In the spring of 1871 we — I and my wife — had decided that we would go to Australia to visit our shepherd son. Of course before doing so I made a contract with a publisher for a book about the Colonies. For such a work as this I had always been aware that I could not fairly demand more than half the price that would be given for the same amount of fiction; and as such books have an indomitable tendency to stretch themselves, so that more is given than what is sold, and as the cost of travelling is heavy, the writing of them is not remunerative. This tendency to stretch comes not, I think, generally from the ambition of the writer, but from his inability to comprise the different parts in their allotted spaces. If you have to deal with a country, a colony, a city, a trade, or a political opinion, it is so much easier to deal with it in twenty than in twelve pages! I also made an engagement with the editor of a London daily paper to supply him with a series of articles — which were duly written, duly published, and duly paid for. But with all this, travelling with the object of writing is not a good trade. If the travelling author can pay his bills, he must be a good manager on the road.
Before starting there came upon us the terrible necessity of coming to some resolution about our house at Waltham. It had been first hired, and then bought, primarily because it suited my Post Office avocations. To this reason had been added other attractions — in the shape of hunting, gardening, and suburban hospitalities. Altogether the house had been a success, and the scene of much happiness. But there arose questions as to expense. Would not a house in London be cheaper? There could be no doubt that my income would decrease, and was decreasing. I had thrown the Post Office, as it were, away, and the writing of novels could not go on for ever. Some of my friends told me already that at fifty-five I ought to give up the fabrication of love-stories. The hunting, I thought, must soon go, and I would not therefore allow that to keep me in the country. And then, why should I live at Waltham Cross now, seeing that I had fixed on that place in reference to the Post Office? It was therefore determined that we would flit, and as we were to be away for eighteen months, we determined also to sell our furniture. So there was a packing up, with many tears, and consultations as to what should be saved out of the things we loved.
As must take place on such an occasion, there was some heart-felt grief. But the thing was done, and orders were given for the letting or sale of the house. I may as well say here that it never was let and that it remained unoccupied for two years before it was sold. I lost by the transaction about £800. As I continually hear that other men make money by buying and selling houses, I presume I am not well adapted for transactions of that sort. I have never made money by selling anything except a manuscript. In matters of horseflesh I am so inefficient that I have generally given away horses that I have not wanted.
When we started from Liverpool, in May, 1871, Ralph the Heir was running through the St. Paul’s. This was the novel of which Charles Reade afterwards took the plot and made on it a play. I have always thought it to be one of the worst novels I have written, and almost to have justified that dictum that a novelist after fifty should not write love-stories. It was in part a political novel; and that part which appertains to politics, and which recounts the electioneering experiences of the candidates at Percycross, is well enough. Percycross and Beverley were, of course, one and the same place. Neefit, the breeches-maker, and his daughter, are also good in their way — and Moggs, the daughter’s lover, who was not only lover, but also one of the candidates at Percycross as well. But the main thread of the story — that which tells of the doings of the young gentlemen and young ladies — the heroes and the heroines — is not good. Ralph the heir has not much life about him; while Ralph who is not the heir, but is intended to be the real hero, has none. The same may be said of the young ladies — of whom one, she who was meant to be the chief, has passed utterly out of my mind, without leaving a trace of remembrance behind.
I also left in the hands of the editor of The Fortnightly, ready for production on the 1st of July following, a story called The Eustace Diamonds. In that I think that my friend’s dictum was disproved. There is not much love in it; but what there is, is good. The character of Lucy Morris is pretty; and her love is as genuine and as well told as that of Lucy Robarts of Lily Dale.
But The Eustace Diamonds achieved the success which it certainly did attain, not as a love-story, but as a record of a cunning little woman of pseudo-fashion, to whom, in her cunning, there came a series of adventures, unpleasant enough in themselves, but pleasant to the reader. As I wrote the book, the idea constantly presented itself to me that Lizzie Eustace was but a second Becky Sharpe; but in planning the character I had not thought of this, and I believe that Lizzie would have been just as she is though Becky Sharpe had never been described. The plot of the diamond necklace is, I think, well arranged, though it produced itself without any forethought. I had no idea of setting thieves after the bauble till I had got my heroine to bed in the inn at Carlisle; nor of the disappointment of the thieves, till Lizzie had been wakened in the morning with the news that her door had been broken open. All these things, and many more, Wilkie Collins would have arranged before with infinite labour, preparing things present so that they should fit in with things to come. I have gone on the very much easier plan of making everything as it comes fit in with what has gone before. At any rate, the book was a success, and did much to repair the injury which I felt had come to my reputation in the novel-market by the works of the last few years. I doubt whether I had written anything so successful as The Eustace Diamonds. since The Small House at Allington. I had written what was much better — as, for instance, Phineas Finn and Nina Balatka; but that is by no means the same thing.
