Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Edward Marsh — Diabolizer of W. Somerset Maugham

Edward Marsh at Gray's Inn, 1938 from Edward Marsh. Patron of the Arts.
Edward Marsh at Gray's Inn, 1938
from Edward Marsh. Patron of the Arts.

Sir Edward Marsh, Eddie to his friends, calls to mind, after reading several books and portraits of him, the image of a room dwarfed by books, piled high on chairs and sofa, various tables of different dimensions, and every invadable surface; pictures hung closely by each other as walls and several more frames nailed to the door. Such an image dwelt in the mind of visitors from Basil Dean (107) in 1912 to Christopher Hassall (Ambrosia xiv) in 1934, together with Marsh's signature tufted eyebrows, squeaky voice that went shrill in a heated verbal skirmish, selfless kindness to young artists, and undying enthusiasm for the arts.

It is a frightening task to talk about Eddie Marsh, student of Pure Scholarship, private secretary to Secretaries of State, including Winston Churchill for whom he worked for twenty-three years, founder of the Georgian Poets and editor of their five volumes of collection, literary executor of Rupert Brooke, "diabolizer" to famous writers including W. Somerset Maugham in his mature years, and translator of Horace and La Fontaine. Foremost of everything, Marsh was a perfectionist when it comes to the English language.

Now when I write every sentence, his letter to a young prose-writer comes to mind:
You will remember how I implored you, when next you wrote anything, to listen to yourself as you went along, and after each sentence to ask yourself questions: What exactly did I mean to convey? Have I conveyed it? Are there words or phrases that add nothing to either the sense or the beauty of the sentence? Have I repeated words unnecessarily? (Hassall, Edward Marsh 505)

This is a sound and useful scolding that I would like to remind myself whenever I tap away, too eagerly at times, on the keyboard.

I will focus on the literary Marsh (in relation to Maugham) and not the political Marsh, a subject that indeed I know too little to talk about. Harold Nicolson, a recipient of Marsh's generosity in his early literary endeavour on Tennyson (Marsh 339), was not disposed to think kindly of his benefiter after his death:
I spent yesterday morning going through the letters from Winston to Eddie Marsh which Christopher Hassall left with me. They are interesting in a way. But one sees that, underneath, Eddie was silly about politics. I mean, Winston never consulted him about serious things. Nonetheless they reveal that Winston really had a deep affection for the little squeaky. (Nicolson 265)

It is hard not to think of Maugham's penetration into human nature:
[Philip] did not realise how much less is the sense of obligation in those who receive favours than in those who grant them. (Of Human Bondage 105)
Marsh's "naïveté" shines through from here and there, which Maugham terms his overflowing "milk of human kindness" ("Eddie Marsh" 236), such as his short relationship with Marie Stopes, which I mentioned in the last post, and the shrugging off by Maurice Baring.

Marsh devoted himself to proofread Baring's Russian essays and two more of his works, which involved a huge amount of work and dedication, but when the books came out, Marsh was not acknowledged, nor was his name mentioned, which, lamentably, is far from uncommon to this day; be forewarned, guard your materials and talents zealously. It was then that Marsh realized that he "must look elsewhere for fame" (Marsh 338).

Maugham has seen through all this in his sharp observation of human behaviour. Marsh, on the other hand, was eager to give his fellows the benefit of the doubt.

It would seem that Marsh had a weak spot for his friend Maurice Baring, a tiresome person in Hassall's description (Edward Marsh 50–3), who jumps out of the pages resembling one of Philip's artistic acquaintances in Of Human Bondage. Marsh himself wrote upon first meeting Baring an unflattering impression:
He seemed an unremarkable youth, shy and shambling, with prominent blue eyes, and nothing to say for himself, and he sat on the edge of his chair, only uttering from time to time an abrupt high cackling laugh, between a neigh and a crow. (Marsh 65)

To Marsh, as Hassall analyses, Baring provided the frivolous and irresponsible sides to his personality, and the two continued their friendship and correspondence in years to come.

Thankfully, life goes on as always. Marsh retained his delightful nature and somehow his reputation was spread. Other writers sought his expertise, which is one of the things that cannot be lost even when its products are stolen.

Eddie Marsh and Diabolization


I got to know about Marsh through Maugham. While looking at the manuscript of The Summing Up, I came across the fact that the second proof was corrected by Edward Marsh, Maugham's proofreader since Don Fernando (1935), and that there were a few letters from Maugham to him in the British Library.

