‘I have always had a taste for the second-rate in life,’ confessed Thackeray (as a by-the-by in his essay, A Brighton Night’s Entertainment). ‘Second-rate poetry, for instance, is an uncommon deal pleasanter to my fancy than your great thundering first-rate epic poems.’ After a further paragraph in praise of second-rate beauty, contrasting the ‘grand, severe, awful’ first-rate woman with the one with whom ‘you fall in love in a minute’, he admits that ‘second-rate novels I also assert to be superior to the best works of fiction’.
Who, when scanning the shortlisted titles for the latest literary prize, would not secretly agree with him? Why should you not read decently written, though not ‘superior’ novels which, as he says, ‘give you no trouble to read, excite no painful emotions’ and allow you to ‘go through them with a gently, languid, agreeable interest’? He could have been, and perhaps was, describing much of his own output, which was gentle and agreeable in its time, but seems overly dated for us now. Little of Thackeray is now read, except the stand-out Vanity Fair along with his children’s story, The Rose and the Ring and (although few of us have discovered them) his many journalistic pieces for Punch and other journals.
I read Thackeray in my early twenties (too much time on my idle hands), ignored him in mid-life, and have come back to him now in my more leisured days (time again on my hands). And, like Thackeray, I find I have a great taste for the agreeably second-rate – Thackeray’s essays, novels by Victorian crowd-pleasers, cunning mysteries and pulp fiction from the 20th century’s Golden Age, and a stack of almost forgotten biographies. Again, the second-rate gives rich pickings. Victorian crowds were pleased not only by Dickens, Thackeray et al but by Mrs Braddon (Lady Audley’s Secret etc.), Mrs Ewing (Jackanapes etc.), George MacDonald (Phantastesand the Curdie books), not to mention Bram Stoker (considered very second-rate in his day), Le Fanu (In A Glass Darkly etc.), George Gissing (not a crowd-pleaser perhaps and, even today, something of an outsider) and other fine pens. Biographies or, better, autobiographies of minor literary figures of the 19th century are ‘to my fancy,’ as Thackeray would say, often more rewarding than those of the great stars in the firmament – try Mrs Oliphant or the indefatigable Howitts; try Edward Fitzgerald’s letters or Benjamin Haydon’s astonishing diaries.
‘Lost’ writers are by no means confined to the Victorian age; the 20th century abounds in them. How salutary it is to skim through a list of authors praised and promoted at the time but forgotten now. Look at the 50-year-old listings for Penguin and other big publishers. If you try some of those faintly familiar ‘second-rate’ authors or titles, familiar but not read by you, you have the enormous advantage of being able to approach them without the burden of having to like (or at least to respect) them, without the burden, necessarily, of having to read every word and, free of those burdens, you can extract an exquisite second-rate pleasure – the kind of the pleasure we all get at times from an old, slightly ridiculous black and white movie, or from an old but interesting magazine or anthology. Such works may not tax you, but they certainly can please – or they may indeed tax you; every decade had its own crop of superb and by no means undemanding essayists, and they alone can set your mind racing, either with new thoughts (yes, people could think in the old days) or by the fact that they, then, were discussing and arguing over the same things we wrestle with today. You may also gain the pleasure (indeed, if you stick at this, you will) of finding new names, new titles and new thoughts(from old sources). While others prattle about the latest must-reads and repeat what reviewers say about the same small selection of those must-reads, you will have something fresh and original to contribute. But the idea isn’t to impress your listeners; it is to find your own pathways and to enrich your own mind.