If we could always do exactly what we wanted, life would be less interesting and we’d discover much less. That applies to literature too. I wanted something to read, but I didn’t want to try this particular book. Nevertheless, faute de mieux, I did. And I’m glad I did, even though I didn’t like most of the essays in it. Too many of them seemed arch and affected, written to fill paper and earn money, not to say anything important or interesting. Joseph Addison, Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt are big names and were big disappointments. Robert Louis Stevenson is an even bigger name and was an even bigger disappointment. His essays don’t seem to live up to his fiction.
Perhaps I should be forced to try those essays again, because first impressions are often wrong. But even if I’ve missed something good there, I’ve found something good elsewhere. More than one essay was good, but one would have been enough to justify reading this book. I’d never heard of Arthur Clutton-Brock (1868–1924) before, but his essay on “The Defects of English Prose” was one of the most interesting I’ve ever read. I thought it would be about grammar and semantics; it was actually about style and personality. I like his ambition and confidence. He surveys centuries of one of the world’s great literatures and finds them wanting:
Yet still one dreams of a prose that has never yet been written in English, though the language is made for it and there are minds not incapable of it, a prose dealing with the greatest things quietly and justly as men deal with them in their secret meditations, seeming perhaps to wander, but always advancing in an unbroken sequence of thought, with a controlled ardor of discovery and the natural beauties of a religious mind. Johnson might have written it, if he had had a stronger sense of beauty and more faith in the flights of reason; Newman, if he had been a greater master of words and less afraid of his own questioning; Henry James, if he had exercised his subtlety on larger things. The best of our prose writers, living or dead, are not civilized enough or too much in love with something else, or not enough in love with anything, to write the prose we dream of. The English Plato is still to be. (“The Defects of English Prose”)
I’ve not liked Plato when I’ve tried him, but that is a thought-provoking judgment and Clutton-Brock makes it with skill and subtlety. J.B. Priestley’s essays were good too, though I started them not expecting much. Evelyn Waugh didn’t like him, after all, and though Waugh’s essays are better – and should have been represented here – Priestley is obviously worth more attention. I already knew the same about G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), but I’ve been neglecting his writing for too long. This book has shown me so, because I thought Chesterton’s three essays – “A Defence of Nonsense”, “A Piece of Chalk” and “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls” – were the best things in it. He is a very good and very vivid writer whose writing seems impervious to age and fashion.
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1954) comes straight after Chesterton – they were two cheeks of one arse, someone once said about their shared Catholicism and anti-modernism – and he suffers by comparison. I still enjoyed his defence of “Crooked Streets” against rational town-planning and its destructiveness and arrogance. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who begins the book, is one of the few essayists in English who don’t suffer by comparison with Chesterton. He’s not as vivid or easy to read, but he’s still someone who illuminates the world and makes you glad to be part of it.