- The Local Flavour
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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176 ] The Local Flavour1 In a world which is chiefly occupied with the task of keeping up to date with itself, it is a satisfaction to know that there is at least one man who has not only read but enjoyed, and not only enjoyed but read, such authors as Petronius and Herondas. That is Mr. Charles Whibley, and there are two statements to make about him: that he is not a critic, and that he is something which is almost as rare, if not quite as precious.2 He has apparently read and enjoyed a great deal of English literature, and the part of it that he has most enjoyed is the literature of the great ages, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.3† We may opine that Mr. Whibley has not uttered a single important original judgment upon any of this literature. On the other hand, how many have done so?4† Mr. Whibley is not a critic of men or of books; but he convinces us that if we read the books that he has read we should find them delightful as he has found them; and if we read them we can form our own opinions. And if he has not the balance of the critic, he has some other equipoise of his own. It is partly that his tastes are not puritanical, that he can talk about Restoration dramatists and others without apologizing for their “indecency”; it is partly his sense for the best local and temporal flavours; it is partly his healthy appetite. A combination of non-critical, rather than uncritical, qualities made Mr. Whibley the most appropriate person in the world for the work by which he is best known. We should be more grateful for the “Tudor Translation Series” if we could find copies to be bought, and if we could afford to buy them when we found them.5 But that is not Mr. Whibley’s fault. The introductions which he wrote for some of the translators are all that such introductions should be. His Urquhart’s Rabelais contains all the irrelevant information about that writer which is what is wanted to stimulate a taste for him.6 After reading the introduction, to read Urquhart was the only pleasure in life. And therefore, in a country destitute of living criticism , Mr. Whibley is a useful person: for the first thing is that English literature should be read at all. The few people who talk intelligently about Stendhal and Flaubert and James know this; but the larger number of people who skim the conversation of the former do not know enough of English literature to be even insular.7 There are two ways in which a writer [ 177 The Local Flavour may lead us to profit by the work of dead writers. One is by isolating the essential, by pointing out the most intense in various kinds and separating it from the accidents of environment. This method is helpful only to the more intelligent people, who are capable of a unique enjoyment of perfect expression, and it concentrates on the very best in any art. The other method, that of Mr. Whibley, is to communicate a taste for the period – and for the very best of the period so far as it is of that period. That is not veryeasyeither.Forapurejournalistwillnotknowanyperiodwellenough; a pure dilettante will know it too egotistically, as a fashion of his own. Mr. Whibley is really interested; and he has escaped, without any programme of revolt, from the present century into those of Tudor and Stuart. He escapes, and perhaps leads others, by virtue of a taste which is not exactly a literary taste. The “Tudor Translations” form part of a pronounced taste. Some are better written than others. There is, of course, a world of difference – of which Mr. Whibley is perhaps unaware – between even Florio and his original .8 The French of Montaigne is a mature language, and the English of Florio’s living translation is not. Montaigne could be translated into the English of his time, but a similar work could not have been written in it. But as the English language matured it lost something that Florio and all his inferior colleagues had, and that they had in common with the language of Montaigne. It was not only the language, but the time. The prose of that age had life, a life to which later ages could not add, from which they could only take away...