#22: THE SLENDEREST FOUNDATIONS OF FAME. Voltaire, Balzac, Trollope, Hugo, Joyce Carol Oates: truly prolific writers can be a little daunting. I’d like to cast a vote of affection for a couple of writers who’ve withstood the test of time on the strength of one or two titles.
You could stuff all of Izaak Walton between the covers of a mid-size Victorian novel. His more famous work, The Compleat Angler, was first published in 1653 and went on to become one of the most oft-reprinted books in the English language. People who have not read it know of it, vaguely, as a manual of fly-fishing, but if ever a book eluded and transcended genre, the Angler does. A pastoral in dialogue, with poems and songs liberally mixed in with the instruction, it is an evocation of the seventeenth century countryside, and a prose version of the “Character of a Happy Life” that was a sub-genre of Elizabethan poetry (and that came to late perfection in Henry Wotton’s poem of that title). It ends with a sermon in praise of the thankful spirit that is one of the most beautiful passages of seventeenth century prose. The short biographies of John Donne, Wotton, Hooker, George Herbert and Robert Sanderson—known since as Walton's Lives— are some of the landmark early works of British biography but are still read for the peaceable Anglican vision which they share with the Angler.
The Angler still exists in dozens of editions, old and new; the old Oxford World Classics hardcover is the perfect and portable incarnation, and the current Oxford paperback reprint has good notes. I believe the beautiful edition edited by Richard Le Galienne and finely illustrated by Edmund New has been reprinted. As far as I can tell no complete edition of Walton's Lives is currently available, which is shameful; why hasn’t Dover or Oxford done one? Someone in those houses should be hit six times with a switch and made to get to it. Still one of the best essays on Walton is the one by James Russell Lowell in his old collection Latest Literary Essays and Addresses— long out of print but something that still turns up secondhand and can easily be found online. Henry Wotton’s “Happy Life” poem is in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.
(P.S., February 2010: A recent check on Amazon shows that there are a couple of reprints of Walton’s Lives from small houses. They aren’t cheap, they aren’t particularly attractive, and the Kessinger edition has a whopper of a typo right on the cover, but, well, they’re there; and yes, if you have to, you can read it online. I’d say hunt for a cheap secondhand copy.)
Flora Thompson is probably the most underrated writer of English prose I know of. Her autobiographical trilogy, Lark Rise to Candleford, is another hard book to pin down to a genre. These lightly fictionalized recountings of her rural upbringing in Oxfordshire in the late 1800s are usually spoken of as the last literary records of the countryside of her day, and this was a large part of the book’s purpose; but Lark Rise is that story plus Thompson’s vivid sense of stillness, compassion and well-being. Margaret Lane once wrote of her, “Flora Thompson’s is the kind of writing which has no purple passages, none of those remarkably fine thngs that get into anthologies. Her work must be taken in great draughts, and then the effect is very nearly magical. It’s as though one had absorbed her experience oneself, and remembered what she remembered.” Beside Lark Rise, there’s another, separate work, Still Glides the Stream (Oxford), with, to give but one example, a beautiful chapter about a christening, by the end of which a whole crowd of people have come vividly alive; and The Peverel Papers: A Yearbook of the Countryside (David and Charles), a collection of natural history essays. In A Country Calendar and Other Writings (Oxford), Margaret Lane has gathered some of the essays, some poems and Thompson’s last work of autobiography, Heatherley, and written a fine introductory memoir. I believe all are in print.