The Filtering Hourglass - Celebrating The Cheltenham Booker Prize

“But who would have won the Man Booker Prize 100 years ago?” This was the question the late publisher and writer Ion Trewin asked himself in 1994 whilst deciding between James Kelman and Jill Paton Wash for that year’s Booker title.

Trewin’s curiosity drove him to found a new, annual ‘Cheltenham’ Booker Prize, designed to look back to the unchartered years before 1969, when the Man Booker began. And sure enough, that October he had his answer: the 1894 winner was ‘Esther Waters’ by George Moore.

Since then, the year chosen has varied according to the judges’ interests; in 2004 ‘A Handful of Dust’ was picked from 1934 and in 2010 ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ won the year 1960.

This year, 1945 is the choice, and in just three days the winner will be announced.

In the running is Nancy Mitford’s humorous ‘The Pursuit of Love’, Evelyn Waugh’s evocative ‘Brideshead Revisited’, George Orwell’s classic ‘Animal Farm’, Elizabeth Smart’s innovative prose poem ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’ and Elizabeth Taylor’s original ‘At Mrs Lippincote’s’. A great selection, most of which you will probably recognise, or even recall with affection. But would you have heartily agreed (or disagreed, as the case may be) with this shortlist if you were living in 1945?

We cannot pretend that the Cheltenham Booker Prize will perfectly reconstruct the lost Man Booker Prize of 1945. Looking through the lens of retrospect will inevitably shift our judgement. But is this such a bad thing? The Booker Prize is extremely difficult to judge given the number of different opinions about the books, let alone perspectives on what makes a book ‘good’. Maybe the Cheltenham Booker benefits from having Time as an extra judge on its panel.

I asked a literary forum what makes a classic. Answers varied from originality, to having a moral message, to making a political/social comment, to engaging with universal themes, to having a mythologising function to simply having a great plot. But they all agreed that it was the test of time which distinguished mediocre books from those which possessed this magical element.

Time also enables us to see beyond the hurdles of social convention which penned in the writers’ contemporaries. At this year’s Cheltenham Booker Prize event, Raffaella will be arguing in favour of her father’s first wife, Elizabeth Smart’s, prose poem ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’, but I strongly doubt this excellent novel would have been selected for consideration 71 years ago.

Depicting a love affair through the compelling eyes of the woman who tempts a man away from his married wife, the work was banned in Canada and perceived as too shocking in England (only a few, such as Cyril Connolly, were impressed). The novel’s first edition numbered a mere 2,000 copies, and many were even bought and burned by the author’s mother.

It was not until 1966, when Panther Books reissued it, that Elizabeth Smart’s work was properly acknowledged, being referred to by novelist Brigid Brophy as one of no “more than half a dozen masterpieces of poetic prose in the world.” We have the sandy filter of time to thank for this deserved correction, and its underestimated judgemental value will once again be drawn on at 12:30pm on Saturday 15th October, when the Cheltenham Booker Prize Winner 2016 is announced.

 

 



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