Maugham knew Marsh for some time before he dared ask him to consider proofreading his books, because Marsh had been associating with the "highbrows," to whom Maugham understood that he was seen as an outsider ("Eddie Marsh" 235). However, there is certainly nothing in Marsh's nature, when one comes to know more about him, that suggests such biased discriminations.

Maugham's impression that he was doing Marsh a favour to ask him to proofread Don Fernando ("Eddie Marsh" 235) is indeed accurate. Marsh noted in his diary that day: "There's glory for me!" (Hassall, Edward Marsh 640).

Marsh's delightful personality, full of humour and at times boyish naughtiness, shines through the letters to his good friend, Christopher Hassall, who terms this correspondence Marsh's "writing-table talk" (Ambrosia ix).

When Marsh met Hassall he was already sixty-one, yet his spirit seemed to have nothing to do with his physical age, undamped by wars or politics. He gives me the same impression as when I was reading Christabel Aberconway. Their inner voices are youthful and full of enthusiasm; there must be something in their characters that gives sanctuary to innocence.

Maugham recounts in his article "Proof-reading as an Avocation" how their literary connection started, and his praise for Marsh shows his gratitude, for Marsh did take his job very seriously and throughout the years Maugham got hundreds of pages of notes for fourteen books of his, from printer's errors to punctuation to grammar to style to facts (Hassall, Edward Marsh 639; Maugham, "Eddie Marsh" 236).

Indeed, the article was an attempt to introduce Marsh to the American public and boost sale of Marsh's autobiography, A Number of People (1939), across the Atlantic, which Marsh was very thankful and wrote to Hassall:
He [Maugham] asked after you [Hassall] and told me a very good piece of news: that he is writing something to appear when my book is published in America, "introducing" me to the Americans. This ought to be a great help. (Hassall, Ambrosia 69)

It appears, however, that Maugham was not too enthusiastic about the book itself, because of Marsh's indulgence in unworthy people. He also confessed that he was itching to have the chance to exchange their roles and find faults in his proofreader's book, but Marsh was unperturbed and "replied that he was perfectly right and he couldn't imagine what I [Maugham] saw amiss. I still think I was right, but I know that he couldn't possibly be wrong. So that was that" ("Eddie Marsh" 236).

Maugham's private letter to Marsh was more playful, imitating the latter's style:
I found it very interesting and most entertaining. You will say, if a book is interesting it must be entertaining and if it's entertaining it must be interesting. Not at all, Crime and Punishment is interesting without being entertaining and any one of the works of P. G. Wodehouse is entertaining without being interesting. And this brought me to the word intriguing which you have twice used in inverted commas. This is sheer pusillanimity. The time has surely come to admit that commonplace usage has given the word a serviceable meaning. Down with your god-mammon-serving commas! Suppose Mr. M[augham] had written A Number of People, this is what he might have expected to find:

p. 38, l. 16, he had come across who etc.: it is no good trying to pretend that "whom" is not understood between "Englander" and "he"; why then should you hesitate to write "and who"? The moral obliquity which you thus hesitate to face could be avoided by leaving out 'he had come across', which does not seem important to the story. (Hassall, Edward Marsh 615)

A digression: Maugham appeared to have strong feelings towards the establishment of "intriguing" to have a meaning of its own. Certainly he was in the for-party. He made a case for it in Don Fernando (1935):
The late, but excellent, Fowler tells us that there is no excuse for the use of the word intriguing. He asks plaintively why we should not say interesting or perplexing, but really they do not mean quite the same thing, and if ever the word is justified it is here. To me it suggests an ambiguity, a puzzle that invites you to solve it and a secret that demands all your subtlety to discover it. It is all very well to tell us that it is formed from the word intrigue; the adjective has by now acquired a meaning of its own. (189–90)

We should thank his insistence when we can now so comfortably and respectably use this blessed word without thinking twice.

Maugham never took Marsh's hard work for granted and fully appreciated the labour he had put into it. He offered him a business arrangement, but Marsh would not hear anything about it ("Eddie Marsh" 237).

Perhaps Marsh found rewards in a job well-done and genuine appreciations meant more to him. He kept a brown envelope, which he called the "Vanity Bag" containing letters from artists that he had helped, among which were some from Maugham:
I scampered hurriedly through your notes, and then I went straight down to the Bath Club to look you out in Who's Who. I heaved a great sigh of relief. Thank heaven you'll last my time, for what I should do without you I can't imagine. [1]

[...]

I think you have been harsher than I have ever known you before, but I have kissed the rod. [in relation to Catalina]

[...]

