In my last, I mentioned my having spent an evening with a society of authors, who seemed to be jealous and afraid of one another. My uncle was not at all surprised to hear me say I was disappointed in their conversation. ‘A man may be very entertaining and instructive upon paper (said he), and exceedingly dull in common discourse. I have observed, that those who shine most in private company, are but secondary stars in the constellation of genius — A small stock of ideas is more easily managed, and sooner displayed, than a great quantity crowded together. There is very seldom any thing extraordinary in the appearance and address of a good writer; whereas a dull author generally distinguishes himself by some oddity or extravagance. For this reason, I fancy, that an assembly of Grubs must be very diverting.’
My curiosity being excited by this hint, I consulted my friend Dick Ivy, who undertook to gratify it the very next day, which was Sunday last. He carried me to dine with S — whom you and I have long known by his writings. — He lives in the skirts of the town, and every Sunday his house is opened to all unfortunate brothers of the quill, whom he treats with beef, pudding, and potatoes, port, punch, and Calvert’s entire butt beer. He has fixed upon the first day of the week for the exercise of his hospitality, because some of his guests could not enjoy it on any other, for reasons that I need not explain. I was civilly received in a plain, yet decent habitation, which opened backwards into a very pleasant garden, kept in excellent order; and, indeed, I saw none of the outward signs of authorship, either in the house or the landlord, who is one of those few writers of the age that stand upon their own foundation, without patronage, and above dependence. If there was nothing characteristic in the entertainer, the company made ample amends for his want of singularity.
At two in the afternoon, I found myself one of ten messmates seated at table; and, I question, if the whole kingdom could produce such another assemblage of originals. Among their peculiarities, I do not mention those of dress, which may be purely accidental. What struck me were oddities originally produced by affectation, and afterwards confirmed by habit. One of them wore spectacles at dinner, and another his hat flapped; though (as Ivy told me) the first was noted for having a seaman’s eye, when a bailiff was in the wind; and the other was never known to labour under any weakness or defect of vision, except about five years ago, when he was complimented with a couple of black eyes by a player, with whom he had quarrelled in his drink. A third wore a laced stocking, and made use of crutches, because, once in his life, he had been laid up with a broken leg, though no man could leap over a stick with more agility. A fourth had contracted such an antipathy to the country, that he insisted upon sitting with his back towards the window that looked into the garden, and when a dish of cauliflower was set upon the table, he snuffed up volatile salts to keep him from fainting; yet this delicate person was the son of a cottager, born under a hedge, and had many years run wild among asses on a common. A fifth affected distraction. When spoke to, he always answered from the purpose sometimes he suddenly started up, and rapped out a dreadful oath sometimes he burst out a-laughing — then he folded his arms, and sighed and then, he hissed like fifty serpents.
At first I really thought he was mad, and, as he sat near me, began to be under some apprehensions for my own safety, when our landlord, perceiving me alarmed, assured me aloud that I had nothing to fear. ‘The gentleman (said he) is trying to act a part for which he is by no means qualified — if he had all the inclination in the world, it is not in his power to be mad. His spirits are too flat to be kindled into frenzy.’ ‘’Tis no bad p-p-puff, however (observed a person in a tarnished laced coat): aff-ffected in-madness w-will p-pass for w-wit w-with nine-ninet-teen out of t-twenty.’ — ‘And affected stuttering for humour: replied our landlord, tho’, God knows, there is an affinity betwixt them.’ It seems, this wag, after having made some abortive attempts in plain speaking, had recourse to this defect, by means of which he frequently extorted the laugh of the company, without the least expence of genius; and that imperfection, which he had at first counterfeited, was now become so habitual, that he could not lay it aside.
