The finalists allocated to this year’s Cheltenham Booker (1915) were P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist, presented by Robert McCrum, Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, presented by Victoria Glendinning, Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, presented by Selina Hastings, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, presented by Andrew Lownie and The Good Soldier, presented by me.
I had the easy sell. Wodehouse’s Psmith is disappointingly unfunny and boring, a confection of earlier newspaper pieces lacking the brilliant style and metaphor of his later work. The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel, is uneven, with passages of promise and insight but overall a sense that she wasn’t sure how to end her voyage or what to do with the characters she had created – despite the early introduction and disappointing disappearance of Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway. Of Human Bondage seemed to me the only serious contender for the prize that ought to be Ford’s, a great fat book with big themes, an evolving consciousness and a gallery of convincing minor characters. But, as Robert McCrum put it during the event, there is a dullness, a deadness, about Maugham’s prose that denies his novels the greatness you feel they could achieve (with the arguable exception of Liza of Lambeth). Perhaps he says too much; he sees all but says it all, often in cliché, leaving his characters no room to grow in our heads.
The Buchan I knew of old, an archetypal thriller and a rollicking Edwardian read provided you’re prepared to leave behind questions of coincidence, plausibility, character and the female half of the population. Probably good for national moral in 1915 but not a prize-winner.
On stage Robert McCrum had the courage to vote against his own, to much laughter. Victoria Glendinning made a spirited case for all that was good in the Woolf, while Selina Hastings made a predictably strong case for the Maugham. Andrew Lownie showed a real flair for salesmanship in his advocacy of the Buchan, winning over a worryingly significant minority of the audience.
The fact that the 500-plus audience had votes was the most nerve-wracking part of the event. Although the case for The Good Soldier was not hard to make – there was no question but that it was the most original, compelling and artistically achieved – how many of the audience would know it and might they be put off by my three-minute description? Fortunately, they had the good taste to give Ford an emphatic majority and my heart went out to the lady who put up her hand and said she was about to read it for the fourth time.
Books apart, panel and audience appreciated James Walton’s adept chairmanship and John Coldstream’s illuminating canter through other events in 1915 – the war, of course, other publications such as The Rainbow, the first meeting of the Womens’ Institute, changes in the Suffragette movement and, most memorably, the Times account of the barrister sent by his wife to buy dining chairs at an auction, and who returned having bought Stonehenge. I could see Ford doing that with his prize money, if he’d had any.
An interested audience member adds:
Paul Skinner and I were rooting quietly for Ford’s novel – and not so quietly when it was described by the Chair as an intellectual exercise rather than something that came from the heart. Alan calls his task an ‘easy sell’ above, but there was some robust opposition from the audience in support of Maugham. One intervention came from his grandson. Alan had used his 3 minutes to great effect, however. And McCrum gave him generous support from the podium, calling The Good Soldier an ‘outright masterpiece’ once Wodehouse had been voted out. Three cheers for Ford, The Good Soldier, and Alan for ensuring the best novel won!