Book review for Europe and the Modern World. Spring 2017.
‘And so you read Pragmatism,’ he mused, ‘while the fate of the Empire stands in the balance.’
‘Yes,’ said I, ‘and the Paris Academy of Sciences were discussing the functions of θ and the Polymorphism of Antarctic diatoms last September when the Germans stood almost at the gates of Paris.’ (1948, p.199)
Armed with the flippancy and intellectual conceit which were second to none, W. N. P. Barbellion recorded a future ceaselessly spurned by sickness and circumstance. Born in 1889 in Barnstaple, he aspired to be a naturalist and began keeping a diary at the age of thirteen. His lust for life antagonised by his social class and ill health stationed him at a uniquely tragic standpoint from which he witnessed fin de siècle.
The Journal of a Disappointed Man vividly highlights the universality of human suffering during one of the greatest and most devastating turning points in history. By pitting his own ambition against an increasingly industrialised world, Barbellion’s diary poignantly portrays the economical, sociological and political climates of the years leading up to the First World War.
Born as Bruce Frederick Cummings to commonplace parents, Barbellion’s life was a ‘savage war’ against poverty, sickness and disappointment (Braybrooke, 1968, p.651). His pseudonym derived from the initials of three men — Wilhelm, Nero, Pilate — whom he considered the greatest human failures, and the name Barbellion from a sweetshop in Bond Street (Blythe, 1989, p.141). His talent for coalescing tragedy and levity brought about ‘one of the most moving records of the youthful aspects of our universal struggle’ (Wells, 1919, p.vii).
Despite his misfortunes, or perhaps in spite of it, Barbellion maintained an unyielding passion for life which he strenuously examined with scientific detachment and poetic intensity. To this effect, he edified, ‘[we should not] be too much of a naturalist and so overlook the beauty of things, or too much of a poet and so fail to understand them or even perceive those hidden beauties only revealed by close observation’ (Barbellion, 2008, p.19). Recorded from 1903 to 1917, and published several months after the Armistice, the Journal was fondly prefaced by H. G. Wells (1919, pp.viii-ix) as a ‘recorded unhappiness’ of a young prodigy with a dream realised ‘only to be renounced’.
The scientific advancement and economic prosperity of the belle époque refused to spare Barbellion from meagre education and ‘constitutional subnormality’ (Cummings, 1920, p.17). The collapsing structure of traditional hierarchies during his lifetime caused an ‘identity crisis’ for the working class who were compelled by the novelty of social fluidity to thrive (Hobsbawm, 1994, pp.169-172). Such mindset was exemplified by Barbellion (2008, p.85) who in 1906 wrote, ‘I have always had one ambition to be a great naturalist. That is, I suppose, a child’s fancy, and I can see my folly in hoping for such great things. Still, there is no reason why I should not become a learned naturalist if I study hard’.
However, Barbellion’s father, a journalist for a west-country newspaper, could only afford him a place at a local school and not until he was nine; hitherto one of his three brothers taught him to read and write (Blythe, 1989, p.141; Cummings, 1920). In sympathetic indignation, Wells (1919, p.ix) lamented, ‘Our economical country cannot afford to make biologists out of men who can earn a living as hack reporters. Poverty and science are sisters wherever the flag of Britain waves; for how could the rich live if we wasted money on that sort of thing?’.
While the Balfour Act for mass-education was enforced in 1902, the bill was subjected to continuous disputes by the Church of England and was applicable only for young children (Gildea, 1996, pp.344-349; Gillard, 2011). Furthermore, the Oxford-Cambridge campaign for social reform — a ‘high-minded’ attempt to ‘enrich a mean existence’ — was exclusive only to the East End (Moore, 1989, p.603). Consequently, the Journal may serve as historical significance as a qualitative exemplification of the late-Victorian and Edwardian social reform.
But witness 1910! ‘My career’ so far has been like the White Knight’s, who fell off behind when the horse started, in front when it stopped, and sideways occasionally to vary the monotony. (1948, pp.65-66)
Despite the lack of proper education, Barbellion was extremely well-read. At fourteen, he finished Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and later acquired Byron, Wilde, Verlaine, Bergson, Carlyle, De Quincy, and then some. At twenty, he was appointed assistant naturalist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory. His father collapsed soon after and filial responsibility forced Barbellion ‘back into the dirt and sweat of the newspaper world’ (2008, p.47). His own health, which was never robust, grew steadily worse. His immediate consolation was Schopenhauer whom he quoted, ‘What annoys me is that other folk—the brainless, heartless mob, as Schopenhauer remarks, still continue to regard me as one of themselves’ (2008, p.47).
Many of his entries were quilled in anguish, inked with flippancy and a hypersensitivity to his own ‘colossal conceit’ (p.191). Barbellion swung, like a possessed Foucault pendulum, from criticising Maeterlinck’s Wisdom and Destiny as ‘distilled Marcus Aurelius’ (p.55) to brooding over ‘the eternal flux’ of Time (p.54), all the while spitting at the Church in favour of his Simian ancestry (p.39). The importance of these histrionic pages seems self-evident as primary insight into the influence of the belle époque art, science and literature.
