert’s day, they needed to be less fat in order to be called ‘fat’. Nor, presumably, will it matter in the slightest if there is not. Barnes’s tone is blithe, because the question, what can a novelist’s life and relics tell you about his work, absurd though it is, is a fertile and exponentially expanding one. If one stuffed parrot can tell you something about Flaubert, what may not fifty stuffed parrots do for you? Interpretations can themselves be interpreted; there is always a motive for an interpretation if you know where to look for it.

Dress for Success

P.N. Furbank, 2 November 1995

In his famous paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ (1950), Alan Turing described something he called the ‘Imitation Game’. In this game, a man and a woman are shut up in a room, and an interrogator, communicating with them from outside by means of written messages, attempts, by questioning, to discover which is the man and which the woman – it being the object of the man to pretend to be a woman and of the woman to expose him as a man. Now, argues Turing, imagine the part of the man being taken over by a machine, and, this machine putting up a good performance, would we not be inclined to say that the machine was ‘thinking’? Let us observe the logical intricacy, and beauty, of this mind-experiment. The machine is attempting to simulate not simply a man (in the sense of a member of the human species) but a man (in the sense of a member of the male sex) who is simulating a woman. Life compelled the hero of the present book to take part in a game somewhat of this kind, and he made an impressive showing, but every now and then the logic of the thing would be too much for him.’


P.N. Furbank, 3 August 1995

From one point of view, Thomas Crow’s remarkable pair of books, Painters and Public Life in 18th-Century Paris (1985) and Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (1995), can be described as a history of the decline and fall, and amazing final reprieve, of history-painting in France. Long cherished by the Academy of Painting and Sculpture as the highest and ‘noblest’ genre and the summit of a painter’s ambition, by the middle of the 18th century the theme of critics and philosophers was that, in the France of Louis XV, history-painting was simply impossible. The radical ambiguity of the term ‘noble’, the schism between its ethical and its social meaning, had become too glaring. It was true that Mme de Pompadour and her clan, intensely aware of the political significance of the fine arts, had reformed the Academy in the interests of a revival of history-painting – or, to put it in Crow’s words, of ‘rebuilding the Academy’s capacity to generate publicly-oriented narrative pictures that were stylistically and morally disciplined by the classicism of the past century’. Still, as is well known, what the Pompadour and her entourage actually enjoyed was the Rococo, and their favourite painter was Boucher. Their heart was not in the reforms, and the new Poussin, the ‘Phoenix’ destined to restore the nation’s sense of the ‘noble’ and the ‘ideal’, obstinately failed to arise.’

Nesting Time

P.N. Furbank, 26 January 1995

Now translated in full from the French for the first time, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is a great literary, as well as a great bibliographical, curiosity. Its author, Count Jan Potocki, who was born in 1761, belonged to one of the small handful of landowning families – the Potockis, Radziwills, Branickis, Czartoryskis and Sapiehas – who for centuries ran Poland. Frequently intermarrying, they cornered all the hereditary offices of state and accumulated fortunes larger than those of the Crown itself. Jan’s cousin Felix ruled over a hundred and fifty thousand serfs and commanded his own private army.’

‘If I Could Only Draw Like That’

P.N. Furbank, 24 November 1994

There is a curious little circumstance about the painter Whistler which catches at one’s imagination. It concerns his draughtsmanship. William Rothenstein recalls Whistler talking to him contemptuously of Oscar Wilde’s house in Tite Street and doing him a little drawing of it, to illustrate the monotony of such a terrace house. ‘I noticed then,’ says Rothenstein, ‘how childishly Whistler drew when drawing out of his head.’ One might think there was nothing to this, for evidently Whistler was not at that moment trying to create a work of art. But it is reinforced by an anecdote related by Henry Savage Landor. Landor was dining with Whistler (it was in 1896, towards the end of the painter’s life), and in the drawing-room, after dinner, his eye was caught by a skull and a lamp on the grand piano and he suggested that Whistler should sketch this little ‘still-life’. Whistler agreed, produced a large-size visiting card from his pocket, and for an hour drew and re-drew and rubbed out a hundred times what he had drawn, tearing up one card after another in frustration.

