Among the many books passed on to me by my old schoolteacher, friend and mentor was one called The State of Mind of Mrs Sherwood by Naomi Royde Smith (who is otherwise known as the author of the couplet, 'I know two things about the horse, And one of them is rather coarse'). Published in 1946, The State of Mind... is a study of this forgotten author. I read the book about 20 years ago, remember almost nothing of it except that it was rather well written and amusing, and recently decided to reread it (one of the joys of growing older is that the distinction between reading and rereading becomes ever more blurred). I'm glad I did, for it is indeed notably well written and increasingly amusing as it goes on. It traces the strange path through life of a woman who had the potential to be a good novelist in the manner of Fanny Burney or Jane Austen, but was led astray by the cacoethes scribendi - i.e. she simply couldn't stop writing, churning out novels, tales and improving tracts by the cartload - and, still more damagingly, she caught Ideas - Religious Ideas - and, being entirely lacking in intellectual discernment, critical or ratiocinative ability and self-doubt, Ideas were fatal to her talent. As NRS puts it, 'Once she begins to argue, her style degenerates, her plots thicken and her books become unreadable, except to those who enjoy the struggles of a victim in nets of its own weaving.' Well, greater writers than Mrs Sherwood have been undone by Ideas - think of Tolstoy... As Mrs S wrote on, unstoppably, 'her pen raced over her paper dipped in an increasingly bitter gall, and her lively mind, turning on itself, refurbished old stories with new morals and a lavish disregard of accuracy and logic.'
The comic highlight of The State of Mind... is NRS's long account of Mrs Sherwood's Sabbaths on the Continent, a work of semi-fiction, based on her travels abroad, in which the author's 'mania for disapproval' finds ample scope among the Papists and other heathens of the Continent. Inquiring after a suitably Protestant (by her own increasingly narrow definition) place of worship in Paris one Sunday, Mrs S and a her long-suffering children are directed, by 'a most courteous gentleman of the superior classes' to a particular door in a particular backstreet building, where they would 'find every accommodation they could wish'. Alas, it was a practical joke - they found themselves in the middle of a lively meeting of Communists... In Geneva, Mrs S naturally enough expected 'to be edified by some exhibition of pure doctrine from the pulpit in which Calvin in ages past had so successfully brought the artillery of truth to bear against the errors of Popery'. Imagine her outrage, then, when the sermon was 'not only delivered in a foreign language, but in a foreign manner - for the preacher used much action in a style which we should accont theatrical, and giving a strong nasal sound to many of their words.' That's foreigners for you - foreign. Naturally, 'not so much as a single reference from first to last was made by the preacher to any doctrinal truth' (i.e. any 'truth' regarded as such by Mrs S).
And so it goes on, as Mrs Sherwood and her pitiable brood trail around the benighted Continent in search of fresh cause for doctrinal offence. At one point, 'Mrs Sherwood might have been altogether deprived of an opportunity for disapproval for five or six consecutive days, had they not put up at an inn on the outskirts of Cannes...' - where, sure enough, Error soon crosses her path. As she grew older, Mrs Sherwood reached the point where she could no longer regard anyone but herself as free from Error. She was unable to worship in any establishment (to the no small relief of all vicars and ministers in her vicinity). In the end, the world of Mrs Sherwood melds into that of that great comic masterpiece of self-righteousness Augustus Carp Esq by Himself.
Naomi Royde Smith dedicates her book to her parents, 'who in the year 1884 when a bachelor uncle gave their children a copy of The Fairchild Family [Mrs Sherwood's best-known book for children] confiscated this book on the ground that it was unsuitable reading for the young'.