2 March 2008

Bertrand Russell on Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love, and the Correspondence between the Two Men

Bertrand Russell was very impressed with Lionel Britton's novel Hunger and Love, to such an extent that – very unusually – he wrote a five-page Introduction to it, full of praise. Of course, Britton took as much advantage of this Introduction as he could, as he had done with Bernard Shaw's (rather ambivalent) comment on his earlier apocalyptic science fiction play Brain.

In his Introduction, Russell says:

'Mr. Britton's "Hunger and Love" is a very remarkable piece of work. His hero, Arthur Phelps, who is first a boy and then a young man, possesses a first-rate mind, but nothing else. Every conceivable obstacle is put in the way of his acquiring knowledge; as a bookseller's assistant, he is tempted to read the books in his employer's stock, but when caught doing so, is dismissed with ignominy. He has that difficulty about acquiescing in preventable evil that characterises the best minds, and therefore does not achieve quick success, as a person of a slightly lower order of ability would do. The book relates not only his personal adventures, but the growth of his philosophy and his social outlook. It is filled with a splendid rage against the humbug, the cruelty, and the moral degradation of the possessing classes' (1).

The two final sentences of Russell's Introduction read:

'Mr. Britton has portrayed his world with passion, with vividness, with a wealth of illustrative detail, and with a considerable power of generalising thought. For these reasons, I am convinced that his book deserves to be widely read.'

Russell apparently only wrote an Introduction to one other novel (the title of which is at present unknown to me), but his very positive verdict on Hunger and Love is a very strong testimony to both Britton's ability as a writer and to his persuasive powers as an individual.

Britton and Russell corresponded intermittently from 1930 to 1970. The early letters concern securing a publisher for Britton's books, although the majority of the letters concern Britton's problems with the Society of Authors preventing him from simultaneously publishing Shaw's final play Why She Would Not and Britton's amplification of this (possibly unfinished) work.

A few of the Russell–Britton letters are held at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and a number of them are in the private possession of Harry Berberian.

I have only just discovered about Louise Morgan's interview with Russell, which was originally published in Everyman a few months before the publication of Britton's novel (2). In this article, Britton receives a very brief – although nonetheless significant – mention. McMaster University re-publishes the aticle online under its original, eye-catching title:
'Bertrand Russell Would Imprison All Writers of First Books'

In this article Russell playfully states, 'If a law were passed giving six months in jail to every writer of a first book, only the good ones would think it worth their while to do it.' But this wouldn't have deterred Britton, who, in a reply to Russell's comment in Everyman, equally playfully imagined being imprisoned for the publication of Hunger and Love: ‘I don’t think six months in gaol would stop me. Most of my friends say I shall get twenty years. The unkind ones say I shall deserve it’ (3). (Russell had been imprisoned for inciting pacifism, and Britton for conscientious objection, during World War I.)

The article is fascinating in its own right to anyone interested in the way Bertrand Russell wrote.

(1) Lionel Britton, Hunger and Love (London: Putnam, 1931), p. vii.

(2) Louise Morgan, 'Bertrand Russell Would Imprison All Writers of First Books', Everyman, 2 November 1930.

(3) Lionel Britton, letter, ‘Should Authors Be Paid?’, Everyman, 4 December 1930, [n. p.], [n. pg.], Lionel Britton Collection, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL.


Donald E. Stahl said...

A very interesting piece of news. I shall read _Hunger and Love_.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thanks for the interest, Donald.