A certain winking genius, who wore yellow gloves at dinner, had, on his first introduction, taken such offence at S — because he looked and talked, and ate and drank like any other man, that he spoke contemptuously of his understanding ever after, and never would repeat his visit, until he had exhibited the following proof of his caprice. Wat Wyvil, the poet, having made some unsuccessful advances towards an intimacy with S — at last gave him to understand, by a third person, that he had written a poem in his praise, and a satire against his person; that if he would admit him to his house, the first should be immediately sent to press; but that if he persisted in declining his friendship, he would publish his satire without delay. S— replied, that he looked upon Wyvil’s panegyrick, as in effect, a species of infamy, and would resent it accordingly with a good cudgel; but if he published the satire, he might deserve his compassion, and had nothing to fear from his revenge. Wyvil having considered the alternative, resolved to mortify S— by printing the panegyrick, for which he received a sound drubbing. Then he swore the peace against the aggressor, who, in order to avoid a prosecution at law, admitted him to his good graces. It was the singularity in S—‘s conduct, on this occasion, that reconciled him to the yellow-gloved philosopher, who owned he had some genius, and from that period cultivated his acquaintance.
Curious to know upon what subjects the several talents of my fellow-guests were employed, I applied to my communicative friend Dick Ivy, who gave me to understand, that most of them were, or had been, understrappers, or journeymen, to more creditable authors, for whom they translated, collated, and compiled, in the business of bookmaking; and that all of them had, at different times, laboured in the service of our landlord, though they had now set up for themselves in various departments of literature. Not only their talents, but also their nations and dialects were so various, that our conversation resembled the confusion of tongues at Babel. We had the Irish brogue, the Scotch accent, and foreign idiom, twanged off by the most discordant vociferation; for, as they all spoke together, no man had any chance to be heard, unless he could bawl louder than his fellows. It must be owned, however, there was nothing pedantic in their discourse; they carefully avoided all learned disquisitions, and endeavoured to be facetious; nor did their endeavours always miscarry — some droll repartee passed, and much laughter was excited; and if any individual lost his temper so far as to transgress the bounds of decorum, he was effectually checked by the master of the feast, who exerted a sort of paternal authority over this irritable tribe.
The most learned philosopher of the whole collection, who had been expelled the university for atheism, has made great progress in a refutation of lord Bolingbroke’s metaphysical works, which is said to be equally ingenious, and orthodox; but, in the mean time, he has been presented to the grand jury as a public nuisance, for having blasphemed in an ale-house on the Lord’s day. The Scotchman gives lectures on the pronunciation of the English language, which he is now publishing by subscription.
The Irishman is a political writer, and goes by the name of my Lord Potatoe. He wrote a pamphlet in vindication of a minister, hoping his zeal would be rewarded with some place or pension; but, finding himself neglected in that quarter, he whispered about, that the pamphlet was written by the minister himself, and he published an answer to his own production. In this, he addressed the author under the title of your lordship with such solemnity, that the public swallowed the deceit, and bought up the whole impression. The wise politicians of the metropolis declared they were both masterly performances, and chuckled over the flimsy reveries of an ignorant garretteer, as the profound speculations of a veteran statesman, acquainted with all the secrets of the cabinet. The imposture was detected in the sequel, and our Hibernian pamphleteer retains no part of his assumed importance, but the bare title of my lord. and the upper part of the table at the potatoe-ordinary in Shoelane.
Opposite to me sat a Piedmontese, who had obliged the public with a humorous satire, intituled, The Ballance of the English Poets, a performance which evinced the great modesty and taste of the author, and, in particular, his intimacy with the elegancies of the English language. The sage, who laboured under the agrophobia, or horror of green fields, had just finished a treatise on practical agriculture, though, in fact, he had never seen corn growing in his life, and was so ignorant of grain, that our entertainer, in the face of the whole company, made him own, that a plate of hominy was the best rice pudding he had ever eat.
The stutterer had almost finished his travels through Europe and part of Asia, without ever budging beyond the liberties of the King’s Bench, except in term-time, with a tipstaff for his companion; and as for little Tim Cropdale, the most facetious member of the whole society, he had happily wound up the catastrophe of a virgin tragedy, from the exhibition of which he promised himself a large fund of profit and reputation. Tim had made shift to live many years by writing novels, at the rate of five pounds a volume; but that branch of business is now engrossed by female authors, who publish merely for the propagation of virtue, with so much ease and spirit, and delicacy, and knowledge of the human heart, and all in the serene tranquillity of high life, that the reader is not only inchanted by their genius, but reformed by their morality.
