An Autobiography, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XI

“The Claverings,” The “Pall Mall Gazette,” “Nina Balatka,” And “Linda Tressel”

The Claverings, which came out in 1866 and 1867, was the last novel which I wrote for the Cornhill; and it was for this that I received the highest rate of pay that was ever accorded to me. It was the same length as Framley Parsonage, and the price was £2800. Whether much or little, it was offered by the proprietor of the magazine, and was paid in a single cheque.

In The Claverings I did not follow the habit which had now become very common to me, of introducing personages whose names are already known to the readers of novels, and whose characters were familiar to myself. If I remember rightly, no one appears here who had appeared before or who has been allowed to appear since. I consider the story as a whole to be good, though I am not aware that the public has ever corroborated that verdict. The chief character is that of a young woman who has married manifestly for money and rank — so manifestly that she does not herself pretend, even while she is making the marriage, that she has any other reason. The man is old, disreputable, and a wornout debauchee. Then comes the punishment natural to the offence. When she is free, the man whom she had loved, and who had loved her, is engaged to another woman. He vacillates and is weak — in which weakness is the fault of the book, as he plays the part of hero. But she is strong — strong in her purpose, strong in her desires, and strong in her consciousness that the punishment which comes upon her has been deserved.

But the chief merit of The Clarverings is in the genuine fun of some of the scenes. Humour has not been my forte, but I am inclined to think that the characters of Captain Boodle, Archie Clavering, and Sophie Gordeloup are humorous. Count Pateroff, the brother of Sophie, is also good, and disposes of the young hero’s interference in a somewhat masterly manner. In The Claverings, too, there is a wife whose husband is a brute to her, who loses an only child — his heir — and who is rebuked by her lord because the boy dies. Her sorrow is, I think, pathetic. From beginning to end the story is well told. But I doubt now whether any one reads The Claverings. When I remember how many novels I have written, I have no right to expect that above a few of them shall endure even to the second year beyond publication. This story closed my connection with the Cornhill Magazine — but not with its owner, Mr. George Smith, who subsequently brought out a further novel of mine in a separate form, and who about this time established the Pall Mall Gazette, to which paper I was for some years a contributor.

It was in 1865 that the Pall Mall Gazette was commenced, the name having been taken from a fictitious periodical, which was the offspring of Thackeray’s brain. It was set on foot by the unassisted energy and resources of George Smith, who had succeeded by means of his magazine and his publishing connection in getting around him a society of literary men who sufficed, as far as literary ability went, to float the paper at one under favourable auspices. His two strongest staffs probably were “Jacob Omnium,” whom I regard as the most forcible newspaper writer of my days, and Fitz-James Stephen, the most conscientious and industrious. To them the Pall Mall Gazette owed very much of its early success — and to the untiring energy and general ability of its proprietor. Among its other contributors were George Lewes, Hannay — who, I think, came up from Edinburgh for employment on its columns — Lord Houghton, Lord Strangford, Charles Merivale, Greenwood the present editor, Greg, myself, and very many others — so many others, that I have met at a Pall Mall dinner a crowd of guests who would have filled the House of Commons more respectably than I have seen it filled even on important occasions. There are many who now remember — and no doubt when this is published there will be left some to remember — the great stroke of business which was done by the revelations of a visitor to one of the casual wards in London. A person had to be selected who would undergo the misery of a night among the usual occupants of a casual ward in a London poorhouse, and who should at the same time be able to record what he felt and saw. The choice fell upon Mr. Greenwood’s brother, who certainly possessed the courage and the powers of endurance. The description, which was very well given, was, I think, chiefly written by the brother of the Casual himself. It had a great effect, which was increased by secrecy as to the person who encountered all the horrors of that night. I was more than once assured that Lard Houghton was the man. I heard it asserted also that I myself had been the hero. At last the unknown one could no longer endure that his honours should be hidden, and revealed the truth — in opposition, I fear, to promises to the contrary, and instigated by a conviction that if known he could turn his honours to account. In the meantime, however, that record of a night passed in a workhouse had done more to establish the sale of the journal than all the legal lore of Stephen, or the polemical power of Higgins, or the critical acumen of Lewes.