What sort of man?

P.N. Furbank, 18 August 1994

According to Stevenson’s wishes, his letters were first presented to the public by his friend, the art historian Sidney Colvin. Colvin, described by Stevenson as a ‘difficult, shut up, noble fellow’, did the job reasonably conscientiously. He was, however, an arch-bowdleriser, using, as he said, ‘the editorial privilege of omission without scruple where I thought it desirable’ and painstakingly altering the novelist’s ‘bloody’ to ‘beastly’, his ‘constipation’ to ‘indigestion’ and his ‘God grant’ to ‘I only hope’. His own labours came to an end with the five volumes of letters in the Tusitala edition of 1924, since when innumerable further letters have turned up. Plenty of need, then, for a new edition, and the task was undertaken as far back as the Fifties by Bradford Booth. Indeed before his death in 1968 Booth had, with some assistance from Ernest Mehew, more or less completed it, but on what appeared to Mehew as faulty principles. Thus the present elaborate and magnificent edition, which is to run to eight volumes, is largely Mehew’s own work. One gets the impression that it could hardly have been better done, being beautifully laid out and organised, copiously and concisely annotated, and managing, by tactfully-dosed commentary, to achieve all the effect of a biography.

Jolly Bad Luck

P.N. Furbank, 24 March 1994

Françoise de Graffigny, who, in 1747, being then in her early fifties, produced the much loved and wept-over Letters from a Peruvian Woman, was fond of complaining of her guignon, her implacable bad luck. The whole world would have to be overturned, she would say, before her evil star ceased its persecution. There is something in what she says, for she certainly had an excessively chequered life and managed to survive rather impressively.

Sartre’s Absent Whippet

P.N. Furbank, 24 February 1994

The sociological method of studying social ‘class’ is hopelessly misconceived. The trouble with it is basic: it has mistaken the nature of the subject. The sociological method flouts two fundamental truths. The first is that the proper way to study ‘class’ is by introspection: by prolonged reflection on what is going on in oneself when one thinks ‘class’ thoughts – a most devious and complex business, full of ruses and logical paradoxes.’

Unhappy Man

P.N. Furbank, 22 July 1993

Only a few months after the first, revelatory, biography of Philip Larkin there come two new lives – whether they are ‘revelatory’ will need pondering – of Michel Foucault. It is a suggestive coincidence. The one an exemplar of humanism, the other a grand exponent of anti-humanism, they are about the best in the way of writers their two countries have lately produced, and at their death they seemed to leave as great a hole. Larkin, as a poet of humanistic genius, was actually something quite rare (Whitman is the only parallel who readily springs to mind), and his work reminds us how central the notion of happiness is to humanism. With fantastic rigour, with the clarity of genius, Larkin accepted that, for himself, happiness was out of the question, and his poetry, which celebrates the possibility of happiness, comes to seem even more poignant and magnificent after reading his biography. (How one hated the smugly ‘fair-minded’, ever-so-right-thinking way in which his tragic story was handled by reviewers.)’

On wanting to be a diner not a dish

P.N. Furbank, 3 December 1992

If I were offered one wish by a benevolent Providence, mine would be not to be squeamish – a miserable affliction which locks one out from so much within the walls of disgust and shame. It occurs to one how enormously this matter must figure for an anthropologist. There is a story told by Lévi-Strauss of some Brazilian tribe with whom he was staying, who spoke with the greatest scorn and a disgust of a certain species of maggot, which was found in abundance in their neighbourhood. It had even been rumoured, they said, that certain depraved persons stooped so far as to eat it. One day, however, on entering his lodgings, he found his hosts with their back turned, engaged in some mysterious activity. The game was up. With blushes they admitted that they were eating maggots; and, asking permission to taste one too, he found it delicious.

Falling for Desmoulins

P.N. Furbank, 20 August 1992

When Sarah Orne Jewett sent her friend Henry James a copy of her latest work, a historical novel entitled The Tory Lover, he told her it would take a very long letter to ‘disembroil the tangle’ of how much he appreciated the gift of this ‘ingenious exercise’ of hers, and how little he was in sympathy with historical novels. He begged her to come back to the modern age and ‘the dear country of The Pointed Firs’, to ‘the present-intimate, that ‘throbbed responsive’ and was so much missing her.

