When I had half-finished Framley Parsonage, I went back to my other story, Castle Richmond, which I was writing for Messrs. Chapman & Hall, and completed that. I think that this was the only occasion on which I have had two different novels in my mind at the same time. This, however, did not create either difficulty or confusion. Many of us live in different circles; and when we go from our friends in the town to our friends in the country, we do not usually fail to remember the little details of the one life or the other. The parson at Rusticum, with his wife and his wife’s mother, and all his belongings; and our old friend, the Squire, with his family history; and Farmer Mudge, who has been cross with us, because we rode so unnecessarily over his barley; and that rascally poacher, once a gamekeeper, who now traps all the foxes; and pretty Mary Cann, whose marriage with the wheelwright we did something to expedite — though we are alive to them all, do not drive out of our brain the club gossip, or the memories of last season’s dinners, or any incident of our London intimacies. In our lives we are always weaving novels, and we manage to keep the different tales distinct. A man does, in truth, remember that which it interests him to remember; and when we hear that memory has gone as age has come on, we should understand that the capacity for interest in the matter concerned has perished. A man will be generally very old and feeble before he forgets how much money he has in the funds. There is a good deal to be learned by any one who wishes to write a novel well; but when the art has been acquired, I do not see why two or three should not be well written at the same time. I have never found myself thinking much about the work that I had to do till I was doing it. I have indeed for many years almost abandoned the effort to think, trusting myself, with the narrowest thread of a plot, to work the matter out when the pen is in my hand. But my mind is constantly employing itself on the work I have done. Had I left either Framley Parsonage or Castle Richmond half-finished fifteen years ago, I think I could complete the tales now with very little trouble. I have not looked at Castle Richmond since it was published; and poor as the work is, I remember all the incidents.
Castle Richmond certainly was not a success — though the plot is a fairly good plot, and is much more of a plot than I have generally been able to find. The scene is laid in Ireland, during the famine; and I am well aware now that English readers no longer like Irish stories. I cannot understand why it should be so, as the Irish character is peculiarly well fitted for romance. But Irish subjects generally have become distasteful. This novel, however, is of itself a weak production. The characters do not excite sympathy. The heroine has two lovers, one of whom is a scamp and the other a prig. As regards the scamp, the girl’s mother is her own rival. Rivalry of the same nature has been admirably depicted by Thackeray in his Esmond; but there the mother’s love seems to be justified by the girl’s indifference. In Castle Richmond the mother strives to rob her daughter of the man’s love. The girl herself has no character; and the mother, who is strong enough, is almost revolting. The dialogue is often lively, and some of the incidents are well told; but the story as a whole was a failure. I cannot remember, however, that it was roughly handled by the critics when it came out; and I much doubt whether anything so hard was said of it then as that which I have said here.
I was now settled at Waltham Cross, in a house in which I could entertain a few friends modestly, where we grew our cabbages and strawberries, made our own butter, and killed our own pigs. I occupied it for twelve years, and they were years to me of great prosperity. In 1861 I became a member of the Garrick Club, with which institution I have since been much identified. I had belonged to it about two years, when, on Thackeray’s death, I was invited to fill his place on the Committee, and I have been one of that august body ever since. Having up to that time lived very little among men, having known hitherto nothing of clubs, having even as a boy been banished from social gatherings, I enjoyed infinitely at first the gaiety of the Garrick. It was a festival to me to dine there — which I did indeed but seldom; and a great delight to play a rubber in the little room up-stairs of an afternoon. I am speaking now of the old club in King Street. This playing of whist before dinner has since that become a habit with me, so that unless there be something else special to do — unless there be hunting, or I am wanted to ride in the park by the young tyrant of my household — it is “my custom always in the afternoon.” I have sometimes felt sore with myself for this persistency, feeling that I was making myself a slave to an amusement which has not after all very much to recommend it. I have often thought that I would break myself away from it, and “swear off,” as Rip Van Winkle says. But my swearing off has been like that of Rip Van Winkle. And now, as I think of it coolly, I do not know but that I have been right to cling to it. As a man grows old he wants amusement, more even than when he is young; and then it becomes so difficult to find amusement. Reading should, no doubt, be the delight of men’s leisure hours. Had I to choose between books and cards, I should no doubt take the books. But I find that I can seldom read with pleasure for above an hour and a half at a time, or more than three hours a day. As I write this I am aware that hunting must soon be abandoned. After sixty it is given but to few men to ride straight across country, and I cannot bring myself to adopt any other mode of riding. I think that without cards I should now be much at a loss. When I began to play at the Garrick, I did so simply because I liked the society of the men who played.
