This is an experiment in autobiography and again, I insist, I am writing for myself quite as much as for my reader. In turning over my memories of my early marriage and divorce and the documents that preserve the facts of the case, I learned in the sight of the reader, a great deal about myself and I found it natural to carry on from those early and determining thoughts and experiences to their reflection in my novels and my public discussion of personal relationships. I brought that account of my novels and pseudo-novels down to the present time. These discursive sections have served a useful purpose, they have functioned as a siding, so to speak, into which it has been possible to shunt a number of things that would otherwise have turned up later to complicate the main story of this brain with which I am dealing. That main story, is the development, the steady progressive growth of a modern vision of the world, and the way in which the planned reconstruction of human relationships in the form of a world-state became at last the frame and test of my activities. It is as much the frame and test of my activities as the spread of Islam was the frame and test of an early believing Moslem and the kingdom of God and salvation, of a sincere Christian. My life in the fact that it has evolved a general sustaining idea has become, at least psychologically a religious life; its persona is deoriented from the ego. My essential purpose is that world-vision. I shall try to express it, as fully and effectively as I can, in a last culminating chapter, a sort of testamentary chapter, which I shall call The Idea of a Planned World.
But before I can get on to this a further amount of anecdotage and incident is needed to make this development clear. My struggle for a footing is still only half told. I come back now to the point from which I launched out into a dissection of my sexual impulses and conduct, when at the beginning of 1894, at the age of twenty-seven and a half, I left my house, 4 Cumnor Place, Sutton and went to live in sin and social rebellion first at Mornington Place and then in Mornington Road.
The last decade of the nineteenth century was an extraordinarily favourable time for new writers and my individual good luck was set in the luck of a whole generation of aspirants. Quite a lot of us from nowhere were “getting on.” The predominance of Dickens and Thackeray and the successors and imitators they had inspired was passing. In a way they had exhausted the soil for the type of novel they had brought to a culmination, just as Lord Tennyson (who died as late as 1892), Tennyson of the Arthurian cycle, had extracted every poetical possibility from the contemporary prosperous bourgeoisie. For a generation the prestige of the great Victorians remained like the shadow of vast trees in a forest, but now that it was lifting, every weed and sapling had its chance, provided only that it was of a different species from its predecessors. When woods are burnt, it is a different tree which reconstitutes the forest. The habit of reading was spreading to new classes with distinctive needs and curiosities. They did not understand and enjoy the conventions and phrases of Trollope or Jane Austen, or the genteel satire of Thackeray, they were outside the “governing class” of Mrs. Humphry Ward’s imagination, the sombre passions and inhibitions of the Brontë country or of Wessex or Devonshire had never stirred them, and even the humours of Dickens no longer fitted into their everyday experiences.
The Education Act of 1871 had not only enlarged the reading public very greatly but it had stimulated the middle class by a sense of possible competition from below. And quite apart from that, progress was producing a considerable fermentation of ideas. An exceptional wave of intellectual enterprise had affected the British “governing class.” Under the influence of such brilliant Tories as Arthur Balfour and George Wyndham, a number of people in society were taking notice of writing and were on the alert for any signs of literary freshness. Such happy minor accidents as the invasion of England by the Astor family with a taste for running periodicals at a handsome loss, contributed also in their measure to the general expansion of opportunity for new writers. New books were being demanded and fresh authors were in request. Below and above alike there was opportunity, more public, more publicity, more publishers and more patronage. Nowadays it is relatively hard for a young writer to get a hearing. He (or she) plunges into a congested scramble. Here as everywhere production has outrun consuming capacity. But in the nineties young writers were looked for. Even publishers were looking for them.
For a time the need to be actually new was not clearly realized. Literary criticism in those days had some odd conventions. It was still either scholarly or with scholarly pretensions. It was dominated by the mediaeval assumption that whatever is worth knowing is already known and whatever is worth doing has already been done. Astonishment is unbecoming in scholarly men and their attitude to newcomers is best expressed by the word “recognition.” Anybody fresh who turned up was treated as an aspirant Dalai Lama is treated, and scrutinized for evidence of his predecessor’s soul. So it came about that every one of us who started writing in the nineties, was discovered to be “a second”— somebody or other. In the course of two or three years I was welcomed as a second Dickens, a second Bulwer Lytton and a second Jules Verne. But also I was a second Barrie, though J. M. B. was hardly more than my contemporary, and, when I turned to short stories, I became a second Kipling. I certainly, on occasion, imitated both these excellent masters. Later on I figured also as a second Diderot, a second Carlyle and a second Rousseau. . . .
Until recently this was the common lot. Literature “broadened down from precedent to precedent.” The influence of the publisher who wanted us to be new but did not want us to be strange, worked in the same direction as educated criticism. A sheaf of secondhand tickets to literary distinction was thrust into our hands and hardly anyone could get a straight ticket on his own. These secondhand tickets were very convenient as admission tickets. It was however unwise to sit down in the vacant chairs, because if one did so, one rarely got up again. Pett Ridge for instance pinned himself down as a second Dickens to the end of his days. I was saved from a parallel fate by the perplexing variety of my early attributions.
Of course Jane and I, starting life afresh in our guinea-a-week ground floor apartments in Mornington Place, had no suspicion how wise we had been in getting born exactly when we did. We did not realize we were like two respectable little new ordinary shares in a stock-exchange boom. We believed very gravely in the general sanity of things and we took the tide of easy success which had caught us up, as the due reward of our activity and efforts. We thought this was how things had always been and were always going to be. It was all delightfully simple. We were as bright and witty as we knew how, and acceptance, proofs and a cheque followed as a matter of course. I was doing my best to write as other writers wrote, and it was long before I realized that my exceptional origins and training gave me an almost unavoidable freshness of approach and that I was being original in spite of my sedulous efforts to justify my discursive secondariness.
Our life in 1894 and 95 was an almost continuous duologue. In Mornington Place and in Mornington Road we occupied a bedroom with a double bed and came through folding doors to our living room. All our clothing was in a small chest of drawers and a wardrobe and I did my work at a little table with a shaded paraffin lamp in the corner or, when it was not needed for a meal, at the table in the middle of the living room. All my notes and manuscripts were in a green cardboard box of four drawers. Our first landlady in Mornington Place was a German woman, Madame Reinach, and her cooking was so emphatic, her sympathy with our romantically unmarried state so liberally expressed, her eagerness for intimate mutual confidences so pressing, and her own confidences so extraordinary, that presently Jane went off by herself to Mornington Road and found another lodging for us.
Here our landlady, whose name by some queer turn I have forgotten, mothered us very agreeably. She was a tall, strong-faced, Scotswoman. For a London landlady she was an exceptionally clean, capable, silent and stoical woman. She had been housemaid, if I remember rightly, in the household of the Duke of Fife, and she began to approve of me when she found I worked continuously and never drank. I think that somewhere between the housemaid stage and this lodging house of hers, someone may have figured who lacked my simple virtues. (An old friend with a better memory than mine tells me her name was Mrs. Lewis. But I still do not remember.)
We would wake cheerfully and get up and I would invent rhymes and “pomes” of which I have already given sufficient samples, as we washed and dressed and avoided collisions with each other. We had no bathroom and our limited floor space was further restricted by a “tub,” a shallow tin bird-bath in which we sponged and splashed. Perhaps we would peep through the folding doors and if the living room was empty, one of us, I in trousers and nightshirt — those were pre-pyjama days — or Jane in her little blue dressing gown and her two blonde pigtails reaching below her waist, would make a dash for the letters. Usually they were cheering letters. Perhaps there was a cheque; perhaps there was an invitation to contribute an article or maybe there was a book for review. As we read these, a firm tread on the stairs, a clatter and an appetizing smell and at last a rap-rap on the folding doors announced our coffee and eggs and bacon.
How vividly I remember the cheerfulness of that front room; Jane in her wrapper on the hearthrug toasting a slice of bread; the grey London day a little misty perhaps outside and the bright animation of the coal-fire reflected on the fireirons and the fender!
After breakfast I would set to work upon a review or one of the two or three articles I always kept in hand, working them up very carefully from rough notes until I was satisfied with them. Jane would make a fair copy of what I had done, or write on her own account, or go out to supplement our landlady’s catering, or read biology for her final B.Sc. degree examination. After the morning’s work we might raid out into Regents Park or up among the interesting shops and stalls of the Hampstead Road, for a breath of air and a gleam of amusement before our one o’clock dinner. After dinner we would prowl out to look for articles.
This article hunt was a very important business. We sought unlikely places at unlikely times in order to get queer impressions of them. We went to Highgate Cemetery in the afternoon and protested at the conventionality of the monumental mason, or we were gravely critical, with a lapse into enthusiasm in the best art-critic manner, of the Parkes Museum (sanitary science), or we went on a cold windy day to Epping Forest to write “Bleak March in Epping Forest.” We nosed the Bond Street windows and the West End art and picture shows to furbish forth an Uncle I had invented to suit the taste of the Pall Mall Gazette— a tremendous man of the world he was, the sort of man who might live in the Albany. (Select Conversations with an Uncle, is the pick of what we got for him.) I was still a fellow of the Zoological Society (afterwards my subscription went into abeyance) and we sought articles and apt allusions from cage to cage. Whenever we hit upon an idea for an article that I did not immediately write, it was put into the topmost of my nest of green drawers for future use.
On wet afternoons or after supper when we could work no more we played chess (which yielded an article) and bézique, which defied even my article extracting powers. Bézique was introduced to us by my old fellow student Morley Davies, who had taken on my Correspondence Classes and was working for his B.Sc. He lodged near by and he would come in after supper and gravely take down a triple pack with us.
We went very little to concerts, theatres or music-halls for the very sound reason that we could not afford it. Our only exercise was “going for a walk.” And for a time except for occasional after-supper visitors like Davies, or my distant cousin Owen Thomas, who was arranging my divorce upon the most economical lines, or a tea at Walter Low’s, we had no social life at all. But then I never had had any social life and Jane’s experience had been chiefly of little dances, tea parties, croquet parties and lawn tennis in the villadom of Putney, formal entertainments of which she was now disposed to be very scornful.
It is perhaps not surprising that as the Spring came on, Jane and I, in spite of our encouraging successfulness, displayed signs of being run down. I had something wrong with a lymphatic gland under my jaw and when I called in a Camden Town doctor to clean it up for me, he insisted that Jane was in a worse state than I and that she ought to be much more in the fresh air and better nourished if she was not to become tuberculous. He ordered her Burgundy and we went out and bought an entire bottle at once — Gilbey’s Burgundy, Number — something or other — and Jane consumed it medicinally, one glass per meal. We decided to transfer ourselves to country lodgings for the summer. Except for the facilities of getting books and the advisability of being near one’s editors, there seemed to be no particular reason why we should be tied to London. Moreover Jane’s mother, Mrs. Robbins, had let her house at Putney; she had been lodging with some friends in North London and she too was ailing and in need of the open air. She had accepted our irregular situation by this time and was quite ready to join us. And while we were hesitating on the verge of this necessity came an accession of work that seemed to make an abandonment of London altogether justifiable.
I was invited one day to go and see my editor, Cust of the Pall Mall Gazette— either that or I had asked to see him, I forget which. I went down to the office for my second encounter with an editor but this time I wore no wetted top-hat to shame me by its misbehaviour and no tail coat. I was evidently wearing quite reasonable clothes because I have forgotten them. I was learning my world. The Pall Mall Gazette was installed in magnificent offices in the position now occupied by the Garrick Theatre. I was sent up to the editor’s room. I remember it as a magnificent drawing-room; Fleet Street hath not its like to-day. There was certainly one grand piano in it, and my memory is inclined to put in another. There was a vast editor’s desk, marvellously equipped, like a desk out of Hollywood. There were chairs and sofas. But for the moment I saw nobody amidst these splendours. I advanced slowly across a space of noiseless carpet. Then I became aware of a sound of sobbing and realized that someone almost completely hidden from me lay prostrate on a sofa indulging in paroxysms of grief.
In the circumstances a cough seemed to be the best thing.
Thereupon the sound from the sofa ceased abruptly and a tall blond man sat up, stared and then stood up, put away his pocket handkerchief and became entirely friendly and self-possessed. Whatever emotional crisis was going on had nothing to do with the business between us and was suspended. Yes, he wanted to see me. He liked my stuff and it was perfectly reasonable that I should want to make up my income by doing reviewing. There wasn’t any job he could give me on the staff just now. So soon as there was he would think of me. Did I know W. E. Henley? I ought to go and see him.
He asked me where I got my knowledge and how I had learnt to write and what I was and I told him to the best of my ability. He put me at my ease from the beginning. There was none of the Olympian balderdash of Frank Harris about him. He combined the agreeable manners of an elder brother with those of a fellow adventurer. It wasn’t at all Fleet Street to which he made me welcome but a Great Lark in journalism. I suppose he knew hardly more of Fleet Street than I did. I must certainly go and see Henley, but just now there was someone else I must meet.
He touched a bell and presently across the large spaces of the room appeared Mr. Lewis Hind. Hind was a contrast to Cust in every way, except that he too was an outsider in the journalistic world. He was tall, dark and sallow, with a reserved manner and an impediment in his speech. He had begun life in the textile trade and at one time he had gone about London with samples of lace. He had been an industrious student, with Clement K. Shorter and W. Pett Ridge at the Birkbeck Institute and he had adventured with them into the expanding field of journalism. He had been taken up and influenced in the direction of catholicism by Mrs. Alice Meynell and he had found a permanent job as sub-editor of the Magazine of Art under Henley and, through his introduction and that of Mrs. Meynell he had come aboard Mr. Astor’s Pall Mall adventure. The Gazette had thrown off a weekly satellite, the Pall Mall Budget, which was at first merely a bale of the less newsy material in the Gazette. My Man of the Year Million had appeared in it, with some amusing illustrations, and had made a little eddy of success for me. Hind edited this budget and it was proposed to expand it presently into an independent illustrated weekly with original matter, all its own. He was looking for “features.” He carried me off from Cust’s room to his own less palatial quarters and there he broached the idea of utilizing my special knowledge of science in the expanded weekly, in a series of short stories to be called “single sitting” stories. I was to have five guineas for each story. It seemed quite good pay, then, and I set my mind to imagining possible stories of the kind he demanded.
We left Cust in his office. Whether he went on with his crisis or forgot about it I cannot say, but from my later acquaintance with him, I think he most probably forgot about it.
The first of the single sitting stories I ground out was the Stolen Bacillus and after a time I became quite dexterous in evolving incidents and anecdotes from little possibilities of a scientific or quasi-scientific sort. I presently broadened my market and found higher prices were to be got from the Strand Magazine and the Pall Mall Magazine. Many of these stories, forty perhaps altogether, have been reprinted again and again in a variety of collections and they still appear and reappear in newspapers and magazines. Hind paid me £5 for them, but the normal fee I get nowadays for republication in a newspaper, is £20, and many have still undeveloped dramatic and film possibilities. I had no idea in those energetic needy days of these little tips I was putting aside for my declining years.
At about the same time that Hind set me writing short stories, I had a request from the mighty William Ernest Henley himself for a contribution to the National Observer. I went to see the old giant whose “head was bloody but unbowed” at his house upon the riverside at Putney. He was a magnificent torso set upon shrunken withered legs. When I met President Franklin Roosevelt this spring I found the same big chest and the same infirmity. He talked very richly and agreeably and, as he talked, he emphasized his remarks by clutching an agate paper weight in his big freckled paw and banging it on his writing table. Years afterwards when he died his wife gave me that slab of agate and it is on my desk before me as I write. I resolved to do my very best for him and I dug up my peculiar treasure, my old idea of “time-travelling,” from the Science Schools Journal and sent him in a couple of papers. He liked them and asked me to carry on the idea so as to give glimpses of the world of the future. This I was only too pleased to do, and altogether I developed the notion into seven papers between March and June. This was the second launching of the story that had begun in the Science Schools Journal as the Chronic Argonauts, but now nearly all the traces of Hawthorne and English Babu classicism had disappeared. I had realized that the more impossible the story I had to tell, the more ordinary must be the setting, and the circumstances in which I now set the Time Traveller were all that I could imagine of solid upper-middle-class comfort.
With these Time Traveller papers running, with quite a number of stories for Hind germinating in my head, with a supply of books to review and what seemed a steady market for my occasional, my frequent occasional, articles in the Gazette, it seemed no sort of risk to leave London for a lodging at Sevenoaks, and thither we went, all three of us, as London grew hot and dusty and tiring. For awhile things were very pleasant at Sevenoaks. We went for long walks and Jane recovered rapidly in health and energy. We explored Knole Park and down the long hill to Tunbridge and away to the haunts of my grandfather, Penshurst Park. Jane was still working for her final degree, though she never actually sat for the examination; botany was to be one of her three subjects and we gathered and brought home big and various bunches of flowers so that she might learn the natural orders.
At first Mrs. Robbins was not with us. When she joined us she was in ill health; she had recovered only very partially from her disapproval of our unmarried state, and her presence was a considerable restraint upon our jests and “picshuas” and daily ease. At times the tension of her unspoken feelings would oblige her to take to her room and eat her meals there. This slight and retreating shadow upon our contentment was presently supplemented by graver troubles. There was a sudden fall in my income. Abruptly the National Observer changed hands. This was quite a sudden transaction; the paper had never paid its expenses and its chief supporter decided to sell it to a Mr. Vincent who also took over the editorial control from Henley. Mr. Vincent thought my articles queer wild ramblings and wound them up at once. At the same time the Pall Mall Gazette stopped using my articles. The literary editor, Marriott Watson, always a firm friend of mine, was away on holiday and his temporary successor did not think very much of my stuff. I did not know of this, and I was quite at a loss to account for this sudden withdrawal of support. I thought it might be a permanent withdrawal. For the first time we found our monthly expenditure exceeding our income. A certain dismay pervaded our hitherto cheerful walks. And then an equally unexpected decision by Mr. Astor announced an approaching end to the brief bright career of the Pall Mall Budget and with it my sure and certain market and prompt pay for a single-sitting story.
Just then came an emissary from the divorce court with a writ, couched in stern uncompromising phrases, and instead of locking this securely away, Jane put it in a drawer accessible to the curiosity of our landlady. There had been some little trouble with her already; she wanted to charge an extra sixpence for every meal Mrs. Robbins took in her own room, she said we littered up the place with our wild flowers, and she thought I consumed an unconscionable amount of lamp-oil by writing so late. She was faintly irritated about Jane’s disinclination for womanly gossiping with her, she felt we were “stuck-up” in some way, and when she realized that we had no marriage lines, her indignation flared. She could not immediately tax us with our flagrant immorality, for that would have been to admit her own prying, but she became extremely truculent in her bearing and negligent in her services. Dark allusions foreshadowed the coming row. We were not the sort of people everybody would want to take in. There were people who were right and you could tell it, and people who were not. Life assumed a harsh and careworn visage.
It seemed rather useless to go on writing articles. All the periodicals to which I contributed were holding stuff of mine in proof and it might be indiscreet to pour in fresh matter to such a point that the tanks overflowed and returned it. But I had one thing in the back of my mind. Henley had told me that it was just possible he would presently find backing for a monthly. If so, he thought I might rewrite the Time Traveller articles as a serial story. Anyhow that was something to do and I set to work on the Time Machine and rewrote it from end to end.
I still remember writing that part of the story in which the Time Traveller returns to find his machine removed and his retreat cut off. I sat alone at the round table downstairs writing steadily in the luminous circle cast by a shaded paraffin lamp. Jane had gone to bed and her mother had been ill in bed all day. It was a very warm blue August night and the window was wide open. The best part of my mind fled through the story in a state of concentration before the Morlocks but some outlying regions of my brain were recording other things. Moths were fluttering in ever and again and though I was unconscious of them at the time, one must have flopped near me and left some trace in my marginal consciousness that became a short story I presently wrote, A Moth, Genus Novo. And outside in the summer night a voice went on and on, a feminine voice that rose and fell. It was Mrs. —— I forget her name — our landlady in open rebellion at last, talking to a sympathetic neighbour in the next garden and talking through the window at me. I was aware of her and heeded her not, and she lacked the courage to beard me in my parlour. “Would I never go to bed? How could she lock up with that window staring open? Never had she had such people in her house before — never. A nice lot if everything was known about them. Often when you didn’t actually know about things you could feel them. What she let her rooms to was summer visitors who walked about all day and went to bed at night. And she hated meanness and there were some who could be mean about sixpences. People with lodgings to let in Sevenoaks ought to know the sort of people who might take them. . . . ”
It went on and on. I wrote on grimly to that accompaniment. I wrote her out and she made her last comment with the front door well and truly slammed. I finished my chapter before I shut the window and turned down and blew out the lamp. And somehow amidst the gathering disturbance of those days the Time Machine got itself finished. Jane kept up a valiant front and fended off from me as much as she could of the trouble that was assailing her on both sides. But a certain gay elasticity disappeared. It was a disagreeable time for her. She went and looked at other apartments and was asked unusual questions.
