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April Books 6) William Heinemann: A Memoir

6) William Heinemann: A Memoir, by Frederic Whyte

I chased this down because the author was a distant relative of mine, and it is the most easily obtainable (and the cheapest) of his books, published in 1929, nine years after the death of its subject, the London publisher William Heinemann. I was reading it really for information about the author, and not surprisingly didn't get much; most of the book in fact consists of letters from Heinemann's friends, telling anecdotes about Heinemann and Whistler (usually) or some other author, some of whom I have heard of and most of whom I haven't. There is a chapter on his unhappy marriage; there is very little about his travels in India and Burma except that they happened. Whyte himself does have one really good line:
The Spoils of Poynton was the first of Henry James's novels, as Mr Percy Lubbock says, "which belong definitely to his 'later manner'". There must be a great many people who, like myself, delight in details concerning the personality and the literary methods of Henry James without ever having learnt to appreciate those books of his which in his own eyes and in the eyes of the elect constituted his chief claim to distinction as a writer. I have never read, and shall probably never read, The Spoils of Poynton (the heroine's name in itself, Fleda Vetch, is enough to deter me)...
Having admitted that I wasn't very interested in its subject, I actually found it a light and easy read (certainly after Alexander Hamilton). I am dismayed by my own ignorance of the literary culture of the time. Heinemann set up shop in the 1890s and immediately made his name with The Bondman by Hall Caine. I had heard of neither novel nor writer, though apparently Caine was the highest earning author in England. Mrs Flora Annie Steel comes across as a great character and was clearly a best-selling author to boot; similarly unknown to me. But Heinemann did manage to talent-spot the young H.G. Wells and published the Time Machine (1895), rather a risky punt for an unknown author with such an extraordinary subject, and followed up with The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr Moreau the next year, and The War of the Worlds two years after that. Another unlikely prospect who he propelled to success was Joseph Conrad. He also did a lot to popularise foreign writers, and especially foreign theatre, in Britain. George Bernard Shaw tells an anecdote of how Heinemann turned him down, but is sympathetic to the publisher's plight rather than bitter.

Early on in the book, one of Whyte's correspondents refers to Heinemann's "race", and Whyte protests in a footnote that the family had been Christians for two generations. Uh-oh, I thought, and braced myself for some 1920s anti-semitism. Rather to my surprise, although indeed there are many references to Heinemann's Jewish background, they are all unequivocally positive (intellectual brilliance, not really so bothered about making money, etc). I think that all stereotypes are regrettable, but not all are negative. In racial terms, the fact that Heinemann had very strong sympathies for Germany clearly did him more damage.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
del_c
Apr. 19th, 2006 07:50 pm (UTC)
Your not knowing the names of bestselling authors of years gone by is not necessarily down to ignorance, or at least not unusual ignorance. Look at Edward Bulwer-Lytton: he was the George Lucas, Michael Crichton, and Dan Brown of his time, but he's never read now. At least I can name him knowing you'll have heard of him—the really forgotten ones are the ones none of us can name at all.
nwhyte
Apr. 19th, 2006 08:05 pm (UTC)
Well, I have actually read The Last Days of Pompeii!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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