When I was writing Critical Times, my history of the Times Literary Supplement, I discovered several brilliant reviewers for the paper who had long been forgotten. One was Madame Duclaux, an Englishwoman born Mary Robinson, who reviewed the first volume of Proust’s great novel, and saw at once what a masterpiece was under way.

Another was a man who resurfaced two months ago in the June/July issue of The London Magazine. This was George Calderon, who was the subject of Patrick Miles’s article ‘Chekhov at 150’. Miles was mainly concerned with Calderon as the translator of Chekhov’s The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard, which were published in his versions in 1912, and played a large part in introducing the British public to the Russian playwright. But there is more to be said of him as a writer.

Calderon was born in 1868, and lived a swashbuckling life in his early years. Pictures of him show a long, handsome face with a firm, but open air. He was descended from the seventeenth century Spanish playwright Calderon, and his father was a Spanish monk who in England became a professor of Spanish. As a young man, Calderon lived for some time both in St. Petersburg, where he discovered Russian literature, and in Tahiti. Later, married now, he set up home in the Vale of Health on Hampstead Heath, north London.

He was a man of very fresh and independent mind, of a conservative cast but always original. It will not commend him to many modern readers that in 1908 he waged an anti-suffragette campaign, but he did it with style and wit. His friend Percy Lubbock – another brilliant TLS contributor, and a great champion of Henry James – said of Calderon that he could ‘call up a rich electric storm in a clear sky’. Here are some examples of his spirited reviews in the TLS. In 1908 he made this remark about G. K. Chesterton, when reviewing his book Orthodoxy: ‘He is a great entertainer … but the fact is that he cannot believe or disbelieve anything, because his organ of belief has been displaced by his organ of preference … We think, therefore we are; but if Mr. Chesterton began to think he could cease to exist; so he writes instead, and we are all the richer for it’.

In the same year he reviewed Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday, remarking that ‘it is full of witty turns, but they are like the flashes of blue light in a tube railway, irrelevant expenditures of motor energy’.

A book in 1909 by Frank Podmore, who was bitterly opposed to the idea that we could receive messages from the dead, set him off on this flight of thought: Podmore was by now dead himself, and Calderon wondered, ‘Will he now be busy in the beyond, confounding his brother ghosts by denying the genuineness of their messages from the living? Or will he sit down with a chastened spirit to devise some method of proving his continued existence to those he has left behind?’

Calderon’s own play The Fountain was performed successfully in Glasgow in 1909. In a combative preface to its published version afterwards, he challenged the critics who had compared him to Bernard Shaw.

The Fountain is a lively comedy about some do-gooders in the East End of London who come to realise that they are the oppressors of the poor people they are trying to help.

Bernard Shaw, Calderon argues, takes the view that evil is mainly produced by evil men, whom he tries to expose. But The Fountain tries to show the precise opposite of this: ‘All the Evil that matters is produced not by evil intention, as is generally supposed, but by good intention working through the complicated character of our social system’.

In his preface to his translations of The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard, he claimed to find the same theme running through Chekhov’s plays.

In 1914, although by now forty-five, Calderon contrived to get himself into the Blues regiment, and was killed at Gallipoli in June 1915. His body was never found.

Percy Lubbock wrote an affectionate and admiring book about him, called simply George Calderon. It was prefaced by a moving poem by another friend, Laurence Binyon, best known for his war poem, ‘For the Fallen’ (‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old…’) Here is part of Binyon’s tribute to Calderon:

Him now as of old I see
Carrying his head with an air
Courteous and virile,
With the charm of a nature free,
Daring, resourceful, prompt,
In his frank and witty smile.

By Oxford towers and streams
Who shone among us all
In body and brain so bold?
Who shaped so firm his themes
Crystal-hard in debate?
And who hid a heart less cold?

Restless in curious thought
And subtle exploring mind,
He mixt his modern vein
With a strain remotely bright
From an older blood than ours,
Proud loyalties of Spain…

But that so fearless friend
With his victorious smile
My mourning mood has chid.
He went to the very end;
He counted not the cost:
What he believed, he did.

In his last years, Calderon was engaged in a new intellectual adventure, which seems to have been some kind of new anthropological history of mankind. We shall never know precisely what it was, because he only whispered darkly of it to his friends. Perhaps it would have been a great – though it might have been an eccentric – work.

Nevertheless, even that which remains is evidence of what an outstanding personality and writer he was. George Calderon deserves to be remembered.

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