by Ferdinand Mount, Simon and Schuster, £25
What makes England English? In his introduction to this collection of reviews of biographies and anthologies stretching across the past 30 years, Ferdinand Mount pins Englishness to the language and the common law. This is not necessarily an original conclusion, but it is no less valid for that. Some of the masters of the English novel featured here recall a certain kind of mythical English judge: logical, cantankerous, sentimental, conservative, melancholy and sometimes brutal.
Mount is everything you might wish for in a reviewer: perceptive, independent-minded, and able to draw at will from a deep well of knowledge of literature and politics. He knows how to build an unhurried arc of thought across 2,500 words, while peppering each piece with turns of phrase and compelling anecdotes that can stop you in your tracks. (Look out for his description of Alan Bennett, comparing him to a Swiss army knife – or for what Thomas Hardy wrote to the Rider Haggards on the death of their only son at the age of 10.)
Nor is Mount afraid to bare his teeth – fangs, even – in order to let some of the air out of a reputation like WG Sebald’s, or to shred some flabby thinking by Germaine Greer. There are good quips too. Scorning one biographer’s hunt for the “real” John Osborne, Mount observes that “the real Osborne is about as hard to track down as the real M25”.
My guess is that Ferdinand Mount is a patriot, though without ever descending into chauvinism. He writes of a certain kind of English person (silently including himself, I think) to whom “topography is as irresistible as pornography, better really because fuller of surprises”. And his love for England is not the kind that masks a more selective bias: he sees the best in the town and the country, and the suburbs too.
There are some sour notes to be heard in Mount’s chorus, beginning with Kingsley Amis’s foul utterances about his wife and women generally. Rotters – not all of them men, it should be said – leave a trail of abandoned and abused spouses, children, friends and lovers across these pages which, before long, is stretching out of sight. How bittersweet then to read the words that finally appear on page 152: “But Wilfred Owen was a lovely man.” (Strangely, the piece on Owen is one of the least memorable, perhaps because the story makes Mount so heartsore he can’t really bring himself to dwell on it.) The first glimpse of a happy marriage comes after 211 pages with Nikolaus Pevsner using the foreword of his volume on Berkshire to lament the passing of his wife.
There are Catholics to read about, such as Basil Hume (whose voice “was like the whistle of a train that stopped running years ago but which you can sometimes hear at night on the far side of the valley”) and the convert Muriel Spark; as well as anti-Catholics such as the two professors Hugh Trevor-Roper and Derek Jackson (who once turned down an apartment in Paris because it had a view of Notre Dame); and an anima naturaliter Catholica such as the intriguing Arthur Machena who was never, in the end, quite tempted away from Anglicanism.
If one were to pick holes, then perhaps the historical lens is quite narrow. Most of Mount’s subjects come from the 19th and 20th centuries, with Shakespeare an outlier. It would be fascinating to hear him evaluate Alfred the Great, Langland or Chaucer. Finally, these English voices are mainly male and mainly white. One wonders how much longer they will hold a valid claim to stand for Englishness. A case of “That strain again, it had a dying fall”?
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.