Some Private Views
by James Payn
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To the truly benevolent mind, indeed, nothing is more satisfactory than to hear of a miser denying himself the necessaries of life a little too far and ridding us of his presence altogether. Our confidence in the average virtue of humanity assures us that his place will be supplied by a better man. The details of his penurious habits, the comfortless room, the scanty bedding, the cheese-rinds on his table, and the fat banking-book under his thin bolster, only inspire disgust: if he were pinched to death he did it himself, and so much the better for the world in general and his heir in particular.

Again, the people who have a thousand a year, and who try to persuade the world that they have two thousand, suffer a good deal of inconvenience, but it can't be called the pinch of poverty. They may put limits to their washing-bills, which persons of cleanlier habits would consider unpleasantly narrow; they may eat cold mutton in private for five days a week in order to eat turtle and venison in public (and with the air of eating them every day) on the sixth; and they may immure themselves in their back rooms in London throughout the autumn in order to persuade folks that they are still at Trouville, where for ten days they did really reside and in splendour; but all their stint and self-incarceration, so far from awakening pity, only fill us with contempt. I am afraid that even the complaining tones of our City friend who tells us that in consequence of 'the present unsettled state of the markets' he has been obliged to make 'great retrenchments'—which it seems on inquiry consist in putting down one of his carriages and keeping three horses instead of six—fail to draw the sympathising tear. Indeed, to a poor man this pretence of suffering on the part of the rich is perhaps even more offensive than their boasts of their prosperity.

On the other hand, when the rich become really poor their case is hard indeed; though, strange to say, we hear little of it. It is like drowning; there is a feeble cry, a little ineffectual assistance from the bystanders, and then they go under. It is not a question of pinch with them; they have fallen into the gaping mouth of ruin, and it has devoured them. If we ever see them again, it is in the second generation as waiters (upon Providence), or governesses, and we say, 'Why, dear me, that was Bullion's son (or daughter), wasn't it?' using the past tense, as if they were dead. 'I remember him when he lived in Eaton Square.' This class of cases rarely comes under the head of 'genteel poverty.' They were at the top, and hey presto! by some malignant stroke of fate they are at the bottom; and there they stick.

I don't believe in bachelors ever experiencing the pinch of poverty; I have heard them complaining of it at the club, while ordering Medina oysters instead of Natives, but, after all, what does it signify even if they were reduced to cockles? They have no appearances to keep up, and if they cannot earn enough to support themselves they must be poor creatures indeed.

It is the large families of moderate income, who are delicate, and have delicate tastes, that feel the twinge: and especially the poor girls. I remember a man, with little care for his personal appearance, of small means but with a very rich sense of humour, describing to me his experiences when staying at a certain ducal house in the country, where his feelings must have been very similar to those of Christopher Sly. In particular he drew a charming picture of the magnificent attendant who in the morning would put out his clothes for him, which had not been made by Mr. Poole, nor very recently by anybody. The contempt which he well understood his Grace's gentleman must have felt for him afforded him genuine enjoyment. But with young ladies, in a similar position, matters are very different; they have rarely a sense of humour, and certainly none strong enough to counteract the force of a personal humiliation. I have known some very charming ones, compelled to dress on a very small allowance, who, in certain mansions where they have been occasionally guests, have been afraid to put their boots outside their door, because they were not of the newest, and have trembled when the officious lady's-maid has meddled with their scanty wardrobe. A philosopher may think nothing of this, but, considering the tender skin of the sufferer, it may be fairly called a pinch.

In the investigation of this interesting subject, I have had a good deal of conversation with young ladies, who have given me the fullest information, and in a manner so charming, that, if it were common in witnesses generally, it would make Blue-Books very pretty reading.

'I consider it to be "a pinch,"' says one, 'when I am obliged to put on black mittens on occasions when I know other girls will have long white kid gloves.' I must confess I have a prejudice myself against mittens; they are, so to speak, 'gritty' to touch; so that the pinch, if it be one, experienced by the wearer, is shared by her ungloved friends. The same thing may be said of that drawing-room fire which is lit so late in the season for economical reasons, and so late in the day at all times: the pinch is felt as much by the visitors as by the members of the household. These things, however, are mere nips, and may be placed in the same category with the hardships complained of by my friend Quiverfull's second boy. 'I don't mind having papa's clothes cut up for me,' he says, 'but what I do think hard is getting Bob's clothes' (Bob being his elder brother), 'which have been papa's first; however, I am in great hopes that I am out-growing Bob.'

A much more severe example of the pinch of poverty than these is to be found in railway travelling; no lady of any sense or spirit objects to travel by the second, or even the third class, if her means do not justify her going by the first. But when she meets with richer friends upon the platform, and parts with them to journey in the same compartment with their man-servant, she suffers as acutely as though, when the guard slams the door of the carriage with the vehemence proportioned to its humble rank, her tender hand had been crushed in it. Of course it is very foolish of her; but it demands democratic opinions, such as almost no woman of birth and breeding possesses, not to feel that pinch. Her knowledge that it is also hard upon the man-servant, who has never sat in her presence before, but only stooped over her shoulder with ''Ock, miss,' serves but to increase her pain.

