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An essay by Max Beerbohm

Books Within Books (1914)

Title:     Books Within Books (1914)
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]

They must, I suppose, be classed among biblia abiblia [Greek]. Ignored in the catalogue of any library, not one of them lurking in any uttermost cavern under the reading-room of the British Museum, none of them ever printed even for private circulation, these books written by this and that character in fiction are books only by courtesy and good will.

But how few, after all, the books that are books! Charles Lamb let his kind heart master him when he made that too brief list of books that aren't. Book is an honourable title, not to be conferred lightly. A volume is not necessarily, as Lamb would have had us think, a book because it can be read without difficulty. The test is, whether it was worth reading. Had the author something to set forth? And had he the specific gift for setting it forth in written words? And did he use this rather rare gift conscientiously and to the full? And were his words well and appropriately printed and bound? If you can say Yes to these questions, then only, I submit, is the title of `book' deserved. If Lamb were alive now, he certainly would draw the line closer than he did. Published volumes were few in his day (though not, of course, few enough). Even he, in all the plenitude of his indulgence, would now have to demur that at least 90 per cent. of the volumes that the publishers thrust on us, so hectically, every spring and autumn, are abiblia [Greek].

What would he have to say of the novels, for example? These commodities are all very well in their way, no doubt. But let us have no illusions as to what their way is. The poulterer who sells strings of sausages does not pretend that every individual sausage is in itself remarkable. He does not assure us that `this is a sausage that gives furiously to think,' or `this is a singularly beautiful and human sausage,' or `this is undoubtedly the sausage of the year.' Why are such distinctions drawn by the publisher? When he publishes, as he sometimes does, a novel that is a book (or at any rate would be a book if it were decently printed and bound) then by all means let him proclaim its difference--even at the risk of scaring away the majority of readers.

I admit that I myself might be found in that majority. I am shy of masterpieces; nor is this merely because of the many times I have been disappointed at not finding anything at all like what the publishers expected me to find. As a matter of fact, those disappointments are dim in my memory: it is long since I ceased to take publishers' opinions as my guide. I trust now, for what I ought to read, to the advice of a few highly literary friends. But so soon as I am told that I `must' read this or that, and have replied that I instantly will, I become strangely loth to do anything of the sort. And what I like about books within books is that they never can prick my conscience. It is extraordinarily comfortable that they don't exist.

And yet--for, even as Must implants distaste, so does Can't stir sweet longings--how eagerly would I devour these books within books! What fun, what a queer emotion, to fish out from a fourpenny-box, in a windy by-street, WALTER LORRAINE, by ARTHUR PENDENNIS, or PASSION FLOWERS, by ROSA BUNION! I suppose poor Rosa's muse, so fair and so fervid in Rosa's day, would seem a trifle fatigued now; but what allowances one would make! Lord Steyne said of WALTER LORRAINE that it was `very clever and wicked.' I fancy we should apply neither epithet now. Indeed, I have always suspected that Pen's maiden effort may have been on a plane with `The Great Hoggarty Diamond.' Yet I vow would I not skip a line of it.

WHO PUT BACK THE CLOCK? is another work which I especially covet. Poor Gideon Forsyth! He was abominably treated, as Stevenson relates, in the matter of that grand but grisly piano; and I have always hoped that perhaps, in the end, as a sort of recompense, Fate ordained that the novel he had anonymously written should be rescued from oblivion and found by discerning critics to be not at all bad.

"He had never acknowledged it, or only to some intimate friends while it was still in proof; after its appearance and alarming failure, the modesty of the author had become more pressing, and the secret was now likely to be better kept than that of the authorship of `Waverley.'"

Such an humiliation as Gideon's is the more poignant to me because it is so rare in English fiction. In nine cases out of ten, a book within a book is an immediate, an immense success.

On the whole, our novelists have always tended to optimism--especially they who have written mainly to please their public. It pleases the public to read about any sort of success. The greater, the more sudden and violent the success, the more valuable is it as ingredient in a novel. And since the average novelist lives always in a dream that one of his works will somehow `catch on' as no other work ever has caught on yet, it is very natural that he should fondly try meanwhile to get this dream realised for him, vicariously, by this or that creature of his fancy. True, he is usually too self-conscious to let this creature achieve his sudden fame and endless fortune through a novel. Usually it is a play that does the trick. In the Victorian time it was almost always a book of poems. Oh for the spacious days of Tennyson and Swinburne! In how many a three-volume novel is mentioned some `slim octavo' which seems, from the account given, to have been as arresting as `Poems and Ballads' without being less acceptable than `Idylls of the King'! These verses were always the anonymous work of some very young, very poor man, who supposed they had fallen still-born from the press until, one day, a week or so after publication, as he walked `moodily' and `in a brown study' along the Strand, having given up all hope now that he would ever be in a position to ask Hilda to be his wife, a friend accosted him--`Seen "The Thunderer" this morning? By George, there's a column review of a new book of poems,' etc. In some three-volume novel that I once read at a seaside place, having borrowed it from the little circulating library, there was a young poet whose sudden leap into the front rank has always laid a special hold on my imagination. The name of the novel itself I cannot recall; but I remember the name of the young poet--Aylmer Deane; and the forever unforgettable title of his book of verse was POMENTS: BEING POEMS OF THE MOOD AND THE MOMENT. What would I not give to possess a copy of that work?