Galiani’s Strangeness

P.N. Furbank, 27 February 1992

One jibs nowadays, perhaps as a result of reading Foucault, at the once-cherished notion of an ‘age’ – such an ‘age’ as one might be tempted to paint a ‘portrait’ of. For those brought up on ages, Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses was a shock, locating as it did Colbert and Cantillon, the Port-Royal Logique and the Encyclopédie, within one and the same episteme. (But, as Foucault was quick to point out, this was merely one possible dissection: there were many others he might equally well have performed.) The concept of an age seems riddled with fallacies, and especially perhaps when applied to the French mid-18th century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment. This latter name ought to be harmless enough, unlike that thoroughly obfuscating modern one, ‘The Enlightenment’ (which must, one supposes, stem from a mistranslation of the German definite article). All the same, that tag ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ can soon become a nuisance. It is a tendentious phrase, like ‘the true Church’, or ‘phlogiston’ – a phrase which many might have used in the 1760s, for their own intricate purposes. Thus a historian studying how these loaded phrases were used can hardly afford to use them himself, incorporating them as neutral terms into his own professional vocabulary.’’

More than one world

P.N. Furbank, 5 December 1991

It was the foible of the heroes of Italo Svevo’s novels to wake up each morning believing that, through their own striving, some splendid vita nuova might have begun and they might at last have become a quite different person; and it was the theme of their cheerfully Schopenhauerian creator that this was the most unchanging thing about them. (As it was, one might add, the most unchanging thing about poor James Boswell, another great vita nuova man, ever inclined to exhort himself: ‘Be Samuel Johnson! Be the rock of Gibraltar!’) All the same, despite Svevo’s rule, there have been a few people – Tolstoy, Wittgenstein and D.H. Lawrence come to mind – who not only went on expecting to be transformed, but managed to be so – and this without much reference to age. I come fresh from reading Ray Monk’s enthralling biography of Wittgenstein, a man who lived for change and through change and put all his genius into it.’

Jingling his spurs

P.N. Furbank, 10 October 1991

The Second World War, writes Ronald Blythe in the Introduction to Private Worlds, precipitated the ‘last great avalanche of private correspondence’. Thanks to the Education Act of 1918, it was greatest such avalanche there had ever been, and went with the most furious appetite for books – any kind of books, but Penguins for preference – and with the greatest impulsion to try ‘writing’ in the other sense too. For dozens of good reasons, cultural as well as military, that kind of war is not going to happen again. But the letters and diaries and efforts at fiction it inspired have survived in huge quantities; and from private sources, and the Department of Documents at the Imperial War Museum, Ronald Blythe has assembled an expressive collage, which is at the same time a meditation – just ‘one look’ at and ‘one assessment’ of, he says, an inexhaustible subject.’

Kermode’s Changing Times

P.N. Furbank, 7 March 1991

Frank Kermode having now become ‘Sir Frank’, it seems a good moment to take a look back over his remarkable career: though by no means because that career is at an end, for he is producing at such a rate just now that it is quite a job to keep up with him. Very broadly, one can think of his career so far as falling into four stages. The first stage, from Romantic Image (1957) to Puzzles and Epiphanies (1962), was very much imbued with Symboliste theory, and Kermode was ready to go along with the notions of the autonomy and organic unity of the work of art (and with the word ‘art’ itself) and with the identity of form and meaning. Merely – though of course it was not a small ‘merely’ – he argued against the hermetic tendencies of Symboliste aesthetics. He praised Yeats for insisting that poetry was made for ordinary human beings and for ignoring the forbidding notice ‘No through road to action’, and he contested the idea, implicit in Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’, that to embrace Donne you had to give up Milton. It was a stage in which, not for the last time, Kermode offered himself as a reconciler and peacemaker. Romantic Image, moreover, in the way it pursued a certain figure, that of the Dancer, through innumerable avatars, anticipated the long vistas of his later work.’