It was a retreat rather than a return we made to London, with the tart reproaches of the social system echoing in our ears. But before our ultimate flight I had had a letter from Henley telling me it was all right about that monthly of his. He was to start The New Review in January and he would pay me £100 for the Time Machine as his first serial story. One hundred pounds! And at the same time the mills of the Pall Mall Gazette began to go round and consume my work again. Mrs. Robbins went back to stay with friends in North London and Jane and I found our old rooms with our Scotch landlady at 12, Mornington Road, still free for us.
We seem to have stuck it in London for the rest of the year. Somewhen that Autumn Frank Harris, who was no longer editing the Fortnightly Review, obtained possession of the weekly Saturday Review. He proceeded to a drastic reconstruction of what was then a dull and dignified periodical. He was mindful of those two early articles of mine, the one he had published and the one he had destroyed, and he sent for me at once. He sent also for Walter Low and a number of other comparatively unknown people. The office was in Southampton Street, off the Strand, and it occupied the first and second floors. I found people ascending and descending and the roar of a remembered voice told me that Harris was on the higher level. I found Blanchamp in a large room on the drawing-room floor amidst a great confusion of books and papers and greatly amused. Harris was having a glorious time of it above. He had summoned most of the former staff to his presence in order to read out scraps from their recent contributions to them and to demand, in the presence of his “Dear Gahd” and his faithful henchman Silk, why the hell they wrote like that. It was a Revolution — the twilight of the Academic. But Professor Saintsbury, chief of that anonymous staff, had been warned in time by Edmund Gosse and so escaped the crowning humiliation.
Clergymen, Oxford dons, respectable but strictly anonymous men of learning and standing, came hustling downstairs in various phases of indignation and protest, while odd newcomers in strange garments as redolent of individuality as their signatures, waited their turn to ascend. I came late on the list and by that time Harris was ready for lunch and took Blanchamp, Low and myself as his guests and audience to the Café Royal, where I made the acquaintance of Camembert of the ripest and a sort of Burgundy quite different from the bottle I had bought for Jane in her extremity. I don’t think we talked much about my prospective contributions. But I gathered that our fortunes were made, that Oxford and the Stuffy and the Genteel and Mr. Gladstone were to be destroyed and that under Harris the Saturday Review was to become a weekly unprecedented in literary history.
It did in fact become a very lively, readable and remarkable publication. It was never so consciously and consistently “written” as Henley’s defunct National Observer, but it had a broader liveliness and a far more vigorous circulation. Among other rising writers Harris presently had at work upon it was a lean, red-haired Irishman named Shaw, already known as a music critic and a Socialist speaker, who so far broke through its traditional anonymity as to insist upon his initials appearing after his dramatic criticisms, D. S. McColl (also presently initialled), J. F. Runciman (ditto), Cunninghame Graham (full signature), Max Beerbohm, Chalmers Mitchell, Arthur Symons, J. T. Grein. . . . I cannot remember half of them. Signed articles increased and multiplied and all sorts of prominent and interesting people made occasional contributions. A “Feature,” a series of articles on “The Best Scenery I know” was begun and a “Correspondence” section broke out. No man, it seems, had ever been stirred to write letters to the old “Saturday” or he had been snubbed when he did. Now some were invited and others were stung to contribute the most interesting letters. What Saintsbury thought of it all has never, I think, been recorded. But then Saintsbury very rarely brought his critical acumen to bear upon contemporary writing.
Our City articles also, I gathered, were developing a vigour all their own under the immediate direction of Harris. “I’m a blackmailer,” he announced, time and again, and represented himself as a terrible wolf among financiers. Possibly he did something to justify his boasts, in later life he seems to have told Hugh Kingsmill some remarkable stories of cheques extorted and bundles of notes passing from hand to hand but manifestly in the long run it came to very little and he died a year or so ago at Nice in anything but wealthy circumstances.
England in my time has been very liable to adventurous outsiders; Bottomley and Birkenhead, Ramsay Macdonald and Loewenstein, Shaw and Zaharoff, Maundy Gregory and me — a host of others; men with no legitimate and predetermined rôles, men who have behaved at all levels of behaviour but whose common characteristic it has been to fly across the social confusion quite unaccountably, scattering a train of interrogations in their wake. Only the court, the army and navy, banking and the civil service have been secure against this invasion. Such men are inevitable in a period of obsolete educational ideas and decaying social traditions. Whatever else they are they are not dull and formal. They quicken, if it is only quickening to destroy. Harris was certainly a superlative example of the outside adventurer. He was altogether meteoric.
Nobody seemed to know whence Harris had come. He was supposed to be either a Welsh Jew or a Spanish Irishman; he spoke with an accent, but he had done so much to his accent that I doubt whether Shaw could place it precisely. It had a sort of “mega-celtic” flavour — if I may coin a word. His entirely untrustworthy reminiscences give Galway as his birth-place. The meticulous student may find these matters fully discussed in the Life by A. I. Tobin and Elmer Gertz and in Hugh Kingsmill’s Frank Harris. He emerged as a bright pressman in Chicago, made his way to London, pushed into journalism, and when he was sent to write up the bad treatment of the tenants on the Cecil estates, achieved a reputation for vigour and mental integrity by praising instead of cursing. He was taken notice of. He clambered to the editorship of the Evening News. From that, before it fell away from him, he leapt still higher. Legend has it that he went to Chapman, the proprietor of the Fortnightly Review, and told him his paper was dull because he did not know enough prominent people and then to one or two outstanding people and pointed out the value of publicity in this democratic age, and particularly the value of the publicity to be got through a personal acquaintance with Mr. Chapman; that he invited him to meet them and them to meet him, to the great social gratification of Mr. Chapman, and emerged triumphantly from the resultant party as editor of the Fortnightly Review. He infused a certain amount of new life into it and challenged the established ascendency of the Nineteenth Century. He married a wealthy widow, a Mrs. Clayton, who had a small but charming house in the then socially exalted region of Park Lane. There he reached his zenith. He saw himself entering parliament; he cultivated the constituency of Hackney, he aspired, he told Hugh Kingsmill, to become the “British Bismarck” (whatever he imagined that to mean. He may have been thinking of his moustache) and all sorts of prominent and interesting people went to the dinner parties at Park Lane. But he could not stay the course. His sexual vanity was overpowering, he not only became a discursive amorist but he talked about it, and there ensued an estrangement and separation from his wife and her income and Park Lane. His dominating way in conversation startled, amused and then irritated people, and he felt his grip slipping. The directors of the Fortnightly became restive and interfering. He began to drink heavily and to shout still louder as the penalties of loud shouting closed in on him. When I met him for the second time as the editor with a controlling interest in the Saturday Review, he had already left his wife and lost her monetary support, but he was still high in the London sky. He was still a star of the magnitude of Whistler or Henley or Oscar Wilde and we, his younger contributors, were little chaps below him.
I think his blackmailing in the Saturday Review period was almost pure romancing, for he achieved neither the wealth nor the jail that are the alternatives facing the serious blackmailer. He was far too loud and vain, far too eager to create an immediate impression to be a proper scoundrel. I have been hearing about him all my life and I have never heard convincing particulars of any actual monetary frauds; the Saturday Review, I can witness, paid punctually to the end of his proprietorship. His claims to literary flair, if not to literary distinction, were better founded. He read widely and confusedly but often with vivid appreciation, and he pretended to great learning. He was the sort of man who will prepare a long quotation in Greek for a dinner party. Kingsmill says he sported an Eton tie at times and talked of the “old days” at Rugby. Also he insisted that he had been a cowboy, a foremast hand and a great number of other fine romantic things, as occasion seemed to demand. I never saw him do anything more adventurous than sit and talk exuberantly in imminent danger of unanswerable contradiction.
That was what he lived for, talking, writing that was also loud talk in ink, and editing. He was a brilliant editor for a time and then the impetus gave out and he flagged rapidly. So soon as he ceased to work vehemently he became unable to work. He could not attend to things without excitement. As his confidence went he became clumsily loud.
His talk was most effective at the first hearing; after some experience of it, it began to bore me so excessively that I avoided the office when I knew he was there. There was no variety in his posing and no fancy in his falsehoods. I do not remember that he said a single good thing in all that uproar; his praise, his condemnations, his assertions, his pretensions to an excessive villainy and virility, have all dissolved in my memory into a rich muddy noise. Always he was proclaiming himself the journalistic Robin Hood, bold yet strangely sensitive and tender-hearted — with the full volume of his voice. The reader may get the quality of it best in his book The Man Shakespeare.
I went on writing for him until 1898, but with diminishing frequency. Throughout that period he shrank in my mind from his original dimensions of Olympian terror to something in retreating perspective that kept on barking. Sometimes I relented towards him and did my best to restore him to his original position in my esteem as a Great Character, or at least a Great Lark. But really he had not the versatility and detachment for the Great Lark. He could never get sufficiently away from his ugly self. He had nothing of the fresh gaiety of Harry Cust who was everything a Great Lark should be.
After 1898 I saw Harris only intermittently. He left London. Something obscure happened to the Saturday Review and he sold his interest in it and went to France.
Thereafter I heard him rumbling about, for the most part below the horizon of my world, a distant thunder. He came up to visibility again for a time as the editor of an old and long respectable monthly called Hearth and Home. He desecrated the Hearth and got rid of the Homelike quality very rapidly and thoroughly. Before or after that (I forget which) he was editor of a periodical with menace even in the title, The Candid Friend, which was abusive rather than candid, and faded out. Afterwards he worked his mischief upon Vanity Fair and then upon a publication called Modern Society. But he did nothing extraordinarily or gallantly wicked though he did much that was noisily offensive.
We had a quarrel during the Vanity Fair phase. He sent me a book called The Bomb. I thought the first part good and the second tawdry and bad and I asked him which part of it was really his. I had touched a tender spot. His idea of a retort was to publish terrific “slatings” of my Tono Bungay, which for reasons still obscure to me he called Tono-the-Bungay. That did not alter the fact that The Bomb is curiously unequal.
Modern Society got him into prison but only on the score of contempt of court. He commented on the private character of the defendant in a divorce case that was sub judice. His “martyrdom,” as he called it later, lasted a month. Then for a time I heard no more of him.
One morning in war time, somewhen in 1915, my neighbour Lady Warwick came sailing down from Easton Lodge to Easton Glebe, my house on the edge of her park. It is not her way to beat about the bush. “Why does Frank Harris say I am not to tell you he is here?” she asked.
Was he here? He was at Brook End with his wife — in fear of prosecution. He had found reason for bolting from Paris and he had thrown himself upon her never-failing generosity. Brook End was a furnished house just beyond the far gates of the park which she was in the habit of lending to all and sundry who appealed to her. He had been boasting too much in Paris about his German sympathies and his influence with the Indian princes, and the French who are a logical people and take things said far too seriously, made themselves disagreeable and inquisitive. They are quite capable of shooting a man on his own confession. He gave way to panic. He fled to England with Mrs. Harris and a couple of valises. He still saw denunciation in every tree and the rustle of the summer leaves outside the windows at Brook End seemed the prelude to arrest.
I explained that he and I had been exchanging abusive letters and I supposed that he was expecting me to behave as he would have behaved if our positions had been reversed. Jane came in and we agreed that it was a case for cordial and even effusive hospitality. Mrs. Harris is a very pleasant and loyal lady and there was little need for effort in our welcome to her. Harris — a very subdued Harris it was — brightened up and we did what we could to make his stay in Essex pleasant until he could get a passage to America. He sat at my table and talked of Shakespeare, Dryden, Carlyle, Jesus Christ, Confucius, me and other great figures; of poetry and his own divine sensitiveness and the execrable cooking in Brixton jail.
Presently they got a passage for America and departed.
He had been gone some days when I had another visit from Lady Warwick. This time she did not come to the point so directly. As we walked in my rose garden she asked me what I really thought of Frank Harris. Didn’t she know?
You see, she had had a number of letters — quite interesting letters from a certain royal personage.
“And you gave them to him?”
“Oh no! But he asked to look through them. He thought he might advise me about them. One doesn’t care to destroy things like that. They have historical importance.”
“And they are now in his valise on their way to America?”
“Yes. How did you know that?”
It seemed to me, I am afraid, an altogether amusing situation. “Even if the ship is torpedoed,” I said, “Harris will stick to those letters.”
It was a lengthy and costly business to recover and place those carelessly written and very private documents in the hands most likely to hold them discreetly. Meanwhile Harris took over Pearson’s Magazine in America and ran it as a pro-German organ until America came into the war. He reduced a circulation of 200,000 to 10,000. He published a hostile and quite imaginary interview with me to show how entirely ignorant and foolish was my attitude in the struggle.
But this is my autobiography and not a biography of Harris. I never saw him again. I found myself very near him when I made a winter home for myself near Grasse, but I kept any craving I had to hear his voice once more, well under control. Messages passed between us and I promised to go and see him — when I could manage it. But I never did manage and I am rather sorry now. He died in 1932 and after all, by that time, he was an old man of seventy-seven or seventy-eight, and it would have done me no harm to have gone over and listened to him for an hour or so.
Shaw was far kinder to him. When he was staying at Antibes in the summer of 1928 he went over to Nice on several occasions, and renewed the old acquaintance. It was an odd friendship. Harris never wearied and bored Shaw as he wearied and bored me. Shaw found something attractive in all those boastings of sentimentalized villainy and passionate virility. And moreover he could hold his own with Harris in a way that I could not do. In his earlier years he had been wont to face and sway the uproar of excited public meetings. Talking to Harris must have seemed almost like old times come again. But Harris in talk went over me like a steam roller and flattened me out completely.
Very generously Shaw allowed Harris to write a Life of himself. It is the work of an ego-centred, sex-crazy old man. And it reveals more than anything else the profound resentment of Harris at the relative success of his former contributor. Shaw, he says, was a miracle of impotence in art, in affairs and in love. That is the main thesis. The analysis is pseudo-physiological throughout. Shaw took these outpourings with an admirable good humour and helped the book greatly by adding elucidatory contributions of his own. But so far as I and my autobiography are concerned, the latter years of Harris at Nice are no more than “noises heard off.” I know nothing of that redoubtable suppressed Life and Loves of his, in four volumes, which is sought after by collectors of “curious” books, except that it must certainly be tumultuous and unveracious.
So much for that hot, vehement brain which went roaring past my own less audible hemispheres of grey matter on their way through this world. I am told that The Life and Loves of Frank Harris is a warning to all autobiographers, and I can quite believe it. Apparently it is a hotch potch of lies, self-pity, vain pretensions and exhibitionism and the end is unhappiness and despair. Nevertheless I do not feel urged, even for my own good, to go to the pains needed to procure and read a surreptitious copy of it. I do not think I should learn anything more about this awful example of undisciplined egoism than I know and have told already. The core of the matter is this, that this man drank and shouted and had to go on drinking and shouting all through his life because the tireless pursuit of self-discovery upon his heels gave him no peace; he never had the courage to face round at his reality and he was never sufficiently stupefied to forget it. He was already in flight before the horror of The Man Frank Harris, before ever he came to London. And yet, perhaps, if he had turned, he might have made something quite tolerable of his repudiated and falsified self. I cannot tell. It would have been a stiff job anyhow with that dwarfish ill-proportioned body, that ugly dark face and with lust-entangled vanity and greediness of overpowering strength.
I return from this digression to the years 1894-95 and my visits to Southampton Street to get books for review from Frank Harris and Blanchamp and to carry them off, whole armfuls, in a hansom cab to 12 Mornington Road. There I sat down and Jane and I mugged up our reviews of them, whenever the light of invention burnt low and an original article seemed out of the question.
I was now in a very hopeful and enterprising mood. Henley had accepted the Time Machine, agreed to pay £100 for it, and had recommended it to Heinemann, the publisher. This would bring in at least another £50. I should have a book out in the spring and I should pass from the status of journalist —“occasional journalist” at that, and anonymous — to authorship under my own name. And there was talk of a book of short stories with Methuen. Furthermore John Lane was proposing to make a book out of some of my articles, though for that I was to get only £10 down. The point was that my chance was plainly coming fast. I should get a press — and I felt I might get a good press — for the Time Machine anyhow. If I could get another book out before that amount of publicity died away I should be fairly launched as an author and then I might be able to go on writing books. This incessant hunt for “ideas” for anonymous articles might be relaxed and the grind of book-reviewing abated.
I find in my archives a “picshua” commemorating my Christmas dinner for 1894. Very few picshuas survive from the first year of my life with Jane. I did not draw so very many then, and she did not begin methodically to save what I drew until we had a house and storage. The early pictures were not nearly so neat and dexterous as the later. But this one shows our tall landlady (bless her!) giving a last glance at the table she has laid for myself and Jane and Mrs. Robbins. The fare is recognizably a turkey. Detail however is hasty and inadequate. The interested reader will note the folding doors. He will note too a queer black object on the table to the left of Jane. That represents, however inadequately, a black glass flagon. In this flagon there was a wine — I do not know if it is still sold by grocers — a golden wine, called “Canary Sack.” I am not at all sure if it was the same as Falstaff’s sack; it was a sweetish thin sherry-like wine.
That wine on the table, even more than the turkey and the presence of Mrs. Robbins, marks the fact that already in the first year Jane and I felt we were winning our queer little joint fight against the world, for the liberty of our lives and the freedom of our brains. We had had a serious talk about our social outlook. People, often strange people, were beginning to ask us out. All sorts of unfamiliar food and drink might be sprung upon us, for the dietary Jane had been brought up upon was scarcely less restricted than my own. We knew no wines but port and sherry. Accordingly we decided to experiment with food and drink so far as the resources of the Camden Town and Tottenham Court Road luxury trade permitted. We tried a bottle of claret and a bottle of hock and so forth and so on, and that is why we “washed down” our Christmas fare with Canary Sack. So that if anyone asked us to take Canary Sack we should know what we were in for. But nobody ever did ask us to take Canary Sack. My knowledge of Canary Sack is still waste knowledge.
And we discussed whether we would go out to a dinner or so in a restaurant in preparation for our social emergence. There was the Holborn Restaurant and there were restaurants in Soho which offered dinners from 1s. 6d. upwards, where we might acquire the elements of gastronomic savoir faire.
I had already been to one formidable dinner party, the “Wake” of Henley’s National Observer. It was perhaps not in the best possible taste to call it a wake, seeing that the new editor proprietor who had undertaken to carry on the life of the deceased, was present as a guest. George Wyndham, Nathaniel Curzon, Walter Sickert, Edgar Vincent (better known nowadays as Lord D’Abernon), G. S. Street, Arthur Morrison, Bob Stevenson, Charles Baxter (R. L. S.’s business manager), H. B. Marriott Watson and other contributors to the paper were present. I am not sure whether J. M. Barrie and Rudyard Kipling were there, but both had been among Henley’s men. I sat at the tail of a table, rather proud and scared, latest adherent to this gallant band. And because I was there at the end I was first to be served with a strange black blobby substance altogether unknown to me. I was there to enjoy myself and I helped myself to a generous portion. My next door neighbour — I rather fancy it was Basil Thomson — eyed the black mound upon my plate.
“I see you like caviar,” he remarked.
“Love it,” I said.
I didn’t, but I ate it all. I had my proper pride.
