Contemporary Reviews of Bohemia in London
- Daily Telegraph 25th September 1907 (Anonymous)
- Daily Graphic 27th September 1907 (Anonymous)
- Saturday Review 28th September 1907 (Anonymous)
- Dundee Advertiser30th September 1907 (Anonymous)
- Morning Post 3rd Ocrober 1907 (Edward Thomas)
- Weekly Sun 12th October 1907 (Lloyd Williams)
- Dial 16th December 1907 (Anonymous)
- The Onlooker 28th September 1912 (Arthur Ransome)
- Eye-Witness 31 October 1912 (A.P. Begg)
Daily Telegraph, 25 September 1907 (Anonymous)
An advertisement in the Daily Telegraph for Bohemia in London shows that this review appeared on the date of the book's publication.
The wiseacre has said in his heart that the Bohemians have long since migrated from London; and, indeed, to one who surveys the great City with a superficial eye there would seem to be little doubt about the matter. Mr. Arthur Ransome, however, thinks otherwise; indeed, he not only thinks but knows. In quiet corners and alleys of the London of today he has himself tracked out the bulwarks and "set up the houses" of that happy country, where most are poor, where, if a few old stars enter, it is because they have preserved more tenderly and carefully than others their youthful spirits and the delightful capacity to be idle. There is still, he has discovered, in this renovated and commercial London of ours, an enchanted colony, where the independence of Villon, the irresponsibility of Grub-Street, the poverty of the boulevards, and the romanticism of all the ages are still preserved inviolable; where, in a word, Bohemia yet boasts its gay republic. It has its differences, but it is the same thing at heart.
And now, today, in this London Bohemia of ours, whose existence is denied by the ignorant, all these different atmospheres are blended into as many colours as the iridescence of a street gutter. Our Villons do not perhaps kill people, but they are not without their tavern brawls. They still live and write poetry in the slums. One of the best books of verse published in recent years was dated from a dosshouse in the Marshalsea. Our Petrus Borels, our Gautiers, sighing still for more free, and spacious times, come fresh from Oxford and Cambridge, write funny sonnets lamenting the age of Casanova, and, in a pleasant harmless way, do their best to imitate him. Our Reynoldses are mad over football, and compose verse and prose upon the cricket field. Our Romantics strut the streets in crimson sashes, carry daggers for their own delight, and fence and box and compose extravagant happy tales. Grub Street has broken up into a thousand garrets, but the hacks are still the same. And, as for Murger's young men, as for Collin, as for Schaunard with his hundred ways of obtaining a five franc piece, why I knew one who lived for a year on three and sixpence of his own money and a handsome borrowing face.
This is the unsuspected community in our midst to which Mr. Ransome invites us, and he describes its unwritten laws and jolly customs in a book of quite uncommon charm and picturesqueness. To begin with, Mr. Ransome has resisted all temptations to decline upon a guide-book style, and the topographical manner of the cicerone. There is no officious pointing with the walking-stick in his light and breezy narrative; no impertinent intrusion of the tourist into a land he cannot understand. Instead of all this we get the sympathetic description of his own free country, written by a man who is conscious of being the citizen of no mean city, who had lived the life from dawn to dawn, and is proud of his independence. We trace him from his very first entrance into Bohemia on the back of a greengrocer's cart when all his furniture consisted of three-shillings' worth of common tradesmen's packing-cases. Out of them Mr. Ransome proceeded to furnish his riverside attic in Chelsea.
The boxes were soon arranged into a table and chairs. Two, placed one above the other on their sides, served for a cupboard. Three set end to end made an admirable bed. Indeed my railway rug gave it an air of comfort, even of opulence, spread carefully over the top. The cheese was good, and also the beer, but I had forgotten to buy candles, and it was growing dark before that first untidy supper was finished. So I placed a packing-case chair by the open window, and dipped through a volume of poetry, and anthology of English ballads, that had been marked at ninepence on an open bookstall in the Charing Cross Road.
But I did not read much. The sweet summer air, cool in the evening, seemed to blow a kiss of promise on my forehead. The light was dying. I listened for the hoot of steamer on the river, or the bells of London churches; I heard with elation the feet of passengers, whom I could see but dimly, beating on the pavement far below. A rough voice was scolding in the room under mine, and some one was singing a song. Now and again I looked at the poetry, though it was really too dark to see, and a thousand hopes and fears flitting across the carried me out of myself, but not so far that I did not know that this was my first night of freedom, that for the first time in my life I was alone in a room of my own, free to live for poetry, for philosophy, for all the things that seemed then to matter more than life itself. I thought of Crabbe coming to London with three pounds in his pockets, and a volume of poems; I thought of Chatterton, and laughed at myself, but was quite a little pleased at the thought. Brave dreams flooded my mind, and I sat content long after it was dusk and smoked and sent with infinite enjoyment puffs of pale smoke out into the night. I did not go to bed at all, but fell asleep leaning on the window-sill, to wake with a cold in my head.
Clearly Mr. Ransome was the true Bohemian temperament from the outset, and it led him by pleasant pastures. The coffee-stalls are the poor Bohemian's restaurants, and upon coffee-stalls Mr. Ransome is eloquent:
I have known many: there is one by Kensington Church, where I have often bought a cup of coffee in the morning hours, to drink on the paupers' bench along the railings; there is another by Notting Hill Gate, and another in Sloane Square, where we used to take our late suppers after plays at the Court Theatre; but there is none I have loved so well s this small untidy box on the Embankment. That was a joyous night when for the first time the keeper of the stall recognised my face and honoured me with talk as a regular customer. More famous men have seldom made me prouder. It meant something, this vanity of being able to add "Evening, Bill!" to my order for coffee and cake. Coffee and cake cost a penny each and are very good. The coffee is not too hot to drink, and the cake would satisfy an ogre. I used to spend a happy twenty minutes among the loafers by the stall.