Condy’s Fluid

P.N. Furbank, 25 October 1990

That the ‘Great War’ is still deeply disturbing to the imagination came home to one last year, when a First World War tank stood on display in the forecourt of the British Museum. One reacted to the sight with a shudder of horror, and also an obscure resentment – at the idea, which seemed to be implied, that we must now proudly regard this appalling object as part of our ‘heritage’.’

Walking like Swinburne

P.N. Furbank, 12 July 1990

It is worth stating a few facts about Stephen Tennant, the subject of this excellent biography by Philip Hoare, in case some readers may not have heard of him. He was born in 1906, the son of a rich industrialist, Edward Tennant, who became Lord Glenconner in 1911, and of Pamela Wyndham, one of the Wyndham sisters immortalised by Sargent in his painting The Three Graces. Margot Tennant, who married Asquith, the Liberal prime minister, was his paternal aunt.

In the Golfo Placido

P.N. Furbank, 9 October 1986

We perhaps do not look with enough curiosity at the dramas and rituals which attend the actual act of ‘writing’, the moments when an author is confronting blank sheets of paper waiting to be filled. A vast assortment of conflicts, including some notable heroisms, lie concealed in the unaccommodating phrase ‘writer’s block’. Reading the anguished letters of Joseph Conrad, who was frequently ‘blocked’ during the fruitful years which produced Youth, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, you ask yourself why he did not shoot himself, or rather begin to wonder, nervously, whether he may not try to. The laments about a writer’s life, which are the dominating theme of his letters, are quite agonising. To Cunninghame Graham he writes, 16 February 1898: ‘Cher ami, I did not write because I was beastly seedy – nerve trouble – a taste of hell.’ To William Blackwood, 12 April 1900: ‘A dog’s life! this writing out, this endlessness of effort and this endless discontent; with remorse, thrown in, for the massacre of so many good intentions.’ To Edward Garnett, 29 March 1898: ‘I assure you – speaking soberly and on my word of honour – that sometimes it takes all my resolution and power of self control to refrain from butting my head against the wall. I want to howl and foam at the mouth but I daren’t do it for fear of waking that baby and alarming my wife.’’

Early Lives

P.N. Furbank, 5 June 1986

Brian Finney speaks of the study of autobiography as a ‘yawning gap’ in British scholarship. It is also, to judge from myself, a yawning gap in one’s own thoughts, which this is a good moment to try to fill. Finney has his own perspective, which is much concerned, first, with the ‘truth’ factor and attendant perceptual problems; secondly with autobiography as psychotherapy; and thirdly with the (large) function assigned to the reader by an autobiography. There is also an educational theme. Finney relates his deconversion as a teacher, but also as a critic and reader, from a ‘New Criticism’ faith, and tells us that as a teacher ‘I found myself quite naturally making increased use of autobiographical texts in courses in order to encourage students to seek a genuine, particularised point of contact between their lives and their experience of reading literature.’ It seems, in practice, though he does not say so, to have been only a partial deconversion. For what he found was that students – and not only students but some critics and scholars too – were in a state of primitive innocence with regard to autobiography such as, since the days of New Criticism, would hardly have been possible for them with regard to the novel. To put it bluntly, they wanted autobiographers to give us a true account of their past life, as well as to be decent and well-behaved citizens. ‘Only within the small circle of critics of the genre is it now a commonplace that an autobiography is likely to throw more light on the normally ageing autobiographer than on the earlier self about whom the book is ostensibly written.’ Finney describes this critical commonplace, very plausibly, as the ‘intrinsic paradox of the genre’, and proportions his praise of autobiographers to the degree to which they show themselves aware of it. His theory of the genre is a coherent one and is followed through with a good deal of resourcefulness and intelligent observation. I think there are certain things wrong with his theory, though not with this bit of it, but his is a valuable book and well worth arguing with.’