That dinner was at Verrey’s in Regent Street and I remember walking very gravely and carefully along the kerb of the pavement at a later hour, to convince myself that the exalted swimming in my head which had ensued upon the festival, was not in the nature of intoxication. If there had been a tight-rope handy leading straight out over the bottomless pit I suppose that in that mood of grave investigation I should have tried it. I decided that I was not drunk, but that I was “under the influence of alcohol.” My literary ambitions were bringing me into a quite unanticipated world, full of strange sorts of food and still more various sorts of drink. A certain discretion might, I decided with a wary eye on the kerb, be necessary.
It was a good thing for me that behind the folding doors at 12 Mornington Road slept a fine and valiant little being, so delicate and clean and so credulous of my pretensions, that it would have been intolerable to appear before her unshaven or squalid or drunken or base. I lived through my Bohemian days as sober as Shaw if not nearly so teetotally.
Which reminds me of a bitter complaint I once heard in the Saturday Review office from one of Harris’s satellites. “When we’re here’n the’vning all com’fly tight tha’ fella Shaw comes in — dishgrashful shtate shobriety — talks and talks . . . AND TALKS.”
I began the new year with my first and only regular job on a London daily. Cust had promised that I should have the next vacancy, whatever it was, on the Pall Mall, and the lot fell upon the dramatic criticism. I was summoned by telegram. “Here,” said Cust and thrust two small pieces of coloured paper into my hand.
“What are these?” I asked.
“Theatres. Go and do ’em,”
“Yes,” I said and reflected. “I’m willing to have a shot at it, but I ought to warn you that so far, not counting the Crystal Palace pantomime and Gilbert and Sullivan, I’ve been only twice to a theatre.”
“Exactly what I want,” said Cust. “You won’t be in the gang. You’ll make a break.”
“One wears evening dress?”
It was not in Gust’s code of manners to betray astonishment. “Oh yes. To-morrow night especially. The Haymarket.”
We regarded each other thoughtfully for a moment, “Right O,” said I and hurried round to a tailor named Millar in Charles Street who knew me to be solvent. “Can you make me evening clothes by to-morrow night?” I asked, “Or must I hire them?”
The clothes were made in time but in the foyer I met Cust and George Steevens ready to supply a criticism if I failed them and nothing came to hand from me. But I did the job in a fashion and posted my copy fairly written out in its bright red envelope before two o’clock in the morning in the Mornington Road pillar box. The play was “An Ideal Husband, a new and original play of modern life by Oscar Wilde.”
That was on the third of January 1895, and all went well. On the fifth I had to do Guy Domville, a play by Henry James at the St. James’s Theatre. This was a more memorable experience. It was an extremely weak drama. James was a strange unnatural human being, a sensitive man lost in an immensely abundant brain, which had had neither a scientific nor a philosophical training, but which was by education and natural aptitude alike, formal, formally æsthetic, conscientiously fastidious and delicate. Wrapped about in elaborations of gesture and speech, James regarded his fellow creatures with a face of distress and a remote effort at intercourse, like some victim of enchantment placed in the centre of an immense bladder. His life was unbelievably correct and his home at Rye one of the most perfect pieces of suitably furnished Georgian architecture imaginable. He was an unspotted bachelor. He had always been well off and devoted to artistic ambitions; he had experienced no tragedy and he shunned the hoarse laughter of comedy; and yet he was consumed by a gnawing hunger for dramatic success. In this performance he had his first and last actual encounter with the theatre.
Guy Domville was one of those rare ripe exquisite Catholic Englishmen of ancient family conceivable only by an American mind, who gave up the woman he loved to an altogether coarser cousin, because his religious vocation was stronger than his passion. I forget the details of the action. There was a drinking scene in which Guy and the cousin, for some obscure purpose of discovery, pretended to drink and, instead, poured their wine furtively into a convenient bowl of flowers upon the table between them. Guy was played by George Alexander, at first in a mood of refined solemnity and then as the intimations of gathering disapproval from pit and gallery increased, with stiffening desperation. Alexander at the close had an incredibly awkward exit. He had to stand at a door in the middle of the stage, say slowly “Be keynd to Her. . . . Be keynd to Her” and depart. By nature Alexander had a long face, but at that moment with audible defeat before him, he seemed the longest and dismallest face, all face, that I have ever seen. The slowly closing door reduced him to a strip, to a line, of perpendicular gloom. The uproar burst like a thunder-storm as the door closed and the stalls responded with feeble applause. Then the tumult was mysteriously allayed. There were some minutes of uneasy apprehension. “Au-thor” cried voices. “Au-thor!” The stalls, not understanding, redoubled their clapping.
Disaster was too much for Alexander that night. A spasm of hate for the writer of those fatal lines must surely have seized him. With incredible cruelty he led the doomed James, still not understanding clearly how things were with him, to the middle of the stage, and there the pit and gallery had him. James bowed; he knew it was the proper thing to bow. Perhaps he had selected a few words to say, but if so they went unsaid. I have never heard any sound more devastating than the crescendo of booing that ensued. The gentle applause of the stalls was altogether overwhelmed. For a moment or so James faced the storm, his round face white, his mouth opening and shutting and then Alexander, I hope in a contrite mood, snatched him back into the wings.
That was my first sight of Henry James with whom I was later to have a sincere yet troubled friendship. We were by nature and training profoundly unsympathetic. He was the most consciously and elaborately artistic and refined human being I ever encountered, and I swam in the common thought and feeling of my period, with an irregular abundance of rude knowledge, aggressive judgments and a disposition to get to close quarters with Madame Fact even if it meant a scuffle with her. James never scuffled with Fact; he treated her as a perfect and unchallengeable lady; he never questioned a single stitch or flounce of the conventions and interpretations in which she presented herself. He thought that for every social occasion a correct costume could be prescribed and a correct behaviour defined. On the table (an excellent piece) in his hall at Rye lay a number of caps and hats, each with its appropriate gloves and sticks, a tweed cap and a stout stick for the Marsh, a soft comfortable deer-stalker if he were to turn aside to the Golf Club, a light-brown felt hat and a cane for a morning walk down to the Harbour, a grey felt with a black band and a gold-headed cane of greater importance, if afternoon calling in the town was afoot. He retired at set times to a charming room in his beautiful walled garden and there he worked, dictating with a slow but not unhappy circumspection, the novels that were to establish his position in the world of discriminating readers. They are novels from which all the fiercer experiences are excluded; even their passions are so polite that one feels that they were gratified, even at their utmost intimacy, by a few seemly gestures; and yet the stories are woven with a peculiar humorous, faintly fussy, delicacy, that gives them a flavour like nothing else in the language. When you want to read and find reality too real, and hard story-telling tiresome, you may find Henry James good company. For generations to come a select type of reader will brighten appreciatively to the Spoils of Poynton, The Ambassadors, The Tragic Muse, The Golden Bowl and many of the stories.
I once saw James quarrelling with his brother William James, the psychologist. He had lost his calm; he was terribly unnerved. He appealed to me, to me of all people, to adjudicate on what was and what was not permissible behaviour in England. William was arguing about it in an indisputably American accent, with an indecently naked reasonableness. I had come to Rye with a car to fetch William James and his daughter to my home at Sandgate. William had none of Henry’s passionate regard for the polish upon the surfaces of life and he was immensely excited by the fact that in the little Rye inn, which had its garden just over the high brick wall of the garden of Lamb House, G. K. Chesterton was staying. William James had corresponded with our vast contemporary and he sorely wanted to see him. So with a scandalous directness he had put the gardener’s ladder against that ripe red wall and clambered up and peeped over!
Henry had caught him at it.
It was the sort of thing that isn’t done. It was most emphatically the sort of thing that isn’t done. . . . Henry had instructed the gardener to put away that ladder and William was looking thoroughly naughty about it.
To Henry’s manifest relief, I carried William off and in the road just outside the town we ran against the Chestertons who had been for a drive in Romney Marsh; Chesterton was heated and I think rather swollen by the sunshine; he seemed to overhang his one-horse fly; he descended slowly but firmly; he was moist and steamy but cordial; we chatted in the road for a time and William got his coveted impression.
But reminiscence is running away with me. I return to the raw young dramatic critic standing amidst the astonished uneasy stallites under the storm that greeted Guy Domville. That hissing and booing may have contributed something to the disinclination I have always felt from any adventure into The Theatre.
On that eventful evening I scraped acquaintance with another interesting contemporary, Bernard Shaw. I had known him by sight since the Hammersmith days but I had never spoken to him before. Fires and civil commotions loosen tongues. I accosted him as a Saturday Review colleague and we walked back to our respective lodgings northward while he talked very interestingly about the uproar we had left behind us and the place of the fashionable three-act play amidst the eternal verities. He laid particular stress on the fact that nobody in the audience and hardly any of the cast, had realized the grace of Henry James’s language.
Shaw was then a slender young man of thirty-five or so very hard-up, and he broke the ranks of the boiled shirts and black and white ties in the stalls, with a modest brown jacket suit, a very white face and very red whiskers. (Now he has a very red face and very white whiskers, but it is still the same Shaw.) He talked like an elder brother to me in that agreeable Dublin English of his. I liked him with a liking that has lasted a life-time. In those days he was just a brilliant essayist and critic and an exasperating speaker in Socialist gatherings. He had written some novels that no one thought anything of, and his plays were still a secret between himself and his God.
From that time onward I saw him intermittently, but I did not see very much of him until I went into the Fabian Society, six or seven years later. Then he was a man in the forties and a much more important figure. He was married and he was no longer impecunious. His opinions and attitudes had developed and matured and so had mine. We found ourselves antagonistic on a number of issues and though we were not quite enough in the same field nor near enough in age to be rivals, there was from my side at any rate, a certain emulation between us.
We were both atheists and socialists; we were both attacking an apparently fixed and invincible social system from the outside; but this much resemblance did not prevent our carrying ourselves with a certain sustained defensiveness towards each other that remains to this day. In conversational intercourse a man’s conclusions are of less importance than his training and the way he gets to them, and in this respect chasms of difference yawned between Shaw and myself, wider even than those that separated me from Henry James. I have tried to set out my own formal and informal education in a previous chapter. Shaw had had no such sustained and constructive mental training as I had been through, but on the other hand he had been saturated from his youth up in good music, brilliant conversation and the appreciative treatment of life. Extreme physical sensibility had forced him to adopt an austere teetotal and vegetarian way of living, and early circumstances, of which Ireland was not the least, had inclined him to rebellion and social protest; but otherwise he was as distinctly over against me and on the aesthetic side of life as Henry James. To him, I guess, I have always appeared heavily and sometimes formidably facty and close-set; to me his judgments, arrived at by feeling and expression, have always had a flimsiness. I want to get hold of Fact, strip off her inessentials and, if she behaves badly put her in stays and irons; but Shaw dances round her and weaves a wilful veil of confident assurances about her as her true presentment. He thinks one can “put things over” on Fact and I do not. He philanders with her. I have no delusions about the natural goodness and wisdom of human beings and at bottom I am grimly and desperately educational. But Shaw’s conception of education is to let dear old Nature rip. He has got no further in that respect than Rousseau. Then I know, fundamentally, the heartless impartiality of natural causation, but Shaw makes Evolution something brighter and softer, by endowing it with an ultimately benevolent Life Force, acquired, quite uncritically I feel, from his friend and adviser Samuel Butler. We have been fighting this battle with each other all our lives. We had a brisk exchange of letters after the publication of the Science of Life.
But let me return to those theatrical first nights of mine. None of the criticism I wrote was ever anything but dull. I did not understand the theatre. I was out of my place there. I do not think I am made to understand the theatre but at any rate, I never sat down to ask myself, “What is all this stage stuff about? What is the gist of this complex unreality?” If I had done so, then I should have emerged with a point of view and data for adequate critical writing — even if that writing had turned out to be only a denunciation of all the existing methods and machinery.
Shaw like James and like his still more consciously cultivated disciple, Granville Barker, believed firmly in The Theatre as a finished and definite something demanding devotion; offering great opportunities to the human mind. He perceived indeed there was something very wrong with it, he demanded an endowed theatre, a different criticism, a different audience than the common “Theatre-goer” we knew, but in the end he could imagine this gathering of several hundred people for three hours’ entertainment on a stage becoming something very fine and important and even primary in the general life. I had no such belief. I was forming a conception of a new sort of human community with an unprecedented way of life, and it seemed to me to be a minor detail whether this boxed-up performance of plays, would occur at all in that ampler existence I anticipated. “Shows” there will certainly be, in great variety in the modern civilization ahead, very wonderful blendings of thought, music and vision; but except by way of archaeological revival, I can see no footlights, proscenium, prompter’s box, playwright and painted players there.
Of course this wasn’t clear in my mind in the nineties, but I did fail to find The Theatre sufficiently important adequately to stir my wits and so if for no other reason my work as a dramatic critic was flat and spiritless. Yet I saw some good plays. In Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest Alexander did a magnificent piece of work that completely effaced his Guy Domville from my mind, and in Pinero’s Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith I saw and heard young Mrs. Pat Campbell, with her flexible body and her delightful voice, for the first time.
After the wear of a month or so for my new dress clothes my rough but essentially benevolent personal Providence appreciated the listlessness of this forced uncongenial work and intervened to stop it. I caught a bad cold, streaks of blood appeared again, and once more the impossibility of my moving about in London in all weather was demonstrated. I resigned The Theatre into better hands, those of G. S. Street, who was later to be a gentle and understanding Censor of Plays, and I set about finding a little house in the country, where I could follow up with another book the success that I felt was coming to the Time Machine and my short-story volume.
Our withdrawal to Woking was a fairly cheerful adventure. Woking was the site of the first crematorium but few of our friends made more than five or six jokes about that. We borrowed a hundred pounds by a mortgage on Mrs. Robbins’ house in Putney and with that hundred pounds, believe it or not, we furnished a small resolute semi-detached villa with a minute greenhouse in the Maybury Road facing the railway line, where all night long the goods trains shunted and bumped and clattered — without serious effect upon our healthy slumbers. Close at hand in those days was a pretty and rarely used canal amidst pine woods, a weedy canal, beset with loose-strife, spiræa, forget-me-nots and yellow water lilies, upon which one could be happy for hours in a hired canoe, and in all directions stretched open and undeveloped heath land, so that we could walk and presently learn to ride bicycles and restore our broken contact with the open air. There I planned and wrote the War of the Worlds, the Wheels of Chance and the Invisible Man. I learnt to ride my bicycle upon sandy tracks with none but God to help me; he chastened me considerably in the process, and after a fall one day I wrote down a description of the state of my legs which became the opening chapter of the Wheels of Chance. I rode wherever Mr. Hoopdrive rode in that story. Later on I wheeled about the district marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians. The bicycle in those days was still very primitive. The diamond frame had appeared but there was no free-wheel. You could only stop and jump off when the treadle was at its lowest point, and the brake was an uncertain plunger upon the front wheel. Consequently you were often carried on beyond your intentions, as when Mr. Polly upset the zinc dust-bins outside the shop of Mr. Rusper. Nevertheless the bicycle was the swiftest thing upon the roads in those days, there were as yet no automobiles and the cyclist had a lordliness, a sense of masterful adventure, that has gone from him altogether now.
Jane was still a very fragile little being and as soon as I had sufficiently mastered the art of wheeling I got a tandem bicycle of a peculiar shape made for us by the Humber people and we began to wander about the south of England, very agreeably. But here I think a photograph and a selection of picshuas may take up the story again. The first picshua shows us starting out upon an expedition that carried us at last across Dartmoor to Cornwall and the second shows Jane engaging her first domestic servant.
We lived very happily and industriously in the Woking home for
a year and a half and then my mother-in-law fell ill and for a time it was necessary that she should live with us, so that we had to move to a larger house at Worcester Park. We had married as soon as I was free to do so. By the time of our removal, our circle of acquaintances and friends had increased very considerably. I will not catalogue names but one friendly figure stands out amidst much other friendliness, that once much reviled and now rather too much forgotten writer, Grant Allen. I do not think I have ever made a fair acknowledgment of a certain mental indebtedness to him. Better thirty-five years late than never.
He was about twenty years older than I. He had been a science teacher in the West Indies and he was full of the new wine of aggressive Darwinism. He came back to England and, in that fresh illumination, began writing books for the general reader and essays in natural history. He was a successful popularizer and he had a very pronounced streak of speculative originality. But he had the schoolmaster trick of dogmatism and a rash confidence in every new idea that seized upon him. In these days no editor paid very much for scientific contributions and James Payne, the editor of the Cornhill Magazine, showed him that the better way to prosperity was to travel abroad and write conventional novels about places of interest to British tourists. The middle-class British and Americans who were beginning to travel very freely in Europe were delighted to read easy stories of sentiment and behaviour introducing just the places they had visited and the sights they had seen. With this work Grant Allen achieved a reasonable popularity and prosperity. But he was uneasy in his prosperity. He had had an earlier infection of that same ferment of biology and socialism that was working in my blood. He wanted not merely to enjoy life but to do something to it. Social injustice and sexual limitation bothered his mind, and he was critical of current ideas and accepted opinions. I myself was destined to go through roughly parallel phases of uneasiness and to fall even more definitely under the advancing intimations of the different life of the coming world-state.
Like myself Grant Allen had never found a footing in the professional scientific world and he had none of the patience, deliberation — and discretion — of the established scientific worker, who must live with a wholesome fear of the Royal Society and its inhibitions before his eyes. Grant Allen’s semi-popular original scientific works such as his Origin of the Idea of God (1897) and his Physiological Aesthetics (1877) were at once bold and sketchy, unsupported by properly verified quotations and collated references, and regardless or manifestly ignorant of much other contemporary work. They were too original to be fair popularization and too unsubstantiated to be taken seriously by serious specialists, and what was good in them has been long since appropriated, generally without acknowledgment, by sounder workers, while the flimsy bulk of them moulders on a few dusty and forgotten shelves. His anthropology became an easy butt for the fuller scholarship and livelier style of Andrew Lang.
His attempt to change himself over from a regularly selling, proper English “purveyor of fiction” to the novelist with ideas and initiative and so contribute materially to vital literature was equally unfortunate. In that also he was, so to speak, an undecided amphibian, an Amblystoma, never quite sure whether he had come out of the water for good or not. He had always to earn a living, and the time left over from that, just as it had not been enough either for the patient and finished research needed to win respect in the scientific world, was now not enough for the thorough and well thought-out novel of aggressive reality.
Later on I was to be in much the same case. In his spare time, so to speak, and unaware that the devices and methods of the ordinary trade novel are exactly what cannot be used for fresh matter, he wrote what was really a sentimental novelette, The Woman Who Did. He tried (I am sure with a hurried pen) to present a woman who deliberately broke the rigid social conventions of the period and bore an illegitimate child as “her very own,” and, without any intensive effort to conceive her personality, he tried to tell the story so that she should be sympathetic for the common-place reader. That was a most dangerous and difficult thing to attempt, and since, later on, I was to try out something of a kindred sort in Ann Veronica, The New Machiavelli and The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, I can bear my expert witness to the difficulty of the technical miracle he was so glibly setting about to perform. My mature persuasion is that the distance a novel can carry a reader out of his or her moral and social preconceptions is a very short one. I think a novel can do more than a play in this way; I don’t believe an audience in a theatre has ever budged a bit from its established standards of conduct for anything that has been put on the stage; but in either case what principally occurs is recognition and response. The most fatal thing that can be done is to “assume” the Tightness of the new standard you are putting over. This was done excessively in The Woman Who Did. Stupid people will never read anything with which they do not agree, so what is the good of trying to write down to them? And even quite intelligent people will read and consider an account of strange defiant behaviour only if it is neither glorified nor extenuated but put before them simply as a vitalized statement. “Look here!” you must say, “What do you think of this?” So long as they are interested, judging freely, and not bristling with resentful resistance, you are doing the job. But everybody bristled at The Woman Who Did.