I sometimes read in the papers (A) that I write well and (B) that I am modest. They little know, the people who say this, that it is not I but you who write well; and as for modesty, those pages of corrections of yours are iron heels on great Nazi boots that grind my face into the dust; each time I say to myself–Now this time I'm sure he won't see much to find fault with, and then the proofs come back... all my conceit has got to be hurriedly packed away again. So it is not only the correctness of my language that I owe to you, but also the beauty of my character.
[...]

If now I am widely used in foreign countries, even as far way as Japan, in the teaching of English, I am sure that I owe this largely to you. (Hassall, Edward Marsh 641–2)

Maugham expressed his gratitude in other ways, such as sending Marsh food parcels from abroad during the war, filled with exotic selections which the latter guarded secretively so as not to have to give away to friends (Hassall, Edward Marsh 642). When Strictly Personal (1941) came out and a British edition called for, which was not intended originally, Maugham dedicated it to Marsh. Because of the war, it was impossible to send the proofs to Marsh to correct, and Maugham took the opportunity to vocalize his thanks publicly.

Marsh was very moved by Maugham's gesture and quoted to Hassall part of the preface:
One very exciting thing is that Willy Maugham has written a book called Strictly Personal, mainly about his experiences in getting away from France, with a long letter to me by way of dedication! It makes me blush all over. He says "I'm pretty certain that you will find much to comment on with that acidity, mitigated fortunately by humour, generosity and kindliness, and humanized by a pleasant weakness for the colon, with which you are wont to castigate looseness of expression and faults of grammar.... The future will discover that many of the best writers of English of our generation are indebted to you for such proficiency as they have acquired in the practice of writing our difficult language.... It will be a bad day for English letters when you, dear Eddie, grow too feeble to hold a pen, to turn the pages of the O.E.D. or to scarify your grateful victims with a sarcastic reference to Fowler's Dicty of English Usage. May I before then be long, long ago at rest on a dusty shelf.

Yours affectionately,
W.M."


I've written to say that he has given me a great leg-up with Posterity, which will be searching for the best books of our age for evidence of the Hidden Hand of Grammar. (Hassall, Ambrosia 189)

Maugham also talked about Marsh to Garson Kanin, who recorded it:
1954. London.
Maugham: "I owe a great deal to Eddie Marsh. An extraordinary creature. A scholar. He's gone over the...page proofs of many of my works and saved me from embarrassing error. He 'diabolizes' the work of his...friends. He may have invented that word. By it, he means to say that he finds fault and carps and is as...disagreeable as possible. He picks on one, and nags, and simply will not take...less than perfection. Of course, he is far from...perfect himself. His punctuation is pixieish, in my opinion. But he is a remarkable...man, and I am deeply in his...debt." (260)

It is in The Vagrant Mood (1952) that Maugham eventually "progressed" to the stage that he wished he would reach: "I am hoping to live long enough to write a book in which he [Marsh] will not even find a misplaced comma to cavil at" ("Eddie Marsh" 236). Marsh was not able to see the proofs, but he assured Maugham that "he could find in it practically nothing to cavil at" (Hassall, Edward Marsh 701).

In Hassall's biography of Marsh, Maugham generously provided the biographer with private letters, including notes for the correction of The Summing Up, which Hassall included in Appendix III. Maugham did not accept all the criticisms, but he considered them very seriously and apparently argued with his diabolizer:
Though at the end I accepted Eddie's emendations, even sometimes when I thought them slightly pedantic, it was not on occasion without argument. It was hard to get him to allow that it was well to follow common usage. Whenever I wrote lunch, he changed it to luncheon. I protested that the word was obsolete and there was no reason why a modern author should use it. It was natural to say, I urged, "Will you come and have lunch with me," and so why shouldn't you use it in a book. "But it isn't natural to me," Eddie cried in his shrill voice, "I won't come and have lunch with you. I will however, if I am disengaged be pleased to come and have luncheon with you." Though he made a long and stubborn fight against the word intrigue in the sense of puzzle and perplex, which Fowler declared has no merit except that of unfamiliarity to the English reader, he eventually capitulated. The sense that Fowler so strongly condemned has been generally accepted and indeed it does signify something that cannot be so well said by the use of any other word. ("Eddie Marsh" 238)

