Augustine Birrell

Virginia Woolf

But it is not bedtime,” a lady was heard to protest the other night. When assured that the clock had already struck twelve, she murmured that the clock might say what it liked, but that she must finish her book. And what was her book? It was a book by Mr. Birrell, a new book, called “Et Cetera.” And the new book, continuing as it did an old conversation, renewing an old charm, had led her to strew the floor with three robust red volumes containing the collected “Essays and Addresses” of Augustine Birrell so that she might get the flavor entire. It was the essays of Mr. Birrell that she was engaged in sampling; it was these that kept her from her bed when the chimes of midnight were ringing and the voice of duty called.

Such being the truth and nothing more than the truth, it may be worth while to attempt to justify her defiance of discipline: to try to discover what are the qualities that make us slip from the end of one essay by Mr. Birrell to the beginning of another and so on through page after page when not only is the hour late but when, to tell the truth, more serious and more learned volumes are shut with a snap on the stroke of eleven. In those words, perhaps, some glimpse of the reason sought for is to be found. One reads Mr. Birrell for pleasure. Nobody has ever, in the mercantile sense of the term, read Mr. Birrell for profit. It seems doubtful that tutors bent on steering young men into the safe pasturage of scholarships and fellowships have ever counselled them to commit his “Obiter Dicta” to memory. There is very little talk in Mr. Birrell’s pages of schools and influences and origins and developments and how one style grew out of another; no new theory of poetry is advanced; no key to aesthetics warranted to unlock all doors is forged. And since nature has so contrived it that we only feel highly virtuous when we are also feeling slightly uncomfortable, there has been a note of apology in the tones of Mr. Birrell’s admirers as if to be found reading “Obiter Dicta” or “Res Judicatae” or “Men, Women and Books” was to be caught drinking champagne in the middle of the morning—a proceeding too pleasant to be right. If, on the other hand, one has muddled one’s wits for an hour by the clock over some philosophical treatise and come to feel that all Shakespeare is a matter of mathematics, then very justly one bruits the fact abroad, claims the esteem of one’s friends, and leaves the book lying about with a marker placed ostentatiously near the end.

So, then, Mr. Birrell is no philosophical critic. But once that is said we have to explain why it is that one feels, nevertheless, no lack of substance in his pages—they are not airy flimsy gossip—they are not dainties made to serve up with the soufflé at luncheon parties. They have, on the contrary, a bluffness, a toughness, even a grittiness about them which makes one suspect that if it be true that Mr. Birrell has not mined deeply in the darker galleries of thought he has, it may be, done a day’s work in the open air.

There is something of the man of action in his style. He comes in with his hair slightly rumpled and a splash of mud on his boots. If we turn to the first pages of the collected essays, we shall find our surmise confirmed. “I became an author,” he writes, “quite by accident. I had never dreamt of such a thing. Some time in 1883, while pursuing in Lincoln’s Inn, after a dimmish but not wholly unremunerative fashion, the now decayed profession of an equity draughtsman and conveyancer, it occurred to me”—that he might perhaps print certain manuscripts which had been read aloud in friendly coteries and put back into the desk. This he did, and the little book—it was the famous “Obiter Dicta”—had an instant and remarkable success. But though when he had found his way into print he never lost it again, he yet went on, as everybody knows, to pursue the law, to fight cases, to win seats, to sit in Parliament, to enter the cabinet, to rule Ireland, and so to become, in course of time, the Right Honorable Augustine Birrell, after whose name there are many letters in distinguished combination.

There is not a trace of the pedagogue and scarcely a trace of the dictator about him.

Thus the life of letters and the life of action were lived simultaneously, and there can be no doubt that the politician influenced the author, and that the author influenced the politician. With the politician proper we have no concern; it is the author only who comes within our scope. Yet it is plain that the author gained something of great value from his partnership with the man of affairs. In the first place, he gained an unprofessional air, a holiday spirit. To sit down and write an essay was, it seemed, a treat that Mr. Birrell had promised himself, not a duty that had to be accomplished. A zest clings to the performance. He would have been, one feels, as much put out at missing a day’s writing as most people are annoyed at losing a day’s sport.

