Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 9.

Scott’s Partnerships with the Ballantynes.

Before I make mention of Scott’s greatest works, his novels, I must say a few words of his relation to the Ballantyne Brothers, who involved him, and were involved by him, in so many troubles, and with whose name the story of his broken fortunes is inextricably bound up. James Ballantyne, the elder brother, was a schoolfellow of Scott’s at Kelso, and was the editor and manager of the Kelso Mail, an anti-democratic journal, which had a fair circulation. Ballantyne was something of an artist as regarded “type,” and Scott got him therefore to print his Minstrelsy of the Border, the excellent workmanship of which attracted much attention in London. In 1802, on Scott’s suggestion, Ballantyne moved to Edinburgh; and to help him to move, Scott, who was already meditating some investment of his little capital in business other than literary, lent him 500l. Between this and 1805, when Scott first became a partner of Ballantyne’s in the printing business, he used every exertion to get legal and literary printing offered to James Ballantyne, and, according to Mr. Lockhart, the concern “grew and prospered.” At Whitsuntide, 1805, when The Lay had been published, but before Scott had the least idea of the prospects of gain which mere literature would open to him, he formally, though secretly, joined Ballantyne as a partner in the printing business. He explains his motives for this step, so far at least as he then recalled them, in a letter written after his misfortunes, in 1826. “It is easy,” he said, “no doubt for any friend to blame me for entering into connexion with commercial matters at all. But I wish to know what I could have done better — excluded from the bar, and then from all profits for six years, by my colleague’s prolonged life. Literature was not in those days what poor Constable has made it; and with my little capital I was too glad to make commercially the means of supporting my family. I got but 600l. for The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and — it was a price that made men’s hair stand on end — 1000l. for Marmion. I have been far from suffering by James Ballantyne. I owe it to him to say, that his difficulties, as well as his advantages, are owing to me.”

This, though a true, was probably a very imperfect account of Scott’s motives. He ceased practising at the bar, I do not doubt, in great degree from a kind of hurt pride at his ill-success, at a time when he felt during every month more and more confidence in his own powers. He believed, with some justice, that he understood some of the secrets of popularity in literature, but he had always, till towards the end of his life, the greatest horror of resting on literature alone as his main resource; and he was not a man, nor was Lady Scott a woman, to pinch and live narrowly. Were it only for his lavish generosity, that kind of life would have been intolerable to him. Hence, he reflected, that if he could but use his literary instinct to feed some commercial undertaking, managed by a man he could trust, he might gain a considerable percentage on his little capital, without so embarking in commerce as to oblige him either to give up his status as a sheriff, or his official duties as a clerk of session, or his literary undertakings. In his old schoolfellow, James Ballantyne, he believed he had found just such an agent as he wanted, the requisite link between literary genius like his own, and the world which reads and buys books; and he thought that, by feeling his way a little, he might secure, through this partnership, besides the then very bare rewards of authorship, at least a share in those more liberal rewards which commercial men managed to squeeze for themselves out of successful authors. And, further, he felt — and this was probably the greatest unconscious attraction for him in this scheme — that with James Ballantyne for his partner he should be the real leader and chief, and rather in the position of a patron and benefactor of his colleague, than of one in any degree dependent on the generosity or approval of others. “If I have a very strong passion in the world,” he once wrote of himself — and the whole story of his life seems to confirm it —“it is pride.”1 In James Ballantyne he had a faithful, but almost humble friend, with whom he could deal much as he chose, and fear no wound to his pride. He had himself helped Ballantyne to a higher line of business than any hitherto aspired to by him. It was his own book which first got the Ballantyne press its public credit. And if he could but create a great commercial success upon this foundation, he felt that he should be fairly entitled to share in the gains, which not merely his loan of capital, but his foresight and courage had opened to Ballantyne.