My work was various. I wrote much on the subject of the American War, on which my feelings were at the time very keen — subscribing, if I remember right, my name to all that I wrote. I contributed also some sets of sketches, of which those concerning hunting found favour with the public. They were republished afterwards, and had a considerable sale, and may, I think, still be recommended to those who are fond of hunting, as being accurate in their description of the different classes of people who are to be met in the hunting-field. There was also a set of clerical sketches, which was considered to be of sufficient importance to bring down upon my head the critical wrath of a great dean of that period. The most ill-natured review that was ever written upon any work of mine appeared in the Contemporary Review with reference to these Clerical Sketches. The critic told me that I did not understand Greek. That charge has been made not unfrequently by those who have felt themselves strong in that pride-producing language. It is much to read Greek with ease, but it is not disgraceful to be unable to do so. To pretend to read it without being able — that is disgraceful. The critic, however, had been driven to wrath by my saying that Deans of the Church of England loved to revisit the glimpses of the metropolitan moon.

I also did some critical work for the Pall Mall — as I did also for The Fortnightly. It was not to my taste, but was done in conformity with strict conscientious scruples. I read what I took in hand, and said what I believed to be true — always giving to the matter time altogether incommensurate with the pecuniary result to myself. In doing this for the Pall Mall, I fell into great sorrow. A gentleman, whose wife was dear to me as if she were my own sister; was in some trouble as to his conduct in the public service. He had been blamed, as he thought unjustly, and vindicated himself in a pamphlet. This he handed to me one day, asking me to read it, and express my opinion about it if I found that I had an opinion. I thought the request injudicious, and I did not read the pamphlet. He met me again, and, handing me a second pamphlet, pressed me very hard. I promised him that I would read it, and that if I found myself able I would express myself — but that I must say not what I wished to think, but what I did think. To this of course he assented. I then went very much out of my way to study the subject — which was one requiring study. I found, or thought that I found, that the conduct of the gentleman in his office had been indiscreet; but that charges made against himself affecting his honour were baseless. This I said, emphasising much more strongly than was necessary the opinion which I had formed of his indiscretion — as will so often be the case when a man has a pen in his hand. It is like a club or sledge-hammer — in using which, either for defence or attack, a man can hardly measure the strength of the blows he gives. Of course there was offence — and a breaking off of intercourse between loving friends — and a sense of wrong received, and I must own, too, of wrong done. It certainly was not open to me to whitewash with honesty him whom I did not find to be white; but there was no duty incumbent on me to declare what was his colour in my eyes — no duty even to ascertain. But I had been ruffled by the persistency of the gentleman’s request — which should not have been made — and I punished him for his wrong-doing by doing a wrong myself. I must add, that before he died his wife succeeded in bringing us together.

In the early days of the paper, the proprietor, who at that time acted also as chief editor, asked me to undertake a duty — of which the agony would indeed at no one moment have been so sharp as that endured in the casual ward, but might have been prolonged until human nature sank under it. He suggested to me that I should during an entire season attend the May meetings in Exeter Hall, and give a graphic and, if possible, amusing description of the proceedings. I did attend one — which lasted three hours — and wrote a paper which I think was called A Zulu in Search of a Religion. But when the meeting was over I went to that spirited proprietor, and begged him to impose upon me some task more equal to my strength. Not even on behalf of the Pall Mall Gazette, which was very dear to me, could I go through a second May meeting — much less endure a season of such martyrdom.

I have to acknowledge that I found myself unfit for work on a newspaper. I had not taken to it early enough in life to learn its ways and bear its trammels. I was fidgety when any work was altered in accordance with the judgment of the editor, who, of course, was responsible for what appeared. I wanted to select my own subjects — not to have them selected for me; to write when I pleased — and not when it suited others. As a permanent member of the staff I was of no use, and after two or three years I dropped out of the work.

