20 JUNE 1931, Page 28

Current Literature

THE titular superlative in The Five Hundred Best English Letters, selected and edited, with an Introduction, by the First Earl of Birkenhead (Cassell, 8s. 6d.), sounds arrogant, but is in fact safe. Letter-writers of genius are rare ; many must have gone unrecognized, their letters, by the accidents of carelessness or discretion, forwarded poste restante to oblivion. So that we easily accept as comprehensive an anthology which includes with the immortal adepts like Cowper and Dorothy Osborne those single, exceptional letters which rose to great occasions, like Raleigh's from the Tower • we demand only that the rest shall illustrate their periods amusingly. The late Lord Birkenhead discharged his task of selection well, aiming, as he says in his introduction, at a representative rather than a purely literary quality. The Great and Good, having had their say, make way for the gossip and the under- graduate. This is no lions' mail. We start with a king and end with a subaltern. The one thousand years in between are illuminated from every conceivable angle by letters as diverse in spirit as Marjorie Fleming's first (" I now sit down on my botom ") and Sir Thomas More's last (" And thus fare ye heartily well, for lack of paper.") If the captions .introducing each writer savoured less strongly of Fleet Street there would be no criticism possible of an excellent anthology.

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