I bristled. I was infuriated. I was the more infuriated because I was so nearly in agreement with Grant Allen’s ideas, that this hasty, headlong, incompetent book seemed like a treason to a great cause. It was, I felt, opening a breach to the enemy. So I slated him with care and intensity, in this style:
“We have endeavoured to piece this character together, and we cannot conceive the living woman. She is, he assures us with a certain pathos, a ‘real woman.’ But one doubts it from the outset. ‘A living proof of the doctrine of heredity’ is her own idea, but that is scarcely the right effect of her. Mr. Grant Allen seems nearer the truth when he describes her as ‘a solid rock of ethical resolution.” Her solidity is witnessed to by allusions to her ‘opulent form’ and the ‘lissom grace of her rounded figure.’ Fancy a girl with an ‘opulent’ form! Her ‘face was, above all things, the face of a free woman,’ a ‘statuesque’ face, and upon this Mr. Grant Allen has chiselled certain inappropriate ‘dimples,’ which mar but do not modify that statuesque quality. ‘She was too stately of mien ever to grant a favour without granting it of pure grace and with a queenly munificence’— when Alan kissed her. She dresses in a ‘sleeveless sack embroidered with arabesques,’ and such-like symbolic garments. So much goes to convey her visible presence. The reader must figure her sackful of lissom opulence and her dimpled, statuesque features for himself — the picture eludes us. She had a ‘silvery voice.’ The physical expression of her emotions was of two kinds, a blush, and a ‘thrill to the finger-tips.’ This last phrase is always cropping up, though we must confess we can attach no meaning to it ourselves and cannot imagine Mr. Grant Allen doing so. Her soul is ‘spotless.’ Never did she do anything wrong. (And this is a ‘real woman’!) When Alan called to see her on some trivial business ‘she sat a lonely soul, enthroned amid the halo of her own perfect purity’— a curious way of receiving visitors. She is ‘pure’ and ‘pellucid’ and ‘noble,’ and so forth on every page almost. And at the crisis she ‘would have flaunted the open expression of her supreme moral faith before the eyes of all London,’ had not Alan, the father of the baby in question, with ‘virile self-assertion’ restrained her.
“Clearly this is not a human being. No more a human being than the women twelve hands tall of the fashion magazines. Had her author respected her less he might have drawn her better. Surely Mr. Grant Allen has lived long enough to know that real women do not have spotless souls and a physical beauty that is invariably overpowering. Real women are things of dietary and secretions, of subtle desires and mental intricacy; even the purest among them have at least beauty spots upon their souls. This monstrous Herminia — where did he get her? Assuredly not of observation and insight. She seems to us to be a kind of plaster-cast of ‘Pure Womanhood’ in a halo, with a soul of abstractions, a machine to carry out a purely sentimental principle to its logical conclusion. Alan, her lover, is a kind of ideal prig, ‘a pure soul in his way, and mixed of the finer paste’ from which the heroes of inferior novels are made. The Dean, her father, is the sympathetic but prejudiced cleric of modern comedy. The source of Ethel Waterton is acknowledged: she ‘was a most insipid blonde from the cover of a chocolate-box.’ Dolores, for whom Mr. Grant Allen feels least, for or against, is far and away the best character in the book. She is so, we think, for that very reason.
“Now the book professes to be something more than an artistic story, true to life. It is, we are led to infer, an ethical discussion. But is it? The problem of marriage concerns terrestrial human beings, and the ingratitude of the offspring of a plaster-cast, though wonderful enough, bears no more on our moral difficulties than the incubation of Semele, or the birth of the Minotaur. In these problem novels at least, truth is absolutely essential. But to handle the relation of the sexes truly needs a Jean Paul Richter, or a George Meredith. It is not to be done by desiring.
“And the gospel Mr. Grant Allen — who surely knows that life is one broad battlefield — is preaching: what is it? It is the emancipation of women. He does not propose to emancipate them from the narrowness, the sexual savagery, the want of charity, that are the sole causes of the miseries of the illegitimate and the unfortunate. Instead he wishes to emancipate them from monogamy, which we have hitherto regarded as being more of a fetter upon virile instincts. His proposal is to abolish cohabitation, to abolish the family — that school of all human gentleness — and to provide support for women who may have children at the expense of the State. We are all to be foundlings together, and it will be an inquisitive child who knows its own father. Now Mr. Grant Allen must know perfectly well that amorous desires and the desire to bear children are anything but overpowering impulses in many of the very noblest women. The women, who would inevitably have numerous children under the conditions he hopes for, would be the hysterically erotic, the sexually incontinent. Why he should make proposals to cultivate humanity in this direction is not apparent. We find fine handsome sayings about Truth and Freedom, but any establishment for his proposition a reviewer much in sympathy with him on many of his opinions fails altogether to discover in his book. A fellowship of two based on cohabitation and protected by jealousy, with or without the marriage ceremony, seems as much the natural destiny of the average man as of the eagle or the tiger.
“And we have a quarrel, too, with the style of the book. Had Mr. Grant Allen really cared, as he intimates he cared, for truth and beauty, had he really loved this Herminia of his creation, would he have put her forth in such style as he has done? ‘Ordinary,’ ‘stereotyped,’ ‘sordid,’ ‘ignoble,’ are among the adjectives he applies to the respectable villadom he identifies with the English people. Yet every one of them fits the workmanship he has considered worthy of his heroine.”
And so on. Twenty years later I was, by the bye, to find myself in a position almost parallel to that of Grant Allen with my Passionate Friends, which in its turn was slated furiously and in much the same spirit by the younger generation in the person of Rebecca West. But I have never been able to persuade myself that I deserved that trouncing quite as much as Grant Allen merited his.
He behaved charmingly. He wrote me a very pleasant invitation to come and talk to him and I ran down by train one Sunday, walked up from Haslemere station and lunched with him in Hindhead. In these days Hindhead was a lonely place in a great black, purple and golden wilderness of heath; there was an old inn called The Huts and a score of partly hidden houses. Tyndall had built a house there, Conan Doyle was close by, Richard Le Gallienne occupied a cottage as tenant, motor cars and suburbanism were still a dozen years away. Le Gallienne came in after lunch. His sister was staying in the house with her husband, James Welsh, the actor. We sat about in deck chairs through a long sunny summer afternoon under the pines in the garden on the edge of the Devil’s Punch Bowl.
Across the interval of years I do not recall that wandering conversation with any precision. Probably we talked a lot about writing and getting on in the world of books. I was a new and aggressive beginner in that world and I was being welcomed very generously. And also I suppose we must have talked of the subject of The Woman Who Did and its related issues. Grant Allen and I were in the tradition of Godwin and Shelley. Its trend was to force a high heroic independence on women — even on quite young women. But Grant Allen who had something in him — I will not say like a Faun or a Satyr, but rather like the earnest Uncle of these woodland folk, was all for the girls showing spirit. I was rather enwrapped then in my private situation. Le Gallienne was an Amorist and he trailed a flavour of Swinburne and Renascence Italy — Browning’s Renascence Italy, across our talk.
When history is properly written, it will be interesting to trace the Amorist through the ages. There have been phases when the Amorist has dominated manners and costume and decoration and phases when he has been rather shamefaced and occasional in the twilight and the bushes and the staircase to the ballroom. The Amorist just then was in the ascendant phase, and Richard Le Gallienne was the chief of our Amorists. He was busy then with prose fancies in which roses and raptures and restaurants were very attractively combined, and he was inciting the youth of our period to set out upon the Quest of the Golden Girl. He was long and slender with a handsome white half-feminine face, expressive hands and a vast shock of black hair. I found him an entertaining contrast to myself and we got on very well together until suddenly he went out of the literary world of London to America.
I add three other picshuas from the Woking period here. They will amuse some readers. Others will find them detestable, but after all, this is my autobiography. One records a horticultural triumph not uncommon in suburban gardens. The other two are vain-glorious to the ultimate degree. The last of the three reeks with the “shop” of authorship; one observes also the pride of Jane, the author’s family in a state of wonder, the envious hostile reviewer with a forked tail, press cutting (from Romeike), much sordid exultation about royalties and cheques. But we were very young still, we had had a hard and risky time and it was exciting to succeed.
I think I have sufficiently conveyed now the flavour of my new way of life and I will not go with any great particularity into the details of my history after we had moved to Worcester Park. I will trust a few picshuas to carry on the tale. This Worcester Park house had two fairly big rooms downstairs, a visitor’s room and a reasonably large garden and we started a practice of keeping open house on Saturday afternoons which improved our knowledge of the many new friends we were making. Among others who stayed with us was Dorothy Richardson, a schoolmate of Jane’s. Dorothy has a very distinctive literary gift, acute intensity of expression and an astonishingly vivid memory; her “Pilgrimage” books are a very curious essay in autobiography; they still lack their due meed of general appreciation; and in one of them, The Tunnel, she has described our Worcester Park life with astonishing accuracy. I figure as Hypo in that description and Jane is Alma.
The first picshua here shows our daily routine and our domestic humour in full swing. This is documentary evidence of Jane’s participation in my early work and of the punishments and discipline alleged to prevail during the writing of When the Sleeper Awakes and Love and Mr. Lewisham. The next records my return to the Fortnightly Review and what I think must have been a dinner at the New Vagabonds Club at which I seem to have been the guest of honour. The third records details of this glorious occasion. The waiter seems to have missed me for ice pudding; the figures who bow before Jane are J. K. Jerome, Sidney Low, Douglas Sladen and Kenneth Grahame (of the immortal Wind in the Willows). Vain-glory is again offensively evident.
The next picshua records our industry in our Heatherlea garden under the direction of our jobbing gardener (one day a week) Mr. Tilbury. The date of this particular picshua, as the small figure in the corner indicates, was the day of publication of the Invisible Man, a tale, that thanks largely to the excellent film recently produced by James Whale, is still read as much as ever it was. To many young people nowadays I am just the author of the Invisible Man. The writing on Jane’s foot, by the bye, is “gloshers,” which is so to speak, idiotic for galosh. But why I wrote that word in that fashion, is — like the mating cry of the pterodactyl and the hunting habits of the labyrinthodon, lost in the mist of the past.
Next comes a picshua full of self-congratulations. “The improvement of a certain person’s mind” has been resumed. Jane made a brief attempt to take up her B.Sc. degree work again, but that was presently abandoned. The shelf of our books is filling up. At an Omar Khayyam dinner I had met George Gissing and he was very anxious for us to go with him to Italy in the spring. We study a guide to Italy.
The next picshua shows the Italian project maturing. Jane was still far from strong and she had been ordered an iron tonic. We brace ourselves to face the danger of malaria and austerities of a Roman breakfast. Neither of us had ever been across the channel before; Jane had some French and German, but my knowledge of languages was limited to the decaying remains of my swift matriculation cramming of exceptions. All that had been written work and I did not so much pronounce as block out rude masses of misconceived sound. “Abroad” was a slightly terrifying world of adventure for us. And we were not going to just nibble at the continent. We were going straight through, at one bite, to Rome.
We did go to Rome in the spring of 1898. We spent a month there with Gissing and then went on by ourselves to Naples, Capri, Pompeii, Amalfi and Paestum. Capri and Paestum cropped up a little later in a short story, A Vision of Armageddon. We acquired a traveller’s smattering of Italian, a number of photographs, some glowing memories and brighter ideas about diet and wine. We returned by way of Switzerland and Ostend. The uneasy social life of nineteenth century Europe was in a phase of inflammation. In Naples people were rioting for “Pane e Lavoro!” and in the square outside our hotel in Brussels there was a demonstration, and the crowd was singing the Marseillaise and fired a revolver or so.
George Gissing was a strange tragic figure, a figure of internal tragedy, and it is only slowly that I have realized the complex of his misfortunes. There is a novel about him by Morley Roberts The Private Life of Henry Maitland (1912) which tells the substance of his tale with considerable inaccuracy, and there is an admirable study of his life and work by Frank Swinnerton, so good that it would be officious and impertinent for me to parallel it, however briefly, here. The portrait by Sir William Rothenstein which figures in Swinnerton’s book could hardly be bettered. I had read and admired Gissing’s In the Year of Jubilee and his New Grub Street before I met him and I began our first conversation by remarking upon the coincidence that Reardon, in the latter book, lived like myself as a struggling writer in Mornington Road with a wife named Amy. This was at an Omar Khayyam dinner whither I had gone as the guest of either Grant Allen or Edmund Clodd (I forget which). Gissing was then an extremely good-looking, well-built man, slightly on the lean side, blond, with a good profile and a splendid leonine head; his appearance betraying little then of the poison that had crept into his blood to distress, depress and undermine his vitality and at last to destroy him. He spoke in a rotund Johnsonian manner, but what he had to say was reasonable and friendly. I asked him to come over to us at Worcester Park and his visit was the beginning of a long intimacy.
He talked very much of ill health and I tried to make him a cyclist, for he took no exercise at all except walking, and I thought it might be pleasant to explore Surrey and Sussex with him, but he was far too nervous and excitable to ride. It was curious to see this well-built Viking, blowing and funking as he hopped behind his machine. “Get on to your ironmongery,” said I. He mounted, wabbled a few yards, and fell off shrieking with laughter. “Iron-mongery!” he gasped. “Oh! riding on ironmongery!” and lay in the grass at the roadside, helpless with mirth. He loved laughter and that was a great link between us — I liked to explode him with some slight twist of phrase. He could be very easily surprised and shocked to mirth, because he had a scholar’s disposition to avoid novel constructions and unusual applications of words. In the summer of 1897, Jane and I spent some weeks or so at Budleigh Salterton near to a lodging he had taken and then it was that our daring adventure “abroad” was conceived.
I knew nothing in those days of his early life, of how in his precocious teens he had wrecked his career as a scholar by a liaison with a young street-walker, a liaison which had led to some difficulties about money and a police court. Friends appeared to rescue him but nobody seems to have troubled about her. He was sent to America for a fresh start and the effect of a fresh start under conditions of sexual deprivation in Boston, had been to send him in flight to Chicago and then bring him back in a recoil to England, to hunt out and marry his mistress. They lived dismally in lodgings while he tried to write great novels. For her it was an intolerable life. She left him and died in hospital.
Clearly there was for him something about this woman, of which no record remains, some charm, some illusion or at any rate some specific attraction, for which he never had words. She was his Primary Fixation. For him she had been Woman. All this was past, but he had created a new situation for himself by picking up a servant girl in Regents Park one Sunday afternoon and marrying her. Told thus baldly the thing is almost incredible, and an analysis of his motives here would take an extravagant amount of space. His home training had made him repressive to the explosive pitch; he felt that to make love to any woman he could regard as a social equal would be too elaborate, restrained and tedious for his urgencies, he could not answer questions he supposed he would be asked about his health and means, and so, for the second time, he flung himself at a social inferior whom he expected to be easy and grateful. This second marriage was also a failure; failure was inevitable; the new wife became a resentful, jealous scold. But we never saw her and I cannot judge between them. To us Gissing was just himself. “I cannot ask you to my home,” he said. “Impossible — quite impossible. Oh quite impossible. I have to dismiss any such ideas. I have no home.”
He did not always keep such ideas dismissed, but for the most part they were out of the picture. He kept his own family also, the custodians of those strangling early standards, out of our way, just as he kept his wife out of our way. He was terrified at the prospect of incompatibility. His sensitiveness to reactions made every relationship a pose, and he had no natural customary persona for miscellaneous use.
The Gissing I knew, therefore, was essentially a specially posed mentality, a personal response, and his effect upon me was an extraordinary blend of a damaged joy-loving human being hampered by inherited gentility and a classical education. He craved to laugh, jest, enjoy, stride along against the wind, shout, “quaff mighty flagons.” But his upbringing behind the chemist’s shop in Wakefield had been one of repressive gentility, where “what will the neighbours think of us?” was more terrible than the thunder of God. The insanity of our educational organization had planted down in that Yorkshire town, a grammar school dominated by the idea of classical scholarship. The head was an enthusiastic pedant who poured into that fresh and vigorous young brain nothing but classics and a “scorn” for non-classical things. Gissing’s imagination, therefore escaped from the cramping gentilities and respectability of home to find its compensations in the rhetorical swagger, the rotundities and the pompous grossness of Rome. He walked about Wakefield in love with goddesses and nymphs and excited by ideas of patrician freedoms in a world of untouchable women. Classics men according to their natures are all either “Latins” or “Hellenes.” Gissing was a Latin, oratorical and not scientific, unanalytical, unsubtle and secretly haughty. He accepted and identified himself with all the pretensions of Rome’s triumphal arches.
His knowledge of classical Rome was extraordinarily full. We found him, there, an unsparing enthusiastic guide. With a sort of a shamed hostility indeed he recognized the vestiges of mediaevalism and the Renascence that cumbered the spectacle. But that was just a subsequent defilement, like mud on the marble of a submerged palace. At the back of his mind, a splendid Olympus to our Roman excursions, stood noble senators in togas, marvellous matrons like Lucrece, gladiators proud to die, Horatiuses ready to leap into gulfs pro patria, the finest fruit of humanity, unjudged, accepted, speaking like epitaphs and epics, and by these standards also he measured the mundane swarm he pictured In the Year of Jubilee. For that thin yet penetrating juice of shrewd humour, of kindly stoicisms, of ready trustfulness, of fitful indignations and fantastic and often grotesque generosities, which this dear London life of ours exudes, he had no palate. I have never been able to decide how much that defect of taste was innate or how far it was a consequence partly of the timid pretentiousness of his home circumstances, and partly of that pompous grammatical training to which his brain was subjected just in his formative years. I favour the latter alternative. I favour it because of his ready abundant fits of laughter. You do not get laughter without release, and you must have something suppressed to release. “Preposterous!” was a favourite word with him. He told me once of how he was awakened at three in the morning in a London hotel by a clatter of milk cans under his window. He lay in bed helpless with laughter that civilization should produce this marvel of a chamber designed for sleeping, just over a yard where the rattling of milk cans was an inevitable nightly event.
At the back of my mind I thought him horribly mis-educated and he hardly troubled to hide from me his opinion that I was absolutely illiterate. Each of us had his secret amusement in the other’s company. He knew the Greek epics and plays to a level of frequent quotation but I think he took his classical philosophers as read and their finality for granted; he assumed that modern science and thought were merely degenerate recapitulations of their lofty and inaccessible wisdom. The transforming forces of the world about us he ascribed to a certain rather regrettable “mechanical ingenuity” in our people. He thought that a classical scholar need only turn over a few books to master all that scientific work and modern philosophy had made of the world, and it did not disillusion him in the least that he had no mastery of himself or any living fact in existence. He was entirely enclosed in a defensive phraseology and a conscious “scorn” of the “baser” orders and “ignoble” types. When he laughed he called the world “Preposterous,” but when he could not break through to reality and laughter then his word was “Sordid.” That readiness to call common people “base” “sordid” “mean,” “the vulgar sort” and so forth was less evident in the man’s nature than in his writings. Some of his books will be read for many generations, but because of this warping of his mind they will find fewer lovers than readers. In Swinnerton’s book one can see that kindly writer starting out with a real admiration and sympathy for his subject and gradually being estranged by the injustice, the faint cruelty of this mannered ungraciousness towards disadvantaged people.
Through Gissing I was confirmed in my suspicion that this orthodox classical training which was once so powerful an antiseptic against Egyptian dogma and natural superstitions, is now no longer a city of refuge from barbaric predispositions. It has become a vast collection of monumental masonry, a pale cemetery in a twilight, through which new conceptions hurry apologetically on their way to town, finding neither home nor sustenance there. It is a cemetery, which like that churchyard behind Atlas House, Bromley, can give little to life but a certain sparkle in the water and breed nothing any more but ghosts, ignes fatui and infections. It has ceased to be a field of education and become a proper hunting ground for the archæologist and social psychologist.
So, full of friendly antagonisms, Gissing, Jane and I went about Rome together, our brains reacting and exchanging very abundantly. It was Rome before the mischiefs of Mayor Nathan, before the vast vulgarity of the Vittorio Emmanuele monument had ruined the Piazza Venezia, and when the only main thoroughfare was the Corso. The Etruscan tombs still slept undiscovered in the Forum and instead of Boni’s flower beds there were weeds and wild flowers. Walking through some fields near Tivoli the Story of Miss Winchelsea’s Heart came into my head — and I remember telling it to Gissing.
Gissing, like Gibbon, regarded Christianity as a deplorable disaster for the proud gentilities of classicism and left us to “do” the Vatican and St. Peter’s by ourselves. In many of the darkened, incense-saturated churches, I felt old Egypt and its mysteries still living and muttering, but the papal city and its swarming pilgrims, its libraries and galleries, its observatory, its Renascence architecture, filled me with perplexing impressions. Much more than pomp, tradition and decay was manifest in these activities. The Scarlet Woman of my youthful prejudices was not in evidence. Protestantism, I perceived, had not done justice to Renascence Rome.
