Buyers’ Market

George Gissing: The Born Exile

by Gillian Tindall
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 295 pp., $10.00

Arnold Bennett: A Biography

by Margaret Drabble
Knopf, 397 pp., $10.00

Arnold Bennett: The Evening Standard Years

edited with an introduction by Andrew Mylett
Archon Books, 481 pp., $15.00

Arnold Bennett
Arnold Bennett; drawing by David Levine

In the last few years there has been a welcome revival of interest in English fiction of the period between the 1880s and the outbreak of the First World War. We have had several biographies of the major figures, two more of which are noticed below. Good work of a more general kind has improved our sense of the period and of the circumstances of men of letters who lived through its changes.1 Soon it should be possible for the right author to provide a synoptic study of the period, which is what we now need.

Nor is this simply a matter of satisfying disinterested historical curiosity, for the social and cultural crisis of those years shaped our own literary world. The same unprecedented social forces which partly determined the writing and the lives of Gissing, Wells, and Bennett continue to affect ours.

It is easy enough to give the rudiments of a historical account. The Education Act of 1870 created the possibility of a vast though barely literate reading public, and when school attendance was enforced in 1880 this public came immediately into being. In that same year George Newnes founded Tit-Bits, a weekly designed to furnish the new public with digestible snippets of information; it was still a popular paper in the Thirties, and so was Northcliffe’s Answers, a close imitation. Both men grew rich: Newnes usefully spent some of his profits on Strand Magazine, consisting mostly of middlebrow stories, but Northcliffe embarked on a career which included the foundation of the new “yellow” press, The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror, and, eventually, the ownership of The Times.

Hitherto almost all newspapers had been of the kind now labeled “quality,” and political and literary opinion was controlled by the upper-class weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies. By the mid-Eighties these had lost their power, and the great provincial newspapers also began to slide, for the cheap London dailies could be distributed almost everywhere by train or wire.

Northcliffe’s career, founded on the new reading public, was therefore responsible for many changes we still deplore: the loss of the cultural autonomy of the regions; the subordination of news and informed opinion to advertising and promotional stunts; and the sharpening of the division of the reading public into high and low, with contempt on both sides. The belated expansion of the English universities about this time may have increased upward mobility but did nothing to heal the breach.

But the revolution in journalism had one other, more complicated effect. It opened some kind of a career in writing to all the talents; so many millions of words must be written, and paid for. Arnold Bennett was paid twenty guineas in 1891 for a successful entry in a Tit-Bits competition; it was his first literary reward. In 1893 he became a subeditor on Woman, one of the new papers for the new…

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