In response to:
Buyers' Market from the October 31, 1974 issue
To the Editors:
I hope that none of your readers will have made the error of taking Frank Kermode’s hastily written and ill-natured attack on Margaret Drabble’s excellent and conscientious biography of Arnold Bennett [NYR, October 31] for seriously intended criticism. Professor Kermode tips his hand most clearly when he writes the following:
Here is a critical comment on Riceyman Steps, a book easy, but not this easy, to commend: “There is something wonderful about it. How amazing, how various and odd, one says to oneself on finishing it. How very interesting, one thinks.”
This may look bad, but I think that it can fairly be said that Professor Kermode has been adroit rather than honest in making it look so. The words he has quoted come from some of the 2100 that Miss Drabble devotes to this particular book, and form part of a passage in which—but Miss Drabble should perhaps be allowed to speak for herself:
They live together, and she is increasingly haunted by his increasing meanness. They both fall ill, are nursed by the devoted Elsie, and both, in grim circumstances, die. That is all there is to it. What makes it so remarkable is its accuracy, its compassion, its feeling for the quality of working class life and morality, its physical detail. There is nothing in it that had much bearing on Bennett’s own personal life: it is objective, and yet done with a fine sympathy. He even manages to make Earlforward’s excesses of meanness perfectly understandable: his mixture of fussiness and laziness, his willingness to give an expensive book to charity rather than a very small sum of money, his curious mixture of professional expertise and incompetence are completely convincing and rather awe inspiring. The setting is drab, the characters are neurotic rather than tragic, and yet the novel isn’t depressing. There is something wonderful about it. How amazing, how various and odd, one says to oneself on finishing it. How very interesting, one thinks.
From this Miss Drabble goes on to take up the question of how it is that Bennett’s book comes to leave one with an impression so greatly at variance with the slender promise offered by its manifest content. I think it must be clear to anyone who reads this passage that the sentences Professor Kermode quotes from it are part of a legitimate expository device, and not at all what he represents them to be, I think it also has to be clear that Professor Kermode’s misrepresentation is deliberate. That it is also malicious seems to be strongly suggested, if not actually proved, by what follows it:
Authors who are even temporarily tone deaf ought to have editors not so handicapped. Here such help was apparently lacking; for even if he also had a tin ear, I personally feel, as Miss Drabble would say, that an editor could not fail to correct the text when it misspells a Bennett title, or talks about Armenian Methodists.
Professor Kermode italicizes the word Armenian to draw attention to the absurdity of Miss Drabble’s ignorant blunder. On pages 11 and 12 of her book one finds the following:
Samuel Bamford, the distinguished Lancashire radical, learned to write at the Methodist Sunday School of Middleton—he gives a good description in his autobiography of the difference between the old style and the new:
“I soon mastered the rudimentary lines, and quitting ‘pothooks and ladles,’ as they were called, I commenced writing largehand. For the real old Armenian Methodists…thought it no desecration to enable the rising generation, on that day to write the Word of God as well as to read it…. [I omit several lines from the quotation] The Church party never undertook to instruct in writing on Sundays; the old Armenian Wesleyans did undertake it, and succeeded wonderfully, but the Conferential Methodists put a stop to it.”
In fact, it was in order to put a stop to just such men as Samuel Bamford that the Methodist Conference of 1814 did vote as it did, in favour of not writing in schools….
I do not believe that it is possible to read these pages in good faith without recognizing on first sight that the word Armenian is there as part of a quotation. The quotation is divided from the body of the text by a two line interval at its beginning and at its end, and it is enclosed in quotation marks. It is also quite clear that the usage is Bamford’s and not Miss Drabble’s. Had the confusion been an easy one to make Professor Kermode’s performance might have been excused as a piece of coarse-minded jeering, but since confusion is quite impossible it has to be recognized as what I have already called it, a malicious misrepresentation.
The nub of this unpleasant matter lies in Professor Kermode’s insufferably patronizing confession that the shortcomings of Miss Drabble’s biography led him to “take up” one of her novels “to reassure myself that she can do better when she’s trying.” The peculiar odiousness and insolence, of this, on a par with the affable condescension of his concession that the influence of Arnold Bennett was “not wholly malign,” resides in the fact that there is no way of seeking such reassurance in his case. His malicious denigrations of Miss Drabble’s excellent work are, to use his own graceful and happy phrase “the kind of thing you must put up with” when sterile academic careerists are given a chance to vent their envy of the creative and abundant who have the bad taste to be active contributors to the body of imaginative literature on which they are parasitic. It may not be the case that Professor Kermode has never had it in him to create anything, but if he ever had the potential it has long been exhausted by the grim exigencies of getting to the top of the particular greasy pole he has elected to climb, and the fact is that he has absolutely nothing in the creative line to his credit. He can’t do better when he’s trying, he can’t do at all; he has to have other people’s work to chew up before he can pass his prickly little pellets. He has to denigrate Miss Drabble’s admirable biography as being “aimed at the Sunday color-supplement public” because it is solidly based on an understanding of the creative process that he utterly lacks, and he has to patronize Arnold Bennett as someone “who emerged from the top stratum of Tit-Bits readers” because Miss Drabble makes a very good case for thinking that an organic relationship to his material is a much more important source of aesthetic strength for an artist than an interest in the “difficult technical inventions” which he—as a sterile non-practitioner—naturally overrates. The rancorous envy of the creative characteristic of the literary eunuch is at its most apparent in Professor Kermode’s suggestion that there was something a bit shady about Arnold Bennett. He tells us that, along with “a fine eye for detail” he had “an alive but not too troublesome conscience.” One thing that can be said with absolute certainty is that there is nothing in either his professional or his private life as conscienceless and dishonest as Professor Kermode’s intellectually fraudulent misrepresentation of Miss Drabble’s very good book.
Frank Kermode replies:
I suppose Mr. West’s chivalrous hysteria does some part of him credit, but it is certainly not his head. Let me reply to his two points of fact. I didn’t, of course, imply that the words I quoted were the whole of Miss Drabble’s commentary on Riceyman Steps. Now that Mr. West offers more the reader may judge the quality of the work for himself, and then ask whether to be silly is “a legitimate expository device.” As to “Armenian,” what a pother we have here! It is quite true that Miss Drabble is quoting from Bamford’s Early Days, and that he uses the spelling “Armenian” just as he uses the spelling “vigilent,” which I daresay Miss Drabble would have corrected. “Armenian” is absurd, but is not followed by sic. No confusion, no malice.
Perhaps I should add that I read the biography twice, with a month in between, hoping that I was wrong the first time; for I had not supposed the author to be capable of such a performance. The review I first wrote was longer, and Mr. West might have thought it even more ill-natured. Anyway, it was not “hastily written.” Finally, I have a great respect for Bennett, and said so. There is, as Mr. West must know, nothing patronizing in saying he came “from the top stratum of Tit-Bits readers,” for it is true and relevant. But perhaps he dislikes the truth, and supposes that a man who disagrees with him about a book should either conceal the fact or be called malicious. That, however, I can hardly believe, and I daresay he is by now very ashamed of this deplorable tantrum.
February 6, 1975