Here, quite plainly, was a great mental system engaged in a vital effort to comprehend its expanding universe and sustain a co-ordinating conception of human activities. That easy word “superstition” did not cover a tithe of it.
It dawned upon me that there had been a Catholic Reformation as drastic as and perhaps profounder than the Protestant Reformation, and that the mentality of clerical Rome, instead of being an unchanged system in saecula saeculorum had been stirred to its foundations at that time and was still struggling — like everything else alive — in the grip of adaptive necessity. In spite of my anti-Christian bias I found something congenial in the far flung cosmopolitanism of the Catholic proposition. Notwithstanding its synthesis of decaying ancient theologies and its strong taint of other-worldishness, the Catholic Church continues to be, in its own half-hearted fashion, an Open Conspiracy to reorganize the whole life of man. If the papal system had achieved the ambitions of its most vigorous period, it would have been much more in the nature of that competent receiver for human affairs, the research for which has occupied my mind so largely throughout my life, than that planless Providentialism which characterized almost all the political and social thought of the nineteenth century. Catholicism is something greater in scope and spirit than any nationalist protestantism and immeasurably above such loutish reversions to hate as Hitlerism or the Ku-Klux-Klan. I should even hesitate to call it “reactionary” without some qualification.
I have lived for many years in open controversy with Catholicism and though, naturally enough, I have sometimes been insulted by indignant zealots, I have found the ordinary Catholic controversialist a fair fighter and a civilized man — worthy of that great cultural system within which such minds as Leonardo and Michelangelo could develop and find expression. He has an antiquated realist philosophy which too often gives him a sort of pert hardness, but that is another matter. It is a question too fine for me to discuss whether I am an outright atheist or an extreme heretic on the furthest verge of Christendom — beyond the Arians, beyond the Manichaeans. But certainly I branch from the Catholic stem.
Let me however return from this Vatican excursion to George Gissing. That disposition to get away from entangling conditions which is manifest in almost every type of imaginative worker, accumulated in his case to quite desperate fugitive drives. In Italy with us he was in flight from his second wife. The dreadful intimacy of that isolated life at Ewell, without a thought in common, an intimacy of perpetual recrimination, had become intolerable. A well-known educationist, a woman who had evidently a very great admiration for Gissing, had proposed to take in Mrs. Gissing and the children and try to establish tolerable relations with her, to “educate” her in fact, while Gissing recovered his mental peace in his beloved Italy. But the experiment was not working well; the helpful lady was meddling with things beyond her experience and the poor wife, perplexed and indignant beyond measure by this strange man who had possessed himself of her life, was progressing through scenes and screams towards a complete mental breakdown; she was behaving very badly indeed, and letters would arrive at the Hotel Aliberti in Rome, that left Gissing white and shaking between anger and dismay for the better part of a day. The best thing then was to go off with him outside Rome to some wayside albergo, to the Milvian bridge, or towards Tivoli or along the Appian Way, drink rough red wine, get him talking Italian to peasants, launch out upon wild social, historical and ethnological discussions, and gradually push the gnawing trouble into the background again.
This poor vexed brain — so competent for learning and aesthetic reception, so incompetent, so impulsive and weakly yielding under the real stresses of life — went on from us into Calabria and produced there By the Ionian Sea and, later on, after returning to England, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. The interest of these books, with their halting effort to pose as a cultivated leisurely eighteenth century intelligence, is, I think, greatly intensified by the realization that beneath the struggle to sustain that persona, the pitiless hunt of consequences, the pursuit of the monstrous penalties exacted for a false start and a foolish and inconsiderate decision or so, was incessant. Perhaps Gissing was made to be hunted by Fate. He never turned and fought. He always hid or fled.
Presently we were back at Worcester Park and he was established with a “worthy housekeeper,” a cook general in fact, in a cottage in Dorking. The wife was still being hushed up by the friend in London and did not know of his whereabouts. He was intensely solitary and miserable at Dorking. One day he came to us with a request. There was a proposal from a Frenchwoman to translate his novels into French. He wished to confer with her. Impossible for a lone man to entertain a strange lady at Dorking; would we arrange a meeting?
They lunched with us and afterwards they walked in our garden confabulating. She was a woman of the intellectual bourgeoisie, with neat black hair and a trim black dress, her voice was carefully musical, she was well read, slightly voluble and over-explicit by our English standards, and consciously refined and intelligent. To Gissing she came as the first breath of Continental recognition, and she seemed to embody all those possibilities of fine intercourse and one-sided understanding for which he was craving. For Gissing carried the normal expectancy of the male, which I have already dealt with in my own dissection, to an extravagant degree. Never did a man need mothering more and never was there a less sacrificial lover.
Presently we learnt from a chance remark that the lady had visited him one day at Dorking. She had become “Thérèse.” He made no further confidences. Then he broke up his Dorking establishment and left for Switzerland, where he was joined by Thérèse and her mother. He confided that there was to be a joint ménage and to ease things with the French relations, the mother carried the relationship so far towards a pseudo-marriage as to circulate cards with the surname of Thérèse erased in favour of “Gissing.” All this had, of course, to be carried out with absolute secrecy towards his actual wife and most of his English friends. Those of us who knew, thought that if he could be put into such circumstances as would at last give his very fine brain a fair chance to do good work, connivance in so petty a deception was a negligible price to pay.
Presently he published a novel called The Crown of Life. It is the very poorest of his novels but it is illuminating as regards himself. The “crown of life” was love — in a frock coat. This was what Gissing thought of love or at any rate it was as much as he dared to think of love. But after all, we argued, something of the sort had to happen and now perhaps he would write that great romance of the days of Cassiodorus.
But things did not work out as we hoped. When, a year or so later, Jane and I, returning from an excursion to Switzerland, visited him in Paris, we found him in a state of profound discontent. The apartment was bleakly elegant in the polished French way. He was doing no effective work, he was thin and ailing, and he complained bitterly that his pseudo mother-in-law, who was in complete control of his domestic affairs, was starving him. The sight of us stirred him to an unwonted Anglo-mania, a stomachic nostalgia, and presently he fled to us in England. An old school friend of his, Henry Hick, a New Romney doctor, of whom I shall have a word or so to say later, came over to look at him, and declared he was indeed starved, and Jane set to work and fed him up — weighing him carefully at regular intervals — with marvellous results.
I was glad to have him in our house, but it carried a penalty. For suddenly Thérèse began to write me long, long, wonderfully phrased letters — on thin paper and crossed — informing me that she could not bring herself to write to him directly and demanding my intervention. I had still to realize the peculiar Latin capacity for making copious infusions of simple situations. Presently when Gissing went off for some days to Hick, he too began to write at Thérèse to me — long letters in his small fine handwriting.
But I was busy upon work of my own and after one or two rather hasty attempts at diplomacy I brutalized the situation. I declared that the best thing for Gissing to do would be to decide never to return to France, since there was an evident incompatibility of appetite between him and the lady, or alternatively if there was any sort of living affection still between them, which I doubted, he must stipulate as a condition of his return that the catering should be taken out of the hands of the mother and put in those of the daughter under his own direction, and finally I announced that in no circumstances would I read through, much less paraphrase, consider or answer any further letters from Thérèse. Whatever she wrote to me, I should send to him for him to deal with directly. And with that I washed my hands of their immediate troubles.
He went back to her on the terms I had suggested, so I suppose there was still some sort of tenderness between them. Then these three poor troubled things full of the spirit of mute recrimination, perplexed and baffled by each other’s differences, went down to a furnished house at St. Jean-de-Luz and, afterwards, to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in the mountains above, and there he set to work writing what was to have been, what might have been under happier circumstances, a great historical picture of Italy under the Gothic kings, Veranilda. He had had this book in mind almost all the time I had known him. He had been reading Cassiodorus for it in 1898. Towards Christmas 1903 some of Thérèse’s relations came to visit them. On some excursion with them he caught a cold, which settled on his chest. Neither Thérèse nor her mother was the nursing type of woman. A sudden hatred seized him of the comfortless house he was in, of the misty mountain village, of economized French food and everything about him and a sudden fear fell upon him of the crackling trouble in his lungs and the fever that was gathering in his veins. He had been writing with deepening distress to Morley Roberts in November. Just on the eve of Christmas came telegrams to both of us: “George is dying. Entreat you to come. In greatest haste.”
I had private bothers of my own and I was supposed to be nursing a cold, but as Roberts did not seem to be available and made no reply to a telegram I sent him, I decided to go. It was Christmas Eve. I had no time to change out of my garden clothes and I threw some things into a handbag and went off in a fly to Folkestone Pier to catch the afternoon boat. I made my Christmas dinner of ham at Bayonne station.
I found the house a cheerless one. I saw nothing, or at least I remember seeing nothing of Thérèse’s mother; I think she had retired to her own room. Thérèse was in a state of distress and I thought her extremely incompetent. The visitors were still visiting but I insisted upon their departure. There was however a good little Anglican parson about, with his wife, and they helped me to get in a nurse (or rather a “religieuse,” which is by no means the same thing) and made some beef-tea before they departed for their home in St. Jean-de-Luz.
Gissing was dying of double pneumonia and quite delirious all the time I was there. There was no ice available and his chest had to be kept cool by continually dipping handkerchiefs in methylated spirit and putting them on him. Also his mouth was slimy and needed constant wiping. I kept by him, nursing him until far into the small hours while the weary religieuse recuperated, dozing by the fire. Then I found my way back to my inn at the other end of the place through a thick fog. St. Jean-Pied-de-Port is a lonely frontier town and at night its deserted streets abound in howling great dogs to whom the belated wayfarer is an occasion for the fiercest demonstrations. I felt like a flitting soul hurrying past Anubis and hesitating at strange misleading turnings on the lonely Pathway of the Dead. I forget every detail of the inn but I still remember that sick-room acutely.
It is one of the many oddities of my sheltered life that until the death of Gissing I had never watched a brain passing through disorganization into a final stillness. I had never yet seen anyone dying or delirious. I had expected to find him enfeebled and anxious and I had already planned how we could get a civil list pension from Mr. Balfour, to educate his boys and how I would tell him of that and what other reassurances I might give him. But Gissing aflame with fever had dropped all these anxieties out of his mind. Only once did the old Gissing reappear for a moment, when abruptly he entreated me to take him back to England. For the rest of the time this gaunt, dishevelled, unshaven, flushed, bright-eyed being who sat up in bed and gestured weakly with his lean hand, was exalted. He had passed over altogether into that fantastic pseudo-Roman world of which Wakefield Grammar School had laid the foundations.
“What are these magnificent beings!” he would say. “Who are these magnificent beings advancing upon us?” Or again, “What is all this splendour? What does it portend?” He babbled in Latin; he chanted fragments of Gregorian music. All the accumulation of material that he had made for Veranilda and more also, was hurrying faster and brighter across the mirrors of his brain before the lights went out for ever.
The Anglican chaplain, whose wife had helped with the beef-tea, heard of that chanting. He allowed his impression to develop in his memory and it was proclaimed later in a newspaper that Gissing had died “in the fear of God’s holy name, and with the comfort and strength of the Catholic faith.” This led to some bitter recriminations. Edward Clodd and Morley Roberts were particularly enraged at this “body-snatching” as they called it, and among other verbal missiles that hit that kindly little man in the full publicity of print were “crow,” “vulture” and “ecclesiastical buzzard.” But he did not deserve to be called such names. He did quite honestly think Gissing’s “Te Deums” had some sort of spiritual significance.
Another distressful human being in the sick chamber that night was Thérèse. I treated her harshly. She annoyed me because I found a handkerchief was being used to wipe his mouth that had been dipped in methylated spirit, and her thrifty soul resisted me when I demanded every clean handkerchief he possessed. Her sense of proportion was inadequate and her need for sympathy untimely. As I was hurrying across the room to do him some small service, I found her in my way. She clasped her hands and spoke in her beautifully modulated voice. “Figure to yourself Mr. Wells, what it must mean to me, to see my poor Georges like this!”
I restrained myself by an effort. “You are tired out,” I said. “You must go to bed. He will be safe now with the nurse and me.”
And I put her gently but firmly out of the room. . . .
So ended all that flimsy inordinate stir of grey matter that was George Gissing. He was a pessimistic writer. He spent his big fine brain depreciating life, because he would not and perhaps could not look life squarely in the eyes — neither his circumstances nor the conventions about him nor the adverse things about him nor the limitations of his personal character. But whether it was nature or education that made this tragedy I cannot tell.
I came back from Italy to Worcester Park in the summer of 1898, on the verge of the last bout of illness in my life before my health cleared up, quite unaware of the collapse that hung over me. I ascribed a general sense of malaise, an inability to stick to my work — I was then writing Love and Mr. Lewisham— to want of exercise and so the greater my lassitude the more I forced myself to exertion. What was happening was a sort of break-up of the scars and old clotted accumulations about my crushed kidney, and nothing could have been worse for me than to start, as we did, upon a cycling journey to the south coast. I was ashamed of my bodily discomfort — until I was over forty the sense of physical inferiority was a constant acute distress to me which no philosophy could mitigate — and I plugged along with a head that seemed filled with wool and a skin that felt like a misfit. Somewhere on the road I caught a cold.
We struggled to Lewes and then on to Seaford. We decided I must really be overdoing this exercise and we went into lodgings for a rest. All this is brought back to me by the hieroglyphics of the picshuas. Here under date of July 29th is one of them. Our sitting-room was evidently furnished with unrestrained piety. We were physically unhappy and our discomfort breaks out in hatred of our fellow visitors to Seaford. Jane has complained that she is dull. Some forgotten joke about a hat is traceable; I fancy I may have used her hat as a waste-paper basket; and noises (buniks) upstairs are afflicting me. By way of rest I am struggling to complete Love and Mr. Lewisham. Whenever I felt ill I became urgent to finish whatever book I was working on, because while a book unfinished would have been worth nothing, a finished book now meant several hundred pounds. Before going to Rome I had already scamped the finish of When the Sleeper Wakes (which afterwards
I rechristened in better English When the Sleeper Awakes) and I came near to scamping Love and Mr. Lewisham. But the suppuration that was going on in my now aching side, was too rapid to allow that. Love and Mr. Lewisham was finished with much care and elaboration some months later. My erring kidney began apparently to secrete ink. Jane, after brooding over my condition, was struck by an idea and went out and bought a clinical thermometer. We found my temperature had mounted to 102 F.
We had no established doctor but I had met a friend of Gissing’s, Henry Hick, who was medical officer of health for Romney Marsh and who had asked us to stay a night with him in the course of our cycling tour. New Romney seemed close at hand, we exchanged telegrams and I went to him at once by little cross country lines and several changes of train. I was now in considerable pain, the jolting carriages seemed malignantly uncomfortable, I suffered from intense thirst, I could get nothing to drink and the journey was interminable. With an unfaltering gentleness and no sign of dismay, Jane steered this peevish bundle of suffering that had once been her “Mr. Binder” to its destination. Hick was a good man at diagnosis and he did me well. An operation seemed indicated and he put me to bed and starved me down to make the trouble more accessible to the scalpel, but when the surgeon came from London it was decided that the offending kidney had practically taken itself off and that there was nothing left to remove. Thereupon I began to recover and after a few years of interrogative suspense and occasional pain not even a reminiscent twinge remained of my left kidney.
I find the picshuas resume after a couple of months. Before October I did some little drawings as I lay in bed, and amused myself by colouring them and these I think prevented the immediate resumption of the picshua diary. Mrs. Hick had just presented the world with a daughter; I became her godfather and began an elaborate illustrated story dedicated to this young lady called The Story of Tommy and the Elephant. This little book was preserved, and years afterwards when my god-daughter needed some money to set up as a medical practitioner she sold it and the copyright with my assent, and it was published in facsimile. It had an artless quaintness that pleased people and it did well and still sells as a Christmas present book.
On October 5th the picshuas testify that I hatched out a new project called Kipps, and completed Love and Mr. Lewisham. By this time I had left Hick’s helpful home and was, in a rather invalidish fashion, taking up my work again. I had been driven in a comfortable carriage to Sandgate and after a week or so in a boarding house we had installed ourselves in a little furnished house called Beach Cottage. Hick did not think it advisable for me to go back to Worcester Park and I never entered that house again.
On October 8th there seems to have been a bout of drawing to put all the momentous events of the previous two months on record. The picshuas recall a score of particulars that I should otherwise have forgotten completely. I am reminded of a “horrid medicine,” and that I began to drink Contrexeville water, and there is a vivid rendering of Jane’s dismay at a possible operation, while Hick and the specialist discuss my case. I think that Jane looking at the knife and saying “Wow” marks one of the high points of my peculiar artistic method. I assume my first dressing gown, I get up, leaning heavily on Jane, I gambol (galumph) to her great alarm, and she takes me out to the sea front in a bath chair. Then as my strength returns and I can run alone, Jane takes to sea bathing (in a costume that “dates”) and I buy a new cotton hat —“not a halo this time after all.”
The next drawing records merely the interruption of a picnic by intrusive cows during the period of recovery. Jane was never afraid of death, I have seen her twice when she thought she would be killed and she was quite steady, but she was town bred and she did not like cows. She distrusted these kind fragrant animals.
The next picshua records that we amused ourselves by shooting with an air gun, and then there began the serious business of finding a new home. According to the best advice available, a long period of invalidism was before me. I had to reconcile myself to complete exile from London, and contrive to live in dry air with no damp in the subsoil and in as much sunshine as possible.
Beach Cottage was a temporary refuge and so close to the sea that in rough weather the waves broke over the roof. Jane planted me there and then went off to pack up the furniture in Heatherlea and bring it down to an unfurnished house, Arnold House, into which we presently moved on a short lease, until we could find something better suited to our needs. That was difficult. Already in the picshuas given we are manifestly thinking of having to build a house and at last we decided to set about that adventure. I have already given a picshua of our removal from Beach Cottage to Arnold House in § 3 of Chapter Seven.
A queer little incident in my illness which it would be ungrateful to omit, was the sudden appearance of Henry James and Edmund Gosse at New Romney, riding upon bicycles from the direction of Rye. They took tea with Dr. Hick and us and were very charming and friendly, and Jane and I were greatly flattered by their visit. It never dawned upon me that they had any but sociable motives in coming over to see me. And later on, when I was in Beach Cottage, J. M. Barrie came in to see me. I gathered he had taken it into his head to spend a day at the seaside and visit me. (There is a picshua in § 3 of Chapter Seven commemorating his visit.) Barrie talked slowly and wisely of this and that, but particularly of his early struggles and the difficulties of young writers. There were times when a little help might do much for a man who was down. It never entered my head that I myself might be considered “down” just then, and I argued the matter with him. Once a man borrowed or was subsidized, I said, the “go” went out of his work. It was a dangerous and perhaps a fatal thing to deprive a man’s cheques of the sharp freshness of an unencumbered gain. “Perhaps you’re right,” meditated Barrie, and went on after a pause to tell of how when he first came to London he did not understand the nature of a cheque. “I just put them in a drawer and waited for the fellow to send me the real money,” he said. “I didn’t see the sense of them.”
He helped himself to a buttered bun. “When first I came to London,” he remarked, “I lived almost entirely on boons. . . . ”
The experience of later years has made me realize that in this way the Royal Literary Fund was making its enquiries about me, and that I was not so completely outside the range of assistance as I imagined. But I never had any assistance of that kind and at that time I did not want it. I was now some hundreds of pounds on the solvent side and thinking of building a house with my balance. I knew nothing of investment and having a house of my own seemed as good a use for savings as I could imagine.
I had a three years’ agreement for Arnold House and I stayed out my full time in it, gradually rebuilding my overstrained body and recovering resisting power to colds and suchlike infections. It was a semi-detached villa and it had a long narrow strip of grass which ended in a hedge of tamarisk along the sea wall. Upon the beach one day the Sea Lady appeared, very lovely in a close fitting bathing dress and with the sunlight in her hair, and took possession of my writing desk.
