A Bracing Swim in Words

By Kavanagh, P. J. | The Spectator, October 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

A Bracing Swim in Words


Kavanagh, P. J., The Spectator


THE NEW OXFORD BOOK OF ENGLISH PROSE edited by John Gross OUP, 25, pp. 1012

When asked to review this book how could anyone 'review' a book that is itself a review, in another sense, of 500 years of expressiveness? - I considered that at least it might be possible to give it a 'notice', which is to say give a description of it, and, generally speaking, a thumbs up or thumbs down on the taste of its editor. However, to do even this with conviction it would be necessary to read the whole book, 994 pages of it, which would be the action of a maniac. So I did this: I plunged in at Malory and have just emerged from Kazuo Ishiguro, shaking the water from my muzzle, barking and wagging joyously.

The previous editor of an Oxford Book of English Prose (1925), Sir Arthur QuillerCouch, liked eloquence and 'Englishness', as defined by his time. Does the new editor, John Gross, go for the finely cadenced set-piece or the clear-as-gin style, crisp and to the point? There are examples of both, and of other sorts, but I would say - still towelling myself down, still dazed with the inevitable changes of temperature (after Wodehouse comes Woolf) - that, although his instincts are always towards the literary, he finds irresistible the revealing anecdote, and so do I. (Or is it I who so much like the anecdote that I pounce on it? The reader's choice is likely to be as personal as the anthologist's. What becomes clear is that the reader can trust John Gross.)

The anecdotes do stick in the mind. William Allingham bumps into Robert Browning, who has been listening to Disraeli at the Royal Academy, publicly praising `the imagination of the British school of Art, amid ugly streets and dull skies, etc. etc'. After the speech, Browning asked Disraeli what he really thought of the exhibition, and he replied, ' "What strikes me is the utter and hopeless want of imagination" as much to say, "You didn't think me such a fool as I seemed in my speech!". Browning told this to Gladstone, who said pungently, "It's hellish! He is like that in the House too - it's hellish!" "And so it is," added Browning.'

Is that an example of English prose? Of course it is, of the journal-jotting variety, even of journalism. It also has the advantage of being interesting.

Shaw has a shot at defining good prose: `Effectiveness of assertion is the Alpha and Omega of style. He who has nothing to assert has no style and can have none. ' (When writers define writing, they usually boost their own practice.) Gross gives examples of Shavian assertiveness, but cannot resist (luckily for us) an excerpt from a letter Shaw wrote to Chesterton, which is funny as well as interesting:

Dickens's moderation in drinking must be interpreted according to the old standard for mail-coach travellers. …

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