Canon Hannay (‘George A. Birmingham’)

on ‘Author and Critic’

From the Whitefriars Journal, vol. IV, no. 2, February 1914, pp. 37-42.

October l0th, 1913.—Friars gathered in goodly numbers at the opening of the autumn meetings, when ‘George A. Birmingham’ was the guest of the evening, and Sir Francis Carruthers Gould the Prior. In addition to the author of General John Regan, the guests included: Mr Wilson Marriage, J.P., Sir J. D. La Touche, K.C.S.L, Mr Gordon Piper, Mr Stanley Paul, Mr E. H. Stout, Mr Thomas Palmer, Mr Norman Power, Mr T. Werner Laurie, The Rev. H. C. Meservé (Danbury, CT, USA), Sir Francis Vane, Mr Harold Pearson, Mr Max Goldscheider, The Rev. B. J. Snell, Mr John Walker, Canon Morley Stevenson, and Mr E. W. Lyman.

Introducing Canon Hannay, who was given an enthusiastic welcome, the Prior expressed the opinion of the Brotherhood when he said we all agreed in high appreciation of ‘George A. Birmingham’s’ work, which contained such wonderful studies of Irish character, and of the psychology of the Irish mind. Canon Hannay had to be regarded as a public benefactor. It was specially interesting to know that one of his books had been translated by a Friar into Swedish.

Opening a debate of ‘Authors and Critics’, our guest dealt chiefly with critics but aroused special interest by confessing that he was critic as well as author, though he guarded himself against any idea that he was going to touch on what our American cousins called the ‘’high brow’ order of criticism. He just spoke as an author who wrote books that people should read them, and as a critic who chose books as he found them pleasurable and profitable or not. He was not able to concern himself with what was called the writer’s ‘art’.

He proceeded to set out what was his conception of the three stages of criticism. When he received from an author a book to criticise, he read it. (‘Hear, hear,’ and loud cheers.) And he came to the conclusion that it was mere drivel, and he sat down to say so. Then, as he began to write, he also began to think. After all, the poor fellow was earning his daily bread, and perhaps he (the critic) had better be as kind as he could be, and so wrote something like this: ‘This is a very interesting story of mediaeval life; there is not a dull page in it; and everyone ought to read it.’ When this author’s second, or third, or perhaps fourth book reached you, you found he was becoming a man of considerable eminence. And the publishers’ advertisements helped you to this conclusion. You then thought it was time the man was let down a little. And you could give him a little slanging, feeling that this could now do him no harm. And you suggested that it was lamentable to find an author of So-and-So’s ability writing down to a very inferior public. As an author began to succeed, he began to notice a distinct coolness of tone. The critics acted for the good of his soul, and that he might not get too conceited. Then, when an author became a very big man, the critics were a little afraid. They felt it necessary to be very careful. They noticed a certain dullness, perhaps, in his books, or a falling-off. In fact, the critics were afraid of giving themselves away. They praised the books against their conscience. On the whole, therefore, the calling of the professional critic might be regarded as a singularly immoral one. But the critic’s calling was one in which more human kindness came out than in almost any other. Critics wrote usually out of pure kindness of heart.

Friar G. B. Burgin thought that authors and critics were really necessary to each other. The critic, whether just or unjust, was essential to the formation of the author’s character, and was instrumental in preventing him from getting a disease known as ‘swelled head’. But after all the novels were written and all the criticisms on them were published, he hoped for the time when the critical Indian sat by the fire of the author Indian and they wended their way together to the Happy Hunting Ground, their enmities forgotten as they smoked the Peace Pipe in the Land of Plenty.

Friar Hugo Vallentin mentioned that the book translated by him was that of ‘George A. Birmingham’s’ play, General John Regan, and he hoped it would be a great success in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Replying to a remark by the Prior about the difficulties presented by the Irish idiom, he said he did not think it necessary to reproduce the Irish idiom. Instead, he had adopted a corresponding kind of idiom. One difficulty, however, he found was in conveying what was meant by ‘the wearing of the green’.

Friar Richard Whiteing thought the critic because he was a critic had not ceased to be a human being, and consequently he went to his work guided by the principle of praising as far as he could. He knew that the discovery of a new star brought upon the discoverer some of the glory radiated by the new luminary. And the law of liking was one of the safest to follow. It had been his pleasure to read, but he had not had to criticise, our guest’s books. They seemed to him to afford a curious example of what he might call the racial bias in character. They had consigned the ‘stage’ Irishman to limbo and showed us the real man, the man whose natural astuteness of judgment made him a born critic of men and institutions, qualified to speak his mind on the event as it passed and on the man as he passed. Mrs Green, the wife of the historian, had described Mr George Bernard Shaw as but an enlargement of the man you found in every cottage in Ireland, one who stood at the cross-roads without anything much else to do, and said his say on what was passing, with kindliness in intention, if not altogether in the expression of his views, who was full of what the French called crânerie, or what might be described as simply cheek. George Moore afforded another example of it. And the young Irish poet Stephens, who was coming forward, had carried crânerie up to the gates of heaven itself. In the work of our guest one found this spirit exemplified; one found also a reflection of the truth that the Irish were a serious and a sad race. Such work, he thought, would tend to the vitalising of our literature more and more.