From the commencement of my success as a writer, which I date from the beginning of the Cornhill Magazine, I had always felt an injustice in literary affairs which had never afflicted me or even suggested itself to me while I was unsuccessful. It seemed to me that a name once earned carried with it too much favour. I indeed had never reached a height to which praise was awarded as a matter of course; but there were others who sat on higher seats to whom the critics brought unmeasured incense and adulation, even when they wrote, as they sometimes did write, trash which from a beginner would not have been thought worthy of the slightest notice. I hope no one will think that in saying this I am actuated by jealousy of others. Though I never reached that height, still I had so far progressed that that which I wrote was received with too much favour. The injustice which struck me did not consist in that which was withheld from me, but in that which was given to me. I felt that aspirants coming up below me might do work as good as mine, and probably much better work, and yet fail to have it appreciated. In order to test this, I determined to be such an aspirant myself, and to begin a course of novels anonymously, in order that I might see whether I could obtain a second identity — whether as I had made one mark by such literary ability as I possessed, I might succeed in doing so again. In 1865 I began a short tale called Nina Balatka, which in 1866 was published anonymously in Blackwood’s Magazine. In 1867 this was followed by another of the same length, called Linda Tressel. I will speak of them together, as they are of the same nature and of nearly equal merit. Mr. Blackwood, who himself read the MS. of Nina Balatka, expressed an opinion that it would not from its style be discovered to have been written by me — but it was discovered by Mr. Hutton of the Spectator, who found the repeated use of some special phrase which had rested upon his ear too frequently when reading for the purpose of criticism other works of mine. He declared in his paper that Nina Balatka was by me, showing I think more sagacity than good nature. I ought not, however, to complain of him, as of all the critics of my work he has been the most observant, and generally the most eulogistic. Nina Balatka never rose sufficiently high in reputation to make its detection a matter of any importance. Once or twice I heard the story mentioned by readers who did not know me to be the author, and always with praise; but it had no real success. The same may be said of Linda Tressel. Blackwood, who of course knew the author, was willing to publish them, trusting that works by an experienced writer would make their way, even without the writer’s name, and he was willing to pay me for them, perhaps half what they would have fetched with my name. But he did not find the speculation answer, and declined a third attempt, though a third such tale was written for him.

Nevertheless I am sure that the two stories are good. Perhaps the first is somewhat the better, as being the less lachrymose. They were both written very quickly, but with a considerable amount of labour; and both were written immediately after visits to the towns in which the scenes are laid — Prague, mainly, and Nuremberg. Of course I had endeavoured to change not only my manner of language, but my manner of story-telling also; and in this, pace Mr. Hutton, I think that I was successful. English life in them there was none. There was more of romance proper than had been usual with me. And I made an attempt at local colouring, at descriptions of scenes and places, which has not been usual with me. In all this I am confident that I was in a measure successful. In the loves, and fears, and hatreds, both of Nina and of Linda, there is much that is pathetic. Prague is Prague, and Nuremberg is Nuremberg. I know that the stories are good, but they missed the object with which they had been written. Of course there is not in this any evidence that I might not have succeeded a second time as I succeeded before, had I gone on with the same dogged perseverance. Mr. Blackwood, had I still further reduced my price, would probably have continued the experiment. Another ten years of unpaid unflagging labour might have built up a second reputation. But this at any rate did seem clear to me, that with all the increased advantages which practice in my art must have given me, I could not induce English readers to read what I gave to them, unless I gave it with my name.

I do not wish to have it supposed from this that I quarrel with public judgment in affairs of literature. It is a matter of course that in all things the public should trust to established reputation. It is as natural that a novel reader wanting novels should send to a library for those by George Eliot or Wilkie Collins, as that a lady when she wants a pie for a picnic should go to Fortnum & Mason. Fortnum & Mason can only make themselves Fortnum & Mason by dint of time and good pies combined. If Titian were to send us a portrait from the other world, as certain dead poets send their poetry by means of a medium, it would be some time before the art critic of the Times would discover its value. We may sneer at the want of judgment thus displayed, but such slowness of judgment is human and has always existed. I say all this here because my thoughts on the matter have forced upon me the conviction that very much consideration is due to the bitter feelings of disappointed authors.