When wealthier days came, there were the little Swiss eating-houses in Soho, where a capital dinner could be got for eighteenpence. Of the camaraderie of these restaurants Mr. Ransome has much to say, and we get a delightful picture of a bohemian wedding-party in one of them:
The bride was a pretty model, the man a tousled artist; probably, we agreed, a very inferior craftsman, but certainly an excellent fellow, since he insisted on our joining his company, which was made up of others like himself, with their attendant ladies. He and his bride were off to Dieppe for an inexpensive honeymoon, so that the feast could not be prolonged. At half-past eight the supper was done, and in a procession of hansom cabs we drove to Victoria, and cheered them off by the evening boat train, the two of them leaning out of the window, and tearfully shouting of their devotion to art, to each other, and to us, an excited heterogeneous crowd, who sang "Auld Lang Syne," "God Save the King," "The Marseillaise," and the Faust "Soldiers' Chorus," according to nationality, in an inextricable tangle of discord. That was a great night.
The book is full of little pictures of this kind. And they all tell of a thoroughly fresh, happy, and harmless life of artistic models. Mr. Ransome writes very charmingly and pays tribute to the many cases when men have been kept out of hospitals by the simple, kindly care of one of these companionable girls, who will cook the artist's dinner when he is too weak to do it himself, and in the evening bring her work to the studio, and talk "cheerful rubbish that has kept him from utter disheartenment." We should like to quote many other passages, such as the acute and humorous account of Fleet-Street Life, or the admirable pen-portraits of a half-successful novelist, and a wandering gipsy poet; but the worst of extracts is that they only break up the lights and shades, and disturb the effect of the whole picture. And this book must be taken as a whole, and read from cover to cover. For it is a finished, delicate, artistic piece of workmanship, a book of laughter and tears, of happiness and regret; a book, in fact, of the brave days when all the world is twenty-one, when all the year is spring; and when the heart rides lightly in the breast, because everything is possible to the golden future of one's own imagination.
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Daily Graphic, 27 September 1907 (Anonymous)
Mr. Ransome qualified himself by his book on "The Souls of the Streets" for just such a work as this one - "Bohemia in London" - a very pleasant volume on a subject which is always fascinating if approached in the right spirit. It is not like the "flippant and merry treatises" on Bohemia in London which talk of the Savage Club and the Vagabond dinners and such "consciously unconventional" things. These, as Mr. Ransome says, are not the real thing, for the members of those famous clubs are "respectable citizens , who dine comfortably, sleep in feather beds, and find hot water waiting for them in the mornings." Mr. Ransome, who in his Bohemian youth furnished his squalid room in Chelsea with packing-cases, a railway rug, and one chair, having graduated in the real school can speak of that strange life, which Murger said was the preface to the Academy, the Hospital, and the or the Morgue, with all the authority of experience. He "writes in the first person of his own uncomfortable, happy years, and hopes that thus some parts of his picture have blood and life." It is a hope that has been realised for he makes alive for us that London Bohemia of the very existence of which many doubt. But it does exist, as Mr. Ransome's amusing and interesting pages prove. It is not the Bohemia of Paris, of the Quartier Latin and Montmartre. London is more unwieldy than Paris, as he says, and the climate makes all the difference. London Bohemianism is an indoors Bohemianism, that of the studio and the restaurant; whereas the Parisian Bohemianism, having that kind of life also to the full has also the life of the open air in town and country. So that we must take leave to differ with our author when he thinks that our Bohemia is more real than that of Paris. The Quartier, it is true, has become a show place, and so to some extent has Montmartre, but because there are men who offer their services as guides to Bohemia in Paris, and Americans who live in the Bohemian districts, it does not follow that the real Bohemia has become a mere "organised merriment".
"In its habit as it lives"
But, such as it is, our London Bohemia, scattered about in many districts - Fleet Street, Bloomsbury, Chelsea, Soho, wherever, indeed, there are cheap lodgings, studios, and unfashionable restaurants - has at last been revealed to us in its habitat as it lives by Mr. Ransome, and Mr. Fred Taylor has ably collaborated with him by giving us delightful pictures of it; none, perhaps, more suggestive than the little drawing of a forgotten frying-pan on a petroleum stove, with a can of spilt milk on the floor beside it. Mr. Ransome tells us that he wanted to write a book that would "make real on paper the strange, tense, joyful and despairing, hopeful and sordid life that is lived in London by young artists and writers." He has succeeded. In adding to the immense library of books on London one which helps to the better understanding of its many-sided life, written with a knowledge of London and of human nature, Mr. Ransome has turned to the best account the experiences gained in the sturm-und-drang period of his life, when he "flung roses, riotously, with the throng."
