Mr Compton Mackenzie

on ‘Romanticism and Realism’

From the Whitefriars Journal, vol. VI. no. 2, January 1922, pp. 79-83.

On November 4th, 1921, Prior: Friar Clement K. Shorter. Among the Guests were: Mr F. W. Goodenough, Mr Clifford D. Sharp, Mr Ian Hovoben, Mr, Kenneth Kinninmont, Mr W. B. Hamilton, Mr Dew, M.A., Mr Bannister, Mr James Milne, Mr Geoffrey Williams, Mr Sole, Mr Eusden and Mr R. H. Walling. The Prior expressed his great regret at the absence of Friar Sir Robertson Nicoll, who had been announced to preside. There must be a feeling of disappointment in not hearing that delightful Doric, which must always be a joy to them. He recalled in this connection a story told by a Scotch Minister about the absent Prior. Someone asked him if it would not facilitate his work if he were to use a dictaphone. He replied; ‘I tried it once, but it came out with such an extraordinary weather-beaten sound that I threw the thing away.’ Prior Nicoll had sent a letter to Friar Shansfield in which he stated that he had had an attack of neurasthenia and had gone to Brighton to get massaged. He could bear witness with all his heart to the gratification we felt in having Mr Compton Mackenzie with them. He had noticed once or twice on the occasion he had had the privilege of addressing audiences in small provincial towns that the Chairman of the evening always showed an astonishing acquaintance with Who’s Who. He had no need to go the pages of Who’s Who for a record of Mr Compton Mackenzie, for he knew his story all through, and was aware of his marvellous inheritance from two most historic families – the family of Compton and the family of Bateman. He had been enchanted by Mr Compton’s father’s acting, and had also had the privilege of seeing Miss Bateman in Lear.

Mr Compton Mackenzie, opened a discussion on the subject of ‘Romanticism and Realism’. At the outset, he acknowledged the encouragement he had received in the past from the Prior at a time when he was an unknown author. Since the time he had promised to address the Club he had been trying to arrive at a decision as to what was realism and what was romanticism. He had endeavoured to discover whether he was a romanticist or a realist himself. Nearly every criticism he read of his own books gave him the one title or the other, alternatively both, or neither.

Realism was always described as grim and sordid; he had come to the conclusion that many of the romantic books were just as sordid and just as grim. He did not believe really that there was such a thing as romanticism or realism; there was really life or no life in a book. During the War every man was a romanticist.

Mr Mackenzie made an interesting confession respecting his reading. The books he read as a child he was able to re-read with interest. For example, he had read as a child Nicholas Nickleby four or five times, although he did not claim that this was Dickens’ best novel. But he had lately taken up Great Expectations, which was an infinitely better book, and could not get on with it at all. He then turned to Oliver Twist, which he had read as a child, and was enthralled by it. It was a remarkable fact that Frenchmen accepted Victor Hugo, but not Dumas; personally, he would sooner have one line of Dumas than everything which Victor Hugo wrote.

After the Napoleonic wars, a great romanticist revival took place. Personally, though he lived a very romantic life on one of the Channel Islands, cut off from the world, he was still happy in walking down Fleet Street. A novelist was a servant of the public, and made money by amusing them. Most of his contemporaries would be shocked at that assertion, but the main thing was to entertain. There were so many other ways of boring people at the present time; and there was always an inclination at present to describe a book as dealing with grim realism. If there were any critics there that night he hoped that they would get rid of that adjective. The tendency was not to be content with a word, but to employ a phrase from which they could not get away. During the War he had a signalling boy on his yacht, and said to him: ‘Ask the Admiral if we can get out.’ The boy replied: ‘’I beg your pardon, sir.’ He answered: ‘I want to get away.’ The signaller then hoisted the signal: ‘Leave to proceed.’ Mr Compton Mackenzie’s conclusion was that taking the definition there was no difference between romanticism and realism.

Friar G. Whale thought there were two greatly overworked phrases at the present time. These were ‘exploring the subject’ and ‘social values’. On this occasion, Mr Compton Mackenzie had explored the topic brilliantly and ingeniously. He supported the view of Mr Mackenzie that the work of the novelist was to entertain, and, in this connection, put in a plea for the ‘happy ending’. A young officer at a dance at Portsmouth, a most susceptible man, in the course of the evening proposed to three ladies, and was accepted by all of them. He went to a friend and asked him what he should do. He could not tell them the advice which was given, but would reserve this for another occasion.