We who have succeeded are so apt to tell new aspirants not to aspire, because the thing to be done may probably be beyond their reach. “My dear young lady, had you not better stay at home and darn your stockings?” “As, sir, you have asked for my candid opinion, I can only counsel you to try some other work of life which may be better suited to your abilities.” What old-established successful author has not said such words as these to humble aspirants for critical advice, till they have become almost formulas? No doubt there is cruelty in such answers; but the man who makes them has considered the matter within himself, and has resolved that such cruelty is the best mercy. No doubt the chances against literary aspirants are very great. It is so easy to aspire — and to begin! A man cannot make a watch or a shoe without a variety of tools and many materials. He must also have learned much. But any young lady can write a book who has a sufficiency of pens and paper. It can be done anywhere; in any clothes — which is a great thing; at any hours — to which happy accident in literature I owe my success. And the success, when achieved, is so pleasant! The aspirants, of course, are very many; and the experienced councillor, when asked for his candid judgment as to this or that effort, knows that among every hundred efforts there will be ninety-nine failures. Then the answer is so ready: “My dear young lady, do darn your stockings; it will be for the best.” Or perhaps, less tenderly, to the male aspirant: “You must earn some money, you say. Don’t you think that a stool in a counting-house might be better?” The advice will probably be good advice — probably, no doubt, as may be proved by the terrible majority of failures. But who is to be sure that he is not expelling an angel from the heaven to which, if less roughly treated, he would soar — that he is not dooming some Milton to be mute and inglorious, who, but for such cruel ill-judgment, would become vocal to all ages?

The answer to all this seems to be ready enough. The judgment, whether cruel or tender, should not be ill-judgment. He who consents to sit as judge should have capacity for judging. But in this matter no accuracy of judgment is possible. It may be that the matter subjected to the critic is so bad or so good as to make an assured answer possible. “You, at any rate, cannot make this your vocation;” or “You, at any rate, can succeed, if you will try.” But cases as to which such certainty can be expressed are rare. The critic who wrote the article on the early verses of Lord Byron, which produced the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, was justified in his criticism by the merits of the Hours of Idleness. The lines had nevertheless been written by that Lord Byron who became our Byron. In a little satire called The Biliad, which, I think, nobody knows, are the following well-expressed lines:—

“When Payne Knight’s Taste was issued to the town,
A few Greek verses in the text set down
Were torn to pieces, mangled into hash,
Doomed to the flames as execrable trash —
In short, were butchered rather than dissected,
And several false quantities detected —
Till, when the smoke had vanished from the cinders,
’Twas just discovered that — THE LINES WERE PINDAR’S!”

There can be no assurance against cases such as these; and yet we are so free with our advice, always bidding the young aspirant to desist.

There is perhaps no career or life so charming as that of a successful man of letters. Those little unthought of advantages which I just now named are in themselves attractive. If you like the town, live in the town, and do your work there; if you like the country, choose the country. It may be done on the top of a mountain or in the bottom of a pit. It is compatible with the rolling of the sea and the motion of a railway. The clergyman, the lawyer, the doctor, the member of Parliament, the clerk in a public office, the tradesman, and even his assistant in the shop, must dress in accordance with certain fixed laws; but the author need sacrifice to no grace, hardly even to Propriety. He is subject to no bonds such as those which bind other men. Who else is free from all shackle as to hours? The judge must sit at ten, and the attorney-general, who is making his £20,000 a year, must be there with his bag. The Prime Minister must be in his place on that weary front bench shortly after prayers, and must sit there, either asleep or awake, even though —— or —— should be addressing the House. During all that Sunday which he maintains should be a day of rest, the active clergyman toils like a galley-slave. The actor, when eight o’clock comes, is bound to his footlights. The Civil Service clerk must sit there from ten till four — unless his office be fashionable, when twelve to six is just as heavy on him. The author may do his work at five in the morning when he is fresh from his bed, or at three in the morning before he goes there. And the author wants no capital, and encounters no risks. When once he is afloat, the publisher finds all that — and indeed, unless he be rash, finds it whether he be afloat or not. But it is in the consideration which he enjoys that the successful author finds his richest reward. He is, if not of equal rank, yet of equal standing with the highest; and if he be open to the amenities of society, may choose his own circles. He without money can enter doors which are closed against almost all but him and the wealthy. I have often heard it said that in this country the man of letters is not recognised. I believe the meaning of this to be that men of letters are not often invited to be knights and baronets. I do not think that they wish it — and if they had it they would, as a body, lose much more than they would gain. I do not at all desire to have letters put after my name, or to be called Sir Anthony, but if my friends Tom Hughes and Charles Reade became Sir Thomas and Sir Charles, I do not know how I might feel — or how my wife might feel, if we were left unbedecked. As it is, the man of letters who would be selected for titular honour, if such bestowal of honours were customary, receives from the general respect of those around him a much more pleasant recognition of his worth.