After dinner, we adjourned into the garden, where, I observed, Mr S— gave a short separate audience to every individual in a small remote filbert walk, from whence most of them dropt off one after another, without further ceremony; but they were replaced by fresh recruits of the same clan, who came to make an afternoon’s visit; and, among others, a spruce bookseller, called Birkin, who rode his own gelding, and made his appearance in a pair of new jemmy boots, with massy spurs of plate. It was not without reason, that this midwife of the Muses used exercise a-horseback, for he was too fat to walk a-foot, and he underwent some sarcasms from Tim Cropdale, on his unwieldy size and inaptitude for motion. Birkin, who took umbrage at this poor author’s petulance in presuming to joke upon a man so much richer than himself, told him, he was not so unwieldy but that he could move the Marshalsea court for a writ, and even overtake him with it, if he did not very speedily come and settle accounts with him, respecting the expence of publishing his last ode to the king of Prussia, of which he had sold but three, and one of them was to Whitfield the methodist. Tim affected to receive this intimation with good humour, saying, he expected in a post or two, from Potsdam, a poem of thanks from his Prussian majesty, who knew very well how to pay poets in their own coin; but, in the mean time, he proposed, that Mr Birkin and he should run three times round the garden for a bowl of punch, to be drank at Ashley’s in the evening, and he would run boots against stockings. The bookseller, who valued himself upon his mettle, was persuaded to accept the challenge, and he forthwith resigned his boots to Cropdale, who, when he had put them on, was no bad representation of captain Pistol in the play.
Every thing being adjusted, they started together with great impetuosity, and, in the second round, Birkin had clearly the advantage, larding the lean earth as he puff’d along. Cropdale had no mind to contest the victory further; but, in a twinkling, disappeared through the back-door of the garden, which opened into a private lane, that had communication with the high road. — The spectators immediately began to hollow, ‘Stole away!’ and Birkin set off in pursuit of him with great eagerness; but he had not advanced twenty yards in the lane, when a thorn running into his foot, sent him hopping back into the garden, roaring with pain, and swearing with vexation. When he was delivered from this annoyance by the Scotchman, who had been bred to surgery, he looked about him wildly, exclaiming, ‘Sure, the fellow won’t be such a rogue as to run clear away with my boots!’ Our landlord, having reconnoitered the shoes he had left, which, indeed, hardly deserved that name, ‘Pray (said he), Mr Birkin, wa’n’t your boots made of calf-skin?’ ‘Calf-skin or cow-skin (replied the other) I’ll find a slip of sheep-skin that will do his business — I lost twenty pounds by his farce which you persuaded me to buy — I am out of pocket five pounds by his damn’d ode; and now this pair of boots, bran new, cost me thirty shillings, as per receipt — But this affair of the boots is felony — transportation. — I’ll have the dog indicted at the Old Bailey — I will, Mr S— I will be reveng’d, even though I should lose my debt in consequence of his conviction.’
