T.S. Eliot and Nesta Webster

One vast conspiracy! To destroy the social order. Thank God, we have people alive to it! Nesta Webster, a great invigilator – laughed at, at the time. Now T.S. Eliot. You should read T.S. Eliot. One of the Master Minds of our age. A great influence. Restrained, fastidious, and yet a Leader. The Young adore him. He has taken over the message of Nesta. Made it acceptable. Dignified it.

I wrote the other day about The Bulpington of Blup, a novel in which sets up as non-hero a straw man who represents everything he disapproves of, and then spends four hundred pages demolishing him. Those four hundred do, however, allow him ample space to enjoy having a kick at some actual personages whom he dislikes, and one of these is T.S. Eliot.

The encomium above is spoken by Bulpington, an idiot and fantasist, who after an inglorious war has set himself up as a champion of modernist literature. In Paris he edits a ‘brilliantly aggressive’ avant-garde magazine called the Feet of the Young Men. This would seem to be largely based on transition, the magazine that gave Joyce’s Work in Progress to a bemused world. The magazine uses eccentric punctuation and typography, ‘and always there were five or six pages of undulating designs by a new genius who wrote a sort of universal prose, symbolic prose, entirely without words.’ This sounds like a caricature of the work produced by Eugene Jolas, transition’s editor, who preached ‘The Revolution of the Word, and preached in his manifesto:

Tired of the spectacle of short stories, novels, poems and plays still under the hegemony of the banal word, monotonous syntax, static psychology, descriptive naturalism, and desirous of crystallizing a viewpoint… Narrative is not mere anecdote, but the projection of a metamorphosis of reality” and that “The literary creator has the right to disintegrate the primal matter of words imposed on him by textbooks and dictionaries.

Wells scorns modernism in general, then (and unsurprisingly, since his Edwardian novels – often paired with those of Arnold Bennett – were targets for those who despised Edwardian ‘descriptive naturalism). But his real animus was reserved for T.S. Eliot (and, come to think of it, the fictional magazine also sounds like the Criterion, actually, when it is shown interleaving the modernist texts with ‘briskly controversial papers by catholic divines’). But Wells’s most cutting stroke is the comparison with Nesta Webster (1876-1960).

Nesta Webster as a young woman

Forgotten today (except maybe in the nastier corners of the world of conspiracy theory) Nesta Webster was noted in her time as a fervent AntiSemite. She wrote in defence of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and her book Secret Societies and Subversive Movements argues that conspiring Jews are the powers behind Bolshevism, Freemasonry and the Illuminati. She writes of ‘the immense megalomania of the Jewish race’ and argues that:

The hope of world-domination is therefore not an idea attributed to the Jews by “anti-Semites,” but a very real and essential part of their traditions.

(You can find the whole book online at Project Gutenberg, if you really fancy reading it.)

Linking T.S. Eliot with the obviously fanatical Nesta Webster is an attempt to undermine the intellectual respectability of the man whose voice had become the most influential in literary London. Eliot often expressed dissatisfaction with Wells, of course, as one of the Utopians ‘dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.’ He may (later, in the 1940s) have been thinking of Wells’s Outline of History when he wrote of

a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.

Back in 1927 he had written in a Criterion book review:

Mr. Wells has not an historical mind; he has a prodigious gift of historical imagination, which is comparable to Carlyle’s, but this is quite a different gift from the understanding of history. That requires a degree of culture, civilization and maturity which Mr. Wells does not possess.

‘A prodigious gift of historical imagination [ …] is quite a different gift from the understanding of history.’ This is actually much the accusation that Wells himself is levelling throughout the book at his non-hero Bulpington, whose imagination constantly runs riot, contrary to the facts of the case. Since before the war Bulpington had been an Anglo-Catholic, which Wells clearly considers the very silliest and most deluded of religious faiths. Later in the novel he has Bulpington using Eliot’s 1931 Thoughts after Lambeth for comfort reading:

He had found no Punch on the bookstall but […] took a witty little booklet by Mr T.S. Eliot on the Lambeth Conference from his valise and read it with appreciation. It was impossible to resist Eliot’s implication that all’s well with the Anglican world. The very way he mocked at it made one feel how real and important it still was and was going to be. Real and important things were going on being real and important for ever. Bishops were bishops in saecula saeculorum, and God was God.

That’s fair enough comment – but is the linking of Eliot with the fervently Anti-Semitic Nesta Webster a bit underhand?

I’ve seen press criticism of Eliot on the Anti-Semitism issue in 1933, when his After Strange Gods was published, including the notorious passage about the importance of “unity of religious background’ to social cohesion in any society, which meant that ‘Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable’.

Had Wells heard rumours of this text before the 1932 publication of The Bulpington of Blup? Or is he basing this attack on the Jewish stereotypes in ‘Burbank with a Baedecker’ and ‘Gerontion’? Or just on the general tendency of the Criterion, and the known views of some of its contributors (like Ezra Pound)?

In The Rock (1934) Eliot would try to distance himself from the Anti-Semitism of Mosley’s Blackshirts. Wells’s attitudes to Judaism, on the other hand, are also open to question. He saw the Jewish religion as being as absurd as any other, and thought the best prospect for Jews was complete assimilation into the host culture, and the withering away of distinctive Jewish identiry, which he saw as reactionary. He was an opponent of Zionism. I wonder where he’d have stood in the current Labour party controversies. These issues are always complicated.

Does Wells’s journalism contain other attacks on Eliot? Maybe there is someone out there who knows.

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