Sick mother be damned

P.N. Furbank, 6 March 1986

It is difficult, yet not impossible, to imagine Bernard Shaw at a loss for words. The thing indeed occurred in 1928 at Thomas Hardy’s funeral, when Shaw and Kipling were paired in the procession of mourners but could find nothing whatever to say to each other. Shaw’s own excuse was that it was absurd to have coupled such a tall man with such a very short one. This is very weak, and actually we find the silence quite natural. It is worth pondering why. No doubt Shaw regarded his companion as a madman, and Kipling regarded his as Mephistopheles, but this in itself need not have been a barrier to conventional civilities. The answer lies elsewhere, I suggest, and in their horrified recognition, at this their first and last encounter, of a ghastly kinship between them, as tutors and wooers of the British public over an identical period and carrying identical weight. What comes in here, also, is that, for good or evil, both were eaten up by ‘views’, were the mere fleshly embodiment of a system of opinions, which is a more imprisoning thing than a philosophy.

Secret Purposes

P.N. Furbank, 19 September 1985

We owe a large debt to the famous chapter on Robinson Crusoe in Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel. Watt really made us use our wits about that novel and forced us to relate it to our most serious interests. Reread after twenty years, moreover, the chapter still has all of its intellectual impact and verve. The trouble is, I now find myself wanting to quarrel with almost every sentence in it. The problem is perhaps epitomised by Watt’s dependence on Max Weber, who, I increasingly think, had quite a genius for getting things wrong. Watt, speaking of Crusoe’s methodical book-keeping, quotes Weber on ‘profit-and-loss book-keeping’ being ‘the distinctive technical feature of modern capitalism’. But after all, double-entry book-keeping was a mainstay of commercial prosperity in 15th-century Venice and Genoa (it later became known as ‘the Italian method’). How then can it be ‘distinctive’ of modern capitalism?

Is it a crime?

P.N. Furbank, 6 June 1985

As is well known, there is a curious association between bibliography and crime. It has something to do with a relationship to books as physical objects, and something to do with the fact that bibliographic crime is not felt to be crime quite in the pound-note-forging, or even Vermeer-forging, sense. Some gentlemanly code of ethics enfolds the activities of Thomas Wise and his fellows. As for purely literary, as opposed to bibliographical forgery, it receives no censure at all. Indeed, it receives rather high esteem. James Crossley, the distinguished 19th-century antiquarian and bibliographer, plumed himself on having foisted a ‘Fragment on Mummies’ of his own composing onto Wilkin’s edition of Sir Thomas Browne, and this was considered an excellent jape. Had it been a painting, someone would have called the police.


P.N. Furbank, 18 October 1984

The problem for social prophets, it would seem, lies not in getting the future right, which appears not to be too difficult, but in predicting the response which the future will command. ‘A thousand men at a thousand glowing desks, a busy specialist press, will be perpetually sifting, criticising, condensing, and clearing the ground for further speculation.’ So writes H.G. Wells in A Modern Utopia in 1905, neatly envisioning the micro-computer. And there is a lot to be said for the micro-computer. But such ‘glow’ as it possesses is purely literal and mechanical. Indeed, already in Wells’s sentence, any more metaphorical glow pertains to the future and to ‘further speculation’.

Henry James’s Christmas

P.N. Furbank, 19 July 1984

What strikes one about the garden at Lamb House, as redesigned by Henry James, is that it possesses all the ingredients of an old-English garden, yet the impression it makes is American. It seems on principle to want to do without mystery, even the mild mysteries beloved of English gardening-folk. In some indefinable way it is a public garden. There was, and perhaps still is, a difference between British and American attitudes towards the ‘public’, the British nursing an ambivalence towards publicity that Americans, with their Augustan inheritance, find perverse. That James took to dictating his novels, and even (though with infinite apologies) his letters, seems somehow appropriate. He was in a certain sense a naturally public man. He achieved for himself in his own lifetime an incomparable public position, as the acknowledged ‘Master’ – a position more unassailable than Kipling’s or Bernard Shaw’s – yet he frankly also longed for a popular following and declared only half-jokingly in a letter to W.Morton Fullerton in 1902: ‘I would have written, if I could, like Anthony Hope and Marion Crawford.’ Public position, and an intense preoccupation with public opinion, are also the key to the one incident, in the life of this affectionate and (on the whole) generous man, that sticks in the gullet and seems definitely ugly: I mean his pharasaic forbidding his friend Violet Hunt his house when it appeared she might figure in divorce proceedings. His explanation was quite frank: it was a matter of her ‘position’, and by implication of his.–

Where did he get it?