A great philosopher has stated that the worst evil of poverty is, that it makes folks ridiculous; by which, I hope, he only means that, as in the above case, it places them in incongruous positions. The man, or woman, who derives amusement from the lack of means of a fellow-creature, would jeer at a natural deformity, be cruel to children, and insult old age. Such people should be whipped and then hanged. Nevertheless there are certain little pinches of poverty so slight, that they tickle almost as much as they hurt the victim. A lady once told me (interrupting herself, however, with pleasant bursts of merriment) that as a young girl her allowance was so small that when she went out to spend the evening at a friend's, her promised pleasure was darkened by the presentiment (always fulfilled) that the cabman was sure to charge her more than the proper fare. The extra expense was really of consequence to her, but she never dared dispute it, because of the presence of the footman who opened the door.

Some young ladies—quite as lady-like as any who roll in chariots—cannot even afford a cab. 'What I call the pinch of poverty,' observed an example of this class, 'is the waiting for omnibus after omnibus on a wet afternoon and finding them all full.'

'But surely,' I replied with gallantry, 'any man would have given up his seat to you?'

She shook her head with a smile that had very little fun in it. 'People in omnibuses,' she said, 'don't give up their seats to others.' Nor, I am bound to confess, do they do so elsewhere; if I had been in their place, perhaps I should have been equally selfish; though I do think I should have made an effort, in this instance at least, to make room for her close beside me.[4]

[4] There is, however, some danger in this. I remember reading of some highly respectable old gentleman in the City who thus accommodated on a wet day a very nice young woman in humble circumstances. She was as full of apologies as of rainwater, and he of good-natured rejoinders, intended to put her at her ease; so that he became, in a Platonic and paternal way, quite friendly with her by the time she arrived at her destination—which happened to be his own door. She turned out to be his new cook, which was afterwards very embarrassing.

A young governess whom some wicked fairy endowed at her birth with the sensitiveness often denied to princesses, has assured me that her journeys by railway have sometimes been rendered miserable by the thought that she had not even a few pence to spare for the porter who would presently shoulder her little box on to the roof of her cab.

It is people of this class, much more than those beneath them, who are shut out from all amusements. The mechanic goes to the play and to the music-hall, and occasionally takes his 'old girl,' as he calls his wife, and even 'a kid' or two, to the Crystal Palace. But those I have in my mind have no such relaxation from compulsory duty and importunate care. 'I know it's very foolish, but I feel it sometimes to be a pinch,' says one of these ill-fated ones, 'to see them all [the daughters of her employer] going to the play, or the opera, while I am expected to be satisfied with a private view of their pretty dresses.' No doubt it is the sense of comparison (especially with the female) that sharpens the sting of poverty. It is not, however, through envy that the 'prosperity of fools destroys us,' so much as the knowledge of its unnecessariness and waste. When a mother has a sick child who needs sea air, which she cannot afford to give it, the consciousness that her neighbour's family (the head of which perhaps is a most successful financier and market-rigger) are going to the Isle of Wight for three months, though there is nothing at all the matter with them, is an added bitterness. How often it is said (no doubt with some well-intentioned idea of consolation) that after all money cannot buy life! I remember a curious instance to the contrary of this. In the old days of sailing-packets a country gentleman embarked for Ireland, and when a few miles from land broke a bloodvessel through seasickness. A doctor on board pronounced that he would certainly die before the completion of the voyage if it was continued; whereupon the sick man's friends consulted with the captain, who convoked the passengers, and persuaded them to accept compensation in proportion to their needs for allowing the vessel to be put back; which was accordingly done.

One of the most popular fictions of our time was even written with this very moral, that life is unpurchasable. Yet nothing is more certain than that life is often lost through want of money—that is, of the obvious means to save it. In such a case how truly has it been written that 'the destruction of the poor is their poverty'! This, however, is scarcely a pinch, but, to those who have hearts to feel it, a wrench that 'divides asunder the joints and the marrow.'

A nobler example, because a less personal one, of the pinch of poverty, is when it prevents the accomplishment of some cherished scheme for the benefit of the human race. I have felt such a one myself when in extreme youth I was unable, from a miserable absence of means, to publish a certain poem in several cantos. That the world may not have been much better for it if I had had the means does not affect the question. It is easy to be incredulous. Henry VII. of England did not believe in the expectations of Columbus, and suffered for it, and his case may have been similar to that of the seven publishers to whom I applied in vain.

A man with an invention on which he has spent his life, but has no means to get it developed for the good of humanity—or even patented for himself—must feel the pinch of poverty very acutely.

To sum up the matter, the longer I live, the more I am convinced that the general view in respect to material means is a false one. That great riches are a misfortune is quite true; the effect of them in the moral sense (with here and there a glorious exception, however) is deplorable: a shower of gold falling continuously upon any body (or soul) is as the waters of a petrifying spring. But, on the other hand, the occasional and precarious dripping of coppers has by no means a genial effect. If the one recipient becomes hard as the nether millstone, the other (just as after constant 'pinching' a limb becomes insensible) grows callous, and also (though it seems like a contradiction in terms) sometimes acquires a certain dreadful suppleness. Nothing is more monstrous than the generally received opinion with respect to a moderate competence; that 'fatal gift,' as it is called, which encourages idleness in youth by doing away with the necessity for exertion. I never hear the same people inveighing against great inheritances, which are much more open to such objections. The fact is, if a young man is naturally indolent, the spur of necessity will drive him but a very little way, while the having enough to live upon is often the means of preserving his self-respect. One constantly hears what humiliating things men will do for money, whereas the truth is that they do them for the want of it. It is not the temptation which induces them, but the pinch. 'Give me neither poverty nor riches,' was Agur's prayer; 'feed me with food convenient for me, lest I be full and deny Thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor and steal.' And there are many things—flatteries, disgraceful humiliations, hypocrisies—which are almost as bad as stealing. One of the sharpest pinches of poverty to some minds must be their inability (because of their dependency on him and that of others upon them) to tell a man what they think of him.

