Sunday, April 14, 2024

Music and Metaphysics: 'The Trend' by William Arkwright

The protagonist in The Trend by William Arkwright (1914) is a young man of private means who is a composer. He has written a cantata on the life of Giordano Bruno, the Renaissance hermeticist. He cannot find the right singer for this: some are proficient enough, but lack soul and do not appreciate the work. Then one evening, walking home from his club, he hears a voice singing an old folk tune and hastens to find its source. It is a ragamuffin of 19 years old or so, from an obscure background. The youth agrees to be coached as a singer and the two go off together on a Derbyshire farm holiday.

The novel is in that rather overblown late-Victorian style where sentiment is never far away. The singer doesn’t quite say ‘Cor blimey guv you’re a gent and no mistake’, but that is the general effect of his everyday diction. The author cannot, in short, get away from the popular taste of his time. His interests and ideas, however, are much more unconventional. The figure of Bruno has gained in historical recognition ever since Frances Yates’ magisterial work Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), but at the time of Arkwright’s novel, some fifty years earlier, he would have been more remote. The author’s choice of him as a subject suggests a deep interest in the esoteric. This is also evident in his evocation of the uncanny power of the music.

Though there are differences in detail, it seems possible the author or his publisher may have had in view the great success of Shaw's Pygmalion (1913) the year before,  which has a similar gentleman-and-cockney pairing involved in mentor-and-learner roles. But, unlike the play, the novel is not at all blithe. After various vicissitudes, both in the relationship of the composer and his protégé, and in the quest to stage the cantata, there is a highly melodramatic, operatic and tragic ending.

And it would appear the main inspiration for the novel was more personal. There is a foreword to the novel, not part of the fiction: it seems to be the author in his proper person. In this he tells us that the story is true. But he clarifies this by explaining that the characters are true, whereas the setting has been changed. He also tells us he was in love with one of them, though he will not say which. The implication might be that the originals were either involved in a different sort of music, or perhaps a different art, such as painting, poetry, theatre.

William Arkwright (1857-1925) was the author of a book of essays, Knowledge and Life (1913); a prose fantasy, Utinam: A Glimmering of Goddesses (1917), notable for its illustrations by Glyn Philpot; and of His Own Soul (1920), aphorisms in verse and prose.  Rather oddly compared to these, he was also the author of a classic work on the Pointer breed of dogs. 

He was the heir of the fortune of Richard Arkwright, the inventor and cotton industrialist, as a cousin of the last of the direct line. The family owned a palatial Georgian residence, Sutton Scarsdale Hall, near Chesterfield, Derbyshire, which he sold in 1919, and for a long time it stood as an empty ruinous roofless shell, until purchased in 1946, for preservation as it stood, by Osbert Sitwell, who lived 8 miles away at Renishaw Hall. Sutton Scarsdale is now in public ownership.

The Trend (not a very good title) is a strange and stormy book with startling ideas that doesn’t quite outstrip its creaky vocabulary and clanking plot. But it has a certain volatile power and Dickensian vigour, and is of particular interest because of the Giordano Bruno theme and its esoteric dimensions.

(Mark Valentine)

Portrait: William Arkwright, c.1890. Picture: Sutton Scarsdale Hall.



  1. If he admitted he was in love with one of the characters then this was an openly gay novel in 1914? Wasn't that controversial?

    1. He says: "I assert that I knew all its personages exceeding well, and loved one of them; which one -- does not matter . . .' There's a wider cast of characters, so I think he was carefully ambiguous. The foreword is rather enigmatic!

  2. I wonder whether Arkwright's The Trend might in part have been inspired by George du Maurier's earlier work, Trilby (1894), a novel that achieved immense popularity at the time. In it, the title character is a tone-deaf "laundress" and model who poses for Parisian artists of the 1850s in "the altogether" (a term that apparently Du Maurier coined); when she falls under the spell of the hypnotic music teacher, Svengali, she becomes famous as the most magnificent singer in Europe. The novel also contains passages that evoke that "uncanny power" of music, some of them deliciously overwrought, e.g., "there was no end to her notes, each more beautiful than the other ... She could keep on one note and make it go through all the colours in the rainbow--according to the way that Svengali looked at her! It would make you laugh--it would make you cry ... with one wave of his hand over her--with one look of his eye--with a word--Svengali could ... make her do whatever he liked ...!" After Svengali dies, Trilby can no longer sing, and no longer even remembers having done so!

  3. Thank you, Donald, I hadn't thought of 'Trilby', but I do see what you mean: there are certainly some parallels.