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How writers behave and misbehave

19 May 2006

11:40 AM

19 May 2006

11:40 AM

The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes by John Gross

OUP, pp.400, 16.99

Oxford publishes, or has published, a number of anthologies of anecdotes relating to various professions. There is a very enjoyable one of military anecdotes, edited by Max Hastings, Elizabeth Longford’s of royal anecdotes (competing in a crowded field), and Paul Johnson’s of political anecdotes. Some professions more readily generate anecdotes than others. I could imagine an anthology of anecdotes about philosophers or doctors, but no one is going to buy The Oxford Book of Banking Anecdotes.

A lot of serious-minded people probably disapprove greatly of the idea of an anthology of literary anecdotes. After all, full-dress scholarly biographies of writers are, in some circles, not regarded as particularly worthy enterprises. The work’s the thing, and not the second-best bed or the green carnation. How much more raffish, then, an account of literary history consisting of funny stories about authors. I don’t expect this volume will be on the order list of very many university libraries.

The literary anecdote has a particular flavour, and its recurrent themes tell you a lot about how writers tend to behave and how they are generally perceived. For a start, a remarkable number of these stories are about a catastrophic loss of dignity. ‘I shall never forget,’ Rosamond Lehmann writes, ‘Mrs [Dylan] Thomas shoving a drunken elbow into her ice cream, then offering the elbow to T. S. Eliot and telling him to “lick it off”.’ Pretension is wonderfully skewered in Richard Kenn- edy’s story of Clive Bell playing cricket — ‘he started to argue with the umpire in the most unsportsmanlike manner, making all sorts of allusions to Japanese literature’.

Authors, even the greatest, carry an uneven and self-sustained sense of their own worth inside them, which can easily slip into excessive dignity, and which, sadly, can easily be punctured by, say, Ezra Pound’s awful father Homer turning up and saying proudly, ‘You know, Mr Beerbohm, there ain’t a darn thing that boy of mine don’t know.’ Like that of royalty, the dignity of authors tends to invite the banana skin, and it is difficult to know who is the main target of the story about the short-sighted E. M. Forster at a society wedding, bowing to the cake under the impression that it was Queen Mary. Similarly, when the future Edward VII came to a dinner of literary men and was incredulous at being introduced to a man described as an authority on Lamb — ‘on lamb?’ he said — it is not only the Prince we are laughing at.


The bad behaviour and thin skin of writers are legendary. Max Beerbohm was once mistaken outside a memorial service by a small girl for J. M. Barrie, and took the opportunity to write in her autograph book, ‘Aye, lassie, it’s a sad day the noo, J.M.B.’ I don’t think this would be as funny if it were about politicians. Lawyers are just as rapaciously opportunistic as writers, but this story, told by A. N. Wilson, couldn’t be an amusing story if told about lawyers:

At the great Requiem which was offered for Chesterton’s soul in Westminster Cathedral, it was inevitably to Belloc that the newspaper cameras and reporters turned. In the course of the mass he managed to sell his exclusive obituary of Chesterton to no less than four different editors.

I suppose, to make heavy weather of all of this, the amusement comes from the sensitive analysers of the human heart — and Belloc was Chesterton’s best friend — behaving in ways so conspicuously heartless. How awful to hear of Arnold Bennett cheerfully offering Somerset Maugham a share in his Parisian mistress: ‘I thought it would be a good plan if you took the two nights a week she has vacant.’ Charlotte Mew is a poet of agonised longing and sexual frustration; the tale of her chasing May Sinclair five times round a bed is wonderfully at odds with the self-pity of her work, and unspeakably funny.

Literary anecdotes can be found, more or less, from Chaucer onwards, but it’s only in the 18th century, with the transformation of authors into celebrities, that the editor of a book like this has a rich store to choose from. (Who would have the job of deciding which stories to extract from Boswell’s Life of Johnson?) With the Romantics, of course, it becomes a positive flood of material. Even after that, it is very noticeable that some authors easily generate stories, while others remain in a sort of obscurity. John Gross has done well to find anything worth telling about Emily Dickinson or, a surprising blank, P. G. Wodehouse. On the other hand, there are those authors who possess almost a secondary oeuvre of comic narratives about their doings: Tennyson, Wilde, James, Conrad (unexpectedly), Waugh, or Auden. Some great authors don’t produce the best stories — I can think of some Dickens anecdotes, but none especially memorable. Others, such as Ivy Compton-Burnett, are almost more vivid in the stories told about them than in their work.

It’s a definite challenge to an editor to find unfamiliar stories about much-loved figures. It might be thought that he ought to include, too, the familiar stories, such as Tennyson saying to Jowett, ‘If it comes to that, the sherry you gave us before luncheon was downright filthy’ when Jowett had the temerity to criticise one of his poems. Many of those very famous stories, however, are in James Sutherland’s previous Oxford anthology of literary anecdotes, which this supplements rather than replaces.

There are certainly some good finds here, even on familiar ground. I had quite forgotten the man who came to dinner with Dr Johnson and only said one word: ‘Richard’. On the other hand, some of the easiest subjects are slightly disappointing. There is no shortage of stories about Auden superior to these, and I’m amazed that there is only one, not a very good one, about Noël Coward. Perhaps he properly belongs in volumes of theatrical anecdotes, but I’m particularly fond of his comment that one actress couldn’t get a laugh ‘if she pulled a kipper out of her cunt’. There are much better anecdotes about Waugh than a diary entry about a Beefsteak committee, and, to stay in the same social world, surely Nancy Mitford shouldn’t have been overlooked entirely?

Gross, too, includes quite a lot of material which, though interesting, isn’t what we usually mean by an anecdote. Sylvia Beach’s general observation that Joyce ‘treated people invariably as his equals, whether they were writers, children, princesses, or charladies’ isn’t an anecdote; nor, really, is the American remark that Henry James was not a cosmopolitan, ‘for a cosmopolitan is at home even in his own country’. What is needed is not exchanges of views, still less examples of a writer at work, but glimpses of a personality in a telling, usually public position. Gross says in his introduction that initially he ‘decided to confine myself to incidents pure and simple’, before relaxing his rule: ‘there was something faintly dispiriting about laying out one neat little drama after another: it was like compiling a collection of jokes.’ On this we will agree to disagree; I don’t necessarily think that the reader would have shared the compiler’s low spirits.

Nevertheless, the book is the result of an evident determination to prefer fresh and unfamiliar material, and inevitably that will sometimes be a little weaker than the old favourites. It’s impressive how much of Gross’s material, in fact, was worth digging up. It is inevitably harder to produce a book of this sort these days; the requirements of seriousness and the need to demonstrate authenticity have seen to that. The book, too, passes a personal test of mine by including at least one anecdote which, after much consideration, I still can’t understand at all. I won’t expose my dullness by repeating it, but anyone who wants to explain the point of the gag about Robert Burton and the Earl of Southampton is very welcome to send a postcard.


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