Riches and poverty are of course but relative terms; but the happiest material position in which a man can be placed is that of 'means with a margin.' Then, however small his income may be, however it may behove him to 'cut and contrive,' as the housekeepers call it, he does not feel the pinch of poverty. I have known a rich man say to an acquaintance of this class, 'My good friend, if you only knew how very small are the pleasures my money gives me which you yourself cannot purchase!' And for once it was not one of those cheap and empty consolations which the wealthy are so ready to bestow upon their less fortunate fellow-creatures. Dives was, in that instance, quite right in his remark; only we must remember he was not speaking to Lazarus. 'A dinner of herbs where love is,' is doubtless quite sufficient for us; only there must be enough of it, and the herbs should be nicely cooked in an omelette.


One would think that in writing about literary men and matters there would be no difficulty in finding a title for one's essay, or that any embarrassment which might arise would be from excess of material. I find this, however, far from being the case. 'Men of Letters,' for example, is a heading too classical and pretentious. I do indeed remember its being used in these modern days by the sub-editor of a country paper, who, having quarrelled with his proprietor, and reduced him to silence by a violent kick in the abdomen, thus addressed him: 'I leave you and your dirty work for ever, and start to-night for London, to take up my proper position as a Man of Letters.' But this gentleman's case (and I hope that of his proprietor) was an exceptional one. The term in general is too ambitious and suggestive of the author of 'Cato,' for my humble purpose. 'Literature as a Profession,' again, is open to objection on the question of fact. The professions do not admit literature into their brotherhood. 'Literature, Science, and Art' are all spoken of in the lump, and rather contemptuously (like 'reading, writing, and arithmetic'), and have no settled position whatever. In a book of precedence, however—a charming class of work, and much more full of humour than the peerage—I recently found indicated for the first time the relative place of Literature in the social scale. After a long list of Eminent Personages and Notables, the mere perusal of which was calculated to bring the flush of pride into my British cheek, I found at the very bottom these remarkable words, 'Burgesses, Literary Persons, and others.' Lest haughtiness should still have any place in the breasts of these penultimates of the human race, the order was repeated in the same delightful volume in still plainer fashion, 'Burgesses, Literary Persons, etc.' It is something, of course, to take precedence—in going down to dinner, for example—even of an et cetera; but who are Burgesses? I have a dreadful suspicion they are not gentlemen. Are they ladies? Did I ever meet a Burgess, I wonder, coming through the rye? At all events, after so authoritative a statement of its social position, I feel that to speak of Literature as a profession would be an hyperbole.

On the other hand, 'The Literary Calling' is not a title that satisfies me. For the word 'calling' implies a certain fitness; in the religious sense it has even more significance; and it cannot be denied that there are a good many persons who devote—well, at least, their time to literature, who can hardly be said to have 'a call' in that direction, nor even so much as a whisper. At the same time I will venture to observe, notwithstanding a great deal of high-sounding twaddle talked and written to the contrary, that it is not necessary for a man to feel any miraculous or even extraordinary attraction to this pursuit to succeed in it very tolerably. I remember a now distinguished personage (in another line) who had written a very successful work, expressing his opinion to me that unless a certain divine afflatus animated a man, he should never take up his pen to address the public. The writing for pay, he added (he had at least L5,000 a year of his own), was the degradation of literature. As I had written about a dozen books myself at the time, and most decidedly with an eye to profit, and had never experienced much afflatus, this remark discouraged me very much. However, as the gentleman in question did essay another volume, which was so absolute and distinct a failure that he promptly took up another line of business (far above that of Burgesses), it is probable he altered his views.

Nature of course is the best guide in the matter of choosing a pursuit. When she says 'This is your line, stick to it,' she seldom or never makes a mistake. But, on the other hand, her speech must be addressed to mature ears. For my part, I do not much believe in the predilections of boyhood. I was never so simple as to wish to go to sea, but I do remember (when between seven and eight) having a passionate longing to become a merchant. I had no notion, however, of the preliminary stages; the high stool in the close street; luncheon at a counter, standing (I liked to have my meals good, plentiful, often, and in comfort, even then); and imprisonment at the office on the eves of mail nights till the large hours p.m. Even the full fruition of such aspirations—the large waistcoat beginning to 'point,' (as it soon does in merchants), heavy watchchain, and cheerful conviction of the coming scarcity of necessaries for everybody else, would have failed to please. The sort of merchant I wanted to be was never found in 'Post Office Directory,' but in the 'Arabian Nights,' trading to Bussorah, chiefly in pearls and diamonds. When the Paterfamiliases of my acquaintance instance certain stenches and messes which their Toms and Harrys make with chemicals all over their house, as a proof of 'their natural turn for engineering,' I say, 'Very likely,' or 'A capital thing,' but I think of that early attraction of my own towards Bussorah. The young gentlemen never dream of what I once heard described, in brief, as the real business life of a scientific apprentice: 'To lie on your back with a candle in your hand, while another fellow knocks nails into a boiler.'

Boys have rarely any special aptitude for anything practical beyond punching each others' heads, or (and these are the clever ones) for keeping their own heads unpunched. As a rule, in short, Nature is not demonstrative as respects our professional future.