Though he had suffered, and though suffering is a sovereign preparation for great work, I did not at the outset foresee that Aylmer Deane was destined to wear the laurel. In real life I have rather a flair for future eminence. In novels I am apt to be wise only after the event. There the young men who do in due course take the town by storm have seldom shown (to my dull eyes) promise. Their spoken thoughts have seemed to me no more profound or pungent than my own. All that is best in these authors goes into their work. But, though I complain of them on this count, I admit that the thrill for me of their triumphs is the more rapturous because every time it catches me unawares. One of the greatest emotions I ever had was from the triumph of THE GIFT OF GIFTS. Of this novel within a novel the author was not a young man at all, but an elderly clergyman whose life had been spent in a little rural parish. He was a dear, simple old man, a widower. He had a large family, a small stipend. Judge, then, of his horror when he found that his eldest son, `a scholar at Christminster College, Oxbridge,' had run into debt for many hundreds of pounds. Where to turn? The father was too proud to borrow of the neighbourly nobleman who in Oxbridge days had been his `chum.' Nor had the father ever practised the art of writing. (We are told that `his sermons were always extempore.') But, years ago, `he had once thought of writing a novel based on an experience which happened to a friend of his.' This novel, in the fullness of time, he now proceeded to write, though `without much hope of success.' He knew that he was suffering from heart-disease. But he worked `feverishly, night after night,' we are told, `in his old faded dressing-gown, till the dawn mingled with the light of his candle and warned him to snatch a few hours' rest, failing which he would be little able to perform the round of parish duties that awaited him in the daytime.' No wonder he had `not much hope.' No wonder I had no spark of hope for him. But what are obstacles for but to be overleapt? What avails heart-disease, what avail eld and feverish haste and total lack of literary training, as against the romantic instinct of the lady who created the Rev. Charles Hailing? `THE GIFT OF GIFTS was acclaimed as a masterpiece by all the first-class critics.' Also, it very soon `brought in' ten times as much money as was needed to pay off the debts of its author's eldest son. Nor, though Charles Hailing died some months later, are we told that he died from the strain of composition. We are left merely to rejoice at knowing he knew at the last `that his whole family was provided for.'

I wonder why it is that, whilst these Charles Hailings and Aylmer Deanes delightfully abound in the lower reaches of English fiction, we have so seldom found in the work of our great novelists anything at all about the writing of a great book. It is true, of course, that our great novelists have never had for the idea of literature itself that passion which has always burned in the great French ones. Their own art has never seemed to them the most important and interesting thing in life. Also it is true that they have had other occupations--fox- hunting, preaching, editing magazines, what not. Yet to them literature must, as their own main task, have had a peculiar interest and importance. No fine work can be done without concentration and self-sacrifice and toil and doubt. It is nonsense to imagine that our great novelists have just forged ahead or ambled along, reaching their goal, in the good old English fashion, by sheer divination of the way to it. A fine book, with all that goes to the making of it, is as fine a theme as a novelist can have. But it is a part of English hypocrisy- -or, let it be more politely said, English reserve--that, whilst we are fluent enough in grumbling about small inconveniences, we insist on making light of any great difficulties or griefs that may beset us. And just there, I suppose, is the reason why our great novelists have shunned great books as subject-matter. It is fortunate for us (jarring though it is to our patriotic sense) that Mr. Henry James was not born an Englishman, that he was born of a race of specialists--men who are impenitent specialists in whatever they take up, be it sport, commerce, politics, anything. And it is fortunate for us that in Paris, and in the straitest literary sect there, his method began to form itself, and the art of prose fiction became to him a religion. In that art he finds as much inspiration as Swinburne found in the art of poetry. Just as Swinburne was the most learned of our poets, so is Mr. James the most learned of our--let us say `our'--prose-writers. I doubt whether the heaped total of his admirations would be found to outweigh the least one of the admirations that Swinburne had. But, though he has been a level-headed reader of the works that are good enough for him to praise, his abstract passion for the art of fiction itself has always been fierce and constant. Partly to the Parisian, partly to the American element in him we owe the stories that he, and of `our' great writers he only, has written about books and the writers of books.

