Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A half-crown public

A century ago today, Arnold Bennett, one of Britain’s great early 20th century writers, then living in Paris, was enjoying the ‘beauty’ of aeroplanes, some ‘chic’ women, and the fading gums of a particular woman who he observed ‘was being worn out by time, not by experience’. And twenty years later, then in London, he was being more prosaic in his diary, noting some thoughts on book royalties and print runs, and bemoaning the lack of ‘a half-crown public’.

The eldest of nine children, Bennett was born in 1867. He grew up in Staffordshire, the scene of what would become his best known novels such as Anna of the Five Towns and The Old Wives’ Tale. He trained and worked as a solicitor, but after moving to London he switched to editing a woman’s magazine and writing serial fiction. After publishing his first novel - A Man from the North - in 1898, Bennett became a full time writer. After the death of his father in 1903, he went to live in Paris for nearly a decade. On returning to England, he then spent the rest of his life in London and Essex. For a little more information see Wikipedia or a biography by Frank Swinnerton on Philip Atkinson’s biographies website.

For 15 years Bennett was married to a French actress, but later had a child with the English actress Dorothy Cheston. He always retained an ability to write about provincial life (having been much influenced when young by the French writers Flaubert and Balzac), but, once in London, his interest in the arts became increasingly cosmopolitan. He also developed a reputation as a literary critic, and kept a detailed diary. Indeed, Bennett had a limited edition of his diary privately printed as early as 1906 - Things That Interested Me Being Leaves from a Journal Kept By Arnold Bennett.

Much later, in 1930, at the very end of his life (he died in 1931), Cassell & Company published Journal 1929, a selection, by Bennett himself, from his diary in that year. This book is freely available online at Internet Archive (although in a very clumsy format). And then, within two or three years of his death, Cassell had published three substantial volumes of the diaries as The Journals of Arnold Bennett. These three books, covering nearly thirty years from 1896 to 1928, were edited by Newman Flower, who was not only a writer himself but had, some years earlier, bought the Cassell book publishing company.

Frank Swinnerton, another novelist and a biographer, made a briefer selection from those made by Flower, and this was published in 1954 by Penguin, also as The Journals of Arnold Bennett. In his introduction, Swinnerton says: ‘Here is a book full of [Bennett’s] simplicity and integrity. The Journal was kept daily, with brief gaps, from 1896 to the end of [his] life in 1931. It originally contained a million words. Even Sir Newman Flower’s selection [in the 1930s], from which the present volume is solely derived, ran to no more than four hundred thousand words. . . All through, however, the books shows Bennett’s gift of observation, his power to appreciate all kinds of writing, painting, and music, his industry, and in some small degree his character. . .’

Here are three selections from Bennett’s diaries. The first is from exactly one hundred years ago, and, with the second, comes from the 1954 Penguin edition. The third is from eighty years ago, and is taken from Journal 1929. The date is unknown (though it may possibly be early autumn) - Bennett himself provides the following note at the front of the book: ‘Most of the entries printed here from a Journal of daily worldly things kept by me during the year 1929 bear no date. I have censored the dates, sometimes for reasons which may be apparent, sometimes for obscure reasons understood only by myself.’ See also The Diary Junction.

30 September 1909
‘After much rain, an exquisite morning. The views of the Seine as I came up to Paris were exceedingly romantic. I came without a sketchbook, and my first desire was to sketch. So I had to buy a book. M. and I then went to the Aviation Exposition at the Grand Palais. Startled by the completeness of the trade organization of aviation; even suits for aviators, and rolls of stuffs for ’planes. We first remarked the Farman aeroplane. Vast, and as beautiful as a yacht. Same kind of beauty. Yet a new creation of form, a new ‘style’; that is newly stylistic. I had been reading Wilbur Wright’s accounts of his earlier experiments as I came up in the train, and I wanted to write a story of an aviator, giving the sensations of flight. I left M, and went to the Salon d’Automne. But I found it was the vermissage and so I didn’t enter. Crowds entering.