It must nevertheless be conceded that if the boy is ever father to the man in this respect, it is in connection with literature. Also, however prosaic their works are fated to be, it is curious that the aspirants for the profession below Burgesses always begin with Poetry. Even Harriet Martineau wrote verses in early life bad enough to comfort the soul of any respectable parent. The approach to the Temple of Literary Fame is almost always through double gates—couplets. And yet I have known youthful poets, apparently bound for Paternoster Row, bolt off the course in a year or two, to the delight of their friends, and become, of their own free will, drysalters.

There is so much talk about the 'indications of immortality in early childhood' (of a very different kind from those referred to by Wordsworth), and it is so much the habit of biographers to use magnifiers when their subject is small, that it needs some courage to avow my belief that the tastes of boys have very little significance. A clever boy can be trained to almost anything, and an ordinary boy will not do one thing much better than another. With the Geniuses I will allow (for the sake of peace and quietness) that Nature is all-powerful, but with nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand of us, Second Nature, Use, is the true mistress; and what will doubtless strike some people as almost paradoxical, but is nevertheless a fact, Literature is the calling in which she has the greatest sway.

It is the fashion with that enormous class of people who don't know what they are talking about, and who take up cuckoo-cries, to speak contemptuously of modern literature, by which they mean (for they are acquainted with little else) periodical literature. However small may be its merits, it is at all events ten times as good as ancient periodical literature used to be. A very much better authority than myself on such a subject has lately informed us that the majority of the old essays in the Edinburgh Review, at the very time when it was supposed to be most 'trenchant,' 'masterly,' 'exhaustive,' and a number of other splendid epithets, are so dull and weak and ignorant, that it is impossible that they or their congeners would now find acceptance in any periodical of repute. And with regard to all other classes of old magazine literature, this verdict is certainly most just.

Let us take what most people suppose to be 'the extreme case,' Magazine Poetry. Of course there is to-day a great deal of rant and twaddle published under the name of verse in magazines; yet I could point to scores and scores of poems that have thus appeared during the last ten years,[5] which half a century ago would have made—and deservedly have made—a high reputation for their authors. Such phrases as 'universal necessity for practical exertion,' 'prosaic character of the age,' etc., are, of course, common enough; but those who are acquainted with such matters will, I am sure, corroborate my assertion that there was never so much good poetry in our general literature as exists at present. Persons of intelligence do not look for such things perhaps, and certainly not in magazines, while persons of 'culture' are too much occupied with old china and high art; but to humble folks, who take an interest in their fellow-creatures, it is very pleasant to observe what high thoughts, and how poetically expressed, are now to be found about our feet, and, as it were, in the literary gutter. I don't compare these writers with Byrons and Shelleys; I don't speak of them as born poets at all. On the contrary, my argument is that second nature (cultivation, opportunities of publication, etc.) has made them what they are; and it is immensely creditable to her.

[5] I take up a half-yearly volume of a magazine (price 1-1/2d. weekly) addressed to the middle classes, and find in it, at haphazard, the five following pieces, the authors of which are anonymous:


'From under the shade of her simple straw hat She smiles at you, only a little shamefaced: Her gold-tinted hair m a long-braided plait Reaches on either side down to her waist. Her rosy complexion, a soft pink and white, Except where the white has been warmed by the sun, Is glowing with health and an eager delight, As she pauses to speak to you after her run.

'See with what freedom, what beautiful ease, She leaps over hollows and mounds in berrace; Hear how she joyously laughs when the breeze Tosses her hat off, and blows in her face! It's only a play-gown of homeliest cotton She wears, that her finer silk dress may be saved; And happily, too, she has wholly forgotten The nurse and her charge to be better behaved.

'Must a time come when this child's way of caring For only the present enjoyment shall pass; When she'll learn to take thought of the dress that she's wearing, And grow rather fond of consulting the glass? Well, never mind; nothing really can change her; Fair childhood will grow to as fair maidenhood; Her unselfish, sweet nature is safe from all danger; I know she will always be charming and good.

'For when she takes care of a still younger brother, You see her stop short in the midst of her mirth, Gravely and tenderly playing the mother: Can there be anything fairer on earth? So proud of her charge she appears, so delighted; Of all her perfections (indeed, they're a host), This loving attention to others, united With naive self-unconsciousness, charms me the most.

'What hearts that unthinkingly under short jackets Are beating to-day in a wonderful wise About racing, or jumping, or cricket, or rackets, One day will beat at a smile from those eyes! Ah, how I envy the one that shall win her, And see that sweet smile no ill-humour shall damp, Shining across the spread table at dinner, Or cheerfully bright in the light of the lamp.

'Ah, little fairy! a very short while, Just once or twice, in a brief country stay, I saw you; but when will your innocent smile That I keep in my mem'ry have faded away? For when, in the midst of my trouble and doubt, I remember your face with its laughter and light, It's as if on a sudden the sun had shone out, And scattered the shadow, and made the world bright.'



'Who could refuse Green-eyed Chartieuse? Liquor for heretics, Turks, Christians, or Jews For beggar or queen, For monk or for dean;

Ripened and mellow (The green, not the yellow), Give it its dues, Gay little fellow, Dressed up in green! I love thee too well, O Laughing Chartreuse!

'O the delicate hues That thrill through the green! Colours which Greuze Would die to have seen! With thee would De Musset Sweeten his muse; Use, not abuse, Bright little fellow! (The green, not the yellow.) O the taste and the smell! O Never refuse A kiss on the lips from Jealous Chartreuse!'


'Our sufferings we reckon o'er With skill minute and formal; The cheerful ease that fills the score We treat as merely normal. Our list of ills, how full, how great! We mourn our lot should fall so; I wonder, do we calculate Our happinesses also?