Hassall gives a vivid picture of such verbal skirmish and explains the term "diabolization":
In A Number of People there is a chapter entitled Diabolization. It begins by describing how when writing to me soon after our meeting in March 1934 Eddie had asked me to regard him as an Advocatus Diaboli, in the sense that he was a critic whose declared aim was to find fault and be as carping as possible for the eventual benefit of the work in hand. Since his avowed function was to be disagreeable, the crumbs of his approval were all the more precious and his rare praise a real encouragement. From his Latin style I coined the word "diabolization" to describe his particular brand of criticism. The noun and its verb "diabolize" have been used by Maugham and others, so it may almost be said to have entered the language. There were other terms which were coined for our private use. A session in which one challenged certain of his objections—the process of counter-diabolization—was called a "battlefield"; postponing the settlement of a point so as to visit the London Library was "defence-in-depth"; and the final session when minor differences were disposed of was a "skirmish". He liked being challenged, and would grow shrill and heated, his most powerful weapon in a skirmish being his sense of the ridiculous. The counter-diabolizer had only one possible defence as a last resort. When hard-pressed, you could shift your ground and say that you hadn't really meant to say quite what he was supposing you had intended to say, so he might as well stop beating his wings in vain. But this was unfair. He would break off at once, fascinated, and softly launch the dreaded shaft, "I see; then in that case what did you mean to say?" the answer to which required quick thinking. At the luckiest one would disengage from the skirmish bearing the scar—"But how could you have imagined that (meaning what you now say) you had already said it or anything like it?" When all was over, and he had been exasperated, and the counter-diabolizer had grown irritable, he would go to the side-table for the whisky, and turn, glass in hand, remarking in the tones of a giant refreshed, "What a simply splendid skirmish!" (Edward Marsh 640)

It is a pity that "diabolization" fails to enter the dictionary, but it is easy to understand. Although proofreaders of Marsh's calibre are sorely needed, the time, energy, knowledge, and dedication that is required no longer fits into our society. It is indeed a dated concept. Perfection is a dated concept. On the other hand, one should always look at the bright side of life, we gain in human tolerance.

I have deep admiration for Maugham's generation, having to go through the two World Wars, which must have done something to their characters, and which I do not even attempt to comprehend. Wars are habitual in human history, yet I think it must have been the closeness in time and the extensiveness of the involvement that give one a special feeling about these two. The bombings, the apprehension when it was news hour, the constant worries about friends at the front, and the ability to take all this with humour and delight in the simplest things in everyday life, were all expressed in Marsh's letters. Reading them, although the differences in degrees must be unmeasurable, I understand Maugham's "amusement" at the inhabitants of Ypres and other war stricken zones in 1914, who went after their ordinary business without paying any attention to the bombs that burst among them, a reflection that he crossed out in The Summing Up manuscript.

To end this post, I would like to add a note about Christopher Hassall; he died suddenly before seeing his collection of Marsh's correspondence in print. Ambrosia and Small Beer not only provides an excellent portrait of Marsh in private, but also the day to day in London during WWII; Marsh was a prolific letter-writer and recorded indefatigably how he and his acquaintances survived with composure. Besides, of course it is taken for granted that all is written in the perfectest English possible.

Edward Marsh died on 13 January 1953, after having his beloved home bombed and many of its contents looted, after having to worry over financial matters and sell his library, and after having helped many aspiring writers by giving them attention and an opportunity.

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How to cite this:



Hassall's biography of Marsh is published in two different titles in the British (as quoted here) and American (A Biography of Edward Marsh) editions, however, the texts are the same. The US edition can be read at the Hathitrust website and borrowed from the Open Library.


Ambrosia and Small Beer at AbeBooks
A Biography of Edward Marsh at AbeBooks
A Traveller in Romance at Abebooks
Harold Nicolson. Diaries and Letters at AbeBooks


Works Cited


Dean, Basil. Seven Ages. An Autobiography 1888–1927. London: Hutchinson, 1970. Print.

Hassall, Christopher. Ambrosia and Small Beer. The Record of a Correspondence between Edward Marsh and Christopher Hassall. London: Longmans, 1964. Print.

---. Edward Marsh. Patron of the Arts. A Biography. London: Longmans, 1959. Print.

Kanin, Garson. Remembering Mr. Maugham. New York: Atheneum, 1966. Print.

Marsh, Edward. A Number of People. A Book of Reminiscences. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1939. Print.

Maugham, W. Somerset. Don Fernando. London: Heinemann, 1935. Print.

---. "Eddie Marsh." A Traveller in Romance. Uncollected Writings 1901–1964. Ed. John Whitehead. London: Anthony Blond, 1984. 234–8. Print.

---. Of Human Bondage. New York: George H. Doran, 1915. Print.

Nicolson, Harold. The Later Years 1945–1962. Volume III of Diaries and Letters. Ed. Nigel Nicolson. New York: Atheneum, 1968. Print.

Christabel Lady Aberconway – W. Somerset Maugham's Correspondent


Note:

[1] Hassall suspects that this must have been written after one of the early books that Marsh proofread for Maugham (Edward Marsh 641).

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