I also left behind, in a strong box, the manuscript of Phineas Redux, a novel of which I have already spoken, and which I subsequently sold to the proprietors of the Graphic newspaper. The editor of that paper greatly disliked the title, assuring me that the public would take Redux for the gentleman’s surname — and was dissatisfied with me when I replied that I had no objection to them doing so. The introduction of a Latin word, or of a word from any other language, into the title of an English novel is undoubtedly in bad taste; but after turning the matter much over in my own mind, I could find no other suitable name.
I also left behind me, in the same strong box, another novel, called An Eye for an Eye, which then had been some time written, and of which, as it has not even yet been published, I will not further speak. It will probably be published some day, though, looking forward, I can see no room for it, at any rate, for the next two years.
If therefore the Great Britain, in which we sailed for Melbourne, had gone to the bottom, I had so provided that there would be new novels ready to come out under my name for some years to come. This consideration, however, did not keep me idle while I was at sea. When making long journeys, I have always succeeded in getting a desk put up in my cabin, and this was done ready for me in the Great Britain, so that I could go to work the day after we left Liverpool. This I did; and before I reached Melbourne I had finished a story called Lady Anna. Every word of this was written at sea, during the two months required for our voyage, and was done day by day — with the intermission of one day’s illness — for eight weeks, at the rate of 66 pages of manuscript in each week, every page of manuscript containing 250 words. Every word was counted. I have seen work come back to an author from the press with terrible deficiencies as to the amount supplied. Thirty-two pages have perhaps been wanted for a number, and the printers with all their art could not stretch the matter to more than twenty-eight or — nine! The work of filling up must be very dreadful. I have sometimes been ridiculed for the methodical details of my business. But by these contrivances I have been preserved from many troubles; and I have saved others with whom I have worked — editors, publishers, and printers — from much trouble also.
A month or two after my return home, Lady Anna appeared in The Fortnightly, following The Eustace Diamonds. In it a young girl, who is really a lady of high rank and great wealth, though in her youth she enjoyed none of the privileges of wealth or rank, marries a tailor who had been good to her, and whom she had loved when she was poor and neglected. A fine young noble lover is provided for her, and all the charms of sweet living with nice people are thrown in her way, in order that she may be made to give up the tailor. And the charms are very powerful with her. But the feeling that she is bound by her troth to the man who had always been true to her overcomes everything — and she marries the tailor. It was my wish of course to justify her in doing so, and to carry my readers along with me in my sympathy with her. But everybody found fault with me for marrying her to the tailor. What would they have said if I had allowed her to jilt the tailor and marry the good-looking young lord? How much louder, then, would have been the censure! The book was read, and I was satisfied. If I had not told my story well, there would have been no feeling in favour of the young lord. The horror which was expressed to me at the evil thing I had done, in giving the girl to the tailor, was the strongest testimony I could receive of the merits of the story.
I went to Australia chiefly in order that I might see my son among his sheep. I did see him among his sheep, and remained with him for four or five very happy weeks. He was not making money, nor has he made money since. I grieve to say that several thousands of pounds which I had squeezed out of the pockets of perhaps too liberal publishers have been lost on the venture. But I rejoice to say that this has been in no way due to any fault of his. I never knew a man work with more persistent honesty at his trade than he has done.
I had, however, the further intentions of writing a book about the entire group of Australasian Colonies; and in order that I might be enabled to do that with sufficient information, I visited them all. Making my headquarters at Melbourne, I went to Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania, then to the very little known territory of Western Australia, and then, last of all, to New Zealand. I was absent in all eighteen months, and think that I did succeed in learning much of the political, social, and material condition of these countries. I wrote my book as I was travelling and brought it back with me to England all but completed in December, 1872.
