‘By the time Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister’, Ferdinand Mount has reported, he ‘had long ago abandoned any thought of a political career and had happily settled for a life of writing anything that came to hand or mind’. English Voices is the book of that prospectus: only one among the score he has published, including novels and works of history and political advocacy too—for as it turned out, politics had not altogether done with him—but the one that answers most readily to this light sketch of a career in the world of letters. Ranging across thirty years from 1985, it gathers up some fifty-three substantial book reviews, half of them from the Spectator, where Mount has written since the 1970s, most of the rest coming from the Times Literary Supplement, which he edited for much of the 80s and early 90s, and the London Review of Books, which bulks larger in the more recent work. A compilation on this scale does not lend itself to conventional synopsis—the number of books discussed is greater still, totalling more than sixty. The title and subtitle of the volume are designed more to accommodate its diverse materials than to define them or to indicate binding themes. An introductory discussion of Englishness stresses the mongrel historical constitution of its people, taking a cue from Defoe's well-known satire—and motivating the indefinite plural ‘voices’. But the appeals to shared legacies of common law, and a language both rich and loose-limbed—with echoes of Tennyson and Orwell respectively—have no follow-through in the preambles that sub-divide the contents, or in the essays themselves. However, there are other ways of characterizing it.
Life-writing is by far predominant here: letters, biography and autobiography, memoirs and diaries, with a little history and some studies in architecture and landscape. The lives themselves are mainly political and literary, with extensions into ecclesiastic affairs, the architecture of villages and suburbs, and some tennis; 19th- or more often 20th-century in time, with some survivals into the 21st, they include parliamentarians from Robert Peel to Roy Jenkins and writers from Coleridge to Kingsley Amis. (Shakespeare and Pepys are the two exceptions in this scheme.) All are English by virtue of birth or residence or adoptive belonging, though Scottish connections are not rare (William Ewart Gladstone, for example, and the novelist Muriel Spark); the gathering also includes two ex-colonials, one from the old dominions (Germaine Greer), the other from the Caribbean (V. S. Naipaul), and there is one Jewish intellectual refugee, now naturalized, from Hitler’s Vienna (Elias Canetti). It is not difficult, then, to nod at the publisher’s suggestion that the book is ‘like a national portrait gallery of the English mind’. The temporal construction of the volume is more interesting than the simple chronological index ‘1985–2015’ suggests. Nearly two-thirds of the essays come from the later half of that time span, most of those from the last ten years; the 90s, by contrast, have only three to show. In this sense, English Voices is a more recent body of writing than its self-presentation allows. However, a comparative chronology of its subjects looks quite different. Of the eleven now collocated as ‘voices of our time’, fewer than half are young enough to be classified as contemporaries of Mount’s (b. 1939), and only one in the entire book is younger than him—though, nearing seventy, Peter Ackroyd is hardly a newcomer. The disjunction internal to ‘our time’ pitches the book as a whole towards retrospect.
Mount’s retrospects can be simple, whether he is discussing Gladstone, whom he regards as a living presence, or A. J. Balfour, whom he dismisses in a withering recollection of Brideshead Revisited: ‘In the end, I am afraid, the charm is all that remains.’ Sensible of decline all around, he is nevertheless resistant to the evasions of conventional nostalgia, as he shows in his appreciation of Ronald Blythe, the author of Akenfield, while not letting go of the values it promotes. But at times his approach to the past is less a backward look than a form of time travel. The discussion of Blythe closes in that mode, which he amplifies in concluding a visit to the ancient forest of Hatfield in Essex:
Wandering back to the car in the twilight through a grove of hornbeam pollards (to the twentieth-century forester as strange a sight as date palms), I caught sight of the ice-blue lights of Stansted airport only half a mile away and for the first time remembered exactly where I was. No municipal park of cherry and lime could confer such solitude.
Then there is this arresting moment, coming at the end of a passage in which Cardinal Basil Hume has been commended for having ended a 400-year cultural estrangement between Englishness and Roman Catholicism:
[Hume] was the witness . . . to a possibility of life that seemed no longer available, and his voice was like the whistle of a train that stopped running years ago but which you can sometimes hear at night on the far side of the valley.
This is not a retrospect or even time-travelling; it is a haunting. ‘Real ghosts’ are not obliging, Mount declares, confronting the English writer M. R. James with the example of the American namesake who wrote The Turn of the Screw: ‘They do not go away when they are told to.’ He is talking about disruptive revenants, but his implication is general. ‘For me, these bones live’, he writes, referring to the manifold material traces of human activity in old landscapes, in a preamble with the title ‘In Search of England’. The past is everywhere, even if often only in the form of its pastness, as in a haunting.