Our next door neighbours were a very pleasant couple named Popham, small rentiers with cultivated tastes who read well and thought of doing something to mend the world. They were the children of that serious Nonconformity which founded so many sound businesses in the mid Victorian epoch, turned them into honest joint-stock companies and left its children just independent enough to travel, trifle with the Arts and supply the backbone of the new British intelligentsia. The Pophams were always handy to play with. They taught me to swim, so far as I have ever learnt to swim, we moored a raft twenty or thirty yards from shore and I struggled out to it, and I found Popham as good a companion as Bowkett for long bicycle rides into Kent. Mrs. Popham was a sister-in-law of Graham Wallas whom I had already heard speaking in the old days in William Morris’s greenhouse meetings. Presently he came down to Sandgate with his wife and we found we had a lot to talk about together.
Wallas was a rather slovenly, slightly pedantic, noble-spirited man and I cannot measure justly the influence of the disinterested life he led on my own. It was I think very considerable. The Wallases, the Oliviers and the Webbs were quite the best of the leading Fabians — Shaw I refuse to count as a typical Fabian; they lived lives devoted to the Res Publica right out to the end of their days. They took the idea of getting a living as something by the way; a sort of living was there for them anyhow; and the real business of life began for them only after that had been settled and put on one side.
From what I have told of myself it must be plain that in those days I was full of mercenary go; “price per thousand” and “saleable copy” were as present in my mind as they are in the picshuas I have shown. My commercialism is not, I think, innate, but my fight with the world for Jane and myself and my family, had set a premium upon money making. I was beginning to like the sport. I was beginning to enjoy being able to pay for things. I was getting rather keen on my literary reputation as a saleable asset. It was as good for my mind as uninfected mountain air in an early case of tuberculosis to go for walks with Wallas, worlds away from any thought of prices, agents, serializations, “rights.” We even went off to Switzerland together for a couple of weeks and walked among the passes of Valais, over the Gemmi, over the Aletsch Glacier to Bel Alp, up to Zermatt, up the Furka, over the St. Gotthard, talking.
Essentially Wallas was a talker and a lecturer. He liked picking a case to pieces with a quiet fastidious deliberation far more than he liked the labour of putting things together. My journalistic experiences since my student days had bitten into me the primary need of sending in copy in time or even a little in advance of time. All my life I have been “delivering the goods” even if the packing has been hasty and the execution scampered at any rate, if not actually scamped. The habit is ingrained. I had meant to loiter over this autobiography for years — and perhaps not publish it in the end. I sketched an opening for it two years ago. And here it is being pressed to a finish. But the bad side of Wallas’s rentier unworldliness was that he was under no inner compulsion to get things positively done. If he had not had very definite academic ambitions and a real joy in answering questions, he might have sunken altogether into sterile erudite wisdom. As it is, the London School of Economics will testify how much the personal Graham Wallas outdid the published Graham Wallas. Alfred Zimmern and Walter Lippmann were among his particular pupils and there is scarcely any considerable figure among the younger generation of publicists who does not owe something to his slow, fussy, mannered, penetrating and inspiring counsels. He was a classical scholar, but Hellenic rather than Roman — in contrast to Gissing — a Platonist and not a Homerist. His grasp upon modern scientific philosophy was a firm one.
Our Swiss conversations centred upon our common feeling that there had to be some firmer basis, a better thought-out system of ideas, for social and political activities than was available at that time. He had been greatly impressed by the book of Professor Ostrogorski on Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties (1902). It was an early break towards realism in political science. It swept aside legist conceptions of government by a frank treatment of parliamentary actuality. It was plain to Wallas that realistic acid might be made to bite still deeper into political conventionality. He wanted to make a psychological examination of mass-political reactions the new basis for a revision of governmental theory, and he thought of calling this study “A Prolegomenon to Politics.” Finally he produced it as Human Nature in Politics (1908). Walter Lippmann, under his inspiration, produced A Preface to Politics, and the Alpine sunlight of that mental hike of ours is also very evident in my own Modern Utopia (1905). We were all branching out in characteristic directions from the Ostrogorski stimulus.
Wallas and I never lost contact completely. Within a few months of his death (1932) he was in my study reading and commenting very illuminatingly and usefully upon the political chapters of my Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind. He had been reading a good deal of Bentham at that time, digging out long forgotten books, and I remember his glasses gleaming appreciatively as he squatted in my lowest easy chair and dilated on the “old boy’s “ abundance and breadth of range. Bentham, too, had been a sort of encyclopædist. I do not think Wallas wrote anything about this aspect of Bentham, though I know he dealt with him largely in his lectures on local government; he was just going over him for pleasure, gathering a bright nosegay of characteristic ideas — to be presently dropped by the wayside.
Somewhere between my own tendency to push on to conclusions and Wallas’s interminable deliberation, lies I suppose the ideal method of the perfect student working “without haste and without delay.”
My opinion of the texture and mental forms of the brain of Graham Wallas was very high, and I formed an almost equal respect for the intelligence of another of those early Fabians, Sydney Olivier who became Lord Olivier. Both the Webbs also I found very good, if antagonistic, stuff. Beatrice had (and has) a delightful way that is all her own, of throwing out bold general propositions about things in the most aggressive manner possible. I should call her style of talk experimental dogmatism. If you disagree, you say “Oh Nonsense!” and restate her proposition in a corrected form. Then she fights with unscrupulous candour and invincible good temper. Sidney is not nearly so exploratory; his convictions are less vivid and plastic; his aim is rather persuasion than truth, he is politic rather than philosophical. Of Shaw’s mind I have already given an impression.
In my account of fin-de-siècle socialism I have criticized the peculiar limitations of pseudo “practicality” and anti-Utopianism that went with the academic and civil-service associations of the Fabian group. In particular I have shown how they shirked and delayed the problem of the competent receiver. Here I am dealing not so much with these ideological limitations with which I presently fell foul, as with their pervading sense of the importance of social service as the frame of life, and the way in which Jane and I were probably influenced by them. We may have had that in us from the beginning, Jane particularly, but they brought it out in us. They may have done much to deflect me from the drift towards a successful, merely literary career into which I was manifestly falling in those early Sandgate days. I might have become entirely an artist and a literary careerist and possibly a distinguished one, and then my old friend Osborn of the National Observer, the Morning Post and “Boon” would never have had occasion to call my books “sociological cocktails.”
A much more tawdry brain in the Fabian constellation which played its part in teaching me about human reactions was that of Hubert Bland. As my personal acquaintances with the Fabians extended we found the Blands had a house at Dymchurch, within an easy bicycle ride of us, to which they came in summer-time. They were the strangest of couples and they played a large part in the Fabian comedy. Doris Langley Moore has recently given a very frank account of them in her excellent life of Mrs. Bland (E. Nesbit 1933), to which I make my acknowledgments. E. Nesbit was a tall, whimsical, restless, able woman who had been very beautiful and was still very good-looking; and Bland was a thick-set, broad-faced aggressive man, a sort of Tom-cat man, with a tenoring voice and a black ribboned monocle and a general disposition to dress and live up to that. The two of them dramatized life and I had as yet met few people who did that. They loved scenes and “situations.” They really enjoyed strong emotion. There was no such persistent pursuit of truth and constructive ends in them as in their finer associates. It was not in their imaginative scheme.
Much of her activity went into the writing of verse, rather insincere verse, rather sentimental stories for adults and quite admirable tales for children. The Bastable family she created is still a joy to little people between ten and seventeen. She earned the greater part of the joint income. She ran a great easy-going hospitable Bohemian household at Well Hall, Eltham, an old moated house with a walled garden. Those who loved her and those who wished to please her called her royally “Madame” or “Duchess,” and she had a touch of aloof authority which justified that. A miscellany of people came and went there and to lodgings handy-by the smaller house at Dymchurch; the Chesterton brothers, Laurence Housman, Enid Bagnold, Horace Horsnell, Arthur Watts, Oswald Barren, Edgar Jepson, Alfred Sutro, Berta Ruck, Jack Squire, Clifford Sharp, Monseigneur Benson, Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo), a multitude of young writers, actors and aspirants in an atmosphere of talk, charades, mystifications and disputes. And there also I and Jane visited and learnt to play Badminton and gossip and discuss endlessly.
At first it seemed to be a simple agreeable multitudinousness from which literary buds and flowers sprang abundantly, presided over by this tall, engaging, restless, moody, humorous woman. Then gradually the visitor began to perceive at first unsuspected trends and threads of relationship and scented, as if from the moat, a more disturbing flavour. People came to Well Hall and went, and some of them went for good. There had been “misunderstandings.”
I thought at first that Well Hall was a new group for us and now in the retrospect I realize that it was a new sort of world. It was a world of rôles and not of realities. Perhaps that is the more usual type of world, the sort of world in which people do not say “I am thus and thus,” but “I will be thus and thus.” From what I have told in the earlier part of this autobiography it is plain that my own people, my parents, brothers, aunt, cousin and so forth, and the people with whom I came in contact, were either very simple-minded people indeed or else they were people with the sustained and developed simplicity and coherence of scientific training or people with whom my contacts were simple and unrevealing. But the Blands were almost the first people I met at all intimately, who were fundamentally intricate, who had no primary simple idea. They had brains as active and powerful as most other brains in my world, but — as I began to realize only after some disconcerting experiences — they had never taken them down to any sort of philosophy; they had never focussed them on any single objective, and they started off at all sorts of levels from arbitrarily adopted fantasies and poses.
The incongruity of Bland’s costume with his Bohemian setting, the costume of a city swell, top-hat, tail-coat, greys and blacks, white slips, spatterdashes and that black-ribboned monocle, might have told me, had I had the ability then to read such signs, of the general imagination at work in his persona, the myth of a great Man of the World, a Business Man (he had no gleam of business ability) invading for his own sage strong purposes this assembly of long-haired intellectuals. This myth had, I think, been developed and sustained in him, by the struggle of his egoism against the manifest fact that his wife had a brighter and fresher mind than himself, and had subtler and livelier friends. For many years, says Miss Moore, she carried on a long correspondence with Laurence Housman and I guess that Bland had had to protect his self-esteem against many such intimations of insufficiency in his own equipment. He could not pervade her. That particular correspondence, the biographer relates, was ended when E. Nesbit, against her character and disposition, followed Bland on the anti-feminist side of the suffrage dispute.
In the end she became rather a long-suffering lady, but her restless needle of a mind, her quick response, kept her always an exacting and elusive lady. It was I am convinced because she, in her general drift, was radical and anarchistic, that the pose of Bland’s self-protection hardened into this form of gentlemanly conservatism. He presented himself as a Tory in grain, he became — I know of no confirmation — a man of good old family; he entered the dear old Roman Catholic church. These were all insistencies upon soundness and solidity as against her quickness and whim. He was publicly emphatic for social decorum, punctilio, the natural dependence of women and the purity of the family. None of your modern stuff for him. All this socialism he assured you, so far as it was any good, was a reaction from nineteenth century liberalism to the good old social organization that flourished in England before the days of Adam Smith.
She acquiesced in these posturings. If she had not, I suppose he would have argued with her until she did, and he was a man of unfaltering voice and great determination. But a gay holiday spirit bubbled beneath her verbal orthodoxies and escaped into her work. The Bastables are an anarchistic lot. Her soul was against the government all the time.
This discordance of form and spirit lay on the surface of their lives. Most of us who went to them were from the first on the side of the quicksilver wife against the more commonplace, argumentative, cast-iron husband. Then gradually something else came into the ensemble. It came first to the visitor at Well Hall as chance whisperings, as flashes of conflict and fierce resentment, as raised voices in another room, a rush of feet down a passage and the banging of a door.
Miss Langley Moore in her careful and well informed book lays the whole story bare with many particulars I never knew before. There was a more primitive strand in Bland’s make-up. He was under an inner compulsion to be a Seducer — on the best eighteenth century lines. That, and not Tory-Socialism, was his essential preoccupation; that was what he talked to himself about when he was in his own company. His imaginations may have been running into this mould before he met her, it is not a very rare mould, but the clash of their personalities confirmed the tendency. That I suppose was where he really got even with her wit and freaks and fantasies and with a certain essential physical coldness in her. And in return he gave her some romantically difficult situations. The astonished visitor came to realize that most of the children of the household were not E. Nesbit’s but the results of Bland’s conquests, that the friend and companion who ran the household was the mother of one of these young people, that young Miss so and so, who played Badminton with a preoccupied air was the last capture of Hubert’s accomplished sex appeal. All this E. Nesbit not only detested and mitigated and tolerated, but presided over and I think found exceedingly interesting.
Everywhere fantastic concealments and conventions had been arranged to adjust these irregularities to Hubert’s pose of ripe old gentility. You found after a time that Well Hall was not so much an atmosphere as a web.
In company, in public, Bland talked and wrote of social and political problems and debated with a barrister-like effectiveness, but when I was alone with him, the fundamental interest insisted upon coming to the surface. He felt my unspoken criticisms and I could not check his assertive apologetics. He would talk about it. He would give hints of his exceptional prowess. He would boast. He would discuss the social laxities of Woolwich and Blackheath, breaking into anecdotes, “simply for the purpose of illustration.” Or he would produce a pocket-worn letter and read choice bits of it —“purely because of its psychological interest.” He did his utmost to give this perpetual pursuit of furtive gratification, the dignity of a purpose. He was, he claimed to me at least, not so much Don Juan as Professor Juan. “I am a student, an experimentalist,” he announced, “in illicit love.”
“Illicit love”! It had to be “illicit” and that was the very gist of it for him. It had to be the centre of a system of jealousies, concealments, hidings, exposures, confrontations, sacrifices, incredible generosities — in a word, drama. What he seemed most to value was the glory of a passionate triumph over openness, reason and loyalty — and getting the better of the other fellow. The more complex the situation was, the better it was fitted for Bland’s atmosphere.
It is curious how opposed this mentality of what I may call, the seventeenth and eighteenth century “Buck,” is to the newer, rationalist, go-as-you-please of the Shelley type, to which my own mind was being attracted in those days. I wanted to abolish barriers between the sexes and Bland loved to get under or over or through them. The more barriers the better. In those days I would have made illicit love impossible — by making almost all love-making licit. There was no real inconsistency therefore between Bland’s private life and his enthusiasm for formal conventionality and it was perfectly logical that though we were both disposed to great freedoms by the accepted standards, we were in diametrically antagonistic schools. He thought it made a love affair more exciting and important if one might be damned for it and I could not believe these pleasant intimacies could ever bring real damnation to anyone. He exalted chastity because so it meant a greater sacrifice, and I suppose he would have thought it a crowning achievement to commit incest or elope with a nun. He was sincerely disgusted at my disposition to take the moral fuss out of his darling sins. My impulses were all to get rid of the repressions of sexual love, minimize its importance and subordinate this stress between men and women as agreeably as possible to the business of mankind.
So now, with the detachment of half a lifetime, I define the forces that first attracted me to Well Hall and then made Well Hall jar upon me; but at that time I did not see so clearly and I found these two people and their atmosphere and their household of children and those who were entangled with them, baffling to an extreme degree. At the first encounter it had seemed so extraordinarily open and jolly. Then suddenly you encountered fierce resentment, you found Mrs. Bland inexplicably malignant; doors became walls so to speak and floors pitfalls. In that atmosphere you surprised yourself. It was like Alice through the Looking Glass; not only were there Mock Turtles and White Queens and Mad Hatters about, but you discovered with amazement that you were changing your own shape and stature.
The web of concealments and intrigue that radiated from the Bland ménage and met many other kindred if less intricate strands among that miscellany of enquiring and experimenting people which constituted the Fabian Society, spread like the mycelium of a fungus throughout that organization. The Blands were among the earliest founders of that “Fellowship of the New Life” from which the Fabian Society sprang. They were original members of the latter, and Bland, because he was neither the chief bread winner of his family nor restrained by any fundamental mental consistency nor preoccupied with any really ordered creative aims, was able to devote all the time and energy that could be spared from fluttering the Blackheath dovecotes, to Fabian manœuvres. He was always there, just as dry old Quaker-trained Edward Pease, the salaried trustworthy secretary, was always there, and Pease was by nature a very honest desiccating pedant and Bland by nature a politician. Bland was as loose internally as Pease was rigid and they were inspired by a natural antagonism. The little society was setting out upon the most gigantic enterprise that humanity has ever attempted, a New Life (Think of it!) and even if that new life was restricted by subsequent provisos to economic reconstruction only, it still meant a vast long trying game of waiting and preparation; the society was not only poor, small and with everything to learn about its job, but from the very beginning it had these two personalities, like the germs of a congenital disease, vitiating and diverting its energies.
Long before my innocence came into the society, some deep feud between Pease and the Blands had established itself when Pease and not Bland became the salaried secretary; and the mysterious concealments, reservations, alliances, imputations, schemes and tactics of these obscure issues played havoc with the affairs of our middle-class socialist propaganda. The larger purposes of the Wallases, Webbs and Shaw had to defer continually to the dark riddle of “what the Blands will do about it.” There was no reckoning without them for they turned up, excited and energetic, with satellites, dependents, confederates and new associates at every meeting. In the dusty confusion of personalities and secondary issues created by them, rumour moved darkly and anonymous letters flittered about like bats at twilight. By the time I came into the society Bland, the able politician, was established in the mind of Shaw, for example, as a necessary evil and Pease as an unavoidable ally. When Shaw faced towards social and political problems, this implacable animosity loomed so large for him that at times it blotted out the stars.
The topic of Human Nature in Politics (to borrow a title from Graham Wallas) is a vast one, and here was a hard specimen for my frustration and education. Following Ostrogorski, Wallas dealt with this trouble from the point of view of mass reactions, but now here I am approaching it — or rather blundering into it — from the opposite direction, by way of biography. What are we to do with these energetic vital types who will not subdue themselves to a broad and consistent aim; who choose a pose, stage situations, fly off at a tangent and never table their objectives? Shall we never be able to keep secondary issues and idiosyncrasies in their place? How far is it inevitable that we should live in a world of personal “misunderstandings”? How far is directive simplicity possible? What can be done to keep our public and social objectives untangled and simple and clear?
Before it had existed half a dozen years, the Fabian Society was in urgent need of a searching psycho-analysis, and there has never yet been a government or party, an educational directorate, or a religion that has not presently diverged into morasses of complication and self-contradiction. How far is that to be the case with us for ever?
How far might some more universal and more efficient education, more penetrating, better planned and better administered, have started and sustained our Fabian Society — every one of us well meaning — in a better understanding and a less wasteful co-operation? Were the complexities of Bland and his wife, the intellectual freakishness of Shaw, the intricate cross-purposes of that bunch of animated folk, unavoidable and incurable?
The Federation of the New Life passed like a dreamer’s sigh, but within some fated term of years, unless mankind is to perish, there must be a real Federation of the New Life. I find myself on the verge here of slipping away from my already sufficiently copious autobiographical purpose into what might prove a limitless dissertation on human behaviour, a sort of outline, a digest, of all available biography. It is time to recall my enquiring pen — as one calls a roving dog to heel — and return to my personal story, to return from cosmo-biography to autobiography, and to go on telling how I, at any rate, in spite of all those deflections and entanglements, found at last a satisfactory simplification and orientation of my own existence in the idea of an educational, political and economic world unification.
Of that mental and moral consolidation my last chapter must tell. In the early Sandgate days not only was I being attracted more and more powerfully towards the civil service conception of a life framed in devotion to constructive public ends à la Webb, but I was also being tugged, though with less force, in a quite opposite direction, towards the artistic attitude. I have never been able to find the artistic attitude fundamentally justifiable but I understand and sympathize with the case for it. It was expressed in varying modes and very engagingly by a number of brains through whose orbits my own was travelling. Professor York Powell had come to know me, through the Marriott Watsons and the Pall Mall Gazette group, and he was very strong in his assertion that the “artist” lived in a class apart, having a primary and over-riding duty to his “gift.” He might be solvent if he liked and political in his off time, but his primary duty was to express the divine juice that was in him.
York Powell, a big bearded man with a deep abundant chuckle, came very frequently to Sandgate, where he had an old gnarled boatman friend, who was something of a character, Jim Payne. I did my best to be initiated by York Powell into the charms of sea-fishing and a sort of tarry wisdom peculiar to Jim Payne, but the inoculation never really took. York Powell was always trying to draw Jim out for my benefit and Jim was harder to draw out than a badger. I never saw him drawn.