If this be so — if it be true that the career of the successful literary man be thus pleasant — it is not wonderful that many should attempt to win the prize. But how is a man to know whether or not he has within him the qualities necessary for such a career? He makes an attempt, and fails; repeats his attempt, and fails again! So many have succeeded at last who have failed more than once or twice! Who will tell him the truth as to himself? Who has power to find out that truth? The hard man sends him off without a scruple to that office-stool; the soft man assures him that there is much merit in his MS.

Oh, my young aspirant — if ever such a one should read these pages — be sure that no one can tell you! To do so it would be necessary not only to know what there is now within you, but also to foresee what time will produce there. This, however, I think may be said to you, without any doubt as to the wisdom of the counsel given, that if it be necessary for you to live by your work, do not begin by trusting to literature. Take the stool in the office as recommended to you by the hard man; and then, in such leisure hours as may belong to you, let the praise which has come from the lips of that soft man induce you to persevere in your literary attempts. Should you fail, then your failure will not be fatal — and what better could you have done with the leisure hours had you not so failed? Such double toil, you will say, is severe. Yes, but if you want this thing, you must submit to severe toil.

Sometime before this I had become one of the Committee appointed for the distribution of the moneys of the Royal Literary Fund, and in that capacity I heard and saw much of the sufferings of authors. I may in a future chapter speak further of this Institution, which I regard with great affection, and in reference to which I should be glad to record certain convictions of my own; but I allude to it now, because the experience I have acquired in being active in its cause forbids me to advise any young man or woman to enter boldly on a literary career in search of bread. I know how utterly I should have failed myself had my bread not been earned elsewhere while I was making my efforts. During ten years of work, which I commenced with some aid from the fact that others of my family were in the same profession, I did not earn enough to buy me the pens, ink, and paper which I was using; and then when, with all my experience in my art, I began again as from a new springing point, I should have failed again unless again I could have given years to the task. Of course there have been many who have done better than I— many whose powers have been infinitely greater. But then, too, I have seen the failure of many who were greater.

The career, when success has been achieved, is certainly very pleasant; but the agonies which are endured in the search for that success are often terrible. And the author’s poverty is, I think, harder to be borne than any other poverty. The man, whether rightly or wrongly, feels that the world is using him with extreme injustice. The more absolutely he fails, the higher, it is probable, he will reckon his own merits; and the keener will be the sense of injury in that he whose work is of so high a nature cannot get bread, while they whose tasks are mean are lapped in luxury. “I, with my well-filled mind, with my clear intellect, with all my gifts, cannot earn a poor crown a day, while that fool, who simpers in a little room behind a shop, makes his thousands every year.” The very charity, to which he too often is driven, is bitterer to him than to others. While he takes it he almost spurns the hand that gives it to him, and every fibre of his heart within him is bleeding with a sense of injury.

The career, when successful, is pleasant enough certainly; but when unsuccessful, it is of all careers the most agonising.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43