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Saturday Review, 28 September 1907 (Anonymous)
It will not be the fault of the book-maker if the general reader remains in doubt as to what Bohemia is. A few weeks ago three new books formed the text of an article in the SATURDAY REVIEW - and now Mr. Arthur Ransome adds to the number a volume which only incidentally impinges on the special ground occupied by Mr. Aaron Watson, Mr. J.E. Preston-Murdock, and Mr. Austin Brereton. Mr. Ransome takes us from Old and New Chelsea to Old and New Fleet Street, from Old and New Hampstead to Old and New Soho, and deals with artists and writers and the rest whose purse is - or was - as limited as their eccentricities and their profound belief in their own importance were the reverse. That Bohemia has a head centre in any particular club Mr. Ransome strictly denies, and he extends its boundaries in many directions. Bohemia is in a way like the British Empire: it is made up of widely scattered communities every one of which is self-contained and independent as outside conditions permit. Mr. Ransome's view of the Bohemian life, its struggles and unconventionalities, with it four or five course eighteenpenny dinners at French and Italian restaurants, and its bread and cheese and ale at home, is on the whole optimistic. It is one of the conceits of the so-called Bohemian who has made a place for himself in the world, to look back with a half-suppressed sigh of regret to "the dear old days"; yet where is the ex-Bohemian in the enjoyment of comparative affluence who would elect to go back to the earlier conditions? Buncombe and Bohemia are not always as widely apart as the true worker in Bohemia would have the world believe, and Mr. Ransome recognises that success, whether along the lines of early ambition or in more conventional channels, kills pretence to the unconventional. Bohemia with its tavern sign - "a medley of paint brushes, pens, inkpots and palettes, with a tankard or two in the middle of them" - is a stage in the progression of certain professional men and at its best a very interesting stage, as Mr. Ransome shows. The book is entertainingly and thoughtfully written, and is quaintly illustrated by Mr. Fred Taylor.
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Dundee Advertiser, 30 September 1907 (Anonymous)
There has been so much clotted nonsense written about Bohemian London that one feels inclined to receive rather superciliously another book on the subject. But an examination of Arthur Ransome's "Bohemia in London" will show that it differs from the average books professing to deal with that theme. Some writers seem to imagine that in London all Bohemia is divided into three parts - Piccadilly Circus, Soho, and Leicester Square - and is only visible about midnight. Others reckon Fleet Street to be the capital of Bohemia, and refuse to consider either art or the drama as having a claim to be included. Mr. Ransome, on the other hand, as a well-read man, knows about the Bohemia of John Gay, Goldsmith, Johnson, Savage, Hazlitt and a host of similar heroes, and he is also acquainted with the vagabond lines of artists and actors of recent times, and paints the place and its denizens as he has seen them. For he, too, has been in Bohemia and suffered its alternations of plethora and privation. His purpose in writing this book was to "make more real on paper the strange, tense, joyful and despairing, hopeful and sordid life that is lived in London by young artists and writers," and that intention has been fully realised. The very lack of orderly method in this book makes it charmingly Bohemian because it is full of unexpected surprise - a rare jumble of past and present, of history and incident which provide the "confused feeling" that the Ettrick Shepherd found so palatable in the sheep's head. Chelsea, Soho, Fleet Street and Hampstead have their separate sections, and the author has pleasant stories, quaint descriptions, and droll incidents to relate regarding these different provinces of London Bohemia. The true function of this "land of passage" in artistic life is thus clearly explained:-
THE REAL BOHEMIA
Bohemia is only a stage in a man's life, except in the case of fools and a very few others. It is not a profession. A man does not set out saying, "I am going to be a Bohemian"; he trudges along, whispering to himself, "I am going to be a poet, or an artist, or some other kind of great man," and finds Bohemia, like a tavern by the wayside. He may stay there for years, and then suddenly take post-horses along the road; he may stay a little time, and then go back whence he came, to start in another direction as a Civil Servant, or a respectable man of business; only a very few settle down in the tavern, for ever postponing their departure, until at last they die, old men, still laughing, talking, flourishing glasses, and drinking to their future prosperity
This is altogether a charming book, designed to foster that kind of literary exercise called "browsing" - precisely such a volume as would have delighted Hazlitt, De Quincey, or the gentle Elia, because of the easy, natural, genial style. It is embellished with numerous effective illustrations by Fred Taylor, many of them being printed in black upon Dutch grey paper.
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Morning Post, 3rd October 1907 (Anonymous)
Mr. Ransome does not try to define Bohemia, Bohemians, or Bohemianism, which is a pity, because, though he would not have succeeded, his jovial digressiveness would have led him to some pleasant places on the way. He simply quotes the dictionary definitions -- "A certain small country," "the gypsy life," "any disreputable life," "the life of writers and painters" -- and leaves us to discover his own view. But it may be taken for granted that by Bohemia he means the scattered communities and bright particular stars which all together make a country where persons connected in some way with literature and art lead, more or less intentionally, unconventional lives, and express, by clothing, by manners, and even by ideas, a revolt, essentially a transient one, against what is accepted by those about them. In his preliminary survey Mr. Ransome seems to make Villon the first Bohemian, though Alcibiades or Catullus or the author of Medieval student-songs would have done as well. He does not say whether he wold count as a Bohemian every man of genius and half the men of character. Apparently not. Would he include the Oxford Welshmen, Irishmen, and Yorkshiremen who fought on Saint Scholastica's Day? And why not John Lyly in his youth and all those young humanists who went back to Nature at Shotover and elsewhere in the Sixteenth Century? History is not Mr. Ransome's business. He begins with Villon because he had "an uncomfortable life and untidy death." That word "untidy" by the way occurs so often as to be significant perhaps of the writer's tastes, both those which are real and those which are unconsciously assumed. It is his true mot propre, as "wingèd" was Shelley's, as "entirely" was Ruskin's, as "dainty" was Pater's. After Villon, "looking down the centuries," he thinks Grub Street the next important fact. Then he jumps to "the happy time in England" -- of Hazlitt and Reynolds; then to his own day. This does not matter. He has read the lives of Hazlitt and Savage and Gautier and Murgau's book, and he has himself been a journalist happy in the ups and downs of journalism, and it is his own point of view, his own autobiography, that really matters here. There are, it is true, some hearty pages about Steele and Smollett and Hazlitt and De Quincey and Leigh Hunt and Borrow and Rossetti, and some excellent quotations from Jonson, Herrick, Gray, and William Davies and other Bacchic poets; but it is with today and yesterday, with Celsea and Soho and Fleet-Street during and since the Consulate of Mr. Lane, that he deals with most knowledge and enjoyment.