Mr S— said nothing at present, but accommodated him with a pair of shoes; then ordered his servant to rub him down, and comfort him with a glass of rum-punch, which seemed, in a great measure, to cool the rage of his indignation. ‘After all (said our landlord) this is no more than a humbug in the way of wit, though it deserves a more respectable epithet, when considered as an effort of invention. Tim, being (I suppose) out of credit with the cordwainer, fell upon this ingenious expedient to supply the want of shoes, knowing that Mr Birkin, who loves humour, would himself relish the joke upon a little recollection. Cropdale literally lives by his wit, which he has exercised upon all his friends in their turns. He once borrowed my poney for five or six days to go to Salisbury, and sold him in Smithfield at his return. This was a joke of such a serious nature, that, in the first transports of my passion, I had some thoughts of prosecuting him for horse-stealing; and even when my resentment had in some measure subsided, as he industriously avoided me, I vowed, I would take satisfaction on his ribs with the first opportunity. One day, seeing him at some distance in the street, coming towards me, I began to prepare my cane for action, and walked in the shadow of a porter, that he might not perceive me soon enough to make his escape; but, in the very instant I had lifted up the instrument of correction, I found Tim Cropdale metamorphosed into a miserable blind wretch, feeling his way with a long stick from post to post, and rolling about two bald unlighted orbs instead of eyes. I was exceedingly shocked at having so narrowly escaped the concern and disgrace that would have attended such a misapplication of vengeance: but, next day, Tim prevailed upon a friend of mine to come and solicit my forgiveness, and offer his note, payable in six weeks, for the price of the poney. This gentleman gave me to understand, that the blind man was no other than Cropdale, who having seen me advancing, and guessing my intent, had immediately converted himself into the object aforesaid — I was so diverted at the ingenuity of the evasion, that I agreed to pardon his offence, refusing his note, however, that I might keep a prosecution for felony hanging over his head, as a security for his future good behaviour — But Timothy would by no means trust himself in my hands till the note was accepted — then he made his appearance at my door as a blind beggar, and imposed in such a manner upon my man, who had been his old acquaintance and pot-companion, that the fellow threw the door in his face, and even threatened to give him the bastinado. Hearing a noise in the hall, I went thither, and immediately recollecting the figure I had passed in the street, accosted him by his own name, to the unspeakable astonishment of the footman.’
Birkin declared he loved a joke as well as another; but asked if any of the company could tell where Mr Cropdale lodged, that he might send him a proposal about restitution, before the boots should be made away with. ‘I would willingly give him a pair of new shoes (said he), and half a guinea into the bargain’ for the boots, which fitted me like a glove; and I shan’t be able to get the fellows of them ‘till the good weather for riding is over. The stuttering wit declared, that the only secret which Cropdale ever kept, was the place of his lodgings; but he believed, that, during the heats of summer, he commonly took his repose upon a bulk, or indulged himself, in fresco, with one of the kennel-nymphs, under the portico of St Martin’s church. ‘Pox on him! (cried the bookseller) he might as well have taken my whip and spurs. In that case, he might have been tempted to steal another horse, and then he would have rid to the devil of course.’
After coffee, I took my leave of Mr S — with proper acknowledgments of his civility, and was extremely well pleased with the entertainment of the day, though not yet satisfied, with respect to the nature of this connexion, betwixt a man of character in the literary world, and a parcel of authorlings, who, in all probability, would never be able to acquire any degree of reputation by their labours. On this head I interrogated my conductor, Dick Ivy, who answered me to this effect — ‘One would imagine S— had some view to his own interest, in giving countenance and assistance to those people, whom he knows to be bad men, as well as bad writers; but, if he has any such view, he will find himself disappointed; for if he is so vain as to imagine he can make them, subservient to his schemes of profit or ambition, they are cunning enough to make him their property in the mean time. There is not one of the company you have seen to-day (myself excepted) who does not owe him particular obligations — One of them he bailed out of a spunging-house, and afterwards paid the debt — another he translated into his family, and clothed, when he was turned out half naked from jail in consequence of an act for the relief of insolvent debtors — a third, who was reduced to a woollen night cap, and lived upon sheeps trotters, up three pair of stairs backward in Butcher-row, he took into present pay and free quarters, and enabled him to appear as a gentleman, without having the fear of sheriff’s officers before his eyes. Those who are in distress he supplies with money when he has it, and with his credit when he is out of cash. When they want business, he either finds employment for them in his own service, or recommends them to booksellers to execute some project he has formed for their subsistence. They are always welcome to his table (which though plain, is plentiful) and to his good offices as far as they will go, and when they see Occasion, they make use of his name with the most petulant familiarity; nay, they do not even scruple to arrogate to themselves the merit of some of his performances, and have been known to sell their own lucubrations as the produce of his brain. The Scotchman you saw at dinner once personated him at an alehouse in West-Smithfield and, in the character of S — had his head broke by a cow-keeper, for having spoke disrespectfully of the Christian religion; but he took the law of him in his own person, and the assailant was fain to give him ten pounds to withdraw his action.’