I think that I became popular among those with whom I associated. I have long been aware of a certain weakness in my own character, which I may call a craving for love. I have ever had a wish to be liked by those around me — a wish that during the first half of my life was never gratified. In my school-days no small part of my misery came from the envy with which I regarded the popularity of popular boys. They seemed to me to live in a social paradise, while the desolation of my pandemonium was complete. And afterwards, when I was in London as a young man, I had but few friends. Among the clerks in the Post Office I held my own fairly for the first two or three years; but even then I regarded myself as something of a pariah. My Irish life had been much better. I had had my wife and children, and had been sustained by a feeling of general respect. But even in Ireland I had in truth lived but little in society. Our means had been sufficient for our wants, but insufficient for entertaining others. It was not till we had settled ourselves at Waltham that I really began to live much with others. The Garrick Club was the first assemblage of men at which I felt myself to be popular.
I soon became a member of other clubs. There was the Arts Club in Hanover Square, of which I saw the opening, but from which, after three or four years, I withdrew my name, having found that during these three or four years I had not once entered the building. Then I was one of the originators of the Civil Service Club — not from judgment, but instigated to do so by others. That also I left for the same reason. In 1864 I received the honour of being elected by the Committee at the Athenaeum. For this I was indebted to the kindness of Lord Stanhope; and I never was more surprised than when I was informed of the fact. About the same time I became a member of the Cosmopolitan, a little club that meets twice a week in Charles Street, Berkeley Square, and supplies to all its members, and its members’ friends, tea and brandy and water without charge! The gatherings there I used to think very delightful. One met Jacob Omnium, Monckton Mimes, Tom Hughes, William Stirling, Henry Reeve, Arthur Russell, Tom Taylor, and such like; and generally a strong political element, thoroughly well mixed, gave a certain spirit to the place. Lord Ripon, Lord Stanley, William Forster, Lord Enfield, Lord Kimberley, George Bentinck, Vernon Harcourt, Bromley Davenport, Knatchbull Huguessen, with many others, used to whisper the secrets of Parliament with free tongues. Afterwards I became a member of the Turf, which I found to be serviceable — or the reverse — only for the playing of whist at high points.
In August, 1861, I wrote another novel for the Cornhill Magazine. It was a short story, about one volume in length, and was called The Struggles of Brown, Jones, and Robinson. In this I attempted a style for which I certainly was not qualified, and to which I never had again recourse. It was meant to be funny, was full of slang, and was intended as a satire on the ways of trade. Still I think that there is some good fun it it, but I have heard no one else express such an opinion. I do not know that I ever heard any opinion expressed on it, except by the publisher, who kindly remarked that he did not think it was equal to my usual work. Though he had purchased the copyright, he did not republish the story in a book form till 1870, and then it passed into the world of letters sub silentio. I do not know that it was ever criticised or ever read. I received £600 for it. From that time to this I have been paid at about that rate for my work —£600 for the quantity contained in an ordinary novel volume, or £3000 for a long tale published in twenty parts, which is equal in length to five such volumes. I have occasionally, I think, received something more than this, never I think less for any tale, except when I have published my work anonymously. 7 Having said so much, I need not further specify the prices as I mention the books as they were written. I will, however, when I am completing this memoir, give a list of all the sums I have received for my literary labours. I think that Brown, Jones and Robinson was the hardest bargain I ever sold to a publisher.
