1 JUNE 1934, Page 23

Past Celebrities

Victorian Wallflowers. By Malcolm Elwin. (Cape. 10s. 6o. ) FOR some time past Mr. Elwin has been establishing himself among those (and their number is not excessive) who have an exact knowledge and a particular appreciation of Victorian literature. The singularities of that period have not tempted him into the production of semi-fantasies ; the massed ranks of prose of all sorts, from Christopher North's heyday to Ouida's decline, has not intimidated, but only invited him. With Christopher North (John Wilson) his new volume begins, and with Ouida (Louise de In Ranee) it ends—a fine and curious journey through old triumphs and disappoint- ments of men, women and books.

Here, through the series of nine extensive literary memoirs, which have given Mr. Elwin plenty of opportunity for valuable digressions, one hears that old preacher, Mortality, still at his drowsy sermon :

" What cloth not fade ?

Achaoa, Rome and Egy pt moulder down."

Even John Forster has faded—perhaps Mr. Elwin's most unexpected and best justified Wallflower. How seldom, through all the talk about Dickens, does one hear the voice of gratitude to Forster for his Life of Dickens, a biography which, with all its silences, remains a masterpiece of orderly narration. Mr. Elwin speaks of Forster as though his merit might still be resuscitated—alludes to " the ironical anomaly of the most Johnsonian figure of the nineteenth century being remembered only as a Boswell." The critical essays of Forster, he notes, which in their day so affected the general battle of the books, have found no editor or selector. If this Wallflower blooms again, it will be largely due to Mr. Elwin's excellent preparation in the present work.

It is a little hard to present Forster in his frock-coat under the semblance of a Wallflower, but there are several Victorian ladies who come into this " panoramic survey of Victorian literature." The beginning of the period was signalized by a feminist poem called " The Feast of the Violets," so all proceeds naturally. But Mr. Elwin is no friend to the " modern mind " which " thinks of Victorian females as languishing ladies in bonnets and crinolines. . . ." He sees quite a few of them as combatant publicists, and among them great queens of fiction—as, Mrs. Henry Wood. The account he gives of that lady's publications and private life is unstrained and pleasing ; he does not disdain to explore her novels, and define their chief ingredients. He laughs with the sophisticated over many things there, but in the end he laughs at them ; for Mrs. Henry Wood " knew how to tell a good story."

Perhaps the number of readers with a wide command of Victorian fiction, qualified to discuss Henry Cockton or even W. H. Ainsworth, will always be small. We have our own novelists, and a new touch, rhythm and proportion have been developed by them. But the pen-sketches and historical considerations which Mr. Elwin supplies do not depend on our knowledge of the works of his subjects. They are part of an always remarkable, if grandiose spectacle. Incidentally, the text is accompanied with portraits of the subjects, except poor Ouida—but " I. won't say what I was going to say."