The Weekly Machen

In the following column, we find Arthur Machen reviewing several books on a variety of disparate topics. In one instance, he puzzles over the recipe for a best seller and excerpts a thread of dialogue of such tosh and tripe, that we are forced to wonder with Machen about the shallow depths of public taste. A voracious reader, Machen executed such assignments with the ease of a well-honed critic. In fact, he had been performing this role for various publications beginning in 1887 with a year-long stint at Walford’s Antiquarian Magazine and Bibliographical Review. On that subject, Curious Readers may learn more.

The following article is not listed in the bibliography by Goldstone & Sweester.


Books of the Week:
A Londoner’s Treasury of Good Stories
by
Arthur Machen
April 15, 1916

Jenny-hill-c1885
Jenny Hill

Times have changed, and the salary-list of the variety artist has changed with them. Mister H. G. Hibbert, the most diverting author of “Fifty Years of a Londoner’s Life” (Grant Richards), gives some “star” prices at an important West End music hall twenty-five years ago. Bessie Bellwood was earning twenty-five pounds, Jenny Hill thirty pounds, Harry Randall twenty-five pounds, and Macdermott thirty pounds.

The author claims that Jenny Hill was in her day the supreme genius of the music-hall stage. But Bessie Bellwood was surely a supreme artist in her own queerest of manners.

Bessie-bellwood
Bessie Bellwood

Her “patter” came very near to genius, and I used to think that it bewildered her audiences; the effects were too subtle for people who were accustomed chiefly to delight in the “broad” effect, and in the scarlet nose. But genius was not so uncommon in the music-hall those days, which, in my opinion, was very far in advance of the theatre. Even the best actors, with the rarest exceptions, abounded in artificiality, stagieness, convention.

The Stage “Hush.”

I remember a stage manager telling me once how to “say ‘hush’ on the stage.” It was a horrible business, and even the best actors said “hush” as they say it on the stage now and then. I can’t imagine Bessie Bellwood indulging in these fooleries.

Fifty Years” is a delightful treasury of London anecdote and observation. Here is a good tale of Serjeant Ballantyne. The Serjeant was cross-examining:

And pray, sir, may I ask what you, and English public man, were doing at the Moulin Rouge on Sunday night?”

Well Serjeant, pretty much the same thing as you were doing behind the scenes at the Alhambra on Saturday night.”

And this is good of Gaiety Hollingshead. He was dining and asked the German waiter to tell him the composition of a certain dish. The man “didn’t know.” Said Hollingshead rather angrily: “But you sell it.” “Ja, ja,” was the reply. “I sell moock dot I don’t eat.”

Recipe for “Best Sellers.”

I often see the phrase “best seller,” and wonder as to the recipe. I am still wondering after having read “A Slack Wire” by Mrs. Marion Hill (John Long). Mrs. Hill writes “best sellers.” Her “Lure of Crooning Water” is in fourteenth edition, her “Sunrise Valley” in its eighth edition. And here is a love-scene from “A Slack Wire.”

I win because I am determined to win. There is nothing you could do that would stop me. I have come here tonight to ask you to marry me because I find I love you with an obsession that—”

Steady,” she soothed calmly, “cut out the monkey talk, and tell me what’s the matter.”

Listen!” he ordered gratingly. “You have got to listen. … I am controlled by a passion too real, too true to you either to pretend or to wait.”

Ease up. Take a chair,” she advised sympathetically. “You are talking exactly as if you were insane or drunk.”

And a piece of description: the “Lockhart House was as seemly in the rear as towards the front, except for that architectural posterior austerity, which is the fault of carpenters.”

And yet, with these strange absurdities there are many scenes of real humor in the book. The meeting of the American strolling-actor, Randy, with King Edward VII., is really funny. The great scene in the book, in which the slack wire heroine crosses a foaming river on a slender pipe was written either with a view to “the pictures,” or after seeing “the pictures.” And I am still wondering how “best sellers” are written.

A Terrific Ghost

Haunted Royalties” by Katherine Cox (Rider), is a discursive and gossiping account of the ghosts that frighten kings. The first royal ghost is the White Lady of the Hohenzollerns, and the last haunting refers to the White House.

About the close of the year 1900, there were some strange rumors afloat to the effect that apparitions or shadowy forms of Queen Victoria and President McKinley had been seen simultaneous in the neighborhood of the White House, Washington.

These were not strictly ghosts, but apparitions of the living. But there is nothing in the volume so terrific as a phantom of which I heard the other day from a friend.

My friend assured me that in a certain country house there was an appearance of something with a human body and a sheep’s head—the country house must surely be in Scotland?—and an awful and putrefied stench. My informant assured me that this spectre had converted agnostics.

A Test for the Faculties

Doctor Johnson wishing to assure himself in his old age that his faculties were still alert and alive betook himself to the study of Dutch, and found that he got on very easily and pleasantly. But it was observed that he had chosen a language that, being nearly akin to English, did not afford a severe enough test; the Doctor should have attacked some remoter tongue.

If anyone of mature years is desirous of making a light experiment and of making it in a thorough spirit, let him buy two handy little books, “Lessons in Russian” (1st and 2nd courses), by Mr. M. B. Karraohy-Smitt (Sampson Low). He will not complain of over-easiness.

The Russian alphabet has thirty-five letters in it. And once it was worse; it contained forty-eight characters. Yet even in this wild and unfamiliar tongue one comes across links with homely English. “Grad,” we have been told, is a distant cousin of our yard, garden, garth, an enclosed space. And I never thought that “Duma” was anything but outlandish, but it is most kindly and familiar English. The Duma, or parliament, is simply the place of doom, or judgment. Still, no one need be afraid of finding Russian too easy.


The Weekly

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Next: On Going to Brighton by Pullman


Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Books of the Week

  1. This leaves me curious about how book reviewing worked at the newspapers and magazines of the period – could Machen browse along shelves of review copies received, choosing freely? Or might some editor say something like, ‘Here, take a look at these’? This is a mix! I see from the WorldCat that Haunted Royalties was reprinted in 2010, and the Library of Congress has Harry Houdini’s 1916 copy. Thanks to your link, one can see why someone might select Hibbert’s book for scanning, for it does look “a delightful treasury of London anecdote and observation”! I was astonished to learn from it of Cremorne Gardens – which suddenly at least partly informs what seemed a curious stage name of an aged actress in Dorothy Sayers’s Strong Poison, ‘Cremorna Garden’! I agree about wondering about the ‘Recipe for “Best Sellers.”’ Sadly, the bewildering ones make me wary of what turn out to be deserved ones… I see Mrs. Hill’s “Lure of Crooning Water” has made it into the Internet Archive, with a couple others, if one is tempted to see if there are “scenes of real humor” in any of them, still enjoyable after a century and more.

    Like

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