7 Since the date at which this was written I have encountered a diminution in price.
In 1861 the War of Secession had broken out in America, and from the first I interested myself much in the question. My mother had thirty years previously written a very popular, but, as I had thought, a somewhat unjust book about our cousins over the water. She had seen what was distasteful in the manners of a young people, but had hardly recognised their energy. I had entertained for many years an ambition to follow her footsteps there, and to write another book. I had already paid a short visit to New York City and State on my way home from the West Indies, but had not seen enough then to justify me in the expression of any opinion. The breaking out of the war did not make me think that the time was peculiarly fit for such inquiry as I wished to make, but it did represent itself as an occasion on which a book might be popular. I consequently consulted the two great powers with whom I was concerned. Messrs. Chapman & Hall, the publishers, were one power, and I had no difficulty in arranging my affairs with them. They agreed to publish the book on my terms, and bade me God-speed on my journey. The other power was the Postmaster-General and Mr. Rowland Hill, the Secretary of the Post Office. I wanted leave of absence for the unusual period of nine months, and fearing that I should not get it by the ordinary process of asking the Secretary, I went direct to his lordship. “Is it on the plea of ill-health?” he asked, looking into my face, which was then that of a very robust man. His lordship knew the Civil Service as well as any one living, and must have seen much of falseness and fraudulent pretence, or he could not have asked that question. I told him that I was very well, but that I wanted to write a book. “Had I any special ground to go upon in asking for such indulgence?” I had, I said, done my duty well by the service. There was a good deal of demurring, but I got my leave for nine months — and I knew that I had earned it. Mr. Hill attached to the minute granting me the leave an intimation that it was to be considered as a full equivalent for the special services rendered by me to the department. I declined, however, to accept the grace with such a stipulation, and it was withdrawn by the directions of the Postmaster-General. 8
8 During the period of my service in the Post Office I did very much special work for which I never asked any remuneration — and never received any, though payments for special services were common in the department at that time. But if there was to be a question of such remuneration, I did not choose that my work should be valued at the price put upon it by Mr. Hill.
I started for the States in August and returned in the following May. The war was raging during the time that I was there, and the country was full of soldiers. A part of the time I spent in Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri, among the troops, along the line of attack. I visited all the States (excepting California) which had not then seceded — failing to make my way into the seceding States unless I was prepared to visit them with an amount of discomfort I did not choose to endure. I worked very hard at the task I had assigned to myself, and did, I think, see much of the manners and institutions of the people. Nothing struck me more than their persistence in the ordinary pursuits of life in spite of the war which was around them. Neither industry nor amusement seemed to meet with any check. Schools, hospitals, and institutes were by no means neglected because new regiments were daily required. The truth, I take it, is that we, all of us, soon adapt ourselves to the circumstances around us. Though three parts of London were in flames I should no doubt expect to have my dinner served to me if I lived in the quarter which was free from fire.
The book I wrote was very much longer than that on the West Indies, but was also written almost without a note. It contained much information, and, with many inaccuracies, was a true book. But it was not well done. It is tedious and confused, and will hardly, I think, be of future value to those who wish to make themselves acquainted with the United States. It was published about the middle of the war — just at the time in which the hopes of those who loved the South were I most buoyant, and the fears of those who stood by the North were the strongest. But it expressed an assured confidence — which never quavered in a page or in a line — that the North would win. This assurance was based on the merits of the Northern cause, on the superior strength of the Northern party, and on a conviction that England would never recognise the South, and that France would be guided in her policy by England. I was right in my prophecies, and right, I think, on the grounds on which they were made. The Southern cause was bad. The South had provoked the quarrel because its political supremacy was checked by the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency. It had to fight as a little man against a big man, and fought gallantly. That gallantry — and a feeling based on a misconception as to American character that the Southerners are better gentlemen than their Northern brethren — did create great sympathy here; but I believe that the country was too just to be led into political action by a spirit of romance, and I was warranted in that belief. There was a moment in which