Some have drifted with this Bohemia though mere poverty or through the strength of desires which it alone seemed able to satisfy at once, so that the best and most lovable of them have died there. Mr. Ransome was very young, mad "to be a Villon" (he wrote verses), hungry to have "a life of his own." He was a countryman born or by tradition, and as is natural to a countryman, found the life of the suburbs no life at all, and so had to go to the real London. He deliberately prowled round Chelsea, and found a room, and ordered a van to call at the house of his relatives:
The van drew up before the door. I announced its meaning, packed all my books into it, a railway rug, a bundle of clothes, and my one large chest, said goodbye to my relatives, then, after lighting my clay pipe and seating myself complacently on the tailboard, gave the order to start. I was as Columbus setting forth to a New World, a gypsy striking his tent for unknown woods; I felt as if I had ben a wanderer in a caravan from my childhood as I loosened my coat, opened one or two more buttons in the flannel shirt that I wore open aat the neck, and saw the red-brick houses slipping slowly behind me. The pride of it, to be sitting behind a van that I had hired myself to carry my own belongings to a place of my own choosing, to be absolutely a free man, whose most distant desires seemed instantly attainable: I have never known another afternoon like that.
And so next morning he awoke leaning on the window-sill, so absorbed had he been by "the sweet summer air" of Chelsea, in a room furnished with packing cases and books and a travelling rug. Thereafter, in a pageant of summer, he met artists, actors, models, reviewers, poets, novelists, editors in studios, garrets, bar-parlours, and restaurants. He saw some things undoubtedly of real romantic beauty as, for example, the little Gloucestershire girl, a model, who smoked his cigarettes and sang two genuine Gloucestershire folk-songs, of which the words -- alas! not the melodies -- are given here. Of a different order is the story about an editor who managed to keep himself and a paper devoted to mild reforms alive on subsidies from religious faddists, partly in this way:
From his office at the end of an alley he could see his visitors before they arrived, and when he saw a likely victim in some black-coated old gentleman he openeed a Bible and laid it upon his desk. Then he knelt down at his chair. When the old gentleman had climbed the stairs and inquired for him of the office-boy, he heard from the the inner room a solemn, earnest voice: "O Lord, soften thou the heart of some rich man, that of his plenty he may give us wherewithal to carry on the good work that this small paper does in in thy name ... and so on. He would lift a finger to the boy. "Hush!" he would say, "your master is a good man," and presenlty going in, when this prayer was ended, would write out a cheque at least as liberal as it was ill-deserved.
There are portraits of a painter, a novelist who drank sour milk, a poet who was a gypsy, and a long and enthusiastic chapter on the life of Mr. Ransome, disguised and undisguised.
It is not a particularly beautiful or difficult or unusual or wicked life, and we are inclined to ask what would "Scènes de la Vie de Bohème" have been like if Schaunard had written it instead of Murgau. It would not have been unlike "Bohemia in London." It is not always that the writer's genuine high spirits and delight reach the reader without any lowering of the temperature. He not only drinks his wine but dips his pen in it. Yet the end is calm enough. Bohemia, he says, "is only a stage in a man's life, except in the case of fools and a very few others," and nothing so much disgusts him as the men "who live out their live iin Bohemia (to paraphrase Santayana's definition of fanaticism), 'redoubling their extravagances when they have forgotten their aim.'" He has flung his roses riotously with the throng, he says contentedly, and his life will be the happier for it. Some of the dew of that joyous morning has been left to sweeten the book that closes it.
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Weekly Sun, 12th October 1907 (Lloyd Williams)
Possibly the longest review Ransome ever got for one of his books.
