In 1923, an anonymous individual created a 39-question survey of provocative questions ranging from most overrated living English writer to the greatest literary genius to ever live. Over the next several years, a journal detailing these questions circulated amongst some of 20th-century England’s most prominent literary figures, including Virginia Woolf, Margaret Kennedy, Rebecca West, Stella Benson, Hilaire Belloc and Rose Macaulay.
These writers' confessions, shielded from prying eyes with sellotape and wax, remained unseen for nearly a century. But the yellowing notebook in which the ten responses were recorded recently resurfaced among Kennedy’s papers, William Mackesy, Kennedy’s grandson and literary executor of her estate, writes for the Independent. The journal, fittingly titled Really and Truly: A Book of Literary Confessions, opens a portal to the Modernist circle, enabling readers to revel in the plaudits—and biting criticism—levied at the authors’ contemporaries and predecessors alike.
Aside from almost unanimously declaring Shakespeare the greatest literary genius of all time (Belloc opted for Homer, while Macaulay failed to respond), the 10 sets of answers offer little critical consensus. Frequently cited writers include James Boswell, a Scotsman whose biography of Samuel Johnson topped respondents’ choice of best biography; Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure author Thomas Hardy; Max Beerbohm, a humorist who was also singled out as best prose writer, essayist and critic; Plato; and Jane Austen.
Authors one might expect to find, such as Virgil and Renaissance poet John Donne, are noticeably absent, while some luminaries, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, only appear once across the assorted answers. Near contemporaries T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce are mentioned by several participants, but not in a wholly enviable context: As Mackesy observes, one respondent awarded Eliot the title of both worst living English poet and worst living critic of literature, while others labeled Lawrence and Joyce two of the most overrated living English writers.
Among the most entertaining entries are those that reference survey contributors themselves. Woolf and West both name Belloc the most overrated English writer living, but the tables turn when Kennedy assigns Woolf the very same title. (It’s worth noting that Kennedy did recognize the Mrs. Dalloway author’s skills as an essayist, awarding her the honor of greatest living literature critic.)
Two respondents—West and Belloc—used the questionnaire to promote themselves. Despite scribbling a note deeming the questions “silly … [because] it’s like being asked to select the best sunset,” West answers the question of writer whose work is most likely to be read in 25 years with a simple “me.” Belloc, in the same vein, cites himself as the most talented living humorist and essayist.
Describing his favorite responses, Mackesy calls attention to Woolf’s snappy answer to “a deceased man of letter whose character you most dislike.” As the proto-feminist writer sardonically remarks, “I like all dead men of letters.”
It remains unclear how the journal—which Vox’s Constance Grady dubbed a “literary burn book”—ended up in Kennedy’s possession, but as her grandson reports, the novelist and playwright left two spaces between the previous entry and hers, suggesting she meant to pass along the survey but never got around to doing so.
Mackesy identifies Macaulay, the British author best known for the absurdist novel The Towers of Trebizond, as the poll’s “most likely instigator” because she penned the notebook’s first entry, but as he points out, several mysteries still surround the forgotten questionnaire: Although the first five entries were sealed with the same signet ring, the crest imprinted on its surface failed to turn up any links to the 10 respondents. And while the remaining five, beginning with Belloc’s January 1925 replies, were closed with sellotape, the adhesive wasn’t actually invented until 1930—a full three years after Kennedy penned the last 1927 entry.
“Each contribution was sealed up, presumably to await a distant thriller-opening,” Mackesy observes in the Independent. This lapse in time, he suggests, would have enabled the creation of a “safe space for barbs and jokes at contemporaries’ expense.” Instead, for reasons that will likely remain unknown, the confessions were never aired. Luckily, their rediscovery has assured that the writers' colorful opinions live on, and reveals that when it comes to “friendly” competition amongst peers, some things never change.