As I journeyed across France to Marseilles, and made thence a terribly rough voyage to Alexandria, I wrote my allotted number of pages every day. On this occasion more than once I left my paper on the cabin table, rushing away to be sick in the privacy of my state room. It was February, and the weather was miserable; but still I did my work. Labor omnia vincit improbus. I do not say that to all men has been given physical strength sufficient for such exertion as this, but I do believe that real exertion will enable most men to work at almost any season. I had previously to this arranged a system of task-work for myself, which I would strongly recommend to those who feel as I have felt, that labour, when not made absolutely obligatory by the circumstances of the hour, should never be allowed to become spasmodic. There was no day on which it was my positive duty to write for the publishers, as it was my duty to write reports for the Post Office. I was free to be idle if I pleased. But as I had made up my mind to undertake this second profession, I found it to be expedient to bind myself by certain self-imposed laws. When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the deficiency might be supplied. According to the circumstances of the time — whether my other business might be then heavy or light, or whether the book which I was writing was or was not wanted with speed — I have allotted myself so many pages a week. The average number has been about 40. It has been placed as low as 20, and has risen to 112. And as a page is an ambiguous term, my page has been made to contain 250 words; and as words, if not watched, will have a tendency to straggle, I have had every word counted as I went. In the bargains I have made with publishers I have — not, of course, with their knowledge, but in my own mind — undertaken always to supply them with so many words, and I have never put a book out of hand short of the number by a single word. I may also say that the excess has been very small. I have prided myself on completing my work exactly within the proposed dimensions. But I have prided myself especially in completing it within the proposed time — and I have always done so. There has ever been the record before me, and a week passed with an insufficient number of pages has been a blister to my eye, and a month so disgraced would have been a sorrow to my heart.
I have been told that such appliances are beneath the notice of a man of genius. I have never fancied myself to be a man of genius, but had I been so I think I might well have subjected myself to these trammels. Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, If it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules. It is the tortoise which always catches the hare. The hare has no chance. He loses more time in glorifying himself for a quick spurt than suffices for the tortoise to make half his journey.
I have known authors whose lives have always been troublesome and painful because their tasks have never been done in time. They have ever been as boys struggling to learn their lessons as they entered the school gates. Publishers have distrusted them, and they have failed to write their best because they have seldom written at ease. I have done double their work — though burdened with another profession — and have done it almost without an effort. I have not once, through all my literary career, felt myself even in danger of being late with my task. I have known no anxiety as to “copy.” The needed pages far ahead — very far ahead — have almost always been in the drawer beside me. And that little diary, with its dates and ruled spaces, its record that must be seen, its daily, weekly demand upon my industry, has done all that for me.
There are those who would be ashamed to subject themselves to such a taskmaster, and who think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait till — inspiration moves him. When I have heard such doctrine preached, I have hardly been able to repress my scorn. To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting. If the man whose business it is to write has eaten too many good things, or has drunk too much, or smoked too many cigars — as men who write sometimes will do — then his condition may be unfavourable for work; but so will be the condition of a shoemaker who has been similarly imprudent. I have sometimes thought that the inspiration wanted has been the remedy which time will give to the evil results of such imprudence. — Mens sana in corpore sano. The author wants that as does every other workman — that and a habit of industry. I was once told that the surest aid to the writing of a book was a piece of cobbler’s wax on my chair. I certainly believe in the cobbler’s wax much more than the inspiration.
It will be said, perhaps, that a man whose work has risen to no higher pitch than mine has attained, has no right to speak of the strains and impulses to which real genius is exposed. I am ready to admit the great variations in brain power which are exhibited by the products of different men, and am not disposed to rank my own very high; but my own experience tells me that a man can always do the work for which his brain is fitted if he will give himself the habit of regarding his work as a normal condition of his life. I therefore venture to advise young men who look forward to authorship as the business of their lives, even when they propose that that authorship be of the highest class known, to avoid enthusiastic rushes with their pens, and to seat themselves at their desks day by day as though they were lawyers’ clerks — and so let them sit until the allotted task shall be accomplished.
While I was in Egypt, I finished Doctor Thorne, and on the following day began The Bertrams. I was moved now by a determination to excel, if not in quality, at any rate in quantity. An ignoble ambition for an author, my readers will no doubt say. But not, I think, altogether ignoble, if an author can bring himself to look at his work as does any other workman. This had become my task, this was the furrow in which my plough was set, this was the thing the doing of which had fallen into my hands, and I was minded to work at it with a will. It is not on my conscience that I have ever scamped my work. My novels, whether good or bad, have been as good as I could make them. Had I taken three months of idleness between each they would have been no better. Feeling convinced of that, I finished Doctor Thorne on one day, and began The Bertrams on the next.
