Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The Rival Biographers of Heylin.

Peter Heylin was one of the popular writers of his times, like Fuller and Howell, who, devoting their amusing pens to subjects which deeply interested their own busy age, will not be slighted by the curious.1 We have nearly outlived their divinity, but not their politics. Metaphysical absurdities are luxuriant weeds which must be cut down by the scythe of Time; but the great passions branching from the tree of life are still “growing with our growth.”

There are two biographies of our Heylin, which led to a literary quarrel of an extraordinary nature; and, in the progress of its secret history, all the feelings of rival authorship were called out.

Heylin died in 1662. Dr. Barnard, his son-in-law, and a scholar, communicated a sketch of the author’s life to be prefixed to a posthumous folio, of which Heylin’s son was the editor. This Life was given by the son, but anonymously, which may not have gratified the author, the son-in-law.2

Twenty years had elapsed when, in 1682, appeared “The Life of Dr. Peter Heylin, by George Vernon.” The writer, alluding to the prior Life prefixed to the posthumous folio, asserts that, in borrowing something from Barnard, Barnard had also “Excerpted passages out of my papers, the very words as well as matter, when he had them in his custody, as any reader may discern who will be at the pains of comparing the Life now published with what is extant before the Keimalea Ecclesiastica;” the quaint, pedantic title, after the fashion of the day, of the posthumous folio.

This strong accusation seemed countenanced by a dedication to the son and the nephew of Heylin. Roused now into action, the indignant Barnard soon produced a more complete Life, to which he prefixed “A necessary Vindication.” This is an unsparing castigation of Vernon, the literary pet whom the Heylins had fondled in preference to their learned relative.3 The long-smothered family grudge, the suppressed mortifications of literary pride, after the subterraneous grumblings of twenty years, now burst out, and the volcanic particles flew about in caustic pleasantries and sharp invectives; all the lava of an author’s vengeance, mortified by the choice of an inferior rival.

It appears that Vernon had been selected by the son of Heylin, in preference to his brother-in-law, Dr. Barnard, from some family disagreement. Barnard tells us, in describing Vernon, that “No man, except himself, who was totally ignorant of the doctor, and all the circumstances of his life, would have engaged in such a work, which was never primarily laid out for him, but by reason of some unhappy differences, as usually fall out in families; and he, who loves to put his oar in troubled waters, instead of closing them up, hath made them wider.”

Barnard tells his story plainly. Heylin the son, intending to have a more elaborate Life of his father prefixed to his works, Dr. Barnard, from the high reverence in which he held the memory of his father-in-law, offered to contribute it. Many conferences were held, and the son entrusted him with several papers. But suddenly his caprice, more than his judgment, fancied that George Vernon was worth John Barnard. The doctor affects to describe his rejection with the most stoical indifference. He tells us —“I was satisfied, and did patiently expect the coming forth of the work, not only term after term, but year after year — a very considerable time for such a tract. But at last, instead of the Life, came a letter to me from a bookseller in London, who lived at the sign of the Black Boy, in Fleet-street.”4

Now, it seems that he who lived at the Black Boy had combined with another who lived at the Fleur de Luce, and that the Fleur de Luce had assured the Black Boy that Dr. Barnard was concerned in writing the Life of Heylin — this was a strong recommendation. But lo! it appeared that “one Mr. Vernon, of Gloucester,” was to be the man! a gentle, thin-skinned authorling, who bleated like a lamb, and was so fearful to trip out of its shelter, that it allows the Black Boy and the Fleur de Luce to communicate its papers to any one they choose, and erase or add at their pleasure.5

It occurred to the Black Boy, on this proposed arithmetical criticism, that the work required addition, subtraction, and division; that the fittest critic, on whose name, indeed, he had originally engaged in the work, was our Dr. Barnard; and he sent the package to the doctor, who resided near Lincoln.

The doctor, it appears, had no appetite for a dish dressed by another, while he himself was in the very act of the cookery; and it was suffered to lie cold for three weeks at the carrier’s.

