The Great Slump, the Revival of Letters, and the Garden by the Seaby@hgwells
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The Great Slump, the Revival of Letters, and the Garden by the Sea

by H.G. WellsNovember 18th, 2022
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The story, as Boon planned it, was to begin with a spacious Introduction. We were to tell of the profound decadence of letters at the opening of the Twentieth Century and how a movement of revival began. A few notes in pencil of this opening do exist among the Remains, and to those I have referred. He read them over to me….
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The Great Slump, the Revival of Letters, and the Garden by the Sea

§ 1

The story, as Boon planned it, was to begin with a spacious Introduction. We were to tell of the profound decadence of letters at the opening of the Twentieth Century and how a movement of revival began. A few notes in pencil of this opening do exist among the Remains, and to those I have referred. He read them over to me….

“‘We begin,’” he said, “‘in a minor key. The impetus of the Romantic movement we declare is exhausted; the Race Mind, not only of the English-speaking peoples but of the whole world, has come upon a period  of lethargy. The Giants of the Victorian age——’”

My eye discovered a familiar binding among the flower-pots. “You have been consulting the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’” I said.

He admitted it without embarrassment.

“I have prigged the whole thing from the last Victorian Edition—with some slight variations…. ‘The Giants of the Victorian age had passed. Men looked in vain for their successors. For a time there was an evident effort to fill the vacant thrones; for a time it seemed that the unstinted exertions of Miss Marie Corelli, Mr. Hall Caine, Mrs. Humphry Ward, and the friends of Mr. Stephen Phillips might go some way towards obliterating these magnificent gaps. And then, slowly but surely, it crept into men’s minds that the game was up——’”

“You will alter that phrase?” I said.

“Certainly. But it must serve now … ‘that, humanly speaking, it was impossible that anything, at once so large, so copious,  so broadly and unhesitatingly popular, so nobly cumulative as the Great Victorian Reputations could ever exist again. The Race seemed threatened with intellectual barrenness; it had dropped its great blossoms, and stood amidst the pile of their wilting but still showy petals, budless and bare. It is curious to recall the public utterances upon literature that distinguished this desolate and melancholy time. It is a chorus of despair. There is in the comments of such admirable but ageing critics as still survived, of Mr. Gosse, for example, and the venerable Sir Sidney Colvin and Mr. Mumchance, an inevitable suggestion of widowhood; the judges, bishops, statesmen who are called to speak upon literature speak in the same reminiscent, inconsolable note as of a thing that is dead. Year after year one finds the speakers at the Dinner of the Royal Literary Fund admitting the impudence of their appeal. I remember at one of these festivities hearing the voice of Mr. Justice Gummidge break…. The strain, it is needless to say, found its echo in Dr. Tomlinson  Keyhole; he confessed he never read anything that is less than thirty years old with the slightest enjoyment, and threw out the suggestion that nothing new should be published—at least for a considerable time—unless it was clearly shown to be posthumous….

“‘Except for a few irresistible volumes of facetiousness, the reading public very obediently followed the indications of authority in these matters, just as it had followed authority and sustained the Giants in the great Victorian days. It bought the long-neglected classics—anything was adjudged a classic that was out of copyright—it did its best to read them, to find a rare smack in their faded allusions, an immediate application for their forgotten topics. It made believe that architects were still like Mr. Pecksniff and schoolmasters like Squeers, that there were no different women from Jane Austen’s women, and that social wisdom ended in Ruskin’s fine disorder. But with the decay, of any intellectual observation of the present these past things had  lost their vitality. A few resolute people maintained an artificial interest in them by participation in quotation-hunting competitions and the like, but the great bulk of the educated classes ceased presently to read anything whatever. The classics were still bought by habit, as people who have lost faith will still go to church; but it is only necessary to examine some surviving volume of this period to mark the coruscation of printer’s errors, the sheets bound in upside down or accidentally not inked in printing or transferred from some sister classic in the same series, to realize that these volumes were mere receipts for the tribute paid by the pockets of stupidity to the ancient prestige of thought….