To a lodging in Sandgate also came Bob Stevenson, the “Spring-Heeled Jack” of his cousin Robert Louis’ Talk and Talkers, after a stroke, for the ending of his days. I had known him before his illness and had heard him do some marvellous talks; a dissertation upon how he would behave if he was left nearly two millions, still lingers in my mind. One million was just to keep — one could never bear to break a single million — but all the rest was to be spent and distributed magnificently. He described his dinner before his benefactions began. He was particular about a large deed-box full of cheque books to be brought to him by bank messengers “in scarlet coats with new gold bands round their top hats.” He chose among his friends those whose presence and advice would be most conducive to wise and generous giving. He planned the most ingenious gifts and the most remarkable endowments. I have tried to give a faint impression of his style of imaginative talking in Ewart’s talk about the City of Women in Tono Bungay. But Ewart is not even a caricature of Bob; only Bob’s style of talk was grafted on to him. Bob Stevenson, like York Powell, was all on the side of aesthetic concentration and letting the rest go hang. He could not imagine what these Fabians were up to. They were not real in his universe.
Henry James, too, had developed expressionism into an elaborate philosophy; it is a great loss to the science of criticism that he should have died before his slowly unfolding autobiography reached a point where he could state his mature attitude. In several talks we hovered on the abundant verge of it but even the evenings at Lamb House were too short for anything but intimations and preliminaries.
Another very important acquaintance of my early Sandgate time, now too little appreciated in the world, was the American Stephen Crane. He was one of the earliest of those stark American writers who broke away from the genteel literary traditions of Victorian England and he wrote an admirable bare prose. One or two of his short stories, The Open Boat, for example, seem to me imperishable gems. He made his reputation with a short book about the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage. It was an amazing feat of imaginative understanding. It was written, as Ambrose Bierce said, not with ink but blood. And forthwith the American newspapers pounced upon him to make him a war correspondent. He was commissioned to go to Cuba, to the Spanish-American war and to the Turko-Greek war of 1897. He was a lean, blond, slow-speaking, perceptive, fragile, tuberculous being, too adventurous to be temperate with anything and impracticable to an extreme degree. He liked to sit and talk, sagely and deeply. How he managed ever to get to the seats of war to which he was sent I cannot imagine. I don’t think he got very deeply into them. But he got deeply enough into them to shatter his health completely.
In Greece he met and married an energetic lady who had been sent out by some American newspaper as the first woman war correspondent. With, perhaps, excessive vigour she set out to give her ailing young husband a real good time. Morton Frewen (the wealthy father of Clare Sheridan) lent them a very old and beautiful house, Brede House near Rye and there they inaugurated a life of gay extravagance and open hospitality. I forget the exact circumstances of our first meeting but I remember very vividly a marvellous Christmas Party in which Jane and I participated. We were urged to come over and, in a postscript, to bring any bedding and blankets we could spare. We arrived in a heaped-up Sandgate cab, rather in advance of the guests from London. We were given a room over the main gateway in which there was a portcullis and an owl’s nest, but at least we got a room. Nobody else did — because although some thirty or forty invitations had been issued, there were not as a matter of fact more than three or four bedrooms available. One of them however was large and its normal furniture had been supplemented by a number of hired truckle-beds and christened the Girls’ Dormitory, and in the attic an array of shake-downs was provided for the men. Husbands and wives were torn apart.
Later on we realized that the sanitary equipment of Brede House dated from the seventeenth century, an interesting historical detail, and such as there was indoors, was accessible only through the Girls’ Dormitory. Consequently the wintry countryside next morning was dotted with wandering melancholy, preoccupied, men guests.
Anyhow there were good open fires in the great fireplaces and I remember that party as an extraordinary lark — but shot, at the close, with red intimations of a coming tragedy. We danced in a big oak-panelled room downstairs, lit by candles stuck upon iron sconces that Cora Crane had improvised with the help of the Brede blacksmith. Unfortunately she had not improvised grease guards and after a time everybody’s back showed a patch of composite candle-wax, like the flash on the coat of a Welsh Fusilier. When we were not dancing or romping we were waxing the floor or rehearsing a play vamped up by A. E. W. Mason, Crane, myself and others. It was a ghost play, and very allusive and fragmentary, and we gave it in the School Room at Brede. It amused its authors and cast vastly. What the Brede people made of it is not on record.
We revelled until two or three every night and came down towards mid-day to breakfasts of eggs and bacon, sweet potatoes from America and beer. Crane had a transient impulse to teach some of the men poker, in the small hours, but we would not take it seriously. Mason I found knew my old schoolfellow Sidney Bowkett and had some anecdotes to tell me about him. “In any decent saloon in America,” said Crane, “you’d be shot for talking like that at poker,” and abandoned our instruction in a pet.
That was the setting in which I remember Crane. He was profoundly weary and ill, if I had been wise enough to see it, but I thought him sulky and reserved. He was essentially the helpless artist; he wasn’t the master of his party, he wasn’t the master of his home; his life was altogether out of control; he was being carried along. What he was still clinging to, but with a dwindling zest, was artistry. He had an intense receptiveness to vivid work; he had an inevitably right instinct for the word in his stories; but he had no critical chatter. We compared our impressions of various contemporaries. “That’s Great,” he’d say or simply “Gaw!” Was so and so “any good”? So and so was “no good.”
Was he writing anything now?
His response was joyless. Pinker the agent had fixed some stories for him. “I got to do them,” he said, “I got to do them.”
The tragic entanglement of the highly specialized artist had come to him. Sensation and expression — and with him it had been well nigh perfect expression — was the supreme joy of his life and the justification of existence for him. And here he was, in a medley of impulsive disproportionate expenditure, being pursued by the worthy Pinker with enquiries of when he could “deliver copy” and warnings not to overrun his length. The good thing in his life had slipped by him.
In the night after the play Mrs. Crane came to us. He had had a haemorrhage from his lungs and he had tried to conceal it from her. He “didn’t want anyone to bother.” Would I help get a doctor?
There was a bicycle in the place and my last clear memory of that fantastic Brede House party is riding out of the cold skirts of a wintry night into a drizzling dawn along a wet road to call up a doctor in Rye.
That crisis passed, but he died later in the new year, 1900. He did his utmost to conceal his symptoms and get on with his dying. Only at the end did his wife wake up to what was coming. She made a great effort to get him to Baden-Baden. She conveyed him silent and sunken and stoical to Folkestone by car, regardless of expense, she had chartered a special train to wait for him at Boulogne and he died almost as soon as he arrived in Germany.
Two other important men of letters were also close at hand to present the ideal of pure artistry to me rather less congenially. These were Ford Madox Hueffer and Joseph Conrad, of whom the former — through certain defects of character and a copious carelessness of reminiscence — is, I think, too much neglected, and the latter still placed too high in the scale of literary achievement. Joseph Conrad was really Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski. He had very wisely dropped his surname and was content to be Joseph Conrad to English readers. He had been excited by a review I wrote of his Almayer’s Folly in the Saturday Review; it was his first “important” recognition and he became anxious to make my acquaintance.
At first he impressed me, as he impressed Henry James, as the strangest of creatures. He was rather short and round-shouldered with his head as it were sunken into his body. He had a dark retreating face with a very carefully trimmed and pointed beard, a trouble-wrinkled forehead and very troubled dark eyes, and the gestures of his hands and arms were from the shoulders and very Oriental indeed. He reminded people of Du Maurier’s Svengali and, in the nautical trimness of his costume, of Cutliffe Hyne’s Captain Kettle. He spoke English strangely. Not badly altogether; he would supplement his vocabulary — especially if he were discussing cultural or political matters — with French words; but with certain oddities. He had learnt to read English long before he spoke it and he had formed wrong sound impressions of many familiar words; he had for example acquired an incurable tendency to pronounce the last e in these and those. He would say, “Wat shall we do with thesa things?” And he was always incalculable about the use of “shall” and “will.” When he talked of seafaring his terminology was excellent but when he turned to less familiar topics he was often at a loss for phrases.
Yet he wove an extraordinarily rich descriptive English prose, a new sort of English of his own, conspicuously and almost necessarily free from stereotyped expressions and hack phrases, in which foreign turns and phrases interlaced with unusual native words unusually used. And I think it was this fine, fresh, careful, slightly exotic quality about his prose, that “foreign” flavour which the normal Anglo-Saxon mind habitually associates with culture, that blinded criticism to the essentially sentimental and melodramatic character of the stories he told. His deepest theme is the simple terror of strange places, of the jungle, of night, of the incalculable sea; as a mariner his life was surely a perpetual anxiety about miscalculations, about the hidden structural vices of his ship, about shifting cargo and untrustworthy men; he laid bare with an air of discovery what most adventurers, travellers and sailors habitually suppress. Another primary topic with him — best treated in that amazingly good story Amy Foster, a sort of caricature autobiography, was the feeling of being incurably “foreign.” He pursued a phantom “honour”— in Lord Jim for instance; his humour in The Nigger of the Narcissus, is dismal, and you may search his work from end to end and find little tenderness and no trace of experienced love or affection. But he had set himself to be a great writer, an artist in words, and to achieve all the recognition and distinction that he imagined should go with that ambition, he had gone literary with a singleness and intensity of purpose that made the kindred concentration of Henry James seem lax and large and pale. The Mirror of the Sea was his favourite among his own writings, and I think that in that he showed a sound critical judgment.
He came into my ken in association with Ford Madox Hueffer and they remain together, contrasted and inseparable, in my memory. Ford is a long blond with a drawling manner, the very spit of his brother Oliver, and oddly resembling George Moore the novelist in pose and person. What he is really or if he is really, nobody knows now and he least of all; he has become a great system of assumed personas and dramatized selves. His brain is an exceptionally good one and when first he came along, he had cast himself for the rôle of a very gifted scion of the Pre-Raphaelite stem, given over to artistic purposes and a little undecided between music, poetry, criticism, The Novel, Thoreau-istic horticulture and the simple appreciation of life. He has written some admirable verse, some very good historical romances, two or three books in conjunction with Conrad, and a considerable bulk of more or less autobiographical — unreality. As a sort of heir to Pre-Raphaelitism, he owned among other things a farm called the Pent at the foot of the Downs above Hythe; it had been occupied previously by Christina Rossetti and Walter Crane the artist; and he had let it to Conrad; Conrad wrote about The Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent on a desk that may have creaked to the creative effort of Goblin Market; and thither Hueffer and I walked to our meeting.
One goes downhill to the Pent, the windows of the house are low and my first impression of Conrad, was of a swarthy face peering out and up through the little window panes.
He talked with me mostly of adventure and dangers, Hueffer talked criticism and style and words, and our encounter was the beginning of a long, fairly friendly but always rather strained acquaintance. Conrad with Mrs. Conrad and his small blond haired bright-eyed boy, would come over to Sandgate, cracking a whip along the road, driving a little black pony carriage as though it was a droshky and encouraging a puzzled little Kentish pony with loud cries and endearments in Polish, to the dismay of all beholders. We never really “got on” together. I was perhaps more unsympathetic and incomprehensible to Conrad than he was to me. I think he found me Philistine, stupid and intensely English; he was incredulous that I could take social and political issues seriously; he was always trying to penetrate below my foundations, discover my imaginative obsessions and see what I was really up to. The frequent carelessness of my writing, my scientific qualifications of statement and provisional inconclusiveness, and my indifference to intensity of effect, perplexed and irritated him. Why didn’t I write? Why had I no care for my reputation?
“My dear Wells, what is this Love and Mr. Lewisham about?” he would ask. But then he would ask also, wringing his hands and wrinkling his forehead, “What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her? What is it all about?”
I remember a dispute we had one day as we lay on the Sandgate beach and looked out to sea. How, he demanded, would I describe how that boat out there, sat or rode or danced or quivered on the water? I said that in nineteen cases out of twenty I would just let the boat be there in the commonest phrases possible. Unless I wanted the boat to be important I would not give it an outstanding phrase and if I wanted to make it important then the phrase to use would depend on the angle at which the boat became significant. But it was all against Conrad’s over-sensitized receptivity that a boat could ever be just a boat. He wanted to see it with a definite vividness of his own. But I wanted to see it and to see it only in relation to something else — a story, a thesis. And I suppose if I had been pressed about it I would have betrayed a disposition to link that story or thesis to something still more extensive and that to something still more extensive and so ultimately to link it up to my philosophy and my world outlook.
Now here perhaps — if I may deal with Conrad and others and myself as hand specimens — is something rather fundamental for the educationist. I have told in my account of my school days (Ch. 3 §1) how I differed from my schoolmate Sidney Bowkett, in that he felt and heard and saw so much more vividly, so much more emotionally, than I did. That gave him superiorities in many directions, but the very coldness and flatness of my perceptions, gave me a readier apprehension of relationships, put me ahead of him in mathematics and drawing (which after all is a sort of abstraction of form) and made it easier for me later on to grasp general ideas in biology and physics. My education at Kensington was very broad and rapid, I suggest, because I was not dealing with burning and glowing impressions — and when I came to a course where sense impressions were of primary importance, as they were in the course in mineralogy (see Ch. 5 §3), I gave way to irrepressible boredom and fell down. My mind became what I call an educated mind, that is to say a mind systematically unified, because of my relative defect in brightness of response. I was easy to educate.
These vivid writers I was now beginning to encounter were, on the contrary, hard to educate — as I use the word educate. They were at an opposite pole to me as regards strength of reception. Their abundant, luminous impressions were vastly more difficult to subdue to a disciplined and co-ordinating relationship than mine. They remained therefore abundant but uneducated brains. Instead of being based on a central philosophy, they started off at a dozen points; they were impulsive, unco-ordinated, wilful. Conrad, you see, I count uneducated, Stephen Crane, Henry James, the larger part of the world of literary artistry. Shaw’s education I have already impugned. The science and art of education was not adequate for the taming and full utilization of these more powerfully receptive types and they lapsed into arbitrary inconsistent and dramatized ways of thinking and living. With a more expert and scientific educational process all that might have been different. They lapsed — though retaining their distinctive scale and quality — towards the inner arbitrariness and unreality of the untrained common man.
Not only was I relatively equipped with a strong bias for rational associations but, also, accident threw me in my receptive years mostly among non-dramatizing systematic-minded people. My mother dramatized herself, indeed, but so artlessly that I rebelled against that. My scientific training and teaching confirmed and equipped all my inherent tendency to get things ruthlessly mapped out and consistent. I suspected any imaginative romancing in conduct. I defended myself against romancing by my continual self-mockery and caricature — what you see in this book therefore as a sort of bloom of little sketches is not really an efflorescence but something very fundamental to this brain-story. I am holding myself down from pretentious impersonations. But they were there, trying to get me. A man is revealed by the nature of his mockeries.
Such mentalities as my wife, Graham Wallas and the Webbs, and the general Socialist proposition, did much to sustain the educational consolidation that was going on in me. So that by the time I encountered such vigorously dramatizing people as the Blands and such vivid impressionists as Conrad I was already built up and set in the most refractory and comprehensive forms of conviction. I had struggled with a considerable measure of success against the common vice of self-protective assumptions. I had, I have, few “complexes.” I would almost define education as the prevention of complexes. I was seeing myself as far as possible without pretences, my persona was under constant scrutiny, even at the price of private and secret sessions of humiliation, and not only was I trying to avoid posing to myself but I kept up as little pose as possible to the world. I eschewed dignity. I found therefore something as ridiculous in Conrad’s persona of a romantic adventurous un-mercenary intensely artistic European gentleman carrying an exquisite code of unblemished honour through a universe of baseness as I did in Hubert Bland’s man-of-affairs costume and simple Catholic piety.
When Conrad first met Shaw in my house, Shaw talked with his customary freedoms. “You know, my dear fellow, your books won’t do”— for some Shavian reason I have forgotten — and so forth.
I went out of the room and suddenly found Conrad on my heels, swift and white-faced. “Does that man want to insult me?” he demanded.
The provocation to say “Yes” and assist at the subsequent duel was very great, but I overcame it. “It’s humour,” I said, and took Conrad out into the garden to cool. One could always baffle Conrad by saying “humour.” It was one of our damned English tricks he had never learnt to tackle.
Later on he wanted Ford Madox Hueffer to challenge me. If Conrad had had his way, either Hueffer’s blood or mine would have reddened Dymchurch sands. I thought an article Hueffer had written about Hall Caine was undignified and I said that he had written it as if he was a discharged valet — or something equally pungent. Hueffer came over to tell me about it. “I tried to explain to him that duelling isn’t done,” said Hueffer.
In those days Hueffer was very much on the rational side of life; his extraordinary drift towards self-dramatization — when he even changed his name to Captain Ford — became conspicuous only later, after the stresses of the war. In the light of that his last book, It Was the Nightingale, is well worth reading. I think Conrad owed a very great deal to their early association; Hueffer helped greatly to “English” him and his idiom, threw remarkable lights on the English literary world for him, collaborated with him on two occasions, and conversed interminably with him about the precise word and about perfection in writing.
They forced me to consider and define my own position in such matters. Did I really care for these things? I like turning a phrase as well as any man, I try my utmost to achieve precision of statement where precision is important, and some passages of mine, the opening sections (§§1-4) in the chapter on “How Man Has Learnt to Think” in the Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind for instance, I rewrote a dozen times. But I have a feeling that the happy word is the gift, the momentary capricious gift of the gods a flash of mother-wit. You cannot train for it; you cannot write well and forcibly without at times writing flatly, and the real quality of a writer is, like divinity, inalienable. This incessant endeavour to keep prose bristling up and have it “vivid” all the time defeats its end. I find very much of Conrad oppressive, as overwrought as an Indian tracery, and it is only in chosen passages and some of his short stories that I would put his work on a level with the naked vigour of Stephen Crane. I think Tomlinson’s more loosely written By Sea and Jungle is more finely felt and conveys an intenser vision than most of Conrad’s sea and jungle pieces.
All this talk that I had with Conrad and Hueffer and James about the just word, the perfect expression, about this or that being “written” or not written, bothered me, set me interrogating myself, threw me into a heart-searching defensive attitude. I will not pretend that I got it clear all at once, that I was not deflected by their criticisms and that I did not fluctuate and make attempts to come up to their unsystematized, mysterious and elusive standards. But in the end I revolted altogether and refused to play their game. “I am a journalist,” I declared, “I refuse to play the ‘artist.’ If sometimes I am an artist it is a freak of the gods. I am journalist all the time and what I write goes now— and will presently die.”
I have stuck to that declaration ever since. I write as I walk because I want to get somewhere and I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there. So I came down off the fence between Conrad and Wallas and I remain definitely on the side opposed to the aesthetic valuation of literature. That valuation is at best a personal response, a floating and indefinable judgment. All these receptive critics pose for their work. They dress their souls before the glass, add a few final touches of make-up and sally forth like old bucks for fresh “adventures among masterpieces.” I come upon masterpieces by pure chance; they happen to me and I do not worry about what I miss.
Throughout my life, a main strand of interest has been the endeavour to anchor personas to a common conception of reality. That is the structural idea of my Research Magnificent. I shall tell more of that endeavour in the next chapter. But this theme of the floating persona, the dramatized self, recurs at various levels of complexity and self-deception, in Mr. Hoopdriver in The Wheels of Chance, in the dreams of Mr. Parham, in Christina Alberta’s Father, and most elaborately of all, in The Bulpington of Blup. This last is a very direct caricature study of the irresponsible disconnected aesthetic mentality. It is friendship’s offering to the world of letters from the scientific side. E. Nesbit, by the bye, did some short stories in which she dealt with this same unreality in the world as she knew it. She saw through herself enough for that. They are collected together under the title of The Literary Sense.
So far in this section I have tried to show the pull of two main groups of divergent personalities and two main sets of tendency upon my character, during those still plastic days at Sandgate, and to indicate something of the quality of my response. These brains passed so to speak to the right of me and the left of me; I felt their gravitational attraction. The scientific pull was the earlier and stronger. I moved more and more away from conscious artistry and its exaltations and chagrins; I was strengthened against self-dramatization and confirmed in my disposition to social purposiveness. This definition and confirmation of my mind was the principal thing that was happening to me in those early Sandgate years. But I should be simplifying my story over much if I left that chapter in my life merely as a sort of straightforward tug-of-war in my brain, in which the systematizing, politically directed impulse won. There were other thrusts and drifts, interests and attractions, quite outside this particular conflict as to whether I should keep my mental effort based on an objective or float off into cloudland.