OUR BOOK OF THE WEEK
The Vagabond in the Wilderness.--The Ghosts of Chelsea, Soho and Fleet Street
THE LIGHT SIDE OF LIFE
Where is Bohemia? Is it in London or Paris, in Chelsea or the Quartier? Must we look for it in Rome, or is its capital Soho? If Bloomsbury lies within the limits of its kingdom and Fleet Street is its metropolis, is Brixton a geographical constituent of the realm of Bohemia, or Islington? Our author brushes all these questions aside easily, and hints that Bohemia is like the Kingdom of Heaven; it is hidden in a man's heart; it is a mode of life, the life of the poor artist, actor, and writer; the man who has shaken off the trammels of conventional life and sings a more or less vagabond song in poverty. For poverty is the hall-mark of Bohemia, and our writer will have nothing to do with the spurious Bohemia of the Savage Club. He hails Villon as the first lord of the land, with Balzac and Gautier, Johnson and Hazlitt, Turner and Whistler, as its successive kings. His book is concerned with the life which is led in Chelsea, Soho, and Fleet Street, the life of obscure surroundings and lofty ideals; the life of humble dinners and brave talk; of bare studios and high theory; the life of dingy manuscripts and unpublished poetry. Consequently, we must approach his book in a spirit of understanding. It is by no means to be measured by rule of thumb. To apply the ordinary rules of cold criticism would be as absurd as to quarrel with a singer because his coat is not in the latest fashion, or with a painter because he chooses to work in his shirt sleeves. It would be easy to find fault. One might say that our author flits from subject to subject with a butterfly wing. He gives us a scrap of autobiography and flies off to a discussion of Thomas Carlyle; he introduces unknown friends and dashes away from a delightful character study which lead nowhere to the ethics of studio models; he quotes an old-world country song which would make the most hardened woman of the world blush, and glides into the famous club scene from "The Newcomes." One might t say, too, that it is not a book for the general reader. It might be argued that good and respectable people will not appreciate this strange land or understand its inhabitants; that though to the genuine Bohemian, who has tramped home through the rain from a stage rehearsal at three o'clock in the morning and sought refreshment at a coffee stall, eaten wonderful four-course dinners at the modest price of one shilling, and learnt to scribble his articles in the parlour of a grimy public-house, it may come with all the force of personal knowledge, it will make no appeal to the "really nice people" who live in the suburbs. But this charge is untrue. It is a book for all lovers of books, pictures, and music; it tells of the making of the beautiful things that are better worth remembering than the price of shares; it takes the reader into the workshop where the furnace is the human brain and the tools are human fingers, only too often stained with ink or paint.
The author tells of his own arrival in Bohemia. He had lived for some time with relations a little way out of London, spending all his days in town, and often, after a talking-party in a Bloomsbury flat or a Fleet Street tavern, missing the last train back to solid respectability. But he grew tired of peeps into Bohemia. He yearned to live there and breathe its air. He hints, too, that his relatives were equally anxious to be rid of him. . So one morning he prowled round Chelsea and found an empty room with four windows all in good condition, and a water supply two floors below, at a rent of a few shillings a week. He paid for a week in advance, went home, and ordered a grocer's van to call after lunch. The van drew up before the door. He packed his books into it, a railway rug, a bundle of clothes, and his one large chair, said good-bye to his relations, and lighting his clay pipe seated himself complacently on the tail-board. Here we have the typical incursion into Bohemia -- the tail-board of a grocer's cart and a clay pipe, with some few books and no furniture. At this point our author steps aside to discuss the scene between Mrs. Frail and Mrs. Foresight in Congreve's "Love for Love." But the digression does not annoy; it is a part of the plan; we are in Bohemia and must be surprised at nothing. But his castle in Bohemia is reached eventually, and a surly landlord is alarmed at the absence of furniture. This is overcome in a simple fashion. From the nearest grocer's he buys three shillings' worth of indifferently clean packing-cases and pays sixpence extra to have them carried home. With these he builds tables and chairs. Two, placed one above the other on their sides, serve as a cupboard, and three set end to end make an admirable bed. After supper he sits by the window. "Brave dreams flooded my mind, and I sat content long after it was dusk, and smoked, and sent with infinite enjoyment puffs of pale smoke out into the night. I did not go to bed at all, but fell asleep leaning on the window sill, to wake with a cold in my head." Bohemia, indeed..
After this snatch of autobiography, our author falls into a chatty account of Old and New Chelsea, with special reference to the houses where Carlyle, Rosetti, Turner, and Whistler lived. Incidentally he quotes Carlyle's description of his own house, of which he wrote an account to his wife when he took it.
" . . . on the whole a most massive, roomy, sufficient old house, with places, for example, to hang, say, three dozen hats or cloaks on, and as many curious and queer old presses and shelved closets (all tight and well-painted in their way) as would satisfy the most covetous Goody; rent thirty-five pounds. . . . . We lie safe at a bend in the river, away from all the great roads, have air and quiet hardly inferior to Craigenputtock, an outlook from the back windows into more leafy regions, with here and there a red high-peaked old roof, and see nothing of London except by day the summits of St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and by night the gleam of the great Babylon, affronting the peaceful skies. The house itself is probably the best we have ever lived in -- a right old strong roomy brick house built nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, and likely to see three races of these modern fashionables come down."
Once more we return to autobiography, and our author describes an "evening" which would not be possible in any kingdom of the world save Bohemia. He calls upon a friend, an obscure Japanese artist, who introduces him to an equally obscure actor. This last is a delightful study of character, and deserves fame. He lies on a dilapidated sofa, so arranged that he can, without moving, see his face in a mirror on the other side of the room. He is very long, and in very long fingers he holds a cigarette. With the other hand he rumples the thick black hair over his forehead and then opens his eyes as wide as possible and admires himself in the looking-glass. A capital fellow is this mummer. He declines to believe that observation is necessary to the actor's art. "Pluck your own characters from your own heart and soul." he says with a magnificent gesture. Our author is taken to a house where the evening is spent Bohemian fashion with music and stories, and then quite suddenly the scene is changed and we are switched into an artist's studio. Here we come upon perhaps the gem of the book, a bit of imaginative descriptive writing that rings true right through. It is nothing more than a working day in the life of a struggling painter, but the writer brings painter and model into the very glare of the footlights in the living flesh.
A large bare room, with no furniture but a divan or a camp-bed, a couple of chairs, an easel, and a model-stand made of a big box that holds a few coats and hats and coloured silks that do duty in a dozen pictures; a big window slanting up across the roof, with blinds to temper its light; canvases and old paintings without frames leaning against the walls; the artist, his coat off ready for work, strolling up and down with a cigarette between his lips, looking critically and lovingly at the canvas on the easel, and now and again pulling out his watch: that is a fair picture of a studio at about half-past ten on a workaday morning.