P.N. Furbank, 3 May 1984

Yeats’s notion of the anti-self or Mask, his theory that creativity is a matter of constructing a dream-identity antithetical to the natural self and the natural world, seems to me very profound and helpful – in fact, just true. ‘A writer must die every day he lives, be reborn, as it is said in the Burial Service, an incorruptible self, that self opposite of all that he has named “himself”.’ The theory certainly most beautifully fits Conrad, that least stoical, most volatile and hypochondriacal of men, who nevertheless created imperishable images of phlegmatic endurance and unquestioning fidelity. ‘One admires what one lacks,’ he wrote with self-knowledge to his Polish ‘aunt’ Poradowska. ‘That is why I admire perseverance and fidelity and constancy.’–

Good Sausages

P.N. Furbank, 20 October 1983

The facts of Denton Welch’s brief life are fairly well known, partly of course because they were his sole subject-matter as a writer. He was born in 1915, the youngest of three brothers, and spent much of his boyhood in China, where his father had business interests. His adored mother (an American, and a Christian Scientist) died when he was 11, and this event caused him a deep emotional disturbance, at the height of which he ran away from his much-detested public school. (The action, to his surprise, proved on the whole to have raised him in the world’s, and his own family’s, esteem.) After a spell back in China, he was allowed by his father to enrol as an art-student at Goldsmith’s College, but three years later, while bicycling, he was run down by a motorist, suffering permanent injury to his spine. His convalescence lasted many months and was never complete. Nevertheless he was able eventually to leave his nursing-home, and he resumed painting and began to write. His first (autobiographical) book, Maiden Voyage, appeared in 1943, with a Foreword by Edith Sitwell, and had a great success, as did its successor, the very slightly fictionalised In Youth is Pleasure (1945). Meanwhile he published stories, and an article about Sickert, in Horizon and other magazines. His health gradually deterioriated, and he spent his last years desperately trying to finish a further autobiographical work, A Voice Through a Cloud, which dealt with the time succeeding his road accident. In his last weeks he persisted in writing, though suffering such violent headaches that he could only work for a few minutes a day. He died in December 1948.


P.N. Furbank, 5 May 1983

The Edwardians, it is well known, were great worriers. If it was not the national physique or the Teuton menace they were worrying about, it was the ‘warped vitality’ of Bank Holiday crowds, or it was bicycling. I have always been rather struck by the warning against bicycling issued by the Liberal historian R.C.K. Ensor: ‘The nervous craving of modern people for soulless and thoughtless exhilaration sufficiently explains its deplorable vogue, which will last until the stronger natures set a saner example.’ Galsworthy was supremely such a worrier. Alec Fréchet, in his new study of Galsworthy, writes of how ‘his uneasy temperament forced on him a moral obligation to write, as pressing a motive as poverty, the driving force behind so many men of letters.’ He seems to have believed that simply by worrying you did good. It was well said of him by Samuel Hynes, in The Edwardian Turn of Mind, that ‘when he brought injustice into a story, he did so in a way that was neither objective nor didactic but simply emotional; and his motive in doing so was not the alleviation of injustice but the alleviation of emotion.’ Another remark of Hynes’s, also to the point, was prompted by Galsworthy’s Commentary, a collection of essays: it displayed ‘certain attitudes which one must assume were Liberal – a removed superiority of attitude and an inability to reach conclusions.’–


P.N. Furbank, 18 November 1982

Can it be doubted that to write about ‘the English Spirit’ (or L’Ame Française or ‘the Spanish Soul’) is intellectually disreputable? Plainly, there are no such entities, nor does anyone at heart believe there are. The motives for invoking them are various: vote-getting is one; also the need to find something to say at a school speech-day. Then again, flirtatiousness. Intense are the flirtations that have sprung up between English writers (like Gerald Brenan) and Spain, between old-fashioned American scholars and the French poets, and between flattering Frenchmen (like André Maurois) and the bluff English. I revere Nikolaus Pevsner, but he will have to forgive me if I detect a touch of flirtatiousness in The Englishness of Art. One could labour the point, and offer reasons why no such concept could be valid, but I hardly think it is necessary. It is recognised when such talk begins that one is meant to relax, as at a kind of tea-break in the intellectual working day.