“‘An air of completion rested upon the whole world of letters. A movement led by Professor Armstrong, the eminent educationist, had even gone some way towards banishing books from the schoolroom—their last refuge. People went about in the newly invented automobile and played open-air games; they diverted what attention they had  once given to their minds to the more rational treatment of their stomachs. Reading became the last resort of those too sluggish or too poor to play games; one had recourse to it as a substitute for the ashes of more strenuous times in the earlier weeks of mourning for a near relative, and even the sale of classics began at last to decline. An altogether more satisfying and alluring occupation for the human intelligence was found in the game of Bridge. This was presently improved into Auction Bridge. Preparations were made for the erection of a richly decorative memorial in London to preserve the memory of Shakespeare, an English Taj Mahal; an Academy of uncreative literature was established under the Presidency of Lord Reay (who had never written anything at all), and it seemed but the matter of a few years before the goal of a complete and final mental quiet would be attained by the whole English-speaking community….’”

 § 2

“You know,” I said, “that doesn’t exactly represent——”

“Hush!” said Boon. “It was but a resting phase! And at this point I part company with the ‘Encyclopædia.’”

“But you didn’t get all that out of the ‘Encyclopædia’?”

“Practically—yes. I may have rearranged it a little. The Encyclopædist is a most interesting and representative person. He takes up an almost eighteenth-century attitude, holds out hopes of a revival of Taste under an Academy, declares the interest of the great mass of men in literature is always ’empirical,’ regards the great Victorian boom in letters as quite abnormal, and seems to ignore what you would call that necessary element of vitalizing thought…. It’s  just here that Hallery will have to dispute with him. We shall have to bring them together in our book somehow…. Into this impressive scene of decline and the ebb of all thinking comes this fanatic Hallery of ours, reciting with passionate conviction, ‘the thought of a nation is the life of a nation.’ You see our leading effect?”

He paused. “We have to represent Hallery as a voice crying in the wilderness. We have to present him in a scene of infinite intellectual bleakness, with the thinnest scrub of second-rate books growing contemptibly, and patches of what the Encyclopædist calls tares—wind-wilted tares—about him. A mournful Encyclopædist like some lone bird circling in the empty air beneath the fading stars…. Well, something of that effect, anyhow! And then, you know, suddenly, mysteriously one grows aware of light, of something coming, of something definitely coming, of the dawn of a great Literary Revival….”

“How does it come?”

“Oh! In the promiscuous way of these  things. The swing of the pendulum, it may be. Some eminent person gets bored at the prospect of repeating that rigmarole about the great Victorians and our present slackness for all the rest of his life, and takes a leaf from one of Hallery’s books. We might have something after the fashion of the Efficiency and Wake-up-England affair. Have you ever heard guinea-fowl at dawn?”

“I’ve heard them at twilight. They say, ‘Come back. Come back.’ But what has that to do with——”

“Nothing. There’s a movement, a stir, a twittering, and then a sudden promiscuous uproar, articles in the reviews, articles in the newspapers, paragraphs, letters, associations, societies, leagues. I imagine a very great personality indeed in the most extraordinary and unexpected way coming in….” (It was one of Boon’s less amiable habits to impute strange and uncanny enterprises, the sudden adoption of movements, manias, propagandas, adhesion to vegetarianism, socialism, the strangest  eccentricities, to the British royal family.) “As a result Hallery finds himself perforce a person of importance. ‘The thought of a nation is the life of a nation,’ one hears it from royal lips; ‘a literature, a living soul, adequate to this vast empire,’ turns up in the speech of a statesman of the greatest literary pretensions. Arnold White responds to the new note. The Daily Express starts a Literary Revival on its magazine page and offers a prize. The Times follows suit. Reports of what is afoot reach social circles in New York…. The illumination passes with a dawnlike swiftness right across the broad expanse of British life, east and west flash together; the ladies’ papers and the motoring journals devote whole pages to ‘New Literature,’ and there is an enormous revival of Book Teas…. That sort of thing, you know—extensively.”