But entreated and overcome, the good doctor at length sent to the carrier’s for the life of his father-in-law. “I found it, according to the bookseller’s description, most lame and imperfect; ill begun, worse carried on, and abruptly concluded.” The learned doctor exercised that plenitude of power with which the Black Boy had invested him — he very obligingly showed the author in what a confused state his materials lay together, and how to put them in order —

Nec facundia deseret hunc, nec lucidus ordo.

If his rejections were copious, to show his good-will as well as his severity, his additions were generous, though he used the precaution of carefully distinguishing by “distinct paragraphs” his own insertions amidst Vernon’s mass, with a gentle hint that “He knew more of Heylin than any man now living, and ought therefore to have been the biographer.” He returned the MS. to the gentleman with great civility, but none he received back! When Vernon pretended to ask for improvements, he did not imagine that the work was to be improved by being nearly destroyed; and when he asked for correction, he probably expected all might end in a compliment.

The narrative may now proceed in Dr. Barnard’s details of his doleful mortifications, in being “altered and mangled” by Mr. Vernon.

“Instead of thanks from him (Vernon), and the return of common civility, he disfigured my papers, that no sooner came into his hands, but he fell upon them as a lion rampant, or the cat upon the poor cock in the fable, saying, Tu hodie mihi discerperis — so my papers came home miserably clawed, blotted, and blurred; whole sentences dismembered, and pages scratched out; several leaves omitted which ought to be printed — shamefully he used my copy; so that before it was carried to the press, he swooped away the second part of the Life wholly from it — in the room of which he shuffled in a preposterous conclusion at the last page, which he printed in a different character, yet could not keep himself honest, as the poet saith,

Dicitque tua pagina, fur es.

Martial.

For he took out of my copy Dr. Heylin’s dream, his sickness, his last words before his death, and left out the burning of his surplice. He so mangled and metamorphosed the whole Life I composed, that I may say as Sosia did, Egomet mihi non credo, ille alter Sosia me malis mulcavit modisPlaut.”

Dr. Barnard would have “patiently endured these wrongs;” but the accusation Vernon ventured on, that Barnard was the plagiary, required the doctor “to return the poisoned chalice to his own lips,” that “himself was the plagiary both of words and matter.” The fact is, that this reciprocal accusation was owing to Barnard having had a prior perusal of Heylin’s papers, which afterwards came into the hands of Vernon: they both drew their water from the same source. These papers Heylin himself had left for “a rule to guide the writer of his life.”

Barnard keenly retorts on Vernon for his surreptitious use of whole pages from Heylin’s works, which he has appropriated to himself without any marks of quotation. “I am no such excerptor (as he calls me); he is of the humour of the man who took all the ships in the Attic haven for his own, and yet was himself not master of any one vessel.”

Again:—

“But all this while I misunderstand him, for possibly he meaneth his own dear words I have excerpted. Why doth he not speak in plain, downright English, that the world may see my faults? For every one doth not know what is excerpting. If I have been so bold to pick or snap a word from him, I hope I may have the benefit of the clergy. What words have I robbed him of? — and how have I become the richer for them? I was never so taken with him as to be once tempted to break the commandments, because I love plain speaking, plain writing, and plain dealing, which he does not: I hate the word excerpted, and the action imported in it. However, he is a fanciful man, and thinks there is no elegancy nor wit but in his own way of talking. I must say as Tully did, Malim equidem indisertam prudentiam quam stultam loquacitatem.

In his turn he accuses Vernon of being a perpetual transcriber, and for the Malone minuteness of his history.

“But how have I excerpted his matter? Then I am sure to rob the spittle-house; for he is so poor and put to hard shifts, that he has much ado to compose a tolerable story, which he hath been hammering and conceiving in his mind for four years together, before he could bring forth his fœtus of intolerable transcriptions to molest the reader’s patience and memory. How doth he run himself out of breath, sometimes for twenty pages and more, at other times fifteen, ordinarily nine and ten, collected out of Dr. Heylin’s old books, before he can take his wind again to return to his story! I never met with such a transcriber in all my days; for want of matter to fill up a vacuum, of which his book was in much danger, he hath set down the story of Westminster, as long as the Ploughman’s Tale in Chaucer, which to the reader would have been more pertinent and pleasant. I wonder he did not transcribe bills of Chancery, especially about a tedious suit my father had for several years about a lease at Norton.”