But the advantage of the connection between the man of action and the man of letters goes deeper than that. The substance of Mr. Birrell’s essays, the point of view that collects them and makes them however disconnected in subject of one spiritual texture, is the result of knowing the world and of passing judgment upon human life. It is the moral sense, not the literary, that makes a unity of his scattered papers. We know, as we look back, what men Mr. Birrell has liked, rather than what books he has admired. And since the moral sense has gone abroad and taken the air whether the sun shone or the rain poured, it is a healthy and active moral sense with blood in its cheeks and light in its eyes, and has none of that sour and leathery constitution which afflicts the moral sense of those who live indoors passing judgment upon their fellows from the sheltered library. There is not a trace of the pedagogue and scarcely a trace of the dictator about him.

It is this elastic and humane quality that has kept his essays, written as he reminds us by a contemporary of the Prince Consort, so much fresher than the mass of their fellows. For it is not uncommon, though highly disagreeable, to be pulled up in the middle of one of the great Victorians by a perverse, provincial, and as it seems to us merely conventional judgment passed in a fit of the spleen upon the conduct of some great man. Thackeray’s judgment on Sterne, Carlyle’s upon Lamb, Matthew Arnold’s upon Shelley, reveal them in their Victorian setting far more certainly than their victims. We see the screens and the curtains that surround them, we peer about in the dark sad light, much that we talk of openly seems to be hidden away, and we feel like children in the presence of a schoolmaster. But when we read Mr. Birrell, though he speaks like an elder, he does not speak as a superior. We are not reminded at every turn of his ineffable goodness, of his impeccable morality. We do not feel that he rates himself so much the superior of Sterne and Shelley and Lamb that he can afford to put them in their places. This is the more remarkable when we remember that, as was said, his chief concern is with character and not with art. Man after man, woman after woman, the big, the small, the wise, the foolish he summons before him, and yet in passing judgment his voice never loses its cordiality, his temper is almost consistently unruffled. If, as will happen, a pretentious fool comes his way, he buffets his victim so genially across the stage that even that great goose Hannah More herself must have taken the process in good part.

For this again, credit must be given to politics. Life in the House of Commons, as Mr. Birrell says, makes it difficult to maintain aloofness. “You hob-nob at luncheon, you grumble together over your dinner, you lament the spread of football clubs and brass bands in your constituencies.” And so what with lunching here and dining there, it has been very difficult for Mr. Birrell to pull a long face over human failings, if at least they are such as proceed from good fellowship or hot-bloodedness or a warm appreciation of the pleasures of life. It is the prigs and the censors and the timid water drinkers whom he wholeheartedly despises, and them he can be trusted to trounce much to our delectation whenever they raise their voices to deplore Lamb’s drunkenness or the sinful extravagance of Sir Walter Scott.

That perhaps is the weakness of treating books as if they might at any moment turn into people.

Yet, to be honest, it is somewhere about this point that we become aware of divergence. We begin to catch, now and again, a note of asperity in his voice, to hear some echoes of the sonorous Victorian trumpet. His love of charity, and good sense and good temper lead him on little by little to declaim not only against their opposites, but against speculation and introspection, and all those other vices of the new age which he suspects will lead to the clouding of the clear stream of English literature and to the paralysis of healthy human activity. Already early in the Eighties, he had scented the coming of change. He complained that “the ruddy qualities of delightfulness, of pleasantness are all ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.’ The varied elements of life . . . seem to be fading from literature.” Indeed even in the Eighties, things had come to such a pass that he was about to make up his mind “to look for no more Sir Walters, no more Thackerays no more Dickenses. The stories have all been told. Plots are exploded. Incident is over”—when miraculously, “Treasure Island” appeared and the honor of English literature was saved.

Thus for all his tolerance and catholicity Mr. Birrell, it would seem, has his notion of what literature should be, and the fact that he eschews aesthetic criticism by no means implies that he has not a code of his own, and a will of his own, and a taste of his own, which exclude whole tracts of literature, and, we make bold to say, of very good literature into the bargain. He has nothing to say about the great Russians or the great Frenchmen. His essays, though they embrace the years from 1880 to 1930, make no mention of Meredith or Henry James or Hardy or Conrad. For all he tells us to the contrary, one might suppose that English literature had fallen over a precipice about the year 1900 and lay in shattered fragments not worth picking up and examining on the stones beneath.

