Private Opinion: A Commonplace-Book, by Alan Pryce-Jones (1936)

There isn’t necessarily a template for a commonplace book, which Webster’s defines as “a book of memorabilia” and Wikipedia as “essentially a scrapbook.” But even if there were one, Alan Pryce-Jones’ Private Opinion wouldn’t follow it. Pryce-Jones, who is probably best known for editing the Time Literary Supplement from 1948 to 1959, was a precocious 28 when he published what he called a commonplace book but what today would more likely be labelled a biblio-memoir.

Although Pryce-Jones follows a roughly chronological path through his reading, he is not averse to occasional detours into fugues and fantasies, and ends the book with a what seems to be a fictional sketch about the visit of a merchant freighter and its small contingent of cruise passengers to a port along the Caribbean coast of South America. And there are more pages devoted to Pryce-Jones’ experiences of childhood, school, and visits to France, the Caribbean and Africa as a young man than there are to books. But he still manages to whet the reader’s appetite with his descriptions of a number of remarkable books:

A Narrative ofProceedings in Venezuela in South America in the years 1819 and 1820, by George Laval Chesterton

“… not only extremely readable, but gratifying in the highest degree to two snobberies : that of little-known events, and that of little-known places, Chesterton had lively reactions to circumstances and does not boggle at what he found: which was that the thousand men under Colonel English’s command—“From his extraordinary torpidity and supineness, I have often wondered how he could have summoned up sufficient resolution”–would have been better employed fighting for the Spaniards than against them. Their adventures were vivid, and their privations useless; except to give the Judge-Advocate that occasion to write a salt and fascinating book.

“Scraps of knowledge emerge–the kind of scraps that makes Southey’s Commonplace Book such excellent reading: such as that the people of Angostura fought all diseases alike by means of hot lemonade. Obscure names are used with familiarity: The Patriot General, Urdaneta ; the island of Margarita, celebrated for its cotton hammocks. The reader is warmed by a pleasant feeling of petty triumph over the next man. 1820 Venezuela is in a sense pocketed.”

Burton-Agnes Hall, from A series of picturesque views of seats of the noblemen and gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1
A series of picturesque views of seats of the noblemen and gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, by Reverend Francis Orpen Morris (1840)

“I bought the Reverend F. O. Morris’s Seats of the Noblemen and Gentry, in six volumes, on the Dublin quays. It was exactly the place for buying such a book, for Ireland is, in spite of itself, an island of country houses; and about them, more than elsewhere, clings the forlorn, yet still challenging, air in which the Reverend F. O. Morris’s pages are suffused. The day before, I had been to Rusborough, a very beautiful house, at that time uninhabited, in the Wicklow Hills. Lord Milltown’s trunks, and his hatboxes, stood in a dressing-room. His music was yellowing on the piano, and his writing-paper in the library. For Lord Milltown had been long dead and his peerage extinct; without the house admitting it. The ornamental plaster-work was crumbling ; and the garden terraces were indistinguishable; but we could still detect the authentic note: the Jennings sanitary fittings, encased in mahogany, with the essential pull-up handle instead of a chain; the assortment of expensive boot-jacks; the one bath, with brown tear-stains under the taps; and the heavily furnished writing-tables, with letterweights, little sponges, silver-handled brushes for wetting the envelopes, and boxes in dark-green leather for india-rubber bands. The fascination of views of country-houses lies not in their beauty but in the surprises they contain. In finding an enormous excruciating Italianate palace of which nobody has ever heard. In discovering that the families who now prefer living in a mews flat and spending their money at le Touquet, possessed a William Kent house until the other day. In picturing, says Caen Wood Tower, “a beautiful edifice … erected by its late proprietor … On either side of the dining-room chimney-piece are windows looking into a fernery, with fountains. The upper portion of the windows above the transom is fitted with stained glass of a geometrical pattern. In the windows of the billiard room are representations of various out-door sports and pastimes, as hunting, cricket, archery, etc., also in stained glass.”

London Promenade, by William Gaunt (1930)

“When I was up at Oxford, J. took me from de Beauvoir Town to the Elephant and Castle, from Hounslow to Greenwich, looking at churches, and obscure squares, and fragments of Regency town planning. But I was never again able to make any coherent picture of London by day; and probably the reason why I like London Promenade is that it moves in the London of bars and theatres and narrow streets which, even by day, lurk in a kind of private evening. That London has kept for me a little flutter of excitement. For years my home was in London, but my home life had no particular urban associations. I walked into London when I slammed the door in the evening, and I left London, exultantly late at night, when I went home; from the Lyons in New Oxford Street where the cashier sat in an octagonal aluminium font, or from Claridges, or from a basement far darker than D.’s and from people of more doubtful artistry. It is provoking to reflect that anything so commonplace can have been, and for so long, so exceedingly amusing.”