My first vague impression was here at last defined, of Paris. Namely, the perversity and corruption of the faces. The numbers of women more or less chic also impressed me. A few, marvellous. It was ideal Paris weather. I saw what a beautiful city it is, again. The beauty of this city existence and its environment appealed to me strongly. Yet the journey from the Gare de Lyon on the Métro. had seemed horrible. Also, I had waited outside the bureau de location of the Français, for it to open, and had watched the faces there which made me melancholy. Particularly a woman of 60 or so, and her virgin daughter 30 or 33. The latter with a complexion spoilt, and a tremendously bored expression, which changed into a mannered, infantile, school-girlish, self-conscious, uneasy smile, when a punctilious old gentleman came up and saluted and chatted, The fading girl’s gums all showed. She was a sad sight. I would have preferred to see her initiated and corrupt. She was being worn out by time, not by experience. The ritual and sterility and futility of her life had devitalized her. The mother was making a great fuss about changing some tickets. This ticket-changing had a most genuine importance for her. The oldish girl, mutely listening, kept her mouth at the mannered smile for long periods. But I think she was not essentially a fool.’

7 April 1925
‘Max Beerbohm, with others, dined here last night. [. . .] He said he had no feeling for London. He liked to visit it, but only on the condition that he could leave it and return to Rapallo [in Northern Italy].  He said that he couldn’t possibly have the romantic feeling for London that I have, because he was born in it. “The smuts fell on his bassinette.” Whereas I could never lose the feeling of the romanticalness of London. He told me that I was in his new series of “Old Celebrities meeting their younger selves”, shortly to be see at the Leicester Galleries.’

‘An author of an older generation than mine talked enviously of the royalties of novelists - popular novelists. He was talking ‘at’ the novelists at the table, including me. He said that his best book had almost no annual sale - a few hundred copies. It was published about thirty years ago. His most popular book was his worst, and last year it had a sale of ‘only 7,800 copies’. ‘How old is it?’ we asked. ‘Oh!’ said he, ‘I couldn’t tell you exactly. It must have been first published twenty-nine or thirty years ago. Perhaps in 1900.’ These books are text-books.

The novelists present merely smiled. Not ours to give the show away. We might have informed him that the number of modern novelists whose novels reach an annual sale of 7,800 copies after being extant for thirty years is as near zero as makes no matter. We might have informed him that the sale of the ordinary fairly successful novel comes to an end within six months of publication, if not sooner; though of course a small percentage of novels do achieve the cheap-edition stage - a stage, however, which brings but relatively trifling sums to the author.

Cheap editions . . . of novels very rarely reach large figures. I doubt whether any [cheap edition] novel of mine has had as large a sale . . . as in its original form, which fact, recurring, always inclines me to doubt the confident assertion of persons with limited incomes that they don’t buy novels because modern novels are too dear. Also, it is to be noted that, to my knowledge, two attempts have been made to sell new novels exactly similar in appearance to new novels at three half-crowns, for one half-crown. Both attempts completely failed to justify themselves. Booksellers’ shops were not invaded by cohorts of the half-crown public. Indeed the sales were deplorably unsatisfactory. Publishers lost money. So did authors. Insufficient advertising may have had something to do with the disaster. But books at half-a-crown will not ‘stand’ much advertising. The most popular of all my seventy-four or -five books, published some twenty years ago, has an annual sale of about 3,000 copies, with which I am well content. If it had an annual sale of 7,800 copies, I should be rather more than content. I should be quite puffed up. It is not a novel. It might not improperly be called a text-book, like the book of my senior friend. Its title is ‘How to live on twenty-four hours a day’. I wrote it in a week or two. It appeared serially in a daily paper. And I was strongly advised by an expert not to republish it in book form. I flouted his wisdom.

Yesterday I learned that the writing of text-books for pedagogic institutions is not always remunerative. The working chief of a large business enterprise related to me, in detail, how after a shortish scholastic career he had been engaged by a publisher as general editor of text-books at a salary of £275 per annum. (This was before the war.) ‘Editing’ the text-books proved to be writing the text-books, in addition to devising all business arrangements. During five years my friend actually wrote entire text-books on all manner of subjects at the rate of one a month - sixty in all. Some of these works still find a more or less regular market. He never got a penny of royalty. He never got any increase of salary. Under a clause in the contract the publishers held all the copyrights. Some publishers are cleverer than others. This particular publisher merited a Nobel Prize for sustained, rock-like cleverness.’

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