That perhaps is the weakness of treating books as if they might at any moment turn into people. One detects in them what it is that is antipathetic to one in real life—gloom, self-analysis, morbidity, sexual aberration. And then, if one has let wither the other sense which finds in literature something non-personal, like beauty, or sound, or intellectual originality, and analyzes it to feel more keenly, one condemns the book because of the man, and has nothing to say about a work, the fruit of a corrupt society and of an introspective temperament, called “La Recherche du Temps Perdu.” About this Mr. Birrell is perfectly decided. “We want Lambs,” he writes, “not Coleridges. The verdict to be striven for is not ‘Well guessed’ but ‘Well done.’” And so with a great sweep of his arm he throws into the waste-paper basket such trifles as “The Egoist,” and “The Wings of the Dove,” “The Return of the Native,” “The Possessed,” and “Lord Jim.” That done, he heaves a sigh of relief and takes down one of the many volumes, well worn and well loved, of his Scott.

Thus we must accept the fact that Mr. Birrell will neither illumine the present nor acknowledge the future save as something disagreeable which it is the part of wise men not to anticipate. But once that fact is faced—it is a fact that need not surprise us seeing that a politician is in partnership with the writer—there still remain the fine volumes of witty, varied, and most entertaining reading, to which others, we may hope, are still to be added.

Let us for a moment dwell upon the quality which kept our friend so unrepentantly out of bed—the charm, the seductiveness of Mr. Birrell’s writing. It is just and right so to pause, for it is perhaps by this quality rather than any other that the books are destined to endure. Yet how are we to define a word that is so easily and sometimes so condescendingly pronounced? “It is not easy to define charm which is not a catalogue of qualities but a mixture.” So Mr. Birrell says himself; and there is much in the saying that applies to him. Open Mr. Birrell’s books where you will and there is this mixture in operation; this blending of many often mutually destructive gifts into one effervescence—irony and feeling; sound sense and fantasy; caustic humor and a sunny good temper. Hence the iridescence, the sparkle, and the varied movement of his prose. It never forms into one great wave that comes crashing down upon our heads; it is forever rippling and dancing, giving and withholding, like a breeze-stirred lake.

The books turn into people, and the people turn into books.

And when this is said we have also said by implication that Mr. Birrell is a born writer—not one of our great writers, certainly not one of our professional writers, but one of those writers who spring as naturally from our literature as the dog-rose from the hedge and scent it with as true a fragrance. How lightly and easily he casts the line of his sentence! How the images come flocking to his pen and how pleasant and sometimes more than pleasant they are to the ear!—“gentle as is the breath with which a child disperses a dandelion clock,” he says in his preface; or—“it must have been hard while still in the middle passage of life to scent the night-air”—but to underline what is so natural is to spoil it. And then pervading the wit and the sparkle, there is something pungent as the smell of good tobacco—that profound love of books, which some good critics have lacked, but would have been better critics for possessing. “No man of letters knew letters better than he. He knew literature in all its branches—he had read books, he had written books, he had sold books, he had bought books, and he had borrowed them, . . . he loved a catalogue; he delighted in an index.” What he says of Johnson we might say of him. Everything about a book from the leather of the binding to the print on the page smells sweet in his nostrils.

So then if one seeks an excuse for reading Mr. Birrell—and pleasure is still a little suspect—it is that he makes books seem lovable objects and reading an entrancing occupation. Literature when he writes of it ceases to be an art and a mystery and becomes an assembly of all sorts of interesting people. The books turn into people, and the people turn into books. There are the Waverley novels and “Tristram Shandy” and the “Essays of Elia”; there is also Miss Hannah More and Arthur Young and Arthur Young’s little Bobbin. Some of the books are very rare, and some of the people are very obscure. There are many theological volumes among them and a good many lawyers. Then suddenly Mr. Browning or Mr. Matthew Arnold appears in the flesh, or behold, there is Nathaniel Hawthorne walking along a street in Liverpool in the year 1856.

In short, it is a splendid entertainment to which we are invited, call it what you will. And to have created so varied a prospect, to have brought together out of the dimness so many shapes, the queer and the hunchbacked as well as the stately and the splendid, to have led us up to the great writers in a mood of warmth and happy expectation, yet critically, too, and by no means ready to tolerate fustian or humbug—that is a great task to have accomplished. It tempts us to quote one of Mr. Birrell’s sentences, and, indeed, to alter one word without his permission. “Even that most extraordinary compound, the rising generation of readers, whose taste in literature is as erratic as it is pronounced, read their Lamb,” says Mr. Birrell—and here we interpose “read their Birrell”—and then go on in concert “with laughter and with love.”

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was an English novelist and essayist, known especially for Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and A Room of One’s Own.
Originally published:
June 1, 1930


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