 § 3

“So much by way of prelude. Now picture to yourself the immediate setting of my conference. Just hand me that book by the ‘Encyclopædia.’”

It was Mallock’s “New Republic.” He took it, turned a page or so, stuck a finger in it, and resumed.

“It is in a narrow, ill-kept road by the seaside, Bliss. A long wall, plaster-faced, blotched and peeling, crested with uncivil glass against the lower orders, is pierced by cast-iron gates clumsily classical, and through the iron bars of these there is visible the deserted gatekeeper’s lodge, its cracked windows opaque with immemorial dirt, and a rich undergrowth of nettles beneath the rusty cypresses and stone-pines that border the carriage-way. An automobile throbs in the  road; its occupants regard a board leaning all askew above the parapet, and hesitate to descend. On the board, which has been enriched by the attentions of the passing boy with innumerable radiant mud pellets, one reads with difficulty—

“‘This must be it, my dear Archer,’ says one of the occupants of the motor-car, and he rises, throws aside his furs, and reveals—the urbane presence of the Encyclopædist. He descends, and rings a clangorous bell…. Eh?”

“It’s the garden of the ‘New Republic’?”

“Exactly. Revisited. It’s an astonishing thing. Do you know the date of the ‘New Republic’? The book’s nearly forty years old! About the time of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Friendship’s Garland,’ and since that time there’s been nothing like a systematic stocktaking of the English-speaking mind—until the Encyclopædist reported ‘no effects.’ And I propose to make this little party in the motor-car a sort of scratch expedition, under the impetus of the proposed Revival of Thought. They are prospecting for a Summer Congress, which is to go into the state of the republic of letters thoroughly. It isn’t perhaps quite Gosse’s style, but he has to be there—in a way he’s the official British man of letters—but we shall do what  we can for him, we shall make him show a strong disposition towards protective ironies and confess himself not a little bothered at being dragged into the horrid business. And I think we must have George Moore, who has played uncle to so many movements and been so uniformly disappointed in his nephews. And William Archer, with that face of his which is so exactly like his mind, a remarkably fine face mysteriously marred by an expression of unscrupulous integrity. And lastly, Keyhole.”

“Why Keyhole?” I asked.

“Hallery has to murder some one. I’ve planned that—and who would he murder but Keyhole?… And we have to hold the first meeting in Mallock’s garden to preserve the continuity of English thought.

“Very well! Then we invent a morose, elderly caretaker, greatly embittered at this irruption. He parleys for a time through the gate with all the loyalty of his class, mentions a number of discouraging defects, more particularly in the drainage, alleges the whole place is clammy, and only at Gosse’s clearly  enunciated determination to enter produces the key.”

Boon consulted his text. “Naturally one would give a chapter to the Villa by the Sea and Mallock generally. Our visitors explore. They visit one scene after another familiar to the good Mallockite; they descend ‘the broad flights of steps flanked by Gods and Goddesses’ that lead from one to another of the ‘long, straight terraces set with vases and Irish yews,’ and the yews, you know, have suffered from the want of water, the vases are empty, and ivy, under the benediction of our modest climate, has already veiled the classical freedom—the conscientious nudity, one might say—of the statuary. The laurels have either grown inordinately or perished, and the ‘busts of orators, poets, and philosophers’ ‘with Latin inscriptions,’ stand either bleakly exposed or else swallowed up, in a thicket. There is a pleasing struggle to translate the legends, and one gathers scholarship is not extinct in England.