Friar C. H. Grundy found in the speech of our guest, material for the study of the mind of his brother parson. He had no idea the clergy could be so adaptable. Such elasticity of thought was a revelation. He himself had never written a book – thank God! He had had one or more offers from publishers to write the story of his life. Had he yielded to the temptation, the result might have placed critics like our guest in an awkward place. In fact, he was not quite sure that the clerical mind was the best for the critic, for the cultivation of that conscientiousness that was impressed upon them by their bishop. The responsibility of an author was far greater than that of a critic. It seemed to him that many authors took up their pens in a most flippant way. The ideas in a book might, years after the author was dead, alter the whole course of a human life. As to the critic, he (the speaker) recalled that when he was at Oxford he edited an undergraduates’ magazine. He did the reviewing himself, and was astonished at his own versatility. But he found himself wondering at what appeared to be the haphazard way in which books were handed to critics. ‘Criticism,’ concluded Friar Grundy, ‘is not quite the thing for us of the Established Church.’

Friar Clement K. Shorter advanced the view of the editors of newspapers, who, he pointed out, often had difficulty in getting specialists to write rightly about books; they either wrote at three times the proper length or in a dull, uninteresting manner. Then critics had something to think of apart from considerations of tenderness and kindness. They had a duty to perform towards the public. A critic should have ideals. He should be a man who tried, according to his light, to deal honestly with books. One thing was inexcusable in a critic – to attack without giving his reasons. The criticism of today was inferior to what it used to be. In the old days editor and critic were allowed to say exactly what they thought. This was still true only to a certain extent. Publishers had become vastly wealthy, and were able to spend large sums on advertising, and there was a business side to the newspaper. Critics who tried to deal honestly with books were not always acceptable to editors. But publishers were much more broadminded than some editors and managers were apt to think them, and did not look for an equivalent for their advertising in ‘treacly reviews’. What was wanted was a certain solidarity of attitude on the part of critics. Books should only be given for review to competent men, and not to those who wrote just for money; to men who were not under the temptation of feeling that ‘the poor man had to live’. After all, it was not necessary that ‘the poor man’ should live by writing books. What was wanted was more ‘salt’ and less sugar.

Friar Sir William Robertson Nicoll was not sure he agreed with Friar Whiteing in regard to the work of our guest. There seemed to him to be a marked difference between the work of Canon Hannay and the work of the other Irish writers who had been mentioned. There was our guest’s great quality of sunny humour. We could read his books without ‘the problems of life’ engaging us. He read all he could of Canon Hannay’s work, and he never did so without a smile or a feeling of lightheartedness, and one was grateful to any writer who gave one these pleasurable feelings. The real place for the critic was given to him in the introduction to Fanny Burney’s Evelina. A great perplexity was looming up in the future for the critics in connection with what was called the sex novel. The difficulty was largely an ethical difficulty, but he would show no mercy to the author who sought to throw the cinematoraph on the bridal chamber.

Friar Silas Hocking remarked that the tendency of the modern novel was to obtrude unpleasant things, and as novels were largely read by young people, the outlook was, from this point of view, a serious one. His own opinion was that the novelist, as a rule, appreciated honest criticism. It helped him.

Friar Clive Holland urged that to criticise a book because one did not agree with the author was unfair. He thought the critic should be more concerned to indicate the character of a book than to attack it.

The Prior suggested that the discussion about the censorship had grown to its recent proportions because the sea-serpent was not so much alive as it used to be. Publishers’ advertisements had nothing to do with the verdict of the reviews, and whilst the task of the critics was in the main to tell the public what books were worth reading, the young man at Mudie’s who knew the books and knew the customers, was perhaps, after all, the best sort of critic. He had an idea that if the critics were silent, say, for six months, it would make very little, if any, difference. The public would find out the books they wanted for themselves. Their guest had shown a wonderful insight into Irish character. His work showed no lack of truth. The Irish did not place the same value on the face of words that ‘the stupid Saxon’ did. This was one of the reasons why the two nations did not better understand one another. But in addition to enabling us to see the Irish character as it was, Canon Hannay had delighted us with his rare gift of humour, and had made life lighter and brighter for all his readers.

Responding to the toast of his health, which was honoured with enthusiasm, Canon Hannay said that when he had referred to himself as a critic he wished it to be distinctly understood that he spoke in relation to the criticism of novels, and it was his view that almost any man of average intelligence was capable of reviewing novels, because the only thing he really required to know was whether he liked them or not.

The Prior, remarking that our guest was about to sail for America, a most enjoyable evening was brought to a close by the company wishing Canon Hannay ‘Bon voyage’.