Perhaps after all some things never change. More than fifty years ago I chose as a prize from Barnsley Grammar School a book called The 100 Best English Essays, edited by the Earl of Birkenhead. (And who was he, I now wonder.) This book was very important in my education, not just for style but for substance too; and I reproach myself for having, not many years ago, let it go out of my hands. When I let it go, I thought – insofar as I gave it thought at all – that any interest it might have for strangers would be antiquarian: it was a relic from a time, not so long ago, when for the aspiring young the printed word, and that special kind of it called literature, was a medium not seriously challenged by any other. That time was surely gone, I thought, and printed literature now had a hard time claiming even parity with competing media like film, rock and reggae music, multi-media happenings, what have you. But bless me, it seems I was wrong. For if John Gross isn’t duplicating for a later generation what the Earl of Birkenhead did for mine, I don’t know what he and the marketing managers at Oxford University Press think they are doing. What readers can they think they are catering for, if not such callow and eagerly attentive 18-year-olds as I was fifty years ago?
Of course I find this heartening as well as surprising. If the book sells, I shall he on the sidelines cheering. Rather mutedly, though. For through the at most three centuries when printed literature enjoyed pre-eminent esteem among us, the essayist was always a dubious character. Poets and storytellers, though most of them doubled as essayists, didn’t much like the economic necessity that drove them to it. And this persists today. If, as John Gross reasonably proposes, one form that the essay takes today is the extended book-review, the poet or novelist who doubles as a reviewer (as nearly all of us do) must wonder, resentfully and ungratefully, why he/she gets prompter acceptance and payment for a review than for a poem or a story. We have all read about how the essay is itself an honourable genre (obeisances to Michel de Montaigne), and most of us by now know that there is no fixed frontier between literature and journalism: all the same, some writing is designedly ephemeral whereas some isn’t, and rather often ‘essay’ looks like an elastic bridge thrown across, to conceal or deny that this gap exists.
In English the most ambitious and effective bridge-builders were Lamb and Hazlitt. Before them, to be sure, were Addison and Steele: but those serious wits under Queen Anne were building bridges, very successfully too, not between the ephemeral and the enduring, but between relatively solid social entities. Their essays in the Spectator and the Guardian performed a socio-political function quite crucial in their day: building a bridge between the landowning and the mercantile interests, and that in the least obvious, most imaginative way – by catering for the wives and daughters of the merchant, on the one hand, and of the landowner, on the other. Addison at any rate was a very serious character: Mr Spectator might seem to be dealing in ephemera and trivia, but that was only an ingenious front that readers soon or gradually saw through. Addison’s essays addressed topics that were real and urgent, which we cannot interpret as mere pretexts round which the essayist might perform his quaint or otherwise appealing arabesques. The object is not to display Joseph Addison’s sensibility. Sir Roger de Coverley is a charming fiction, but the charm serves an ulterior end. The Whig Addison says in effect, when presenting the Tory squire Sir Roger: ‘Charming, isn’t he? But would you trust him with policy-making?’
With Lamb and Hazlitt all this has gone out the window. At their hands the essay becomes an autonomous, a self-justifying genre; it is now literature. That is, it serves no ulterior purposes, performs no public function. Self-justifying means self-regarding. And where Charles Lamb is concerned, the sickliness of this has been recognised and condemned. It was one of the Leavisites – Denys Thompson, I believe – who put the boot in on the Essays of Elia; and this was one of the Leavisite demolition-jobs that truly cleared a space, and let the air in, for a more than academic public. John Gross, though he dutifully and unavoidably finds space for two pieces by Lamb, knows very well that Lamb’s reputation has been blown upon, irreparably. ‘Lamb,’ he says in his Introduction, ‘trades too heavily on his charm: many of his idiosyncrasies that once seemed endearing now merely irritate.’ And he rightly identifies Lamb as the patron saint of Edwardian essayists – much promoted in their day, not least in the classrooms – whom he has not scrupled to exclude: ‘E.V. Lucas, Maurice Hewlett, “Alpha of the Plough”, Robert Lynd, Christopher Morley in America, and a hundred others.’ The Lucases and the Lynds, I remember, were still esteemed presences in or behind the book that I got as a school prize; and the anathema that has since been pronounced on them I hail as one very good thing that has happened in my lifetime.
William Hazlitt shows up well by comparison with Lamb, his contemporary. Yet I wonder if the more attractive persona that Hazlitt projects doesn’t blind us to the fact that he conceives of the essay just as Lamb did: as, precisely, the projection of a persona. What offer themselves as the topics of his essays are, just as with Lamb, pretexts. Hazlitt’s idiosyncrasies offend us nowadays less than Lamb’s: but idiosyncrasies are what they are, and the essay is the arena in which they are put through their lovingly elaborated paces.