There is a tap on the door.
"Come in!" and a girl slips into the room, apologises for the thousandth time in her life for being so late, and proceeds to change her clothes for the costume that will make her the subject he wants for the picture, and then, taking the chair on the top of the costume-box, assumes the pose in which she yesterday began to sit. While she has been getting ready, he has made his last preparations, and turned the key in the door, so that no chance outsider may stumble in and discompose his model.
He looks at his rough drawing, and then at the girl. "We'll get to work now -- Your arm was hanging a little farther back -- Yes -- And your head is not quite -- That's better -- So -- Are you easy? We had it natural yesterday -- "
"How is this?" She alters herself slightly, and the artist steps back to have another look in order to arrange the drapery.
"There's only one thing wrong now," he will say. "We must just get that dark shadow that was below your knee."
The girl twists her skirt over, so that it falls in a crease, and gives the streak of dark that he had missed.
"That's it. Well done, Serafina!" he exclaims, and is instantly at work. He has already arranged the blinds over the window so that the light is as it was when he began the painting.
As he paints he tries to keep up some kind of conversation with the girl, so that her mind may be alive, and not allow her to go rigid like a lay figure.
"You are giving me the whole day?" he will ask, although the matter has been settled already.
Gradually, as he grows absorbed in the painting, he has even less brain to spare; and the talk becomes more and more mechanical; but if Serafina is the right kind of model she will do her share of keeping herself amused.
"What have you got for lunch?" she asks.
"What way shall we cook them do you think?"
"You know how to scramble them. Four eggs are enough for that?"
"Yes I'll scramble them -- you have milk? -- and butter?"
"Got them first thing this morning. By the way, I met Martin at breakfast. You've posed for him, haven't you?"
And so the talk goes on, like the talk of puppets, she just passing the time, trying to keep interested and real without moving out of her pose; he slashing in the rough work, bringing head, neck, shoulders, the turn of the waist, the fold of the skirt, into their places on the canvas.
He has something to say about artists' models in general that the unthinking public, who are always quick to condemn what they do not understand, might take to heart. In discussing the new picture on the easel, the talk is not only between the artists; the model will bear her share, and often her suggestion is the most valuable. She is not hampered by too much knowledge, but she has probably spent all her life in studios; she has watched and listened to the artists; she has seen so many pictures grow day by day that she has a good working knowledge of what makes a painting good or bad. She is not the immoral woman that the suburbs suppose her to be. She lives as interestingly, as usefully, and as honestly as many of the people who condemn her. "Many an artist owes his life," he says, "to the Serafina, the Rosie, or the Brenda, who, coming one morning to ask for a sitting, has found him ill and alone, with nobody to nurse him but an exasperated caretaker. Many a man has been kept out of hospital, that dread of Bohemia, by the simple, kind-hearted model who has given up part of her working day to cooking his food for him, when he was too weak to do it himself, and then, tired after the long sittings, has brought her work with her, and sat down and sewed in his studio through the evening, and talked cheerful rubbish to him that has kept him from utter disheartenment." Then, speaking of the artist's evening, he gives the history of the founding of the Chelsea Arts Club.
It had been proposed that, as Chelsea had so long been associated with art, an exhibition should be held to illustrate the work of the principal painters who lived here. Meetings were held in the Six Bells, and a committee was appointed to report on the possibilities of the scheme. All the artists concerned met in one of the Manresa Road studios, with Mr. Stirling Lee, the sculptor, in the chair, to hear the result. Whistler and half a dozen other famous artists were there. The report was duly read, when someone got up and said that surely there was something that Chelsea needed more than an exhibition, and that was a club. "Club, club, club!" shouted everybody, and the exhibition was completely forgotten at once, and has never been held to this day. A Teutonic gentleman proposed that they should rent a room for the club in the Pier Hotel, which he pronounced, after the manner of Hans Breitmann, "Bier." Whistler rose in his most dignifies, most supercilious manner: "Gentlemen, let us not start our club in any beer hotel -- let us start our club clean." The result was the Chelsea Arts Club, in a house of its own, the meeting place of all the Chelsea artists, and the centre of half the fun, the frivolity, the gossip of Chelsea studio life.
After this, our author leaves Chelsea without so much as a nod or "Good-day," so to speak, hurries us to Soho, rattles us through the bookshops of the Charing Cross Road, and then leads the way to Fleet Street. This is the hub of Bohemia, so full of Bohemian life that one hardly knows where to begin. Naturally one must begin such a chapter with a story of Dr. Johnson, and Mr. Ransome reminds us of how he and the faithful Boswell once walked in Greenwich Park. "Is not this fine?" says the Doctor. Boswell answers, "Yes, sir; but not equal to Fleet Street"; and the Doctor clinches the argument with "You are right, sir, you are right." After re-peopling the street with quaint figures of the past -- Goldsmith, Dr. Kenrick, Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Coleridge, De Quincey, and a score of others -- the writer deals with Fleet Street of today in happy vein.
As you watch the people on the pavements you will gradually learn to distinguish by their manner of walking the men who pass you by. There are the young fellows who walk as hard as if the world depended on the rapid accomplishment of their business; there are the men who do not matter, who seek to hide their unimportance from themselves. The real editor of a successful paper walks with less show of haste, an easier tread, a less undignified scramble. He know the time he may allow, and is never in a hurry. It is his subordinates, the fledglings of the Press, and the editors of small unsuccessful rags who are always, as we north countrymen say, in a screw. Poor fellows! Fleet Street life is so heartless, so continuous; they must do something, or it would not know that they are there.
