Mischievous, not misleading

giuseppemariacrespi_bookshelves
Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s Bookshelves (Wikimedia)

Edwin Moore and Fiona Mackenzie Moore
Concise Dictionary of Art and Literature
Tiger Books International 1993

With entries ranging from Alvar Aalto to Francisco Zurbarán spread over 440-plus pages this is my kind of book, whether I’m dipping in, looking up a specific reference or finding that one entry leads to another. The clues are in the book’s title: there are short paragraphs on artists and writers, on artistic schools and techniques and on writing styles and genres. Opening a double page at random I find a discussion (page 340) on Realism in both literature and art which includes references to George Eliot, Courbet, Gorky and Magic Realism; on the opposite page I can read about Redskins and Palefaces — not an obscure title by Arthur Ransome but a phrase to distinguish those who write about the outdoors (such as Hemingway) and those who focus on ‘indoor’ matters (Henry James is cited) — and, lower down the page, I find a note about relief sculpture in all its forms.

I’m assuming that Fiona Mackenzie Moore contributed the art entries and Edwin Moore the literary items, as the former also wrote the 1992 Dictionary of Art, while the latter, according to the Guardian, is a former senior editor who spent 18 years working in non-fiction publishing and now writes reference books. The literature entries are often characterised by sly humour and dry observations, such as this entry for Fiona Macleod:

Macleod, Fiona [pseud. of William Sharp] (1855-1905) Scottish writer of Celtic fantasy tales set in the Scottish Western Isles […] The identity of “Fiona Macleod” was kept secret during Sharp’s lifetime (Sharp would wear a dress while writing in the Fiona persona).

The phrase ‘Fiona persona’ is typical of a writer who, if my brief online research is correct, is the author of an acerbic blog called Angry Sub-Editor — which includes the typical rant “Say it clearly or not at all” followed by the not entirely irrelevant concluding moral, Fear is the writer’s greatest enemy.

His dissecting Scottish wit allows him to indulge in a bit of metafiction in what should be a purely factual reference work. The entry for George MacDonald Fraser (who died in 2008) refers the reader to a certain Sir Henry Paget Flashman. This was the bullyboy character created by Thomas Hughes for Tom Brown’s Schooldays but here transmogrified into an real historical personage. ‘A huge manuscript containing his memoirs was discovered in 1965, from which several volumes, edited by the Scottish historian George MacDonald Fraser (1925–), have been presented to the public’ and ‘have been described as “deplorably readable”‘. Moore goes on to suggest that a certain passage in Flashman and the Redskins is ‘comparable to Dickens at his best’. Misleading or merely mischievous?

I certainly don’t want to give the impression that this dictionary is unreliable: certainly this is the only instance I’ve come across of a whopping great untruth, one that remarkably seems to have slipped past the publishers unnoticed, but it is entertaining and in the style of the other literature entries. Don’t either be put off nor even determined to sniff out other examples of literary lèse-majesté — the Moores have a deep understanding and love of their subjects, and that is what comes across most strongly in this Pocket Reference, what the publishers tell us contains all ‘the essential knowledge of art and literature for all ages’.

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