After migrating to London in 1912, Barbellion’s entries became politically and sociologically aware. Having secured a thankless position as an entomologist at the Natural History Museum, he moved to Kensington where he met ‘R—’, an Oxford-educated socialist who lectured at Toynbee Hall, aspired to be a watercolour artist, worshipped Shaw and Marx, and visited the East End to study ‘how the poor live’ (p.188).
They became inseparable friends and together made fun of reactionaries (pp.141-142), violently discussed socialism (p.197), attended concerts at Albert Hall (pp.145-147), protested the War through botany (p.197) and insulted each other in their spare time (pp.159-160). This later half of the Journal accounts an individual who was directly involved in the British social reform. R— took part in the movement led by Samuel Barnett to close the gap between the rich and the poor (Moore, 1989). Furthermore, the close friendship between R— and Barbellion demonstrates the breakdown of the social hierarchy, while R—’s association with Toynbee Hall, ‘a centre for the connection of separate classes’ (Moore, 1989, p.604), embodies the cultural and sociological ‘assumptions underpinning a powerful tradition of “disinterested service”’ fostered by the upperclass during fin de siècle (Feldman, 1989, p.235).
In 1915, Barbellion was declared unfit for active duty; the ‘colossal sauve qui peut’ which led to the deaths of many young men of his generation turned him from an ‘interesting invalid’ into a ‘lucky dog’ (Blythe, 1989, pp.141-145). Born the youngest of six children, Barbellion died in 1919 from disseminated sclerosis, an incurable disease not known to him until much later when his brother eventually afforded him a ‘first-class nerve specialist’ (Cummings, 1920). To the man of science and letters such as Barbellion, imperialism seemed only an adjective to the state of London (p.144), the great Egyptian dynasty was his path to flippancy (pp.206-207), while the Zeppelin raid from the night before became an explicit analogy for a paralysed limb (p.332).
The Journal of a Disappointed Man caused a sensation upon publication in 1919 and was republished as a pocket classic in 1984 (Heys, 2008). The diary has been revered for raising public awareness of multiple sclerosis which influenced the increased funding in research and paved the way for supporting charities and MS organisations (Heys, 2008). Having been reviewed repeatedly as a medical classic, the Journal has also garnered acclaim for its literary merit. Barbellion was often likened to diarists like Samuel Pepys and Denton Welch (Braybrooke, 1968), and in 1949, Edward Sackville-West, 5th Baron of Sackville, proclaimed the Journal a literary equal to the works of Franz Kafka and James Joyce. In Each Returning Day (Blythe 1989), Barbellion’s life sits between the biographical pages of Charles Darwin, Evelyn Waugh and Katherine Mansfield.
While the Journal is often out of print, its obscurity has not prevented Barbellion from influencing the minds and hearts of the fortunate few who have stumbled upon this hidden gem (Atkins, 2014). To further expatiate the significance of this ‘unpremeditated and exquisite beauty’ (Wells, 1919, p.viii) seems disrespectful to the diarist whose words deserve to be experienced not popularised. To this effect, H. G. Wells (1919, p.viii) wrote, ‘To all sensitive readers it will be plain enough, and those who cannot see it plain do not deserve to have it underlined for them, that, still unseeing, they may pretend to see.’ In addition to providing historical and cultural context, the diary offers an intense and often painful insight into the inner workings of the human mind. To this day, The Journal of a Disappointed Man continues to play a vital, necessary and rightful role in comforting the disturbed while histrionically disturbing the comfortable.
There are new reviews on Barbellion published every year. On 7th February this year, MS Trust published an article by journalist David Bradford on The diarist who made a literary classic from his life with MS.
Barbellion has also been eternalised on Twitter where he can be followed @WNP_Barbellion.
Atkins, W., 2014. My hero: W. N. P. Barbellion by William Atkins. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/01/my-hero-wnp-barbellion-william-atkins> [Accessed 3 Apr. 2017].
Barbellion, W. N. P., 1948. The journal of a disappointed man. London: Penguin Books in association with Chatto & Windus.
Barbellion, W. N. P., 2008. The journal of a disappointed man. London: Faber and Faber.
Blythe, R., 1989. Each returning day: the pleasure of diaries. 1st ed. New York: Viking.
Braybrooke, N., 1968. Savage wars. Queen’s Quarterly, 75(4), pp.651-661.
Cummings, A. J., 1920. The life and character of Barbellion. In: W. N. P. Barbellion, 1948. The journal of a disappointed man. London: Penguin Books in association with Chatto & Windus.
Feldman, D., 1989. Toynbee Hall and social reform 1880-1914: the search for community. Contemporary Sociology, 18(2), pp.235-236.
Gildea, R., 1996. Barricades and borders: Europe 1800–1914. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gillard, D., 2011. Education in England: a brief history. [online] Available at: <http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter04.html> [Accessed 20 Apr. 2017].
Heys, R., 2008. Medical classics: the journal of a disappointed man. British Medical Journal, 336(7654), p.1195.
Hobsbawm, E. J., 1994. The age of empire 1875-1914. London: Abacus.
Moore, M. J., 1989. Toynbee Hall and social reform. Victorian Studies, 32(4), pp.603-605.
Sackville-West, E., 1949. Inclinations. London: Secker and Warburg.
Wells, H. G., 1919. Introduction. In: W. N. P. Barbellion, 2008. The journal of a disappointed man. London: Faber and Faber.