'Were it not best to keep account Of all days, if of any? Perhaps the dark ones might amount To not so very many. Men's looks are nigh as often gay As sad, or even solemn: Behold, my entry for to-day Is in the "happy" column.'


'The year grows old; summer's wild crown of roses Has fallen and faded in the woodland ways; On all the earth a tranquil light reposes, Through the still dreamy days.

'The dew lies heavy in the early morn, On grass and mosses sparkling crystal-fair; And shining threads of gossamer are borne Floating upon the air,

'Across the leaf-strewn lanes, from bough to bough Like tissue woven in a fairy loom; And crimson-berried bryony garlands glow Through the leaf-tangled gloom.

'The woods are still, but for the sudden fall Of cupless acorns dropping to the ground, Or rabbit plunging through the fern-stems tall, Half-startled by the sound.

'And from the garden lawn comes, soft and clear, The robin's warble from the leafless spray, The low sweet Angelus of the dying year, Passing in light away.'


'I doubt if the maxims the Stoic adduces Be true in the main, when they state That our nature's improved by adversity's uses, And spoilt by a happier fate.

'The heart that is tried by misfortune and pain, Self-reliance and patience may learn; Yet worn by long waiting and wishing in vain, It often grows callous and stern.

'But the heart that is softened by ease and contentment, Feels warmly and kindly t'wards all; And its charity, roused by no moody resentment, Embraces alike great and small.

'So, although in the season of rain-storms and showers, The tree may strike deeper its roots, It needs the warm brightness of sunshiny hours To ripen the blossoms and fruits.'

Observe, not only the genuine merit of these five pieces, but the variety in the tones of thought: then compare them with similar productions of the days, say, of the once famous L.E.L.

And what holds good of verse holds infinitely better in respect to prose. The enormous improvement in our prose writers (I am not speaking of geniuses, remember, but of the generality), and their great superiority over writers of the same class half a century ago, is mainly due to use. Sir Walter Scott, who, like most men of genuine power, had great generosity, once observed to a brother author, 'You and I came just in the nick of time.' He foresaw the formidable competition that was about to take place, though he had no cause to fear it. I think in these days he would have had cause; not that I disbelieve in his genius, but that I venture to think he diffused it over too large an area. In such cases genius is overpassed by the talent which husbands its resources; in other words, Nature succumbs to second nature, as the wife in the patriarchal days (when she grew patriarchal) succumbed to the handmaid. And after all, though we talk so glibly about genius, and profess to feel, though we cannot express, in what it differs from talent, are we quite so sure about this as we would fain persuade ourselves? At all events, it cannot surely be contended that a man of genius always writes like one; and when he does not, his work is often inferior to the first-rate production of a man of talent. For my own part, I am not sure whether (with the exception, perhaps, of the highest gifts of song) the whole distinction is not fanciful.

We are ready enough in ordinary matters to allow that 'practice makes perfect,' and the limit of that principle is yet to be found. Moreover, the vast importance of exclusive application is almost unknown. We see it, indeed, in men of science and in lawyers, but without recognition; nay, socially, it is even quoted against them. The mathematician may be very eminent, but we find him dry; the lawyer may be at the head of his profession, but we find him dull; and it is observed on all sides how very little great A and great B, notwithstanding the high position they have earned for themselves in their calling, know of matters out of their own line. On the other hand, the man of whom it was said that 'science was his forte and omniscience his foible,' has left no enduring monument behind him; and so it must always be with mortals who have only fifty years of thought allotted to them at the very most, and who diffuse it. Everyone admits the value of application, but very few are aware how its force is wasted by diffusion: it is like a volatile essence in a bottle without a cork. When, on the other hand, it is concentrated—you may call it 'narrowed' if you please—there is hardly anything within its own sphere of action of which it is not capable. So many high motives (though also some mean ones) prompt us to make broad the bases of education, that any proposal to contract them must needs be thankless and unpopular; but it is certain that, among the upper classes at least, the reason why so many men are unable to make their way in the world, is because, thanks to a too liberal education, they are Jacks of all trades and masters of none; and even as Jacks they cut a very poor figure.

How large and varied is the educational bill of fare set before every young gentleman in Great Britain; and to judge by the mental stamina it affords him in most cases, what a waste of good food it is! The dishes are so numerous and so quickly changed, that he has no time to decide on which he likes best. Like an industrious flea, rather than a bee, he hops from flower to flower in the educational garden, without one penny-worth of honey to show for it. And then—though I feel how degrading it is to allude to so vulgar a matter—how high is the price of admission to the feast in question! Its purveyors do not pretend to have filled his stomach, but only to have put him in the way of filling it for himself, whereas, unhappily, Paterfamilias discovers that that is the very thing that they have not done. His young Hopeful at twenty-one is almost as unable to run alone as when he first entered the nursery. To discourse airily upon the beauties of classical education, and on the social advantages of acquiring 'the tone' at a public school at whatever cost, is an agreeable exercise of the intelligence; but such arguments have been taken too seriously, and the result is that our young gentlemen are incapable of gaining their own living. It is not only that 'all the gates are thronged with suitors, all the markets overflow,' but even when the candidates are so fortunate as to attain admittance, they are still a burden upon their fathers for years, from having had no especial preparation for the work they have to do. Folks who can afford to spend L250 a year on their sons at Eton or Harrow, and to add another fifty or two for their support at the universities, do not feel this; but those who have done it without affording it—i.e., by cutting and contriving, if not by pinching and saving—feel their position very bitterly. There are hundreds of clever young men who are now living at home and doing nothing—or work that pays nothing, and even costs something for doing it—who might be earning very tolerable incomes by their pen if they only knew how, and had not wasted their young wits on Greek plays and Latin verses; nor do I find that the attractions of such objects of study are permanent, or afford the least solace to these young gentlemen in their enforced leisure.