Friar G. B. Burgin owed the Club a personal explanation. During the last fortnight whenever he had been trying to concentrate his attention on this subject he had been the victim of a distressing confusion of identity. He had a gifted nephew, a member of the Friars, who had ‘gone in for politics’. The people in his nephew’s constituency seemed to have the idea that he (the speaker) had been adopted as the Liberal candidate for Hornsey, and whenever he had sat down to go into this question of romanticism and realism, letters came in from various constituents, couched in more or less flattering terms, mostly less. One elector wrote: ‘What do you mean by calling yourself a coupon candidate? As he had not read his nephew’s address he did not know what a coupon candidate was, and replied: ‘I am an earnest supporter of coupons bearing interest.’ This failed to convince the voter, who wrote back, ‘Hadn’t you better stick to your rubbishy novels?’ Although Mr Mackenzie had dealt with the subject in an interesting and charming manner, he (Mr Burgin) found it very difficult to get away from politics. There was a lady in the Divorce Court the other day who produced a diary in which there was the entry: ‘Marriage is an institution, but who wants to live in an institution?’ In Mr Mackenzie’s speech, he did not think that sufficient emphasis had been placed on the realism of happiness and the realism of misery. For instance, when we read Zola we found misery existed in realistic details. He had once seen a second-hand copy of Zola labelled ‘Dirt cheap’. On the other hand, in reading Lorna Doone one arose from it with a happy and delighted feeling that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Mr Compton Mackenzie had referred to books which he had read in his early days and could read later. He (Mr Burgin) was brought up on Sandford and Merton, in ‘good Mr Barlow’, but in later years when he re-read the book he wanted to take an axe, brain ‘good Mr Barlow’, and kick the good boy into the gutter.

Friar Hamilton Fyfe was frequently asked advice from young ladies as to what they should read. They usually wanted something romantic – hard-roe or soft-roe romanticism. The hard roe was Sir Hall Caine, and as to the soft roes there were so many of them that it was difficult to name them. There was a great deal of romance even among the fighting men during the War. Directly the troops found that the Germans were hungry and weary they wanted to help them. During the Battle of the Somme. there was a duel between the German and the Australian snipers. One of the German snipers fell out of a tree wounded; the Australians picked him up, attended to his injuries, and made him as comfortable as they could. This was the reality of the War, as distinct from a great deal of romanticism which was written about it. The real difference between realism and romance was imagination. If a writer had imagination, he would make his romances real. Realism was the term applied to writers who had no imagination, but put down what they saw without transfusing and transmuting it with the fire of imagination which was necessary. Let them take some of the stories which Shakespeare used in writing his plays. Read these stories alone, and there did not appear to be anything in them; read them in Shakespeare and the whole story was presented with vigour, force, and imagination.

Friar Hammerton reminded the Club that a similar discussion took place there about eighteen years ago, when he took up the cudgels for Zola, who had been referred to that evening as a realistic writer with no imagination. He could not imagine a more imaginative work than Lourdes. Zola described and made practically real the whole train-load of passengers. In the London Ghetto there was a club where a lot of brilliant Jews got together and discussed extraordinary questions; they asked him to talk to them on short stories. He had at that time been reading a few hundred thousand short stories, and was full of his subject, like the lecturer on strong drink. He told them a story which had recently appeared in an American magazine, put forward by one of the young Russian school, characteristic of the effete and strange imagination of the Russians. From this there was the same sort of strange feeling when a Scottish bagpipe gave out a sort of ur-r-r. The young Jews thought it was a beautiful thing.

Mr J. Milne described the invitation which the Prior had made to him to speak as the first wrench in his friendship with Prior Shorter for twenty years. The question was not what a book said, but how it said it. He saw a review of a book recently which described the work as a simple and pleasing story. This seemed to suggest a real book. It was a very difficult thing for a Scotsman like Mr Compton Mackenzie to address an English audience; a Scotsman was always romantic and humorous, and an Englishman practical and witty. Mr Mackenzie had succeeded in leaving in doubt whether romance was realism, or realism was romance. But did this matter much? His own theory was that men were more romantic than women, and women were more practical and realistic than men. Possibly a man who had been in an office all day, still went home in a romantic state. He might be more romantic if he did not go home, and if he did not go home the wife would be much more realistic.

The Literary Editor of the New Statesman had been discussing the problem the other day with three or four people, three being distinguished novelists, and they expressed the opinion that no good book had appeared during the last thirteen or fourteen years. There was a kind of fog at the present moment preventing everybody doing anything either very great in the romantic or realistic field.

Mr Compton Mackenzie replied, and was thanked by the Prior on behalf of the members.



1The History of Sandford and Merton, (1783-89) by Thomas Day.