To my perhaps still Leavisite taste, John Gross doesn’t sufficiently distinguish between essays that have topics and others that have only pretexts. This shows up particularly when he picks among essayists still living or only recently dead. V.S. Naipaul’s angry ‘Columbus and Crusoe’ is truly concerned with the topic announced in its title; and if its excoriation of Christopher Columbus affords an insight into Caribbean or post-colonialist or specifically Naipaul’s sensibility, that is a spin-off – it isn’t what the essayist principally intended. By contrast, when Philip Larkin reviews in 1959 Iona and Peter Opie’s Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, one is distracted from the just and necessary points that Larkin has to make, by the elaboration or further definition of the Larkin persona as ‘a man who hates children’ (who by that token, as W.C. Fields memorably observed, ‘can’t be all bad’). What should we attend to – the topic, which is important, or the play of sensibility about that topic, which in that case is demoted to a mere pretext? Larkin, who was only occasionally and unwillingly an essayist, would have shrugged. But the question remains, whether the author of Required Writing wasn’t the Charles Lamb or the E.V. Lucas de nos jours. To be sure, his idiosyncrasies are at the opposite extreme from those that were found endearing by devotees of Lamb and Lucas. But as we perceive from the belated but ultimately fierce deflation of Lamb, ‘endearingness’ is a quality that can be applauded through many generations and yet in one generation disappear. Larkin’s idiosyncrasies, no doubt of it, are widely thought endearing. But for how long will that predilection persist? Isn’t the essay, as a genre that we have inherited, uniquely vulnerable to shifts in sentimental fashion?
By the end of his piece, when Larkin is indeed attending to his declared topic, he remarks: ‘Norman Douglas took a pessimistic view of the future: “the standardisation of youth proceeds endlessly.” ’ Larkin, God knows no optimist, cannot agree: children, though fearsome and unlovely, are he believes much sturdier than Norman Douglas allowed for. By one of the unforeseeable connections that only anthologies can provoke, this sent me back nearly two hundred pages to Eliot’s ‘Marie Lloyd’. This I thought I knew well; it was what as a youth I was required not just to read but to admire. Brain-washed and biddable, I did as I was told. Only now, encountering it anthologised, do I see how the authority that it claims for itself, and that Eliot’s admirers claim for it, is quite groundless. Norman Douglas’s confident prognostications of cultural doom are as nothing beside Eliot’s: ‘The middle classes, in England as elsewhere, under democracy, are morally dependent upon the aristocracy, and the aristocracy are subordinate to the middle class, which is gradually absorbing and destroying them. The lower class still exists; but perhaps it will not exist for long.’ Sixth-formers in 1938 were bemused or seduced by these glib and glittering sentences. It is hard to see how an 18-year-old in 1991 can fail to be distracted by them from whatever drudgingly diligent work has been done since – not only nor mostly by sociologists – on just how the British class system works. And is the music-hall artist Marie Lloyd, overt topic of Eliot’s essay, its real topic? Or does she not serve, as token-figure and pretext, to fill in one otherwise unoccupied corner of the Eliot persona? ‘You say he has no demotic sympathies? Why, look here.’
An 18-year-old today deserves better than to be stopped in his or her tracks by these conundrums. The essay, in fact, when manipulated as adroitly as by Eliot and Hazlitt (whose ‘Madame Pasta and Mademoiselle Mars’ corresponds rather exactly to Eliot’s ‘Marie Lloyd’), is anything but instructive or edifying.
To find a time when it was both, we needn’t track back as far as Addison. James Stephen’s Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography (1849) were 11 in number, all reprinted from the Edinburgh Review; in the edition I have, the shortest runs to 32 pages, the longest and most instructive to 88. We get an idea of what was expected of the English essay in that, its Mid-Victorian heroic age, when we find Stephen in a preface to the second edition excusing himself: ‘I wrote these pages not as an essayist but, as a reviewer, seeking only to meet an ephemeral demand and to gain an ephemeral attention.’ We boggle, shamefacedly. Plainly, the essay as James Stephen conceived of it could never be anthologised; and sure enough John Gross can represent the Victorians – Carlyle, Macaulay, John Stuart Mill, Arnold, T.H. Huxley – only by excerpts, and skimpy ones. (Where the Earl of Birkenhead supplied 100 essays, Gross in much the same number of pages finds room for 140.) If James Stephen found his 88 pages on ‘The Evangelical Succession’ ephemeral, what word shall we find for the rapid pirouettes performed for our benefit by the columnists, the reviewers and media-persons, of the present day?