The idea of bringing young people up to Literature is doubtless calculated to raise the eyebrows almost as much as the suggestion of bringing them up to the Stage. The notions of Paterfamilias in this respect are very much what they were fifty years ago. 'What! put my boy in Grub Street? I would rather see him in his coffin.' In his mind's eye he beholds Savage on his bunk and Chatterton on his deathbed. He does not know that there are many hundreds of persons of both sexes who have found out this vocation for themselves, and are diligently pursuing it—under circumstances of quite unnecessary difficulty—to their material advantage. He is unaware that the conditions of literature in England have been as completely changed within a single generation as those of locomotion.

There are, it is true, at present no great prizes in literature such as are offered by the learned professions, but there are quite as many small ones—competences; while, on the other hand, it is not so much of a lottery. It is not necessary to marry an attorney's daughter, or a bishop's, to get on in it. The calling, as it is termed (I know not why, for it is often heavy enough), of 'light literature' is in such contempt, through ignorance on the one hand, and arrogance on the other, that one is almost afraid in such a connection to speak of merit; yet merit, or, at all events, aptitude with diligence, is certain of success in it. A great deal has been said about editors being blind to the worth of unknown authors; but if so, they must be also blind (and this I have never heard said of them) to their own interests. It would be just as reasonable to accuse a recruiting sergeant of passing by the stout six-feet fellows who wish to enlist with him, and for each of whom—directly or indirectly—he receives head-money. It is possible, of course, that one particular sergeant may be drunken, or careless of his own interests, but in that case the literary recruit has only to apply next door. The opportunities for action in the field of literature are now so very numerous that it is impossible that any able volunteer should be long shut out of it; and I have observed that the complaints about want of employment come almost solely from those unfit for service. Nay, in the ranks of the literaryarmy there are very many who should have been excluded. Few, if any, are there through favour; but the fact is, the work to be done is so extensive and so varied, that there is not a sufficiency of good candidates to do it. And of what is called 'skilled labour' among them there is scarcely any.

The question 'What can you do?' put by an editor to an aspirant, generally astonishes him very much. The aspirant is ready to do anything, he says, which the other will please to suggest. 'But what is your line in literature? What can you do best—not tragedies in blank verse, I hope?' Perhaps the aspirant here hangs his head; he has written tragedies. In which case there is good hope for him, because it shows a natural bent. But he generally replies that he has written nothing as yet except that essay on the genius of Cicero (at which the editor has already shaken his head), and that defence of Mary Queen of Scots. Or perhaps he has written some translations of Horace, which he is surprised to find not a novelty; or some considerations upon the value of a feudal system. At four-and-twenty, in short, he is but an overgrown schoolboy. He has been taught, indeed, to acquire knowledge of a certain sort, but not the habit of acquiring; he has been taught to observe nothing; he is ignorant upon all the subjects that interest his fellow-creatures, and in his new ambition is like one who endeavours to attract an audience without having anything to tell them. He knows some Latin, a little Greek, a very little French, and a very very little of what are called the English classics. He has read a few recent novels perhaps, but of modern English literature, and of that (to him at least) most important branch of it, English journalism, he knows nothing. His views and opinions are those of a public school, which are by no means in accordance with those of the great world of readers; or he is full of the class prejudices imbibed at college. In short, he may be as vigorous as a Zulu, with the materials of a first-rate soldier in him, but his arms are only a club and an assegai, and are of no service. Why should he not be fitted out in early life with literary weapons of precision, and taught the use of them?

I say, again, that poor Paterfamilias looking hopelessly about him, like Quintus Curtius in the riddle, for 'a nice opening for a young man,' is totally ignorant of the opportunities, if not for fame and fortune, at least for competency and comfort, that Literature now offers to a clever lad. He looks round him; he sees the Church leading nowhere, with much greater certainty of expense than income, and demanding a huge sum for what is irreverently termed 'gate money;' he sees the Bar, with its high road leading indeed to the woolsack, but with a hundred by-ways leading nowhere in particular, and full of turnpikes—legal tutors, legal fees, rents of chambers, etc.—which he has to defray; he sees Physic, at which Materfamilias sniffs and turns her nose up. 'Her Jack, with such agreeable manners, to become a saw-bones! Never!' He sees the army, and thinks, since Jack has such great abilities, it seems a pity to give him a red coat, which costs also considerably more than a black one; And how is Jack to live upon his pay?

After all, indeed, however prettily one puts it, the question is with him, not so much 'What is my Jack to be?' as 'How is my Jack to live?' To one who has any gift of humour there are few things more amusing than to observe how this vulgar, but really rather important inquiry, is ignored by those who take the subject of modern education in hand. They are chiefly schoolmasters, who are not so deep in their books but that they can spare a glance or two in the direction of their banker's account; or fellows of colleges who have no children, and therefore never feel the difficulties of supporting them. Heaven forbid that so humble an individual as myself should question their wisdom, or say anything about them that should seem to smack of irreverence; but I do believe that (with one or two exceptions I have in my mind) the system they have introduced among us is the Greatest Humbug in the universe. In the meantime poor Paterfamilias (who is the last man, they flatter themselves, to find this out) stands with his hands (and very little else) in his pockets, regarding his clever offspring, and wondering what he shall do with him. He remembers to have read about a man on his deathbed, who calls his children about him and thanks God, though he has left them nothing to live upon, he has given them a good education, and tries to extract comfort from the reminiscence. That he has spent money enough upon Jack's education is certain; something between two or three thousand pounds in all at least, the interest of which, it strikes him, would be very convenient just now to keep him. But unfortunately the principal is gone and Jack isn't.