And it is quite possible that Scott might have succeeded — or at all events not seriously failed — if he had been content to stick to the printing firm of James Ballantyne and Co., and had not launched also into the bookselling and publishing firm of John Ballantyne and Co., or had never begun the wild and dangerous practice of forestalling his gains, and spending wealth which he had not earned. But when by way of feeding the printing press of James Ballantyne and Co., he started in 1809 the bookselling and publishing firm of John Ballantyne and Co., using as his agent a man as inferior in sterling worth to James, as James was inferior in general ability to himself, he carefully dug a mine under his own feet, of which we can only say, that nothing except his genius could have prevented it from exploding long before it did. The truth was evidently that James Ballantyne’s respectful homage, and John’s humorous appreciation, all but blinded Scott’s eyes to the utter inadequacy of either of these men, especially the latter, to supply the deficiencies of his own character for conducting business of this kind with proper discretion. James Ballantyne, who was pompous and indolent, though thoroughly honest, and not without some intellectual insight, Scott used to call Aldiborontiphoscophornio. John, who was clever but frivolous, dissipated, and tricksy, he termed Rigdumfunnidos, or his “little Picaroon.” It is clear from Mr. Lockhart’s account of the latter that Scott not only did not respect, but despised him, though he cordially liked him, and that he passed over, in judging him, vices which in a brother or son of his own he would severely have rebuked. I believe myself that his liking for cooperation with both, was greatly founded on his feeling that they were simply creatures of his, to whom he could pretty well dictate what he wanted — colleagues whose inferiority to himself unconsciously flattered his pride. He was evidently inclined to resent bitterly the patronage of publishers. He sent word to Blackwood once with great hauteur, after some suggestion from that house had been made to him which appeared to him to interfere with his independence as an author, that he was one of “the Black Hussars” of literature, who would not endure that sort of treatment. Constable, who was really very liberal, hurt his sensitive pride through the Edinburgh Review, of which Jeffrey was editor. Thus the Ballantynes’ great deficiency — that neither of them had any independent capacity for the publishing business, which would in any way hamper his discretion — though this is just what commercial partners ought to have had, or they were not worth their salt — was, I believe, precisely what induced this Black Hussar of literature, in spite of his otherwise considerable sagacity and knowledge of human nature, to select them for partners.

And yet it is strange that he not only chose them, but chose the inferior and lighter-headed of the two for far the most important and difficult of the two businesses. In the printing concern there was at least this to be said, that of part of the business — the selection of type and the superintendence of the executive part — James Ballantyne was a good judge. He was never apparently a good man of business, for he kept no strong hand over the expenditure and accounts, which is the core of success in every concern. But he understood types; and his customers were publishers, a wealthy and judicious class, who were not likely all to fail together. But to select a “Rigdumfunnidos,”— a dissipated comic-song singer and horse-fancier — for the head of a publishing concern, was indeed a kind of insanity. It is told of John Ballantyne, that after the successful negotiation with Constable for Rob Roy, and while “hopping up and down in his glee,” he exclaimed, “‘Is Rob’s gun here, Mr. Scott? Would you object to my trying the old barrel with a few de joy?’ ‘Nay, Mr. Puff,’ said Scott, ‘it would burst and blow you to the devil before your time.’ ‘Johnny, my man,’ said Constable, ‘what the mischief puts drawing at sight into your head?’ Scott laughed heartily at this innuendo; and then observing that the little man felt somewhat sore, called attention to the notes of a bird in the adjoining shrubbery. ‘And by-the-bye,’ said he, as they continued listening, ”tis a long time, Johnny, since we have had “The Cobbler of Kelso.”’ Mr. Puff forthwith jumped up on a mass of stone, and seating himself in the proper attitude of one working with an awl, began a favourite interlude, mimicking a certain son of Crispin, at whose stall Scott and he had often lingered when they were schoolboys, and a blackbird, the only companion of his cell, that used to sing to him while he talked and whistled to it all day long. With this performance Scott was always delighted. Nothing could be richer than the contrast of the bird’s wild, sweet notes, some of which he imitated with wonderful skill, and the accompaniment of the cobbler’s hoarse, cracked voice, uttering all manner of endearing epithets, which Johnny multiplied and varied in a style worthy of the old women in Rabelais at the birth of Pantagruel.”2 That passage gives precisely the kind of estimation in which John Ballantyne was held both by Scott and Constable. And yet it was to him that Scott entrusted the dangerous and difficult duty of setting up a new publishing house as a rival to the best publishers of the day. No doubt Scott really relied on his own judgment for working the publishing house. But except where his own books were concerned, no judgment could have been worse. In the first place he was always wanting to do literary jobs for a friend, and so advised the publishing of all sorts of unsaleable books, because his friends desired to write them. In the next place, he was a genuine historian, and one of the antiquarian kind himself; he was himself really interested in all sorts of historical and antiquarian issues — and very mistakenly gave the public credit for wishing to know what he himself wished to know. I should add that Scott’s good nature and kindness of heart not only led him to help on many books which he knew in himself could never answer, and some which, as he well knew, would be altogether worthless, but that it greatly biassed his own intellectual judgment. Nothing can be plainer than that he really held his intimate friend, Joanna Baillie, a very great dramatic poet, a much greater poet than himself, for instance; one fit to be even mentioned as following — at a distance — in the track of Shakespeare. He supposes Erskine to exhort him thus:—

“Or, if to touch such chord be thine,

Restore the ancient tragic line,

And emulate the notes that rung

From the wild harp which silent hung

By silver Avon’s holy shore,

Till twice a hundred years roll’d o’er —

When she, the bold enchantress, came

With fearless hand and heart on flame,

From the pale willow snatch’d the treasure,

And swept it with a kindred measure,

Till Avon’s swans, while rung the grove

With Montfort’s hate and Basil’s love,

Awakening at the inspired strain,

Deem’d their own Shakespeare lived again.”