The Earnestness of Being Important

P.N. Furbank, 19 August 1982

The nice thing about John Buchan is that he was on the side of books. He thought, it is true, that he ought to have been a Guardian, shaping the Empire, or dominating Cabinets, or, at worst, ‘a power behind the throne’. However, after his spell in Milner’s ‘Kindergarten’, the nation didn’t seem to want him in the Guardian line, so he did the next best thing and became an entertainer. And with what success! There were, above all, his own thrillers: he went on producing them, roughly once a year, through thick and thin, with honourable zest, when political or proconsular ambitions might have whispered to him to desist. Then there was Nelson’s (Seven-penny) Library, of which he was to a large extent the creator, and which must rank in significance with Penguin Books and the Everyman Library. It took some vision, as well as business talent, to bring together A. E. W. Mason, George Douglas, Raffles, Gissing, Henry James and Jack London in the same series, and in the name of pleasure. One sees that the middlebrow had still not quite secured its grasp upon Britain.


P.N. Furbank, 1 April 1982

It is right to be suspicious of books produced by the tape-recorder, for they offer endless scope for deception and self-deception. It is perfectly possible for such a book to be saying nothing whatever for long stretches, and no one, not even the compiler, will have noticed. Or it can be saying something important which, again, the compiler never intended and is not aware of. As always with a book, we need to worry about the art involved, for that is where the book’s message will lie.


P.N. Furbank, 15 October 1981

Ford Madox Ford has been lucky in his admirers, if ‘luck’ is the word. It is no small thing to have inspired two such magnificent poems as Lowell’s ‘Ford Madox Ford’ and William Carlos Williams’s ‘To Ford Madox Ford in Heaven’. And you may say that his luck holds: for Robert Green is also an admirer, but his book is thoroughly sensible, unbedazzled and discriminating, the book of someone who has heard of other writers and is in no kind of ‘Special relationship’ to Ford. What he has set out to do, and it is a wise economy, is to study Ford, not, as is customary, as literary craftsman and ‘Modernist’ fictional innovator, but as ‘a man who wrote at a particular point in time and in particular places’, and from the point of view of his response to ‘astonishingly rapid changes in European politics and culture’. Ford, that is to say, as a thinker.


Fusty Doodlings

17 October 2002

Apropos R.B. Russell’s attack on my review of James Methuen-Campbell’s biography of Denton Welch (Letters, 31 October), I was hoping that readers would take the point that at the time of Welch’s intense infatuation with ‘Dr Farley’ he was, as is stressed in A Voice through a Cloud, a very sick man, prone to wildly unbalanced behaviour. This was not his normal style in...

Homing in

24 February 1994

Lord Runciman asks (Letters, 10 March) whether I would seriously dispute that in 20th as in 15th-century England there are ‘systematically observable inequalities of economic, ideological and political power to which the contemporary rhetoric relates in all sorts of still understudied ways’. The answer is that I certainly would not – how could I? To be honest, I do not understand...


13 May 1993

With reference to Nicola Beauman’s letter (Letters, 10 June): I can’t think what can have possessed Francis King, usually a sensible man, to say (if he really did so) that I was ‘deliberately equivocal’ in my biography of E.M. Forster over Forster’s relationship with his friend Bob Buckingham.

What if?

20 August 1992

Leslie Wilson’s diatribe against my review of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (Letters, 10 September) is sensibly argued, and all I feel like saying in answer to it is that it did not take me by surprise and was indeed the reaction I half-expected to provoke. I honestly tried to be generous towards Mantel’s novel, though I did not like it; and the remark I most stand by...

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