Now suppose—for one may suppose anything, however ridiculous—he had spent two or three hundred pounds at the very most, and brought him up to the Calling of Literature. He believes, perhaps, that it is only geniuses that succeed in it (in which case I know more geniuses than I had any idea of), and he doesn't think Jack a genius, though Jack's mother does. Or, as is more probable, he regards it as a hand-to-mouth calling, which to-day gives its disciples a five-pound note, and to-morrow five pence. He calls to mind a saying about Literature being a good stick, but not a good crutch—an excellent auxiliary, but no permanent support; but he forgets the all-important fact that the remark was made half a century ago.

Poor blind Paterfamilias—shall I couch you? If the operation is successful, I am sure you will thank me for it; but, on the other hand, I foresee I shall incur the greatest enmities. Should I encourage clever Jack, and, what is worse, a thousand Jacks who are not clever, to enter upon this vocation, what will editors say to me? I shall have to go about, perhaps, guarded with two policemen with revolvers, like an Irish gentleman on his landed estate. 'Is not the flood of rubbish to which we are already subjected,' I hear them crying, 'bad enough, without your pulling up the sluices of universal stupidity?' My suggestion, however, is intended to benefit them by clearing away the rubbish, and inducing a clearer and deeper stream for the turning of their mills. At the same time I confess that the lessening of Paterfamilias's difficulties is my main object. What I would open his eyes to is the fact that a calling, of the advantages of which he has no knowledge, does present itself to clever Jack, which will cost him nothing but pens, ink, and paper to enter upon, and in which, if he has been well trained for it, he will surely be successful, since so many succeed in it without any training at all. Why should not clever Jack have this in view as much as the ignes fatui of woolsacks and mitres? If it has no lord chancellorships, it has plenty of county court appointments; if it has no bishoprics, it has plenty of benefices—and really, as times go, some pretty fat ones.

On your breakfast-table, good Paterfamilias, there lies, every morning, a newspaper, and on Saturday perhaps there are two or three. When you go out in the street, you are pestered to buy half a score more of them. In your club reading-room there are a hundred different journals. When you travel by the railway you see at every station a provincial newspaper of more or less extensive circulation. Has it never struck you that to supply these publications with their leading articles, there must be an immense staff of persons called journalists, professing every description of opinion, and advocating every conceivable policy? And do you suppose these gentry only get L70 a year for their work, like a curate; or L60, like a sub-lieutenant; or that they have to pay three times those sums for the privilege of belonging to the press, as a barrister does for belonging to his inn? Again, in London at least, there are as many magazines as newspapers, containing every kind of literature, the very contributors of which are so numerous, that they form a public of themselves. That seems at the first blush to militate against my suggestion, but though contributors are so common, and upon the whole so good—indeed, considering the conditions under which they labour, so wonderfully good—they are not (I have heard editors say) so good as they might be, supposing (for example) they knew a little of science, history, politics, English literature, and especially of the art of composition, before they volunteered their services. At present the ranks of journalistic and periodical literature are largely recruited from the failures in other professions. The bright young barrister who can't get a brief takes to literature as a calling, just as the man who has 'gone a cropper' in the army takes to the wine-trade. And what aeons of time, and what millions of money, have been wasted in the meanwhile!

The announcement written on the gates of all the recognised professions in England is the same that would-be travellers read on the faces of the passengers on the underground railway after office hours: 'Our number is complete, and our room is limited.' In literature, on the contrary, though its vehicles may seem as tightly packed, substitution can be effected. There may be persons travelling on that line in the first-class who ought to be in the third, and indeed have no reasonable pretext for being there at all. And if clever Jack could show his ticket, he would turn them out of it.

Again, so far from the space being limited, it is continually enlarging, and that out of all proportion to those who have tickets. We hear from its enemies that the Church is doomed, and from its friends that it is in danger; there is a small but energetic party who are bent on reducing the Army, and even on doing away with it; nay, so wicked and presumptuous has human nature grown, that mutterings are heard and menaces uttered against the delay and exactions of the Law itself; whereas Literature has no foes, and is enlarging its boundaries in all directions. It is all 'a-growing and a-blowing,' as the peripatetic gardeners say of their plants; but, unlike their wares, it has its roots deep in the soil and is an evergreen. Its promise is golden, and its prospects are boundless for every class of writer.

