100 years on: The best books of 1911

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Stuart Kelly on what The Scotsman said about books of a century ago

IT IS always a mixture of the quaintly predictable and the downright astonishing, to leaf back through The Scotsman’s pages for the issues 100 years ago. Although I was looking for the book recommendations for 1911, it’s difficult not to be sidetracked onto articles with headlines like “Leith Town Council Tackles Diphtheria Outbreak” and “Immorality in Glasgow”, or be diverted by the “Men Of The Year” caricatures (Thomas Hardy, but also Franz Joseph I of Austria) – or linger over the adverts for charcoal pills, Evo’s tonics, a range of furs and Alice’s Return To Wonderland in Robert Maule & Son’s emporium, Princes Street, where she encounters “Caterpillars that REALLY DO CRAWL”, “dolls of all nationalities” and “CLOCK-WORK contrivances”. (Maule also advises that male sweethearts might like a Fancy Vest, or “if he has not yet tried one, a Razor of the safety kind”).

A number of books were published in 1911 that are still in the canon today, and The Scotsman was quick to review most of them. Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, his satirical wheeze about a girl so beautiful all of Oxford falls in love with her, was warmly received: “persiflage in perfection is the keynote of Mr Max Beerbohm’s effort in fiction” which is described as “a book of intense smartness”. Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes was called a “painfully fascinating and exceptionally well-recorded” work of “psychological study and present-day Russian political conditions” despite “certain tones of cynicism and even moral negation”.

GK Chesterton’s The Innocence Of Father Brown was given qualified praise – “a book of less weight, indeed, than the best books of this kind, but one which no-one who likes a good story will read without enjoying and admiring” while noting Chesterton’s “characteristic felicity in inventing and suggesting paradox”. DH Lawrence’s The White Peacock merited but a brief notice. “The reader”, the reviewer opined “in search of problems will turn in vain to the comparatively simply story that serves as the plot of this novel”. Rather spoiling that plot, it concludes “there is none of the traditional living happily ever after; for the marriages have a disillusioning effect on the contracting parties, and one of the husbands becomes a drunkard”.

A longer, and more breathless review, was accorded Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom Of The Opera. “Mr Leroux is a famous maker of sensational stories but he has never shown a more perversely ingenious imagination than in The Phantom Of The Opera”. It’s curious to note the original publisher: Mills & Boon. The book is “weird, ingenious and thrilling”. “Weird” was rather the word of choice throughout 1911: Saki’s wonderful collection The Chronicles Of Clovis had a “touch of the weird that will give a thrill … and while away an agreeable hour”, and Bram Stoker’s The Lair Of The White Worm was “cordially commended to those who like highly coloured romance” on account of its “weird and uncanny character”.

Among other weird fictions, The Scotsman praised Maude Annesley’s Shadow-Shape, and The Dweller On The Threshold by Robert Hitchens, as well as The Ring of Ug by E Elliot Stock and two African-set books, EO Carolin’s The Verge Of Twilight and Cynthia Stockley’s The Claw. This year, the American editors Jeff and Ann VanderMeer published a bumper anthology, The Weird: it’s a neat synchronicity that a book published in 2011 should reflect a phenomenon clearly on the rise in 1911. Another famous book was not weird at all, but full of “quaint, sympathetic interest”. The story of “a “a solitary and melancholy little Anglo-Indian orphan girl” who “meets young rustic masculine persons and exercises influences upon them” isn’t another work by DH Lawrence, but the newly published (and specifically “for girls”) The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Perhaps the most glaring omission from our literary coverage in 1911 is the absence – except for an advert – of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.

A highlight of the Christmas Gift Books section in 1911 was the wonderful new “Rag Books” of Messrs Dean & Co., London. “In addition to their literary and artistic merits”, the paper claims “they have the advantage that they are asceptic [sic] and practically indestructible so that they can be sucked as well as read if not with profit at any rate with impunity”. Sounding a note of caution, the same article does wonder if “even the inhabitants of the nursery should be encouraged to treat the printed word with due respect”. For older children, the paper is enthusiastic about Kate Greenaway – “a name to conjure with in the nursery” – especially because she “conveys to the eye the brighter and happier aspects of the open air”. There are a few familiar names among the other recommendations, such as Angela Brazil’s school stories. Arthur Quiller-Couch’s The Roll-Call Of Honour: A New Book Of Golden Deeds is one of those very dated productions; giving life stories of the people youths should imitate, such as Garibaldi, General Gordon, Livingstone, Simon Bolivar and “Father Damien who lived and died with the South Sea Lepers”.

Equally dated, though highly praised, is Zig-Zag Journeys In Camel Country, by missionary husband-and-wife team Samuel and Amy Zwemer. And who could do without Three Hundred And One Things A Bright Girl Can Do by Jean Stewart, including – and the priorities seem wonderfully inept – “a general idea of architecture” and “thirty two ways to make toffee”?

There are numerous novelty books, although some seem less than heartily endorsed: “Dr GA Fothergill has produced a third part of his Stones And Curiosities Of Edinburgh And Neighbourhood which, while it excels its predecessors in the rambling irrelevancies and amusing egotisms … is no less admirable than those in the skilful and clever draughtsmanship of the illustrations” reads one, and the review of Music And Nationalism by Cecil Forsyth is worth quoting almost in full: “it is a question which bristles with difficulties, for which Mr Forsyth has something of the disregard with which the enthusiast is commonly apt to treat the difficulties of his case. He sees no reason why we should not have really English operas, a contention to which there can be no possible objection, save, perhaps, such as is furnished by the English operas which we already possess”.

Even quite technical books are included, such as Albert Zahm’s Aerial Navigation, Captain Atkinson’s Curry And Rice, The Boys’ Book Of Warships and The Power Of The Dog, a definitive study of “the most complete, the most singular and the most useful conquest ever made by man”. Perhaps the sharpest words – on Christmas Day itself – went to a play called Oine or The Aureole And The Wondrous Gem by “Neän” where the exasperated reviewer of this drama set in a “Scotland of dream” said “so intricate and mazy is this unusual and quite impossible play that it seems utterly ultroneous to inquire what the whole thing is about”.

One piece of literary business burst out of the book pages onto the news pages: a speech by Annie S Swan, the novelist, at the Tract and Colportage Society of Scotland. The Society had been shocked that “there were circulating libraries in Glasgow which could scarcely buy anything except impure literature, for the demand, especially by young women, in the districts in which they were situated, was so great”. Swan seconded the motion against this state of affairs, saying that “she knew very well the sort of stuff that was pouring like a flood from the press every day”, although she found it difficult to be too specific for fear of misinterpretation. “These books”, she continued “presented a picture of life which was altogether one-sided” and she put the blame, squarely, on the shoulders of “the Bohemian Circle” with their shibboleth of “art for art’s sake”. One wonders what dear Annie Swan would have made of Trainspotting being taught in schools.

Swan managed to appear in the Christmas Books as well, with a new collection of her homiletic verse. But there was another Scottish female writer who was mentioned almost in passing. The paper carried a very short review of Violet Jacob’s Flemington, which made almost no critical comment, favourable or otherwise, and contented itself with repeating the plot. Now recognised as a classic, it came out on the Kindle on 1 April this year.