The Golden Age of British Short Stories 1890-1914. Edited by Philip Hensher. Penguin Books.

This is the third anthology of short stories selected and edited for Penguin Books by Philip Hensher. Why does he describe it as a “golden age”? Because within this period three key elements came together to create a unique opportunity for writers and their readers: the 1871 Education Act had brought about mass literacy; print was cheap, assisting the rise of multiple magazines; and – crucially – visual entertainment in the form of the cinema had not captured the minds and hearts of the masses.

Thus, ordinary people – clerks, maidservants, shop workers and so on – had within their grasp access to the kind of literature that before had been the province of the middle and upper classes, the beneficiaries of a private and privileged education.

For writers too, the knowledge that they had a wide reading public was a spur to invention. Authors of classic status, such as Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce and EM Forster, mingled in the magazines on equal terms with hacks and scribblers, giving rise to a number of literary genres, such as the detective story, the ghost story, fantasy and psychological studies.

The Strand Magazine, which was first published in 1891 and in the pages of which Hensher has clearly spent many happy hours browsing and choosing, was the first to contain “nothing but single short stories”. Generously boosted by Arthur Conan Doyle’s highly popular Sherlock Holmes stories, it was regularly selling half a million copies per issue. Printed on good quality paper, with an illustration on every page, 6,000 words was the standard length. Short stories were not seen as the less important relation to the novel as they are often thought of today; authors at the height of their powers approached the form with the gusto and seriousness of purpose that they brought to their longer fiction.

In an article of November 2020 in the Catholic Herald in which he discusses this edition, Hensher writes that:

“I’ve often thought, growing older that one of the most important things we can do as human beings is to try to see the world from other points of view. The best way of doing this, surely, is through the work of literature.”

I would expand on this and say that to encounter works of the imagination widens and deepens our own centre of consciousness, our reflective capacity; to live vicariously in other lives and worlds expands our sympathies and enriches our experience. And the means to do this was open to any literate person of this era who had made reading a habit.

This anthology comprises a wide range of themes and authorial skill. Not all readers would experience the same refined pleasure in Henry James’s “The Figure in the Carpet” or understand fully the sexual sadism behind DH Lawrence’s “The Prussian Officer”; but they were all encountering the short story at the height of its game, one that demanded a certain intelligent reciprocity that was not demanded by the subsequent age of mass screen entertainment. Of course, these authors sought to entertain their readership through their craft, but at a level that did not compromise the quality of their writing.

Henry James’s short story (one of the longer ones in this collection, unsurprisingly) is a masterclass of wit poised on the edge of melodrama; Conan Doyle’s “The Brazilian Cat” a superb study in detective fiction within a small compass; and EF Benson’s “The Bus Conductor” a carefully constructed, terrifying ghost story.

Reading Israel Zangwill’s “The Tug of Love” with the humorous handling of its depiction of an East End Jewish sweatshop, familiar to readers by the influx of Russian Jews into London following the Tsarist pogroms of the late 19th century, brings me to an anecdote my sister told me. Her own mother-in-law had been a poor Jewish girl in the East End of London in the 1920s who had lacked the means to go to college. Admittedly this was a generation after these stories were published; nonetheless this woman was a later beneficiary of the 1871 Education Act which had stated in its Grade Lesson Books the high-minded ambition to introduce children to “Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Cervantes, Goldsmith, Gilbert White and Dickens.”

After her death my sister and her husband discovered his mother’s old school exercise books with her compositions and essays, reflecting an elementary education that had taken place in an overcrowded classroom with few resources other than a dedicated teacher and access to public library books. They were chastened to realise that her vocabulary, use of language, understanding and reading – even her handwriting – were of a much higher standard than that of their children, her grandchildren, who had been educated in state schools in the 1980s.

The difference in standards and expectations lies I think in this: the Edwardian educators, authors and publishers did not patronise their pupils or their readership. They did not assume that James Joyce, EM Forster, Arnold Bennett, HG Wells, Kipling and the other writers chosen for this volume would be above the heads of their readers. This was what is on offer, they implied; make of it what you will.

I cannot help thinking that the current generation, raised on television and in possession of smart phones, is culturally poorer than their working-class counterparts of the Edwardian era, who would have chuckled over GK Chesterton’s ingenious “The Awful Reason of the Vicar’s Visit”, been intrigued by Oscar Wilde’s paradoxical “The Sphynx without a Secret” and frightened by MR James’s authentic-seeming antiquarian handling of “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.”