For instance at an entirely different level from these issues of poise and aim in my development, something else was going on — I was busy “getting on in the world.” One does not get on without giving a considerable amount of one’s waking time to it. It is plain from the letters home already quoted and the “picshuas” here reproduced, that this was a very constant and lively interest in our early days. Jane and I were concerned in questions of “rights” and royalties and “price per thou” in a manner that was altogether ungenteel. We affected no innocence about “publicity” and we welcomed a large bundle of press-cuttings and felt anxious if the little blue packets were unpunctual and meagre. And somehow it is here and not in relation to whether writing was an end or an implement that the figure of Arnold Bennett with his bright and busy brain seething in a fashion all its own, comes in. We two, he and I, got on in the world abreast — and it was extremely good fun for both of us. Later on we diverged.
He wrote to me first, in September 1897, on the notepaper of a little periodical he edited, called Woman, to ask how I came to know about the Potteries, which I had mentioned in the Time Machine and in a short story, and after that we corresponded. In a second letter he says he is “glad to find the Potteries made such an impression” on me, so I suppose I had enlarged upon their scenic interest, and adds “only during the last few years have I begun to see its possibilities.” In a further letter he thanks me for telling him of Conrad. He had missed Almayer’s Folly in a batch of other novels for his paper and I had discovered it. That was one up for me. Now under my injunction he is rejoicing over The Nigger of the Narcissus. “Where did the man pick up that style and that synthetic way of gathering up a general impression and flinging it at you? . . . He is so consciously an artist. Now Kipling isn’t an artist a bit. Kipling doesn’t know what art is — I mean the art of words; il ne se préoccupe que de la chose racontée.” Follow praises of George Moore. That unnecessary scrap of French is very Bennett. He was already deliberately heading for France and culture, learning French, learning to play the piano, filling up the gaps of a commonplace middle-class education with these accomplishments — and all with the brightest efficiency. Presently he came to Sandgate to see us and his swimming and diving roused my envy.
Never have I known anyone else so cheerfully objective as Bennett. His world was as bright and hard surfaced as crockery — his persona was, as it were, a hard, definite china figurine. What was not precise, factual and contemporary, could not enter into his consciousness. He was friendly and self assured; he knew quite clearly that we were both on our way to social distinction and incomes of several thousands a year. I had not thought of it like that. I was still only getting something between one and two thousand a year, and I did not feel at all secure about getting more. But Bennett knew we couldn’t stop there. He had a through ticket and a timetable — and he proved to be right.
Our success was to be attained straightforwardly by writing sound clear stories, lucidly reasonable articles and well constructed plays. His pride was in craftsmanship rather than in artistic expression, mystically intensified and passionately pursued, after the manner of Conrad. Possibly his ancestors had had just the same feel about their work, when they spun the clay of pots and bowls finely and precisely. He was ready to turn his pen to anything, provided it could be done well. He wrote much of the little weekly paper, Woman, he was editing — including answers to correspondents — often upon the most delicate subjects — over the signature, if I remember rightly, of “Aunt Ellen.” He did it as well as he knew how. He declared he did it as well as it could be done. His ancestors on the potbanks had made vessels for honour or for dishonour. Why should not he turn out whatever was required? Some years ago he and Shaw and I were all invited by an ingenious advertisement manager to write advertisements for Harrods’ Stores, for large fees. We all fell into the trap and wrote him letters (which he used for his purposes) for nothing. Shaw and I took the high attitude. We were priests and prophets; we could not be paid for our opinions. Bennett frankly lamented the thing could not be done because it “wasn’t done.” But he could see no reason why a writer should not write an advertisement as an architect builds a shop.
We were both about of an age; to be exact he was six months younger than I; we were both hard workers, both pushing up by way of writing from lower middle-class surroundings, where we had little prospect of anything but a restricted salaried life, and we found we were pushing with quite surprising ease; we were learning much the same business, tackling much the same obstacles, encountering similar prejudices and antagonisms and facing similar social occasions. We both had a natural zest for life and we both came out of a good old English radical tradition. We were liberal, sceptical and republican. But beyond this we were very different animals indeed. While I was becoming more and more set upon changing my world and making it something entirely different and while Conrad was equally set upon wringing an unprecedented intensity of phrasing out of his, Bennett was taking the thing that is, for what it was, with a naïve and eager zest. He saw it brighter than it was; he did not see into it and he did not see beyond it. He was like a child at a fair. His only trouble was how to get everything in in the time at his disposal, music, pictures, books, shows, eating, drinking, display, the remarkable clothes one could wear, the remarkable stunts one could do, the unexpected persons, the incessant fresh oddities of people; the whole adorable, incessant, multitudinous lark of it.
There it was. What more could you want?
Since I have just been writing about educated and uneducated types I perceive I am exposed to the question whether Bennett was an educated type. I would say that in my sense of the word he was absolutely immune to education and that he did not need it. He was impermeable. He learnt with extraordinary rapidity and precision. He was full of skills and information. The bright clear mosaic of impressions was continually being added to and all the pieces stayed in their places. He did not feel the need for a philosophy or for a faith or for anything to hold them together. One of the most characteristic, if not the best of his books, is Imperial Palace, a most competent assemblage of facts, but told with an exultation, a slight magnification. His self-explanation — explanation rather than analysis — is the Card. In that book he shows that he could see himself as plainly and directly as he saw anything else. It is not a self dramatization; it is pleased recognition, even of his own absurdities. A Great Man again is delighted self-caricature — even to his youthful bilious attacks. If there was any element of self-deception in his persona it was a belief in the luck that comes to men who are “Cards”— Regular Cards. His investments for example were too hopeful. When he died — and he died a well spent man — he left a holding of Russian securities, which he had bought for a rise that never came.
His work was extraordinarily unequal. Working with cultivated and conscious craftsmanship upon things intimately known to him, he produced indubitable masterpieces. There are few novels in our period to put beside The Old Wives Tale and Riceyman Steps and few stories to equal The Matador of the Five Towns. And yet he could write a book about death and eternity like The Glimpse— a glimpse into an empty cavern in his mind. He wrote a vast amount of efficient yet lifeless fiction from which his essential work is slowly being disinterred.
After his first visit to Sandgate, we never lost touch with each other. We never quarrelled, we never let our very lively resolve to “get on” betray our mutual generosity; we were continually interested in one another and continually comparing ourselves with each other. He thought me an odd card; I thought him an odd card. I became more and more involved in the social and political issues I shall describe in the next chapter, I made all sorts of contacts outside literary circles, I broadened and spread myself; and maybe I spread myself thin; while he retracted and concentrated. The boundaries of my personality became less definite and his more and more firmly drawn. I have told already how I put my banking account under the control of my wife, did not know of my own investments, allowed matters of furnishing, house-building, invitations and so forth to go right out of my control. I have never had any household in which my rôle has not been essentially that of the paying guest. But Bennett’s control of the particulars of his life remained always (the word was one of his favourite ones) meticulous. He loved the direction of organization; the thing breaks out in his Imperial Palace. His home at Thorpe le Soken; his home in Cadogan Square were beautifully managed — by himself. His clothes were carefully studied. At the Reform Club we used to note with all respect the accordance of shirt and tie and sock and handkerchief, and draw him out upon the advisability of sending our laundry to Paris. I would ask him where to buy a watch or a hat. “Do you mind,” he would say to me, “if I just arrange that tie of yours?”
The difference between Bennett and myself, particularly in our later developments, is perhaps interesting from a psychological point of view, though I do not know how to put it in psychological language. We contrasted more and more in our contact with the external world as our work unfolded. He developed his relation to the external world and I developed the relation of the external world to myself. He increased in precision and his generalizations weakened; I lost precision and my generalizations grew wider and stronger. This is something superficially parallel but certainly not identical with the comparison I have been making between the systematized mental life of those who are both scientifically disposed and trained and those who are moved to the unco-ordinated vivid expressiveness of the artist.
I will venture here to throw out a wild suggestion to the brain specialist. The artistic type relative to the systematizing type may have a more vigorous innervation of the cortex, rather more volume in the arteries, a richer or more easily oxygenated blood supply. But the difference between the meticulous brain and the loose sweeping brain may be due not to any cortical difference at all, but to some more central ganglionic difference. Somewhere sorting and critical operations are in progress, concepts and associations are called up and passed upon, links are made or rejected, and I doubt if these are cortical operations. The discussion of mind working is still in the stage of metaphor, and so I have to put it that this “bureau” of co-ordination and censorship, is roomy, generous and easy going in the Bennett type, and narrow, centralized, economical and exacting in my own. I believe that, corresponding to these mental differences, there was a real difference in our cerebral anatomy.
It was perhaps a part of his competent autonomy that Bennett was so remarkably free from the normal infantilism of the human male. He was not so dependent upon women for his comfort and self-respect as most of us are; he was not very deeply interested in them from that point of view. And he had not that capacity for illusion about them which is proper to our sex. The women in his books are for the most part good hard Staffordshire ware, capable, sisterly persons with a tang to their tongues. He seemed always to regard them as curious, wilful creatures — to be treated with a kind of humorous wariness. There were pleasures in love but they had their place among other pleasures. To have a mistress in France was, he felt, part of the ensemble of a literary artist, and afterwards it seemed to him right that the household of a rapidly rising novelist should have a smart, attractive wife, a really well-dressed wife. So that he set about marrying rather as he set about house-hunting. For him it was as objective a business as everything else. Marriage wasn’t by any means that organic life association at once accidental and inevitable, that ingrowing intimacy, that it is for less lucidly constituted minds.
Yet he was not cold-hearted; he was a very affectionate man. Indeed he radiated and evoked affection to an unusual degree, but in some way that I find obscure and perplexing his sexual life did not flood into his general life. His personality never, so to speak, fused with a woman’s. He never gave the effect of being welded, even temporarily, with the woman he was with. They did not seem really to have got together.
I think there was some obscure hitch in his make-up here, some early scar that robbed him of the easy self-forgetfulness, that “egoism expanded out of sight,” of a real lover. I associate that hitch with the stammer that ran through his life. Very far back in his early years something may have happened, something that has escaped any record, which robbed him of normal confidence and set up a lifelong awkwardness.
He experienced certain chagrins in that search for a wife, he was not able to carry it through with complete detachment, and when he came to the English home he had chosen at Thorpe le Soken, he brought with him a French wife who had previously been his close friend, a lady of charm and lucidity but with a very marked personality which failed to accord in every particular with his realization of what the wife of a successful London novelist should be. I will not go into the particulars of their gradual disagreement and legal separation, his abandonment of Thorpe le Soken for Cadogan Square, nor of his subsequent pseudo-marriage, at which “all London” connived, to the mother of his one child. I think these affairs bothered him a lot but they did not trouble him fundamentally. He reflected on this and that, and laughed abruptly. And anyhow this part of his story is outside this present autobiography.
He left a tangle behind him full of possibilities of recrimination and misadjustment. There have been post-testamentary proceedings, and one lady has taken to journalistic reminiscences about him, reminiscences which, it seems to me, show chiefly how little a woman may understand a man in spite of having lived with him. But perhaps I am prejudiced in this matter. The real Arnold Bennett who is cherished in the memories of his friends, was remarkably detached from this matrimonial and quasi-matrimonial byplay.
Having been more than a little frustrated in his ambitions to run a well-managed wife in two brilliantly conducted establishments in London and the country, he fell back upon the deliberate development of his own personality. It was no self-dramatization he attempted; no covering up of defects by compensatory assumptions; it was a cool and systematic exploitation of his own oddities. He was as objective about himself and as amused about himself as about anything else in the world. He improved a certain swing in his movements to a grave deliberate swagger; he enriched his gestures. He brushed up his abundant whitening hair to a delightful cocks-comb. The stammer he had never been able to conquer was utilized for a conversational method of pauses and explosions. He invented a sort of preliminary noise like the neigh of a penny trumpet. He dressed to the conception of an opulent and important presence. He wore a fob. He made his entry into a club or a restaurant an event. It pleased his vanity no doubt, but why should pleasing one’s vanity by evoking an effusive reception in a room or restaurant be any different from pleasing one’s palate with a wine? It was done with a humour all his own. Deep within him the invincible Card rejoiced. He knew just how far to carry his mannerisms so that they never bored. They delighted most people and offended none.
I wish Frank Swinnerton who was his frequent associate during his last phase would Boswellize a little about him before the memories fade. Only Swinnerton could describe Bennett calling up the chef at the Savoy to announce the invention of a new dish, or describe him dressing a salad. And Swinnerton could tell of his water-colour painting and his yacht. He ran a yacht but he never let me see it. It was a bright and lovely toy for him, and I think he felt I might just look at it and then at him, with the wrong expression. He was a member of the Yacht Club. I have it on my conscience that I said an unkind thing about his water colours. “Arnold,” I said, “you paint like Royalty.”
Let me return from Arnold Bennett to the tale of how Jane and I “got on” in the years between 1895 and 1900. In the beginning of this Chapter I brought the history of our social education up to my first encounter with caviar and our tentative experiments with Canary Sack and the various vintages of Messrs. Gilbey available in Camden Town. We soon got beyond such elementary investigations. The enlargement of our lives, once it began, was very rapid indeed, but we found the amount of savoir-faire needed to meet the new demands upon us, not nearly so great as we had supposed.
I think my glimpses of life below stairs at Up Park helped me to meet fresh social occasions with a certain ease. A servant in a big household becomes either an abject snob or an extreme equalitarian. At Up Park there was a footman who kept a diary of the bad English and the “ignorance” he heard while he was waiting at table; he would read out his choice items with the names and dates exactly given, and he may have helped importantly to dispel any delusion that social superiority is more than an advantage of position. I never shared the belief, which peeps out through the novels of George Meredith, Henry James, Gissing and others, that “up there somewhere” there are Great Ladies, of a knowledge, understanding and refinement, passing the wit of common men. The better type of social climbers seek these Great Ladies as the Spaniards sought El Dorado. And failing to find them, invent them.
Jane and I never started with that preoccupation. We did not so much climb as wander into the region of Society. We found ourselves lunching, dining and week-ending occasionally with a very healthy and easy-minded sort of people, living less urgently and more abundantly than any of the other people we knew; with more sport, exercise, travel and leisure than the run of mankind; the women were never under any compulsion to wear an unbecoming garment, and struck Jane as terribly expensive; and everybody was “looked after” to an enviable degree. They had on the whole easier manners than we had encountered before. But they had very little to show us or tell us. The last thing they wanted to do was to penetrate below the surface of things on which they lived so agreeably.
Among the interesting parties I remember in those early days, were several at Lady Desborough’s at Taplow Court, and Lady Mary Elcho’s at Stanway. There I used to meet people like Arthur Balfour, various Cecils and Sedgwicks, George Curzon, George Wyndham, Sir Walter Raleigh, Judge Holmes, Lady Crewe, Mrs. Macguire, Maurice Baring. . . . But never mind all that. Samples must serve for a catalogue. There was sometimes good talk at dinner and after dinner, but mostly the talk was allusive and gossipy. Balfour for the most part played the rôle of the receptive, enquiring intelligence. “Tell me,” was a sort of colloquial habit with him. He rarely ventured opinions to be shot at. He had the lazy man’s habit of interrogative discussion. Close at hand to us at Sandgate was the house of Sir Edward Sassoon. Lady Sassoon was a tall witty woman, a Rothschild, very much preoccupied with speculations about a Future Life and the writings of Frederic W. H. Myers. Philosophers like McTaggart, who were expected to throw light on her curiosity about the Future Life, mingled with politicians like Winston Churchill, trying over perorations at dinner, and Edwardians like the Marquis de Soveral. Most of these week-end visits and dinner parties were as unbracing mentally, and as pleasant, as going to a flower show and seeing what space and care can do with favoured strains of some familiar species. In these days there were also such persistent lunch givers as Mrs. Colefax (now Lady Colefax) and Sir Henry Lucy (Toby M.P.) of Punch, who gathered large confused tables of twenty or thirty people. There one met “celebrities” rather than people in positions; the celebrities anyhow were the salt of the feast; and as Jane and I were much preoccupied with our own game against life, the chief point of our conversation was usually to find out as unobtrusively as possible who we were talking to and why. And by the time we were beginning to place our neighbours, the lunch party would break up and sweep them away.
We would compare notes afterwards. “I met old So and So.” “And what did he say?” “Oh, just old nothing.”
None of these social experiences had anything like the same formative impressions upon my mind as the encounters with the politico-social workers and with the writers in earnest, and the artists, upon which I have enlarged. The best thing that these friendly glimpses of the prosperous and influential did for us was to remove any lurking feeling of our being “underneath” and to confirm my natural disposition to behave as though I was just as good as anybody and just as responsible for our national behaviour and outlook.
We were “getting on.” At first it was very exciting and then it became less marvellous. We still found ourselves rising. I remember about this time — to be exact in January 24th, 1902 — I was asked to read a paper to the Royal Institution and I wrote and read The Discovery of the Future, about which I shall have more to say in my concluding chapter. An impression I sketched at the time of a Royal Institution audience may very fitly conclude this chapter. I regard this picshua as a masterpiece only to be compared to the Palæolithic drawings in the Caves of Altamira. It marks our steady invasion of the world of influential and authoritative people. I remember that Sir James Crichton-Browne (who was about as young then as he is now; he was born in 1840) was very kind and polite to us on this occasion and that after the lecture was delivered I met Mrs. Alfred and Mrs. Emile Mond, long before there was any Lord Melchett, when Brunner Mond and Co. was only the embryo of I.C.I. They wanted to collect us socially, and it was suddenly borne in upon us that we had become worth collecting — eight years from our desperate start in Mornington Place.
In the present section there is little need for writing. Two photographs and two picshuas will serve to tell the tale. We found a site for the house we contemplated, we found an architect in C. F. A. Voysey, that pioneer in the escape from the small snobbish villa residence to the bright and comfortable pseudo-cottage. Presently we found ourselves with all the money we needed for the house and a surplus of over £1,000. And my health was getting better and better.
The house was still being built when it dawned upon us as a novel and delightful idea that we were now justified in starting a family. A picture of the pretty little study in which I was to work for ten years finishing Kipps, producing Anticipations, A Modern Utopia, Mankind in the Making, Tono Bungay, Ann Veronica, The New Machiavelli and various other novels, may very well be included in this picture chapter.
Voysey wanted to put a large heart-shaped letter plate on my front door, but I protested at wearing my heart so conspicuously outside and we compromised on a spade. We called the house Spade House. The men on the lift beside my garden, which used to ascend and descend between Folkestone and Sandgate, confused my name with that of another Wells, “the Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”— and they told their passengers that it was “on the ace of spades” that the trick was done. I was no longer lean and hungry-looking (as the second picshua shows), I was “putting on weight” and in order to keep it down I pulled a roller about my nascent garden in the sight of the promenaders on the Leas, unconscious at first of my sporting fame. But soon I went about Sandgate and Folkestone like a Wagnerian hero with a motif of my own — whenever there was a whistling errand boy within ear shot.
Spade House faced the south with a loggia that was a suntrap. The living-rooms were on one level with the bedrooms so that if presently I had to live in a wheeled chair I could be moved easily from room to room. But things did not turn out in that fashion. Before the house was finished, Voysey had revised his plans so as to have a night and day nursery upstairs, and presently I was finishing Kipps and making notes for what I meant to be a real full-length novel at last, Tono Bungay, a novel, as I imagined it, on Dickens-Thackeray lines, and I had got a bicycle again and was beginning the exploration of Kent. I became a Borough magistrate and stability and respectability loomed straight ahead of us. I might have been knighted; I might have known the glories of the O.M.; I might have faced the photographer in the scarlet of an honorary degree.
Such things have nestled in the jungle beside my path. But Ann Veronica (bless her!) and my outspoken republicanism saved me from all that. There is only one honour I covet, and I will say nothing about it because it will never come my way, and there is only one disappointment I have ever had in this field, and that was when Jane was not put upon the Essex county bench — for which she was all too good.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02