Then there are the writers and illustrators, men of a less regular stamp, men whom it is difficult to imagine sitting at an office desk, men who walk at their own pace, , and look into the shop windows, men who make of their walk a lazy kind of essay, with all manner of digressions. These are the unattached, the free-lances, who know that the papers for whom they write cannot do without them (it is extraordinary, though, how soon the feat is accomplished if they happen to die), and in that proud knowledge saunter down to shake the editors by the hand, and ask what is to be the game this week, or to suggest some topic of their own. There will be Chesterton, Ursa Major Redivivus, rolling with an armful of papers from side to side of the pavement, cannoning from astounded little man into astounded little man, and chuckling all the time at one or other of the hall-dozen articles that he is making inside that monstrous head. There will be Bart Kennedy, a massive, large-built fellow, walking the pavement with the air prescribed by the best of drill sergeants, "s if one side of the street belonged to him, and he expected the other shortly." There will be the critic from the country, striding down Bouverie Street to see what impertinent poets have dared to send their books to his paper for review. There is a little dark-faced writer of short stories, an opulent manufacturer of serial tales, a sad--looking maker of humorous sketches, and a dexterous twister of political jokes into the elaborate French metres that make a plain statement look funny. There will be twenty more.
He has many good stories of the struggles of small magazines. His first editor was one who could never bring himself to dismiss a contributor. When he engaged new ones, instead of dismissing the old he used to swell the paper to make room for them, without increasing the circulation. It grew from eight to twelve pages, from twelve to sixteen, from sixteen, with a triumphant announcement on the solitary poster that was pasted by the editor himself, when nobody was looking, on a hoarding outside the office, to a magnificent twenty. There it rested; not because the editor had grown flint of heart, but because he had grown light of purse and had been compelled to cede the publication to another. He speaks of another whose paper was devoted to mild reform -- vegetarianism, no cruelty to dogs, anti-vaccination, and the like. He managed to keep his paper alive on subsidies from religious faddists. From his office at the end of the alley he could see his visitors before they arrived, and when he saw a likely victim in some black-coated old gentleman, he opened a Bible and laid it on his desk. The he knelt down at his chair. When the old gentleman had climbed the stairs, and had inquired for him of the office boy, he heard from the inner room a solemn, earnest voice, "O Lord, soften Thou the heart of some rich man, that of his plenty he may give us the wherewithal to carry on the good work that this small paper does in Thy name." The visitor would be properly impressed and edified. He would lift a finger to the office boy. "Hush," he would say, "your master is a good man," and wrote out a cheque to carry on "the good work." Yet another paper was conducted in a speculative mood. Every week the cheques for correct amounts were made out for the contributors. But there was never enough money in hand to meet them all, and the contributors raced from the office to the bank in the sure and certain knowledge that the laggards would get nothing. There was an added interest in the fact that the proprietor published his paper in Covent Garden and banked in Fulham.
From Fleet Street our author journeys to Hampstead, and concludes a delightfully rambling, gossipy book with a series of Bohemian character sketches and a Bohemian wedding. The illustrations by Mr. Fred Taylor are singularly happy, and there is not a dull page in the book, but it is one to be read in an easy chair and with a pipe in one's mouth; a book for idle hours; above all, a book for booklovers.
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The Dial, 16 December 1907 (Anonymous)
In an introductory chapter to his "Bohemia in London," Mr. Arthur Ransome explains that he does not intend to write about the talk of the Savage Club, the Vagabond dinners, or any of the other "consciously unconvntional things that like to consider themselves Bohemian." The real "Bohemi in London," he declares, is hard to localize:visitors will not find there, as they do in Paris, men waiting about the principal streets offering themselves as Guides to the London "Quartier." As a result, very few people in London are Bohemians for the fun of the thing, and the Parisian "tinsel and sham" is happily absent from its unconventionalities. It is impossible, of course, to separate the present-day Bohemia from its glorious traditions, so Mr. Ransomr includes some history in his account. Mr. Fred Taylor's illustrations, in poster style and printed on brown sheets, are exactly in harmony with the note struck by the text.
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The Onlooker, 28th September 1912 (Arthur Ransome)
This unusual, and rather touching, example of an author reviewing his own book, is taken from AR's column 'A Literary Causerie' which appeared in The Onlooker from July to October 1912.
AMONG other books published this week, I notice with pleasure one that I wrote myself. "Bohemia in London" (By Arthur Ransome, Swift, 2s net) is a new edition of a book by a man whom, when I wrote it, I thought I knew quite well. I now perceive that he was the merest acquaintance. He was rather a charming person, far too young to be allowed to write books at all. It is precisely the youth of his book that makes me look through its pages with pleasure. He had not found out any of his friends. He believed that the world always smiled because he had never seen it weep. He did not think that other people's lives could be quite so delightful as his own, but he thought they must all be very happy. He had starved a little, lived most uncomfortably, slept on packing-cases, and had romantic friendships with girls who cooked potatoes for him, rolling their blue sleeves to their elbows, when they were not drawing very bad illustrations (which he thought good) to fairy stories that were more often told than written. Some of the joyousness and carelessness and hopefulness of this life, of those years between eighteen and twenty-two, wrote itself down between the lines of this book. I doubt if he quite knew how, or if it got there, into a book that was partly autobiography, partly chapters on Soho and Fleet Street, which were a bother to write, but which he thought would please people older than himself. He could not write such a book again, because he no longer exists, though the limbo into which he has gone has certainly its compensations, and, among others, this, that in looking through again, after years, this book of his boyhood, he can recognise how extremely happy he was, and be glad to share that happiness in retrospect. I seem to have reviewed my own book. Well, why not? I only hope I have given it a good review.