I had then been nearly two months in Egypt, and had at last succeeded in settling the terms of a postal treaty. Nearly twenty years have passed since that time, and other years may yet run on before these pages are printed. I trust I may commit no official sin by describing here the nature of the difficulty which met me. I found, on my arrival, that I was to communicate with an officer of the Pasha, who was then called Nubar Bey. I presume him to have been the gentleman who has lately dealt with our Government as to the Suez Canal shares, and who is now well known to the political world as Nubar Pasha. I found him a most courteous gentlemen, an Armenian. I never went to his office, nor do I know that he had an office. Every other day he would come to me at my hotel, and bring with him servants, and pipes, and coffee. I enjoyed his coming greatly; but there was one point on which we could not agree. As to money and other details, it seemed as though he could hardly accede fast enough to the wishes of the Postmaster-General; but on one point he was firmly opposed to me. I was desirous that the mails should be carried through Egypt in twenty-four hours, and he thought that forty-eight hours should be allowed. I was obstinate, and he was obstinate; and for a long time we could come to no agreement. At last his oriental tranquillity seemed to desert him, and he took upon himself to assure me, with almost more than British energy, that, if I insisted on the quick transit, a terrible responsibility would rest on my head. I made this mistake, he said — that I supposed that a rate of travelling which would be easy and secure in England could be attained with safety in Egypt. “The Pasha, his master, would,” he said, “no doubt accede to any terms demanded by the British Post Office, so great was his reverence for everything British. In that case he, Nubar, would at once resign his position, and retire into obscurity. He would be ruined; but the loss of life and bloodshed which would certainly follow so rash an attempt should not be on his head.” I smoked my pipe, or rather his, and drank his coffee, with oriental quiescence but British firmness. Every now and again, through three or four visits, I renewed the expression of my opinion that the transit could easily be made in twenty-four hours. At last he gave way — and astonished me by the cordiality of his greeting. There was no longer any question of bloodshed or of resignation of office, and he assured me, with energetic complaisance, that it should be his care to see that the time was punctually kept. It was punctually kept, and, I believe, is so still. I must confess, however, that my persistency was not the result of any courage specially personal to myself. While the matter was being debated, it had been whispered to me that the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company had conceived that forty-eight hours would suit the purposes of their traffic better than twenty-four, and that, as they were the great paymasters on the railway, the Minister of the Egyptian State, who managed the railway, might probably wish to accommodate them. I often wondered who originated that frightful picture of blood and desolation. That it came from an English heart and an English hand I was always sure.
From Egypt I visited the Holy Land, and on my way inspected the Post Offices at Malta and Gibraltar. I could fill a volume with true tales of my adventures. The Tales of All Countries have, most of them, some foundation in such occurrences. There is one called John Bull on the Guadalquivir, the chief incident in which occurred to me and a friend of mine on our way up that river to Seville. We both of us handled the gold ornaments of a man whom we believed to be a bull-fighter, but who turned out to be a duke — and a duke, too, who could speak English! How gracious he was to us, and yet how thoroughly he covered us with ridicule!
On my return home I received £400 from Messrs. Chapman & Hall for Doctor Thorne, and agreed to sell them The Bertrams for the same sum. This latter novel was written under very vagrant circumstances — at Alexandria, Malta, Gibraltar, Glasgow, then at sea, and at last finished in Jamaica. Of my journey to the West Indies I will say a few words presently, but I may as well speak of these two novels here. Doctor Thorne has, I believe, been the most popular book that I have written — if I may take the sale as a proof of comparative popularity. The Bertrams has had quite an opposite fortune. I do not know that I have ever heard it well spoken of even by my friends, and I cannot remember that there is any character in it that has dwelt in the minds of novel-readers. I myself think that they are of about equal merit, but that neither of them is good. They fall away very much from The Three Clerks, both in pathos and humour. There is no personage in either of them comparable to Chaffanbrass the lawyer. The plot of Doctor Thorne is good, and I am led therefore to suppose that a good plot — which, to my own feeling, is the most insignificant part of a tale — is that which will most raise it or most condemn it in the public judgment. The plots of Tom Jones and of Ivanhoe are almost perfect, and they are probably the most popular novels of the schools of the last and of this century; but to me the delicacy of Amelia, and the rugged strength of Burley and Meg Merrilies, say more for the power of those great novelists than the gift of construction shown in the two works I have named. A novel should give a picture of common life enlivened by humour and sweetened by pathos. To make that picture worthy of attention, the canvas should be crowded with real portraits, not of individuals known to the world or to the author, but of created personages impregnated with traits of character which are known. To my thinking, the plot is but the vehicle for all this; and when you have the vehicle without the passengers, a story of mystery in which the agents never spring to life, you have but a wooden show. There must, however, be a story. You must provide a vehicle of some sort. That of The Bertrams was more than ordinarily bad; and as the book was relieved by no special character, it failed. Its failure never surprised me; but I have been surprised by the success of Doctor Thorne.