Here, indeed, in these incomparable stories, are imaginary great books that are as real to us as real ones are. Sometimes, as in `The Author of "Beltraffio,"' a great book itself is the very hero of the story. (We are not told what exactly was the title of that second book which Ambient's wife so hated that she let her child die rather than that he should grow up under the influence of its author; but I have a queer conviction that it was THE DAISIES.) Usually, in these stories, it is through the medium of some ardent young disciple, speaking in the first person, that we become familiar with the great writer. It is thus that we know Hugh Vereker, throughout whose twenty volumes was woven that message, or meaning, that `figure in the carpet,' which eluded even the elect. It is thus that we know Neil Paraday, the MS. of whose last book was mislaid and lost so tragically, so comically. And it is also through Paraday's disciple that we make incidental acquaintance with Guy Walsingham, the young lady who wrote OBSESSIONS, and with Dora Forbes, the burly man with a red moustache, who wrote THE OTHER WAY ROUND. These two books are the only inferior books mentioned by Mr. James. But stay, I was forgetting THE TOP OF THE TREE, by Amy Evans; and also those nearly forty volumes by Henry St. George. For all the greatness of his success in life, Henry St. George is the saddest of the authors portrayed by Mr. James. His SHADOWMERE was splendid, and its splendour is the measure of his shame--the shame he bore so bravely--in the ruck of his `output.' He is the only one of those authors who did not do his best. Of him alone it may not be said that he was `generous and delicate and pursued the prize.' He is a more pathetic figure than even Dencombe, the author of THE MIDDLE YEARS. Dencombe's grievance was against fate, not against himself.

"It had taken too much of his life to produce too little of his art The art had come, but it had come after everything else. `Ah, for another go !--ah, for a better chance.'... `A second chance--that's the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.'"

The scene of Dencombe's death is one of the most deeply-beautiful things ever done by Mr. James. It is so beautiful as to be hardly sad; it rises and glows and gladdens. It is more exquisite than anything in THE MIDDLE YEARS. No, I will not say that. Mr. James's art can always carry to us the conviction that his characters' books are as fine as his own.

I crave--it may be a foolish whim, but I do crave--ocular evidence for my belief that those books were written and were published. I want to see them all ranged along goodly shelves. A few days ago I sat in one of those libraries which seem to be doorless. Nowhere, to the eye, was broken the array of serried volumes. Each door was flush with the surrounding shelves; across each the edges of the shelves were mimicked; and in the spaces between these edges the backs of books were pasted congruously with the whole effect. Some of these backs had been taken from actual books, others had been made specially and were stamped with facetious titles that rather depressed me. `Here,' thought I, `are the shelves on which Dencombe's works ought to be made manifest. And Neil Paraday's too, and Vereker's.' Not Henry St. George's, of course: he would not himself have wished it, poor fellow! I would have nothing of his except SHADOWMERE. But Ray Limbert!--I would have all of his, including a first edition of THE MAJOR KEY, `that fiery-hearted rose as to which we watched in private the formation of petal after petal, and flame after flame'; and also THE HIDDEN HEART, `the shortest of his novels, but perhaps the loveliest,' as Mr. James and I have always thought.... How my fingers would hover along these shelves, always just going to alight, but never, lest the spell were broken, alighting!

How well they would look there, those treasures of mine! And, most of them having been issued in the seemly old three-volume form, how many shelves they would fill! But I should find a place certainly for a certain small brown book adorned with a gilt griffin between wheatsheaves. THE PILGRIM'S SCRIP, that delightful though anonymous work of my old friend Austin Absworthy Bearne Feverel. And I should like to find a place for POEMS, by AURORA LEIGH. Mr. Snodgrass's book of verses might grace one of the lower shelves. (What is the title of it? AMELIA'S BOWER, I hazard.) RECOLLECTIONS OF THE LATE LORD BYRON AND OTHERS, by CAPTAIN SUMPH, would be somewhere; for Sumph did, you will be glad to hear, take Shandon's advice and compile a volume. Bungay published it. Indeed, of the books for which I should find room there are a good few that bear the imprimatur of Bungay. DESPERATIN, OR THE FUGITIVE DUCHESS, by THE HON. PERCY Popjoy, was Bungay's; and so, of course, were PASSION FLOWERS and WALTER LORRAINE. Of the books issued by the rival firm of Bacon I possess but one: MEMOIRS OF THE POISONERS, by DR. SLOCUM. Near to Popjoy's romance would be THE LADY FLABELLA, of which Mrs. Wititterly said to Kate Nickleby, `So voluptuous is it not--so soft?' WHO PUT BACK THE CLOCK? would have a place of honour (unearned by its own merits?). Among other novels that I could not spare, THE GIFT OF GIFTS would conspicuously gleam. As for POMENTS--ah, I should not be content with one copy of that. Even at the risk of crowding out a host of treasures, I vow I would have a copy of every one of the editions that POMENTS ran through.

Max Beerbohm's essay: Books Within Books (1914)