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Eye-Witness, 31 October 1912 (A.P. Begg)
This review appeared on the occasion of the re-issue of Bohemia in London by Stephen Swift in 1912. Ransome was himself a frequent contributor to the Eye-Witness, and to its successor publication, the New Witness
PAINTS, PENS AND POTTLE-POTS
It may be permitted me, before I say anything about this book, to make a few general observations about my own disabilities. I may say with perfect truthfulness that the word Bohemia almost makes me sick and that to me London appears to be now, and to have been for two hundred and fifty years, the foulest of the many foul spots that are sprinkled over the uninhabitable globe. I have no illusions about Soho, and have never been able to understand why there should be anything especially glamorous about its small restaurants, merely because they are situated in streets where numbers of dirty foreigners live and because they are owned by persons who say "Bon soir, monsieur," when you have paid your bill. Chelsea (though as regards trees it is undoubtedly an oasis) seems to me much like any other part of London, and my breast has never throbbed to think that I was treading the streets formerly infested by Whistler, Sir Thomas More, Sir Hans Sloane, Leigh Hunt, Augustus John, Oscar Wilde, and the other local heroes. To Fleet Street I am attracted neither by its history nor by its appearance nor by its inhabitants nor by its products. I find it unromantically sad, sordidly active, depressingly ugly, and traditionally dull. I take, again, little interest in the haunts, drinks, and conversation of men of the authors of the past, especially in those of men like Hazlitt, Goldsmith and Steele. Lastly, I have no special interest in the habits of painters or writers as a class, having found that such people differ not a hair in character, humour, fineness of feeling, and sociability from other sorts of men such as chemists, postmen, and rural district councillors.
These things being as these things are, it says a great deal for Mr. Arthur Ransome's powers that I should have been impelled to read his book right though at a sitting. Mr. Ransome is not particularly enamoured of his own title and at the start he partially disarms criticism by stating that "Bohemia is a uncomfortable, abominable word, with an air of tinsel and sham and of suburban daughters who criticise musical comedies seriously and remind you twice in an afternoon that they are unconventional." He is, again, completely conscious that what youth wrote in this book maturity would not have written in quite the same way, and that there is a good deal of pose about the unconventionality of the people he writes about and of his own younger self. Reality is not inconsistent with pretence, and a man without a penny in the world can pose as being poor. But though it is years since this book was written its author is still obviously pleased with it, and he is perfectly justified. Its humour, its unaffected high spirits, the charm of its style, its general truth to life, and the vivacity of its narrative are such as to make it almost impossible (in the classic phrase) to lay it down once one has picked it up. At the very start one is held by the description of a long trudge at night from Fleet Street to a distant suburb:
Then on, along the Embankment, past the grey mass of the Tate Gallery, past the bridges, looking out over the broad river, now silver-specked in the moonlight, now dark, with bright shafts of light across the water and sparks of red and green from the lanterns on the boats. When a tug, with a train of barges, swept from under a bridge and brought me the invariable, unaccountable shiver with the cold noise of the waters parted by her bows, I would lean on the parapet and watch, and catch a sight of a dark figure upon her, and wonder what it would be like to spend all my days eternally passing up and down the river, seeing ships and men and knowing no hours but the tides, until her light would vanish round a bend and leave the river as before, moving on past the still lamps on either side.
And so we slide imperceptibly into the medley: to coffee-stalls, and stories of young men who have come to town with empty pockets and proud souls; to gossip about old Chelsea; to the life of painters and their models and writers for the press; to Fleet Street and the coffee-houses; to the book-stalls, and the places where men eat and drink and argue about things that age knows insoluble. The profusion of amusing anecdote, of pointed quotation, of historical and topographical learning, and of curious observation is inexhaustible. Wherever the reader's experience has touched Mr. Ransome's he cannot escape enormous enjoyment at the subtlety and piquancy of the tale. Take, for instance, that most amusing chapter on "Some Newspapers and Magazines," with its ludicrous yet inspiriting stories of obscure prints which struggle to keep alive on insufficient means, and of young geniuses simmering with ideals and scrambling desperately for infrequent cheques; of the dayswhen work was scappy
And rare in our pockets the mark of the mint,
When we were angry and poor and happy,
And proud of seeing our names in print.
Or take, again, the perfect sketch of the middle-aged novelist in dingy lodgings, or that admirable description of a Chelsea evening. The error of regarding small things too seriously is almost always avoided; harmless shams and vanities never escape notice, yet neither are the virtues and the stout-heartedness that often lie at the back of them ignored. The multitudinous literary allusions and scraps of odd information are never dragged in, and running throughout there is a marked original creative vein that prevents the book ever assuming an air of compilation. The book, in fact (as Mr.Shorter would say), is a book to put on one's shelves between A and B; and its charm is enhanced by Mr. Fred Taylor's illustrations, which suit it admirably.
I am sorry, in fact, that I began with so jaundiced a parenthesis. The reason why one does not usually like books of this kind is that they hardly ever are books of this kind. Most of them are written by donkeys or maggots; this one is written by a sane man.
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I am grateful to Wayne R. Hammond for help in identifying these reviews