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Archive for July, 2010

Charles Williams was an Inkling, that Oxford literary group that used to meet in The Eagle and Child pub. Despite hobnobbing with the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis he is a rather forgotten figure nowadays. He has not wanted for champions though. T. S. Eliot was one of them and it was he who was responsible for Faber creating a standard edition of Charles Williams’s novels in the 1940s. There are seven, War in Heaven, Many Dimensions, The Palace of the Lion, The Greater Trumps, Shadows of Ecstasy, Descent into Hell and All Hallows’ Eve: all are being reissued in Faber Finds.

Eliot described them as ‘supernatural thrillers’ but an even more ardent enthusiast disputes that. I was aware of the high opinion Ruth Rendell has for Many Dimensions but even so was not prepared for the richness of her praise:

I very much admire Many Dimensions and I’m delighted it has been reissued. I have read it many times and am about due to read it again. To my mind it is the best of Charles Williams’s novels. It has a haunting quality that seems to embrace the secrets of the orient, real faith in the power of goodness, love of justice and the profound hideousness of evil. Readers to whom I have recommended it come to love it as I do. I would put it unreservedly on my list of ten favourite novels. It shows more than any book I have ever read, the essential strength of innocence.

For a title to be on Ruth Rendell’s ‘list of ten favourite novels’ (what are the others I wonder?) is a remarkable accolade. In her email to me she felt to categorize them as ‘supernatural thrillers’ was to belittle them so old Tom can consider himself rebuked!

With Ruth Rendell about to re-read Many Dimensions perhaps this is the moment for others to discover it for the first time?

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‘Unputdownable’.

No, don’t worry this isn’t an outburst from some superannuated copywriter fixated on hyperbole, nor is it (well, not in this case anyway!) the sad contrivance of a frustrated editor trying to sell his dodgy wares. It is a real quote about a very good book. David Hare said it, going on to say, a little more soberly:

‘When I was at school in the early 1960s, the satire movement gave us all hope that Britain might one day emerge from its medieval gloom. Humphrey Carpenter’s book is the most complete and compelling analysis of the brief, fragile flowering of something wholly original.’

And you don’t just to have take David Hare’s word (though it tends to be a pretty reliable one) for it. Someone, being there at the time, who really should know is Jonathan Miller and he has called it ‘definitive’. Although the means was unexpected (Alan Bennett’s wonderful play about Auden and Britten, The Habit of Art in which the figure of Humphrey Carpenter has an important role) it is nice to see Humphrey Carpenter receiving some recognition again. He was a good writer and Faber Finds have reissued a generous selection of his titles (see faberfinds.co.uk), not least his own biography of W. H. Auden.

There’s a nice irony here as Auden disappoved of biography, or at any rate claimed to, but Carpenter’s was well received on publication. John Bayley,  for example, praising Carpenter as ‘ a model biographer – diligent, unspeculative, sympathetic, and extremely good at finding out what happened when and to whom . . . an admirably detailed and researched study.’

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An historian praising another historian, now that makes a welcome change from those extraordinary events in April!

Andrew Roberts took time off from a recent book tour promoting his own The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War to write this remarkably generous tribute to Robert Blake:

Faber Finds are doing many good things and one of the very best is reissuing Robert Blake’s titles. With five titles scheduled to be made available again this year, they are not stinting. That is how it should be.

Robert Blake was a fine scholar and the leading historian of the Tory Party. As I know from personal experience, he was also a sweet and charming man who never failed to help and encourage historians far younger than him.

His masterpiece was his definitive life of Benjamin Disraeli. In my obituary of him for the Royal Society of Literature I wrote, ‘Then in 1966 came Disraeli, a sublime book that stands as a beacon, a model and a reproach to all British biographers and historians. When historians set out to write significant books on important biographical subjects, there can be no better advice to them than to read Robert Blake’s Disraeli.’ I re-read that without blushing, if anything, I think it is almost an understatement. I couldn’t therefore be more delighted to hear Faber Finds are reissuing it in May. And for them also to be reissuing The Conservative Party from Peel to Major, The Unknown Prime Minister, Disraeli’s Grand Tour and The Decline of Power, 1915-64 is the most wonderful bonus.

The Disraeli biography and The Conservative Party are already available with the others to follow. Faber Finds is politically neutral, if that doesn’t sound too feeble, and when it comes to historians we only want to reissue the best regardless of their hue: Robert Blake, A. J. P. Taylor, Norman Gash (to come), Michael Foot , G. M . Trevelyan (to come), Correlli Barnett (to come), Kenneth Morgan. I hope those names indicate the balance and quality. And let’s not forget Andrew Roberts himself. We are about to reissue his great biography of Lord Salisbury with the apt subtitle: Victorian Titan. Perhaps it is fitting to quote Robert Blake:

‘Andrew Roberts has filled one of the great gaps in Victorian historiography. This is the first authoritative life of the statesman who dominated politics from 1885 to 1902 . . . A brilliant biography that will long replace anything which has appeared before.’

If you think that is too cosy, try Niall Ferguson:

‘Roberts triumphantly retrieves Salisbury from unmerited obscurity with a book as delightful to read as it is informative.’

If you are still not convinced I can tell you it was the winner of both the Wolfson History Prize and the James Stern Silver Pen Award for Non-Fiction. Indeed, as a political biography it is on a par with Blake’s Disraeli and Norman Gash’s Robert Peel (to be reissued next year).

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