the Northern cause was in danger, and the danger lay certainly in the prospect of British interference. Messrs. Slidell and Mason — two men insignificant in themselves — had been sent to Europe by the Southern party, and had managed to get on board the British mail steamer called “The Trent,” at the Havannah. A most undue importance was attached to this mission by Mr. Lincoln’s government, and efforts were made to stop them. A certain Commodore Wilkes, doing duty as policeman on the seas, did stop the “Trent,” and took the men out. They were carried, one to Boston and one to New York, and were incarcerated, amidst the triumph of the nation. Commodore Wilkes, who had done nothing in which a brave man could take glory, was made a hero and received a prize sword. England of course demanded her passengers back, and the States for a while refused to surrender them. But Mr. Seward was at that time the Secretary of State, and Mr. Seward, with many political faults, was a wise man. I was at Washington at the time, and it was known there that the contest among the leading Northerners was very sharp on the matter. Mr. Sumner and Mr. Seward were, under Mr. Lincoln, the two chiefs of the party. It was understood that Mr. Sumner was opposed to the rendition of the men, and Mr. Seward in favour of it. Mr. Seward’s counsels at last prevailed with the President, and England’s declaration of war was prevented. I dined with Mr. Seward on the day of the decision, meeting Mr. Sumner at his house, and was told as I left the dining-room what the decision had been. During the afternoon I and others had received intimation through the embassy that we might probably have to leave Washington at an hour’s notice. This, I think, was the severest danger that the Northern cause encountered during the war.
But my book, though it was right in its views on this subject — and wrong in none other as far as I know — was not a good book. I can recommend no one to read it now in order that he may be either instructed or amused — as I can do that on the West Indies. It served its purpose at the time, and was well received by the public and by the critics.
Before starting to America I had completed Orley Farm, a novel which appeared in shilling numbers — after the manner in which Pickwick, Nicholas Nickleby, and many others had been published. Most of those among my friends who talk to me now about my novels, and are competent to form an opinion on the subject, say that this is the best I have written. In this opinion I do not coincide. I think that the highest merit which a novel can have consists in perfect delineation of character, rather than in plot, or humour, or pathos, and I shall before long mention a subsequent work in which I think the main character of the story is so well developed as to justify me in asserting its claim above the others. The plot of Orley Farm is probably the best I have ever made; but it has the fault of declaring itself, and thus coming to an end too early in the book. When Lady Mason tells her ancient lover that she did forge the will, the plot of Orley Farm has unravelled itself — and this she does in the middle of the tale. Independently, however, of this the novel is good. Sir Peregrine Orme, his grandson, Madeline Stavely, Mr. Furnival, Mr. Chaffanbrass, and the commercial gentlemen, are all good. The hunting is good. The lawyer’s talk is good. Mr. Moulder carves his turkey admirably, and Mr. Kantwise sells his tables and chairs with spirit. I do not know that there is a dull page in the book. I am fond of Orley Farm — and am especially fond of its illustrations by Millais, which are the best I have seen in any novel in any language.
I now felt that I had gained my object. In 1862 I had achieved that which I contemplated when I went to London in 1834, and towards which I made my first attempt when I began the Macdermots in 1843. I had created for myself a position among literary men, and had secured to myself an income on which I might live in ease and comfort — which ease and comfort have been made to include many luxuries. From this time for a period of twelve years my income averaged £4500 a year. Of this I spent about two-thirds, and put by one. I ought perhaps to have done better — to have spent one-third, and put by two; but I have ever been too well inclined to spend freely that which has come easily.
This, however, has been so exactly the life which my thoughts and aspirations had marked out — thoughts and aspirations which used to cause me to blush with shame because I was so slow in forcing myself to the work which they demanded — that I have felt some pride in having attained it. I have before said how entirely I fail to reach the altitude of those who think that a man devoted to letters should be indifferent to the pecuniary results for which work is generally done. An easy income has always been regarded by me as a great blessing. Not to have to think of sixpences, or very much of shillings; not to be unhappy because the coals have been burned too quickly, and the house linen wants renewing; not to be debarred by the rigour of necessity from opening one’s hands, perhaps foolishly, to one’s friends — all this to me has been essential to the comfort of life. I have enjoyed the comfort for I may almost say the last twenty years, though no man in his youth had less prospect of doing so, or would have been less likely at twenty-five to have had such luxuries foretold to him by his friends.