I observed, that all this appearance of liberality on the side of Mr S— was easily accounted for, on the supposition that they flattered him in private, and engaged his adversaries in public; and yet I was astonished, when I recollected that I often had seen this writer virulently abused in papers, poems, and pamphlets, and not a pen was drawn in his defence ‘But you will be more astonished (said he) when I assure you, those very guests whom you saw at his table to-day, were the authors of great part of that abuse; and he himself is well aware of their particular favours, for they are all eager to detect and betray one another.’ ‘But this is doing the devil’s work for nothing (cried I). What should induce them to revile their benefactor without provocation?’ ‘Envy (answered Dick) is the general incitement; but they are galled by an additional scourge of provocation. S— directs a literary journal, in which their productions are necessarily brought to trial; and though many of them have been treated with such lenity and favour as they little deserved, yet the slightest censure, such as, perhaps, could not be avoided with any pretensions to candour and impartiality, has rankled in the hearts of those authors to such a degree, that they have taken immediate vengeance on the critic in anonymous libels, letters, and lampoons. Indeed, all the writers of the age, good, bad, and indifferent, from the moment he assumed this office, became his enemies, either professed or in petto, except those of his friends who knew they had nothing to fear from his strictures; and he must be a wiser man than me who can tell what advantage or satisfaction he derives from having brought such a nest of hornets about his ears.’
I owned, that was a point which might deserve consideration; but still I expressed a desire to know his real motives for continuing his friendship to a set of rascals equally ungrateful and insignificant. — He said, he did not pretend to assign any reasonable motive; that, if the truth must be told, the man was, in point of conduct, a most incorrigible fool; that, though he pretended to have a knack at hitting off characters, he blundered strangely in the distribution of his favours, which were generally bestowed on the most undeserving of those who had recourse to his assistance; that, indeed, this preference was not so much owing to want of discernment as to want of resolution, for he had not fortitude enough to resist the importunity even of the most worthless; and, as he did not know the value of money, there was very little merit in parting with it so easily; that his pride was gratified in seeing himself courted by such a number of literary dependents; that, probably, he delighted in hearing them expose and traduce one another; and, finally, from their information, he became acquainted with all the transactions of Grubstreet, which he had some thoughts of compiling for the entertainment of the public.
I could not help suspecting, from Dick’s discourse, that he had some particular grudge against S — upon whose conduct he had put the worst construction it would bear; and, by dint of cross-examination, I found he was not at all satisfied with the character which had been given in the Review of his last performance, though it had been treated civilly in consequence of the author’s application to the critic. By all accounts, S— is not without weakness and caprice; but he is certainly good-humoured and civilized; nor do I find that there is any thing overbearing, cruel, or implacable in his disposition.
I have dwelt so long upon authors, that you will perhaps suspect I intend to enroll myself among the fraternity; but, if I were actually qualified for the profession, it is at best but a desperate resource against starving, as it affords no provision for old age and infirmity. Salmon, at the age of fourscore, is now in a garret, compiling matter, at a guinea a sheet, for a modern historian, who, in point of age, might be his grandchild; and Psalmonazar, after having drudged half a century in the literary mill, in all the simplicity and abstinence of an Asiatic, subsists upon the charity of a few booksellers, just sufficient to keep him from the parish, I think Guy, who was himself a bookseller, ought to have appropriated one wing or ward of his hospital to the use of decayed authors; though indeed, there is neither hospital, college, nor workhouse, within the bills of mortality, large enough to contain the poor of this society, composed, as it is, from the refuse of every other profession.
I know not whether you will find any amusement in this account of an odd race of mortals, whose constitution had, I own, greatly interested the curiosity of
Yours, J. MELFORD LONDON, June 10.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13