Lost worlds, yet familiar: The Scotsman’s book reviews of 100 years ago

The Lost World (1925). Picture: Kobal Collection
The Lost World (1925). Picture: Kobal Collection
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READING this paper’s book coverage from 100 years ago is always a strange mixture of recognition and bewilderment.

I should confess that I go to it mostly for solace from contemporary writing – I have a weird nostalgia for the days when authors had names like Silas K Hocking, Salter Griswold, Muriel Nelsa d’Auvergne and Ascott R. Hope, “the master of the literary species of school story”, a reprint of whose novel Hero and Heroine is praised as “welcomed by all those who have happy memories of the stirring and healthy tale and will be glad to see it in the hands of boys of the present generation”.

That said, some things never change. The Scotsman at this date devoted the front cover to advertisements. One in particular caught my eye as I leafed through the large yellow pages. “ABOUT XMAS! IT’S COMING! ARE YOU PREPARED?” read the headline, going on to offer loans of £5-£5,000, “without Cautioners or Formalities”. It seems a sub-editor from long ago may have had suspicions about this Edwardian Wonga – since the advert ran on 26 December.

Turning to the actual book pages, I was immediately confronted with a real oddity: a large publishers’ advert for a novel by one Helen M Windslow, breathlessly subtitled “Original in Plot – bright and merry in spirit – full of kindly humour in style and incident – amusing experiences and ludicrous situations – SUSAN – bright, breezy and philosophical!”. I blame EL James that this otherwise innocuous piece of puffery brought a chuckle since it referred to a novel with the unforgettable title The Pleasuring Of Susan Smith.

1912 saw a number of books by writers still read to this day. Compton Mackenzie, future author of Whisky Galore, published a series of Kensington Rhymes, which “show has had not forgotten his younger days, when he envied the coalman who was able to dirty himself in the cellar and when he wondered whether an animal lived in the pillar box because, when it was opened, there was a cage inside, with locks”. HG Wells was described as “the most interesting novelist of the present day”, since “not only does he write some of the best books, but he changes his manner so frequently the reader is always guessing what will come next. When he wrote fantastical or pseudo-scientific romances, he did it so well it did not seem likely that he would ever write anything else. But then he produced The Modern Utopia and Mr Wells the political thinker, the visionary creator of ideal republics was definitely born. The he wrote Kipps and one thought that in Mr Wells there was another Dickens in the making”. After a longer survey of the work of Wells, the anonymous reviewer gets to the book in question: Marriage. Not now considered a highlight of his career, The Scotsman nevertheless said “No doubt it is a dull world and a stupid, and it is Mr Wells’ business to show how dull and stupid it is. But he is no longer anxious to shock the dull and stupid people by making his characters do awful things”.

Although Tarzan went unreviewed in the paper, a long notice was devoted to the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger books, The Lost World, which 97 years later would be an Edinburgh City of Literature “Big Read”. The reviewer was slightly perplexed at the character of Challanger – he was “not like any human being one has met” – but was far more vexed over another issue. “Is it a compliment to Scotland or is it not that he is said to be a Scotsman?” Even a comparison with the equally irascible and indubitably real Thomas Carlyle doesn’t convince the reader that Challenger is anything more than an “obvious brute”, despite his intellect and dinosaur-vanquishing prowess. The hand-wringing over Scottishness seems just as prevalent in 1912 as 2012. Reviewing J W Jeudwine’s First Twelve Centures of British Story, the critic opined “Too frequently, as Mr Jeudwine points out in his preface, historians regarded the history of England as including that of Scotland and Ireland”. He (I presume) continues “So far as Scotland is concerned, this error is now being rectified by the industry and devotion of a body of Scottish writers who are striving with conspicuous ability to place before their fellow-countrymen the story of Scotland’s development”. Jeudwine’s work is described as “interesting and in every sense praiseworthy” nevertheless “will not displace the larger achievements of Scotland’s own historians”. In a parting shot, the reviewer notes the book is “more a summary than anything else” and “the style is slipshod”.

One book for children – Mac by Cecil Aldin – also worries about Scottish identity. The story of a white West Highland terrier who goes on adventures in the south and avoids being hit by a motor car ends “a fastidious critic might object to Mac’s reflections being couched in Lowland Scots” – he would be a Gaelic speaking dog – “but this is probably a concession to Sassenach ignorance”.

Not that this proto-nationalist sentiment is anything more than an inkling: dozens of the Christmas Gift Books had an imperial theme, such as Soldiering And Sport In Uganda by Captain EG Dion Lardner, where the reviewer proclaims that “what were sixty years ago the dark gaps of Central Africa and mapped an unknown bid fair to become as familiar to readers as say Piccadilly or the old course at St Andrews” (On the opposite page an advert offers “CHEAP LAND GOOD CLIMATE SPLENDID RAINFALL” to “Scotsmen who want a home in a new country” all under the heading “RHODESIA”. Even the children’s books had an African, colonial theme, with Oddle and Iddle the Goblins of Aloe-Shamba being given particularly high praise.

It even creeps into one of the oddest books reviewed all year, The Weird and the Wanderer by “Prospero and Caliban”, whose hero, Nicholas Crabbe, is sent back 2000 years by Egyptian magic. “It is not given”, the reviewer writes “to every hero to shoot immortals with a Smith & Wesson revolver, nor to stir up the dust of 2000 years in a modern motor car”. The review ends, mordantly, recounting how the story was supposedly translated from Armenian papyri and the classical expert suggested it would be “rather a lark” to publish them. “Perhaps an estimate of the book had better be left at that”. Class struggles suppurate under the surface. A summary of The Boy From Green Ginger Land recounts “the joys and mischances, real and make-believe, of a family of children who “adopt” into their company for the purposes of diversifying their adventures, a lad belonging to an absolutely different social sphere”.

Quite the strangest review that year must go to this piece though: “Readers must not bring to the interpretation of the title of Mr RW Chambers’ novel Blue-Bird Weather recollection of Maeterlinckian symbolism, for apparently, in transatlantic regions, it implies only weather that makes wild ducks indisposed to come within shooting distance. But the Maeterlinckian symbolism may be hinted at after all in a subtle double-entendre for in this case the hero, if he fails to find duck in sufficient quantities to reward him for his temporary banishment from civilisation, stumbles into happiness by way of a charming love romance”. Answers on a postcard, please.

The differences can be staggering. Who would have believed The Scotsman devoted 28 articles to the thought of Immanuel Kant in 1912? Of course, there are no headlines like “World War One Now Only Two Years Away”, but the eye can’t help but snag on small notices such as “Balkan Allies Quarrel” or a German press report claiming the British Fleet could only fight in warm weather.