Bailey, John Cann 1864-1931, critic and essayist, the third son of Elijah Crosier Bailey, solicitor, clerk of the peace for Norwich, by his wife, Jane Sarah, daughter of William Robert Cann, of Cavick House, Wymondham, Norfolk, was born at Norwich 10 January 1864. He was educated at Haileybury and at New College, Oxford, where he obtained second classes in classical moderations (1884) and literae humaniores (1886), and was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1892. He came to London with private means sufficient to enable to him stand for parliament (he unsuccessfully contested the Sowerby division of Yorkshire in the conservative interest in 1895 and 1900), but with little in the way of social acquaintance, other than that which he had formed at the university. Bailey's easy, agreeable, and intelligent conversation, however, gave him a ready entrance into the metropolitan society of the 'nineties; and his marriage in 1900 to Sarah Kathleen (died 1941), the eldest daughter by his second marriage of G. W. Lyttelton, fourth Lord Lyttelton [qv.], herself a spirited conversationalist, gave him not only a very happy home life but the association of several brothers-in-law of exceptional distinction. These included Arthur Temple Lyttelton, suffragan bishop of Southampton [qv.], and Alfred Lyttelton [qv.], the lawyer and statesman. He made many friends, was a constant and valued member of the Literary (dining) Society, of which he eventually became president, and, as might be expected of so ardent a Johnsonian, was immensely gratified by his election to the Club.
Bailey's intense pleasure in good talk may possibly have restricted his literary output, but his literary ambition was always circumscribed. He related that when people asked him to write a magnum opus he used to counter by inquiring: If I write it, will you buy it and will you read it? It is arguable that his best work was, in fact, slight in compass. He himself may have rated his little book on Milton (1915) highest, but there are many good judges who would hold that Dr. Johnson and his Circle (1913) gave his particular powers their fullest scope. Bailey's other publications include Studies in Some Famous Letters (1899), An Anthology of English Elegies (1899), The Poems of William Cowper (edited with an introduction and notes, 1905), The Claims of French Poetry (1907), Some Political Ideas and Persons (1921), The Continuity of Letters (1923), The Diary of Lady Frederick Cavendish (2 vols., 1927), and Shakespeare (English Heritage series, 1929). For the rest, he was a constant contributor to The Times Literary Supplement, for which he did much important though anonymous work; to the Quarterly Review, of which he was deputy-editor in 1907-1908 and again in 1909-1910; to the Edinburgh Review and the Fortnightly Review; and to the London Mercury. Tributes in distinguished quarters attested his critical powers. Among these an observation attributed to A. J. Balfour (first Earl of Balfour) [qv.] to the effect that Bailey, whilst tending to take traditional views in literature which were generally the true views, would invest them with freshness and interest, is perhaps worth preserving as an estimate of his place in literary criticism.
As chairman (1912-1915) and president (1925-1926) of the English Association, Bailey made a further contribution to the study of English letters, and as chairman (1923-1931) of the executive committee of the National Trust for places of historic interest or natural beauty and also of the Fulham branch of the Charity Organisation Society, he disclosed a practical interest in things of beauty and in matters of social welfare. Never a strong man physically, Bailey died in London 29 June 1931 in the plenitude of his intellectual powers. He lies buried in the churchyard of Wramplingham near Wymondham, as befits one who valued both his connexion with the county of Norfolk and his membership of the Church of England. His outlook was that of a broad churchman. He had three daughters, the youngest of whom predeceased him.
The Times, 30 June 1931
John Bailey, 1864-1931, Letters and Diaries, edited by his wife (containing a bibliography of Bailey's writings), 1935
Contributor: A. Cecil.