Describe cancer. Describe calico. Describe –

In Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown (1924) Virginia Woolf imagines advice from an Edwardian novelist like Arnold Bennett on how to create a fictional character:

‘Begin by saying that her father kept a shop in Harrogate. Ascertain the rent. Ascertain the wages of shop assistants in the year I878- Discover what her mother died of. Describe cancer. Describe calico. Describe-‘ But I cried, ‘Stop! Stop!’ and I regret to say that I threw that ugly, that clumsy, that incongruous tool out of the window, for I knew that if I began describing the cancer and the calico my Mrs. Brown, that vision to which I cling though I know no way of imparting it to you, would have been dulled and tarnished and vanished for ever.

Strong memorable stuff, and an essay that did some damage to the reputation of Bennett.
I mention it because I was leafing through the Saturday Review for 1923 yesterday, in search of something quite different, when I came across a review by Gerald Gould of Bennett’s newly published Riceyman Steps.
He gave the book moderate praise, thinking it almost a return to Bennett’s best form, but he had reservations:

For one thing, his theme is artificial – it looks as if he had said to himself, firmly, that he would take Clerkenwell, and cancer, and the lust of greed, and, in short, the most obvious and flamboyant triumphs of the devil, and compel them to witness to the unquenchable nobility of the human heart, and, in short, to the glory of God.

Can the striking alliteration on cancer in both essays be a coincidence? Or had Woolf read Gould’s review in November, and had the phrasing remained – unconsciously, I’m sure – in her mind, until she herself needed to express her reservations about Bennett? Just a thought.


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