It was a better book than that which I had written eleven years before on the American States, but not so good as that on the West Indies in 1859. As regards the information given, there was much more to be said about Australia than the West Indies. Very much more is said — and very much more may be learned from the latter than from the former book. I am sure that any one who will take the trouble to read the book on Australia, will learn much from it. But the West Indian volume was readable. I am not sure that either of the other works are, in the proper sense of that word. When I go back to them I find that the pages drag with me — and if so with me, how must it be with others who have none of that love which a father feels even for his ill-favoured offspring. Of all the needs a book has the chief need is that it be readable.
Feeling that these volumes on Australia were dull and long, I was surprised to find that they had an extensive sale. There were, I think, 2000 copies circulated of the first expensive edition; and then the book was divided into four little volumes, which were published separately, and which again had a considerable circulation. That some facts were stated inaccurately, I do not doubt; that many opinions were crude, I am quite sure; that I had failed to understand much which I attempted to explain, is possible. But with all these faults the book was a thoroughly honest book, and was the result of unflagging labour for a period of fifteen months. I spared myself no trouble in inquiry, no trouble in seeing, and no trouble in listening. I thoroughly imbued my mind with the subject, and wrote with the simple intention of giving trustworthy information on the state of the Colonies. Though there be inaccuracies — those inaccuracies to which work quickly done must always be subject — I think I did give much valuable information.
I came home across America from San Francisco to New York, visiting Utah and Brigham Young on the way. I did not achieve great intimacy with the great polygamist of the Salt Lake City. I called upon him, sending to him my card, apologising for doing so without an introduction, and excusing myself by saying that I did not like to pass through the territory without seeing a man of whom I had heard so much. He received me in his doorway, not asking me to enter, and inquired whether I were not a miner. When I told him that I was not a miner, he asked me whether I earned my bread. I told him I did. “I guess you’re a miner,” said he. I again assured him that I was not. “Then how do you earn your bread?” I told him I did so by writing books. “I’m sure you’re a miner,” said he. Then he turned upon his heel, went back into the house, and closed the door. I was properly punished, as I was vain enough to conceive that he would have heard my name.
I got home in December, 1872, and in spite of any resolution made to the contrary, my mind was full of hunting as I came back. No real resolutions had in truth been made, for out of a stud of four horses I kept three, two of which were absolutely idle through the two summers and winter of my absence. Immediately on my arrival I bought another, and settled myself down to hunting from London three days a week. At first I went back to Essex, my old country, but finding that to be inconvenient, I took my horses to Leighton Buzzard, and became one of that numerous herd of sportsmen who rode with the “Baron” and Mr. Selby Lowndes. In those days Baron Meyer was alive, and the riding with his hounds was very good. I did not care so much for Mr. Lowndes. During the winters of 1873, 1874, and 1875, I had my horses back in Essex, and went on with my hunting, always trying to resolve that I would give it up. But still I bought fresh horses, and, as I did not give it up, I hunted more than ever. Three times a week the cab has been at my door in London very punctually, and not unfrequently before seven in the morning. In order to secure this attendance, the man has always been invited to have his breakfast in the hall. I have gone to the Great Eastern Railway — ah! so often with the fear that frost would make all my exertions useless, and so often too with that result! And then, from one station or another station, have travelled on wheels at least a dozen miles. After the day’s sport, the same toil has been necessary to bring me home to dinner at eight. This has been work for a young man and a rich man, but I have done it as an old man and comparatively a poor man. Now at last, in April, 1876, I do think that my resolution has been taken. I am giving away my old horses, and anybody is welcome to my saddles and horse-furniture.
“Singula de nobis anni praedantur euntes;
Eripuere jocos, venerem, convivia, ladum;
Tendunt extorquere poemata.”
“Our years keep taking toll as they move on;
My feasts, my frolics, are already gone,
And now, it seems, my verses must go too.”
This Is Conington’s translation, but it seems to me to be a little flat.
“Years as they roll cut all our pleasures short;
Our pleasant mirth, our loves, our wine, our sport,
And then they stretch their power, and crush at last
Even the power of singing of the past.”
I think that I may say with truth that I rode hard to my end.
“Vixi puellis nuper idoneus,
Et militavi non sine gloria;
Nunc arma defunctumque bello
Barbiton hic paries habebit.”
“I’ve lived about the covert side,
I’ve ridden straight, and ridden fast;
Now breeches, boots, and scarlet pride
Are but mementoes of the past.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01