But though the money has been sweet, the respect, the friendships, and the mode of life which has been achieved, have been much sweeter. In my boyhood, when I would be crawling up to school with dirty boots and trousers through the muddy lanes, I was always telling myself that the misery of the hour was not the worst of it, but that the mud and solitude and poverty of the time would insure me mud and solitude and poverty through my life. Those lads about me would go into Parliament, or become rectors and deans, or squires of parishes, or advocates thundering at the Bar. They would not live with me now — but neither should I be able to live with them in after years. Nevertheless I have lived with them. When, at the age in which others go to the universities, I became a clerk in the Post Office, I felt that my old visions were being realised. I did not think it a high calling. I did not know then how very much good work may be done by a member of the Civil Service who will show himself capable of doing it. The Post Office at last grew upon me and forced itself into my affections. I became intensely anxious that people should have their letters delivered to them punctually. But my hope to rise had always been built on the writing of novels, and at last by the writing of novels I had risen.
I do not think that I ever toadied any one, or that I have acquired the character of a tuft-hunter. But here I do not scruple to say that I prefer the society of distinguished people, and that even the distinction of wealth confers many advantages. The best education is to be had at a price as well as the best broadcloth. The son of a peer is more likely to rub his shoulders against well-informed men than the son of a tradesman. The graces come easier to the wife of him who has had great-grandfathers than they do to her whose husband has been less — or more fortunate, as he may think it. The discerning man will recognise the information and the graces when they are achieved without such assistance, and will honour the owners of them the more because of the difficulties they have overcome — but the fact remains that the society of the well-born and of the wealthy will as a rule be worth seeking. I say this now, because these are the rules by which I have lived, and these are the causes which have instigated me to work.
I have heard the question argued — On what terms should a man of inferior rank live with those who are manifestly superior to him? If a marquis or an earl honour me, who have no rank, with his intimacy, am I in my intercourse with him to remember our close acquaintance or his high rank? I have always said that where the difference in position is quite marked, the overtures to intimacy should always come from the higher rank; but if the intimacy be ever fixed, then that rank should be held of no account. It seems to me that intimate friendship admits of no standing but that of equality. I cannot be the Sovereign’s friend, nor probably the friend of many very much beneath the Sovereign, because such equality is impossible.
When I first came to Waltham Cross in the winter of 1859-1860, I had almost made up my mind that my hunting was over. I could not then count upon an income which would enable me to carry on an amusement which I should doubtless find much more expensive in England than in Ireland. I brought with me out of Ireland one mare, but she was too light for me to ride in the hunting-field. As, however, the money came in, I very quickly fell back into my old habits. First one horse was bought, then another, and then a third, till it became established as a fixed rule that I should not have less than four hunters in the stable. Sometimes when my boys have been at home I have had as many as six. Essex was the chief scene of my sport, and gradually I became known there almost as well as though I had been an Essex squire, to the manner born. Few have investigated more closely than I have done the depth, and breadth, and water-holding capacities of an Essex ditch. It will, I think, be accorded to me by Essex men generally that I have ridden hard. The cause of my delight in the amusement I have never been able to analyse to my own satisfaction. In the first place, even now, I know very little about hunting — though I know very much of the accessories of the field. I am too blind to see hounds turning, and cannot therefore tell whether the fox has gone this way or that. Indeed all the notice I take of hounds is not to ride over them. My eyes are so constituted that I can never see the nature of a fence. I either follow some one, or ride at it with the full conviction that I may be going into a horse-pond or a gravel-pit. I have jumped into both one and the other. I am very heavy, and have never ridden expensive horses. I am also now old for such work, being so stiff that I cannot get on to my horse without the aid of a block or a bank. But I ride still after the same fashion, with a boy’s energy, determined to get ahead if it may possibly be done, hating the roads, despising young men who ride them, and with a feeling that life can not, with all her riches, have given me anything better than when I have gone through a long run to the finish, keeping a place, not of glory, but of credit, among my juniors.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01