“The one oasis in a universal weediness  is the pond about the ‘scaly Triton,’ which has been devoted to the culture of spring onions, a vegetable to which the aged custodian quite superfluously avows himself very ‘partial.’ The visitors return to the house, walk along its terrace, survey its shuttered front, and they spend some time going through its musty rooms. Dr. Keyhole distinguishes himself by the feverish eagerness of his curiosity about where Leslie slept and where was the boudoir of Mrs. Sinclair. He insists that a very sad and painful scandal about these two underlies the New Republic, and professes a thirsty desire to draw a veil over it as conspicuously as possible. The others drag him away to the summer dining-room, now a great brier tangle, where once Lady Grace so pleasantly dined her guests. The little arena about the fountain in a porphyry basin they do not find, but the garden study they peer into, and see its inkpot in the shape of a classical temple, just as Mr. Mallock has described it, and the windowless theatre, and, in addition, they find a small private  gas-works that served it. The old man lets them in, and by the light of uplifted vestas they see the decaying, rat-disordered ruins of the scene before which Jenkinson who was Jowett, and Herbert who was Ruskin, preached. It is as like a gorge in the Indian Caucasus as need be. The Brocken act-drop above hangs low enough to show the toes of the young witch, still brightly pink….

“They go down to the beach, and the old man, with evil chuckles, recalls a hitherto unpublished anecdote of mixed bathing in the ’seventies, in which Mrs. Sinclair and a flushed and startled Dr. Jenkinson, Greek in thought rather than action, play the chief parts, and then they wade through a nettle-bed to that ‘small classical portico’ which leads to the locked enclosure containing the three tombs, with effigies after the fashion of Genoa Cemetery. But the key of the gate is lost, so that they cannot go in to examine them, and the weeds have hidden the figures altogether.

“‘That’s a pity,’ some one remarks, ‘for  it’s here, no doubt, that old Laurence lies, with his first mistress and his last—under these cypresses.’

“The aged custodian makes a derisive noise, and every one turns to him.

“‘I gather you throw some doubt?’ the Encyclopædist begins in his urbane way.

“‘Buried—under the cypresses—first mistress and last!’ The old man makes his manner invincibly suggestive of scornful merriment.

“‘But isn’t it so?’

“‘Bless y’r ’art, no! Mr. Laurence—buried! Mr. Laurence worn’t never alive!’

“‘But there was a young Mr. Laurence?’

“‘That was Mr. Mallup ’imself, that was! ’E was a great mistifier was Mr. Mallup, and sometimes ’e went about pretendin’ to be Mr. Laurence and sometimes he was Mr. Leslie, and sometimes——But there, you’d ’ardly believe. ’E got all this up—cypresses, chumes, everythink—out of ’is ’ed. Po’try. Why! ’Ere! Jest come along ’ere, gents!’

“He leads the way along a narrow privet  alley that winds its surreptitious way towards an alcove.

“‘Miss Merton,’ he says, flinging the door of this open.

“‘The Roman Catholic young person?’ says Dr. Tomlinson Keyhole.

“‘Quite right, sir,’ says the aged custodian.

“They peer in.

“Hanging from a peg the four visitors behold a pale blue dress cut in the fashion of the ’seventies, a copious ‘chignon’ of fair hair, large earrings, and on the marble bench a pair of open-work stockings and other articles of feminine apparel. A tall mirror hangs opposite these garments, and in a little recess convenient to the hand are the dusty and decaying materials for a hasty ‘make-up.’

“The old custodian watches the effect of this display upon the others with masked enjoyment.

“‘You mean Miss Merton painted?’ said the Encyclopædist, knitting his brows.

“‘Mr. Mallup did,’ says the aged custodian.

“‘You mean——?’

 “‘Mr. Mallup was Miss Merton. ’E got ’er up too. Parst ’er orf as a young lady, ’e did. Oh, ’e was a great mistifier was Mr. Mallup. None of the three of ’em wasn’t real people, really; he got ’em all up.’

“‘She had sad-looking eyes, a delicate, proud mouth, and a worn, melancholy look,’ muses Mr. Archer.

“‘And young Laurence was in love with her,’ adds the Encyclopædist….

“‘They was all Mr. Mallup,’ says the aged custodian. ‘Made up out of ’is ’ed. And the gents that pretended they was Mr. ’Uxley and Mr. Tyndall in disguise, one was Bill Smithers, the chemist’s assistant, and the other was the chap that used to write and print the Margate Advertiser before the noo papers come.’”

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