Avon’s swans must have been Avon’s geese, I think, if they had deemed anything of the kind. Joanna Baillie’s dramas are “nice,” and rather dull; now and then she can write a song with the ease and sweetness that suggest Shakespearian echoes. But Scott’s judgment was obviously blinded by his just and warm regard for Joanna Baillie herself.

Of course with such interfering causes to bring unsaleable books to the house — of course I do not mean that John Ballantyne and Co. published for Joanna Baillie, or that they would have lost by it if they had — the new firm published all sorts of books which did not sell at all; while John Ballantyne himself indulged in a great many expenses and dissipations, for which John Ballantyne and Co. had to pay. Nor was it very easy for a partner who himself drew bills on the future — even though he were the well-spring of all the paying business the company had — to be very severe on a fellow-partner who supplied his pecuniary needs in the same way. At all events, there is no question that all through 1813 and 1814 Scott was kept in constant suspense and fear of bankruptcy, by the ill-success of John Ballantyne and Co., and the utter want of straightforwardness in John Ballantyne himself as to the bills out, and which had to be provided against. It was the publication of Waverley, and the consequent opening up of the richest vein not only in Scott’s own genius, but in his popularity with the public, which alone ended these alarms; and the many unsaleable works of John Ballantyne and Co. were then gradually disposed of to Constable and others, to their own great loss, as part of the conditions on which they received a share in the copyright of the wonderful novels which sold like wildfire. But though in this way the publishing business of John Ballantyne and Co. was saved, and its affairs pretty decently wound up, the printing firm remained saddled with some of their obligations; while Constable’s business, on which Scott depended for the means with which he was buying his estate, building his castle, and settling money on his daughter-inlaw, was seriously injured by the purchase of all this unsaleable stock.

I do not think that any one who looks into the complicated controversy between the representatives of the Ballantynes and Mr. Lockhart, concerning these matters, can be content with Mr. Lockhart’s — no doubt perfectly sincere — judgment on the case. It is obvious that amidst these intricate accounts, he fell into one or two serious blunders — blunders very unjust to James Ballantyne. And without pretending to have myself formed any minute judgment on the details, I think the following points clear:—(1.) That James Ballantyne was very severely judged by Mr. Lockhart, on grounds which were never alleged by Scott against him at all — indeed on grounds on which he was expressly exempted from all blame by Sir Walter. (2.) That Sir Walter Scott was very severely judged by the representatives of the Ballantynes, on grounds on which James Ballantyne himself never brought any charge against him; on the contrary, he declared that he had no charge to bring. (3.) That both Scott and his partners invited ruin by freely spending gains which they only expected to earn, and that in this Scott certainly set an example which he could hardly expect feebler men not to follow. On the whole, I think the troubles with the Ballantyne brothers brought to light not only that eager gambling spirit in him, which his grandfather indulged with better success and more moderation when he bought the hunter with money destined for a flock of sheep, and then gave up gambling for ever, but a tendency still more dangerous, and in some respects involving an even greater moral defect — I mean a tendency, chiefly due, I think, to a very deep-seated pride — to prefer inferior men as working colleagues in business. And yet it is clear that if Scott were to dabble in publishing at all, he really needed the check of men of larger experience, and less literary turn of mind. The great majority of consumers of popular literature are not, and indeed will hardly ever be, literary men; and that is precisely why a publisher who is not, in the main, literary — who looks on authors’ MSS. for the most part with distrust and suspicion, much as a rich man looks at a begging-letter, or a sober and judicious fish at an angler’s fly — is so much less likely to run aground than such a man as Scott. The untried author should be regarded by a wise publisher as a natural enemy — an enemy indeed of a class, rare specimens whereof will always be his best friends, and who, therefore, should not be needlessly affronted — but also as one of a class of whom nineteen out of every twenty will dangle before the publisher’s eyes wiles and hopes and expectations of the most dangerous and illusory character — which constitute indeed the very perils that it is his true function in life skilfully to evade. The Ballantynes were quite unfit for this function; first, they had not the experience requisite for it; next, they were altogether too much under Scott’s influence. No wonder that the partnership came to no good, and left behind it the germs of calamity even more serious still.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, viii. 221.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, v. 218.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29