At this time there was nothing in the success of the one or the failure of the other to affect me very greatly. The immediate sale, and the notices elicited from the critics, and the feeling which had now come to me of a confident standing with the publishers, all made me know that I had achieved my object. If I wrote a novel, I could certainly sell it. And if I could publish three in two years — confining myself to half the fecundity of that terrible author of whom the publisher in Paternoster Row had complained to me — I might add £600 a year to my official income. I was still living in Ireland, and could keep a good house over my head, insure my life, educate my two boys, and hunt perhaps twice a week, on £1400 a year. If more should come, it would be well — but £600 a year I was prepared to reckon as success. It had been slow in coming, but was very pleasant when it came.
On my return from Egypt I was sent down to Scotland to revise the Glasgow Post Office. I almost forget now what it was that I had to do there, but I know that I walked all over the city with the letter-carriers, going up to the top flats of the houses, as the men would have declared me incompetent to judge the extent of their labours had I not trudged every step with them. It was midsummer, and wearier work I never performed. The men would grumble, and then I would think how it would be with them if they had to go home afterwards and write a love-scene. But the love-scenes written in Glasgow, all belonging to The Bertrams, are not good.
Then in the autumn of that year, 1858, I was asked to go to the West Indies, and cleanse the Augean stables of our Post Office system there. Up to that time, and at that time, our Colonial Post Offices generally were managed from home, and were subject to the British Postmaster-General. Gentlemen were sent out from England to be postmasters, surveyors, and what not; and as our West Indian islands have never been regarded as being of themselves happily situated for residence, the gentlemen so sent were sometimes more conspicuous for want of income than for official zeal and ability. Hence the stables had become Augean. I was also instructed to carry out in some of the islands a plan for giving up this postal authority to the island Governor, and in others to propose some such plan. I was then to go on to Cuba, to make a postal treaty with the Spanish authorities, and to Panama for the same purpose with the Government of New Grenada. All this work I performed to my satisfaction, and I hope to that of my masters in St. Martin’s le Grand.
But the trip is at the present moment of importance to my subject, as having enabled me to write that which, on the whole, I regard as the best book that has come from my pen. It is short, and, I think I may venture to say, amusing, useful, and true. As soon as I had learned from the secretary at the General Post Office that this journey would be required, I proposed the book to Messrs. Chapman & Hall, demanding £250 for a single volume. The contract was made without any difficulty, and when I returned home the work was complete in my desk. I began it on board the ship in which I left Kingston, Jamaica, for Cuba — and from week to week I carried it on as I went. From Cuba I made my way to St. Thomas, and through the island down to Demerara, then back to St. Thomas — which is the starting-point for all places in that part of the globe — to Santa Martha, Carthagena, Aspinwall, over the Isthmus to Panama, up the Pacific to a little harbour on the coast of Costa Rica, thence across Central America, through Costa Rica, and down the Nicaragua river to the Mosquito coast, and after that home by Bermuda and New York. Should any one want further details of the voyage, are they not written in my book? The fact memorable to me now is that I never made a single note while writing or preparing it. Preparation, indeed, there was none. The descriptions and opinions came hot on to the paper from their causes. I will not say that this is the best way of writing a book intended to give accurate information. But it is the best way of producing to the eye of the reader, and to his ear, that which the eye of the writer has seen and his ear heard. There are two kinds of confidence which a reader may have in his author — which two kinds the reader who wishes to use his reading well should carefully discriminate. There is a confidence in facts and a confidence in vision. The one man tells you accurately what has been. The other suggests to you what may, or perhaps what must have been, or what ought to have been. The former require simple faith. The latter calls upon you to judge for yourself, and form your own conclusions. The former does not intend to be prescient, nor the latter accurate. Research is the weapon used by the former; observation by the latter. Either may be false — wilfully false; as also may either be steadfastly true. As to that, the reader must judge for himself. But the man who writes currente calamo, who works with a rapidity which will not admit of accuracy, may be as true, and in one sense as trustworthy, as he who bases every word upon a rock of facts. I have written very much as I have, travelled about; and though I have been very inaccurate, I have always written the exact truth as I saw it — and I have, I think, drawn my pictures correctly.
The view I took of the relative position in the West Indies of black men and white men was the view of the Times newspaper at that period; and there appeared three articles in that journal, one closely after another, which made the fortune of the book. Had it been very bad, I suppose its fortune could not have been made for it even by the Times newspaper. I afterwards became acquainted with the writer of those articles, the contributor himself informing me that he had written them. I told him that he had done me a greater service than can often be done by one man to another, but that I was under no obligation to him. I do not think that he saw the matter quite in the same light.
I am aware that by that criticism I was much raised in my position as an author. Whether such lifting up by such means is good or bad for literature is a question which I hope to discuss in a future chapter. But the result was immediate to me, for I at once went to Chapman & Hall and successfully demanded £600 for my next novel.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55