Having read (and rather enjoyed) Stepping Heavenward, Richard Aldington’s caricature of T.S. Eliot, containing a scurrilous representation of Eliot’s marital difficulties, I wondered how the book was treated by reviewers.
In October 1931, the Manchester Guardian published a short notice of the first edition, published abroad and very expensive: ‘It costs a guinea and is beautifully printed.’ The reviewer describes it as ‘a sort of satire’ and suggests that like Laura Riding, the author of another expensive book under review, Aldington has ‘gone away from things’ and that ‘these expensive books in limited editions are the ghosts of books they might have written’.
When the two shilling edition came out, the TLS reviewer pretended ignorance:
Mr Aldington’s indignation is palpable; he so obviously has a real person, living or dead, in mind, whom he wishes to castigate by caricature. The fun, if there is any, is Mr Aldington’s alone; it is lost on the reader, who has no clue to identification. […] Mr Aldington has the key to the secret, and he keeps it to himself.
Since the reviewer is dealing with a book written by one of his own paper’s most distinguished contributors, about another, this seems extremely disingenuous.
The Manchester Guardian was having none of this mock-ignorance when it published a second review, of the cheap edition. Its review (by ‘B.S.’) began by saying, ‘Mr Aldington is a witty and a wicked man’, and after outlining the story, commented:
The caricature is always extravagant, and this is no doubt the justification of a good many passages which one might otherwise find in questionable taste, for everyone will recognise Mr Aldington’s original beneath his travesty.
The review itself, however, gives no clue that would allow the average reader to realise that the book is about Eliot. In fact, none of these responses take on the basic duty of the reviewer – to tell the reader what the book is about, as clearly as they can. Aldington’s book was a scandal, and when it was noticed by these respectable journals, it was in tones of moral and aesthetic disapproval, and there is little in the reviews to encourage prospective readers to look at the book for themselves.
So now I’m wondering whether this conspiracy of silence extended to all papers. Did any reviewers hint that the man with the marriage problems was T.S.Eliot? Or did a gentlemanly code impel them all to ensure that this knowledge was kept strictly for insiders?