The Cuckoo Clock, by Mrs. Molesworth (1895)

“I hope Mrs. Molesworth is still read. A few years ago Herr Baby was out of print; but a good many nurseries seem still to be faithful to The Cuckoo Clock. Like all good children’s books, hers give an intense pleasure to grown-ups ; but they offer children what I take to be the harvest of surrealisme: the distillation of an object into an atmosphere. For queer events in themselves leave a child perfectly cold; exciting events also. Without what can be called a high dream-power, they only amuse grown-ups. The Cuckoo Clock has that power. It creates a secret untransmittable picture: the turn of an ancient staircase in the evening, a dark labyrinth of wainscoted corridors. I cannot remember any of the events in the book, but I can move in its atmosphere at will. Even when it first was read to me, the events were less important than their overtones; and I believe all imaginative children only use books as a lever to set their private world at work.”

The Season: A Satire, by Alfred Austin (1861)

“Short of very good books, I know nothing which gives as much pleasure as very bad books. Everyone has his pet bad book, therefore; and I have mine. But although it might be fairly easy game I never find anybody else to have read it except a few friends to whom, with all the emotion of entrusting a thousand pounds to a financier, I have entrusted it. Nor would my really bad book be much easier to replace than a thousand pounds. There is a disconcerting power of volatility about (say) the Book of the Month to be reckoned with. If you do not catch it during the Month it disappears. For example, I am in constant pursuit of a new work by Dr. Cronin. And always it was the book last month. Short of hiring a man to wait in Henrietta Street for the next moment of apparition I shall forever be deprived of a very real pleasure.

It was, however, upon The Season: A Satire by Alfred Austin, that I proposed to write. On considering it again, there can be no doubt that it is a very unusually bad book. It is supremely, mystically, bad. Most of it is not bad in the way of being funny. It
is just bad. Like this:

O blessed moment! … Duns! Detractors! Fate I
Hit me your hardest—but I dine at eight.
My thoughts are stolen? half my verses halt?
Well, very likely: please to pass the salt.
Jones won’t accept your bills: he funks the risk.
Does he? What matter? Potage a la bisque!

“There are, however, a few notably ridiculous passages. There are two passages I am particularly fond of:

Romantic boys! be still. Will angry names
Like “battered beast” annul an Earldom’s claims?
Life is not wholly sentiment and stars:
Venus wed Mercury as well as Mars.
Hush your lewd tattle ! seek your slighted beds!
A cornet waltzes, but a colonel weds.

“And another, which goes further to prove that Alfred Austin, like others of our Laureates, had some trouble in compelling the English language into verse:

What! … So they say … Bah! Nonsense … But it’s true:
True, sure enough–will lay you ten to two.
Jack saw the brief, Respondent’s name endorsed …
Great God in heaven ! Our Blanche to be divorced!

“But this badness is perhaps a little too showy. It is a greater feat to have kept up the solider badness of the remaining seventy pages. Or to have invented the bold retort, the English equivalent of Excelsior!, the exclamation at once practical and vigorous, Potage a la bisque!”

Pryce-Jones peppers his compilation with liberal doses of observation and opinion:

… in no country but England are children so strangely brought up. For the commonsense of their upbringing goes in inverse ratio to the means of their parents. Think of it. They are sent away from home as early as possible, yet buttoned back into home life as tightly as possible for observation during their weeks of freedom. They are segregated into sexes, and treated by paid supervisors as little beasts to be kept quiet, to be mechanized for the general convenience; in any case, to be ordered about, at the pain (even if it is only a constant threat) of birch and cane and strap and cuff. The aim of all this is clearly stated to be a prosperous position exactly on the inconspicuous average line of attainment. The typical parent hopes that his child will be as rich and as dull and as anonymous as may be. If you suggest that the child should learn foreign languages, discover its own tastes, knock about a bit, he will stretch out his hands to the gas-fire as though a fatal draught were in the room. If you regret that the eminently sensible Lycee-Gymnasium systems do not exist for the unfortunate Anglo-Saxon, he will not know what those systems imply. An English well-to-do child is first something pretty, handed over, almost absolutely, to a nurse; then something problematical, handed over to a group for solution; then promoted from group to group, until, at the age of eighteen, it is thought sufficiently house-trained to fall under the direct influence of its parents. And yet: there must be a great deal to be said for a system which induces such excellent results. The fittest survive; and their path is made considerably easier by the number who succumb to entire mediocrity.

Private Opinion: A Commonplace-Book, by Alan Pryce-Jones
London: Cobden and Sanderson, 1936

Leave a Comment