Michael Foot once said that he had spent so long with his favourite books that the writers had become his friends. His real passion was for the work of William Hazlitt and when I met him, one lunchtime on Horseferry Road, he emphasised this feeling of friendship with the essayist who died in 1830. That Michael Foot was so generous with his time for a twerp who had bumbled up to him in the street to talk about books is a mark of the man. As he spoke (we didn’t stop walking) I realised that he meant not only the friendship that comes from familiarity but intellectual comfort as well. True friendship, you might say. Consider the latitude that we are prepared to offer our friends and we begin to recognise the authority of the successful essayist. It is a literary achievement not to be sniffed at.
My favourite essayists, at the moment, are Hazlitt and J B Priestley and, yes, when I settle down to read their books, I feel that I am drawing on familiar company. It’s easy to catch their voices. Hazlitt, because he was so argumentative. Priestley, because his cosiness at the microphone still lingers. But while I rarely come away without having gained something about their characters, I am more concerned about questioning my own attitudes to their chosen subjects of the day.
Raymond Chandler, another favourite, wrote some famous essays (especially about Hollywood and authorship) but, although these pieces are contentious, we get to know Chandler better through his letters. I think this distinction nudges us towards understanding the true strength of the essayist. The letter-writer writes about himself to others. The diarist writes, usually self-consciously, about himself for himself, while the autobiographer manages to do this without shame. The strength of the clever essayist is that we learn about him while he writes about other things. We get to know him, more thoroughly and more satisfyingly, through understanding his view of his world and, because we have recognised his reactions and followed his reasoning, we allow him licence in the way that we trust friends.
Not all essayists are clever, of course. Addison and the other Spectators have been favourites since my schooldays. I enjoy reading them (and more so as I get older) but Addison never lets us forget that he is there to teach us, and I’m rarely in a mood to be taught so openly. For me, that limits the effectiveness of the sermonising essayist. But take GK Chesterton. Never short of a sermon, he can charm us into his world while pretending, on more than one occasion, to write about nothing at all, and do any of us feel sore about that? D H Lawrence wrote essays that are a joy to read. Mornings in Mexico, Apropos Lady Chatterley, others. I come back to them again and again. I wake in the night and go down to my library to read them. But first, last and in the middle, they are about Lawrence. They are a drumbeat; I think I read them because I enjoy the music; I cannot think of one Lawrence essay that has made me think long and hard. (His novels, a different kettle of fish.) None of these quite exceptional writers have the discipline of truly successful essayists.
The joke in all this is that neither Priestley nor Hazlitt was a modest and retiring gentleman. I’m not sure I would have got on with either of them. They were pushy, brash and alarmingly self-opinionated. (It’s hardly surprising that Chandler and Priestley didn’t take to each other when they met.) But the pair I’ve chosen were successful essayists because, I think, they had three essential assets in their suitcases. Firstly, substantial bodies of work, volumes of essays which invite us to journey with them along the undulating, treacherous paths of their observations and objections. That depends upon a second attribute. An honest interest in the world about them. (Hazlitt said that his ambition was to write about everything he had noticed.) But the most important skill is that deceptive self discipline; it enables their personalities and their whole view of life to burn, slow but sure, through their writing rather than being switched on upfront and glaringly. That means, above everything, Hazlitt and Priestley were downright good writers.
This week’s trivia question: who painted the picture of the girl on my desk?