In his raillery of Vernon’s affected metaphors and comparisons, “his similitudes and dissimilitudes strangely hooked in, and fetched as far as the Antipodes,” Barnard observes, “The man hath also a strange opinion of himself that he is Dr. Heylin; and because he writes his Life, that he hath his natural parts, if not acquired. The soul of St. Augustin (say the schools) was Pythagorically transfused into the corpse of Aquinas; so the soul of Dr. Heylin into a narrow soul. I know there is a question in philosophy, An animæ sint œquales? — whether souls be alike? But there’s a difference between the spirits of Elijah and Elisha: so small a prophet with so great a one!”

Dr. Barnard concludes by regretting that good counsel came now unseasonably, else he would have advised the writer to have transmitted his task to one who had been an ancient friend of Dr. Heylin, rather than ambitiously have assumed it, who was a professed stranger to him, by reason of which no better account could be expected from him than what he has given. He hits off the character of this piece of biography —“A Life to the half; an imperfect creature, that is not only lame (as the honest bookseller said), but wanteth legs, and all other integral parts of a man; nay, the very soul that should animate a body like Dr. Heylin. So that I must say of him, as Plutarch does of Tib. Gracchus, ‘that he is a bold undertaker and rash talker of those matters he does not understand.’ And so I have done with him, unless he creates to himself and me a future trouble!”

Vernon appears to have slunk away from the duel. The son of Heylin stood corrected by the superior Life produced by their relative; the learned and vivacious Barnard probably never again ventured to alter and improve the works of an author kneeling and praying for corrections. These bleating lambs, it seems, often turn out roaring lions!6

1 Dr. Heylin’s principal work, “Ecclesia Restaurata; or, the History of the Reformation of the Church of England,” was reprinted at the Cambridge University press, for “the Ecclesiastical History Society,” in 2 vols. 8vo, 1849, under the able editorship of J. C. Robertson, M.A., Vicar of Bekesbourne, Kent. The introductory account of Heylin has enabled us to correct the present article in some particulars, and add a few useful notes.

2 Dr. John Barnard married the daughter of Heylin, when he lived at Abingdon, near Oxford. He afterwards became rector of the rich living of Waddington, near Lincoln, of which he purchased the perpetual advowson, holding also the sinecure of Gedney, in the same county. He was ultimately made Prebendary of Asgarby, in the church of Lincoln, and died at Newark, on a journey, in August, 1683. His rich and indolent life would naturally hold out few inducements for literary labour.

3 Mr. George Vernon, according to Wood (Athen. Oxon. iv. 606), was made Chaplain of All Souls’ College, afterwards Rector of Sarsden, near Churchill, in Oxfordshire, of Bourton-on-the-Water, in Gloucestershire, and of St. John and St. Michael, in the city of Gloucester. Wood enumerates several works by him, so that he was evidently more of a “literary man” than Barnard, who enjoyed “learned ease” to a great degree, and was evidently only to be aroused by something flagitious.

4 This was Harper, a bookseller, who had undertaken a republication of the Ecclesia Vindicata, and other tracts by Heylin, to which the Life was to be prefixed.

5 The author had “desired Mr. Harper to communicate the papers to whom he pleases, and cross out or add what is thought convenient.” A leave very few literary men would give!

6 The most curious part of the story remains yet to be told. Dr. Barnard was mistaken in his imputations, and Vernon was not the really blamable party. We tell the tale in Mr. Robertson’s words in the work already alluded to. —“Who was the party guilty of these outrages? Barnard assumed that it could be no other than Vernon; but the truth seems to be that the Rector of Bourton had nothing whatever to do with the matter. The publisher had called in a more important adviser — Dr. Barlow, Bishop of Lincoln (Ath. Oxon. iii. 567; iv. 606); the mutilations of Barnard’s MS. were really the work, not of the obscure Gloucestershire clergyman, but of the indignant author’s own diocesan; and we need not hesitate to ascribe the abruptness of the conclusion, and the smallness of the type in which it is printed, to Mr. Harper’s economical desire to save the expense of an additional sheet.” Thus “Bishop Barlow and the bookseller had made the mischief between the parties, who, instead of attempting a private explanation, attacked each other in print.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37