Victims of Taste

Marmite has become the popular term for something which is either loved or hated. Taste is subjective. It isn’t the marmite that matters, rather the person tasting it. Marmite is marmite, whether you like it or not, and the same applies to books.

I have always been drawn to writers who have gone out of fashion. Ronald Fraser, Mary Webb, Lord Dunsany, Constance Holme, Louis Golding. All of them highly regarded in their day, now largely forgotten. The literary world is swayed by fashion and writers are its victims.

Old Saint Paul’s, a novel by W.H.Ainsworth, is one of a small number on my bookshelves that were once on my parents’ bookshelves until, in the fullness of time, they became mine. The family bookcase was not large and what it held was what most chapel-going, working class, early school-leaving English adults either inherited or bought for themselves: the King James Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, the works of Shakespeare, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, a dictionary, a few nineteenth century English classics (Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontës), a few more by writers on whom the twentieth century turned its back. Old Saint Paul’s was one of these.

It languished unread until a few days ago, when I scanned my bookshelves in search of bedtime reading. His place in the alphabet brought the author quickly to my attention. His book’s unregarded place in my patrimony prompted a faint sense of guilt. I took it off the shelf, an old but well-preserved hard-back whose musty smell and aged appearance were evocative and enticing, a dusty old bottle of wine, lying in the cellar, forgotten, neglected, demanding to be opened.

OLD SAINT PAUL’S

A TALE OF THE PLAGUE AND THE FIRE
BY
WILLIAM HARRISON AINSWORTH

“A dreadful plague in London was
In the Year Sixty-Five,
Which swept a hundred thousand souls
Away, – yet I alive.
DEFOE, History of the Great Plague of London.

A week of bedtime reading has brought me nearly halfway through its 450 pages. After the first hundred or so, I began to grow accustomed to the writer’s voice and to appreciate what was distinctive and original in it. Published in 1841, the unadorned style and plain narrative form of Old Saint Paul’s set it apart from both Dickensian caricature and the realism of Elizabeth Gaskell and George Elliot. Coming ten years after The Hunchback of Notre Dame, its mixture of fact and fiction, melodrama and sentiment, puts it closer to Victor Hugo than to any English author who still has a place in the literary canon. Earlier writers perhaps, such as Daniel Defoe, to whom he refers in his introduction as “that great novelist and political writer”, were among Ainsworth’s stylistic models.

Not quite halfway through is enough to make me feel at home with the author, to appreciate his individual qualities and begin to see the world through his eyes. The lesson to be learned from marmite is not to confuse the taste of the reader with the quality of the writer.

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