In some excellent articles on Modern Literature in Blackwood's Magazine the other day, this subject was touched upon with respect to fiction, and might well have filled a greater space, for the growth of that description of literature of late years is simply marvellous. Curiously enough, though France originated the feuilleton, it was from America and our own colonies that England seems to have taken the idea of publishing novels in newspapers. It was a common practice in Australia long before we adopted it; and, what is also curious, it was first acclimatised among us by our provincial papers. The custom is rapidly gaining ground in London, but in the country there is now scarcely any newspaper of repute which does not enlist the aid of fiction to attract its readers. Many of them are contented with very poor stuff, for which they pay a proportional price; but others club together with other newspapers—the operation has even received the technical term of 'forming a syndicate'—and are thereby enabled to secure the services of popular authors; while the newspapers thus arranged for are published at a good distance from one another, so as not to interfere with each other's circulation. Country journals, which are not so ambitious, instead of using an inferior article, will often purchase the 'serial right,' as it is called, of stories which have already appeared elsewhere, or have passed through the circulating libraries. Nay, the novelist who has established a reputation has many more strings to his bow: his novel, thus published in the country newspapers, also appears coincidently in the same serial shape in Australia, Canada, and other British colonies, leaving the three-volume form and the cheap editions 'to the good.' And what is true of fiction is in a less degree true of other kinds of literature. Travels are 'gutted,' and form articles in magazines, illustrated by the original plates; lectures, after having served their primary purpose, are published in a similar manner; even scientific works now appear first in the magazines which are devoted to science before performing their mission of 'popularising' their subject.

When speaking of the growth of readers, I have purposely not mentioned America. For the present the absence of copyright there is destroying both author and publisher; but the wheels of justice, though tardy, are making way there. In a few years that great continent of readers will be legitimately added to the audience of the English author, and those that have stolen will steal no more.

Nor, in our own country, must we fail to take notice of the establishment of School Boards. A generation hence we shall have a reading public almost as numerous as in America; even the very lowest classes will have acquired a certain culture which will beget demands both for journalists and 'literary persons.' The harvest will be plenteous indeed, but unless my advice be followed in some shape or another, the labourers will be comparatively few and superlatively inadequate.

I am well aware how mischievous, as well as troublesome, would be the encouragement of mediocrity; and in stating these promising facts I have no such purpose in my mind. On the contrary, there is an immense amount of mediocrity already in literature, which I think my proposition of training up 'clever Jack' to that calling would discourage. I have no expectation of establishing a manufactory for genius—and indeed, for reasons it is not necessary to specify, I would not do it if I could. But whereas all kinds of 'culture' have been recommended to the youth of Great Britain (and certainly with no limit as to the expense of acquisition), the cultivation of such natural faculties as imagination and humour (for example) has never been suggested. The possibility of such a thing will doubtless be denied. I am quite certain, however, that they are capable of great development, and that they may be brought to attain, if not perfection, at all events a high degree of excellence. The proof, to those who choose to look for it, is plain enough even as matters stand. Use and opportunity are already producing scores of examples of it; if supplemented by early education they might surely produce still more.

There is so great and general a prejudice against special studies, that I must humbly conclude there is something in it. On the other hand, I know a large number of highly—that is broadly—educated persons, who are desperately dull. 'But would they have been less dull,' it may be asked, 'if they were also ignorant?' Yes, I believe they would. They have swallowed too much for digestions naturally weak; they have become inert, conceited, oppressive to themselves and others—Prigs. And I think that even clever young people suffer in a less degree from the same cause. Some one has written, 'Information is always useful.' This reminds me of the married lady, fond of bargains, who once bought a door-plate at a sale with 'Mr. Wilkins' on it. Her own name was Jones, but the doorplate was very cheap, and her husband, she argued, might die, and then she might marry a man of the name of Wilkins. 'Depend upon it, everything comes in useful,' she said, 'if you only keep it long enough.'

This is what I venture to doubt. I have myself purchased several door-plates (quite as burthensome, but not so cheap as that good lady's), which have been of no sort of use to me, and are still on hand.


The most popular of English authors has given us an account of what within his experience (and it was a large one) was the impression among the public at large of the manner in which his work was done. They pictured him, he says,

as a radiant personage whose whole time is devoted to idleness and pastime; who keeps a prolific mind in a sort of corn-sieve and lightly shakes a bushel of it out sometimes in an odd half-hour after breakfast. It would amaze their incredulity beyond all measure to be told that such elements as patience, study, punctuality, determination, self-denial, training of mind and body, hours of application and seclusion to produce what they read in seconds, enter in such a career ... correction and recorrection in the blotted manuscript; consideration; new observations; the patient massing of many reflections, experiences, and imaginings for one minute purpose; and the patient separation from the heap of all the fragments that will unite to serve it—these would be unicorns and griffins to them—fables altogether.

And as it was, a quarter of a century ago, when those words were written, so it is now: the phrase of 'light literature' as applied to fiction having once been invented, has stuck, with a vengeance, to those who profess it.

Yet to 'make the thing that is not as the thing that is' is not (though it may seem to be the same thing) so easy as lying.

Among a host of letters received in connection with an article published in the Nineteenth Century, entitled 'The Literary Calling and its Future,' and which testify in a remarkable manner to the pressing need (therein alluded to) of some remunerative vocation among the so-called educated classes, there are many which are obviously written under the impression that Dogberry's view of writing coming 'by nature' is especially true of the writing of fiction. Because I ventured to hint that the study of Greek was not essential to the calling of a story-teller, or of a contributor to the periodicals, or even of a journalist, these gentlemen seem to jump to the conclusion that the less they know of anything the better. Nay, some of them, discarding all theories (in the fashion that Mr. Carlyle's heroes are wont to discard all formulas), proceed to the practical with quite an indecent rapidity; they treat my modest hints for their instruction as so much verbiage, and myself as a mere convenient channel for the publication of their lucubrations. 'You talk of a genuine literary talent being always appreciated by editors,' they write (if not in so many words by implication); 'well, here is an admirable specimen of it (enclosed), and if your remarks are worth a farthing you will get it published for us, somewhere or another, instanter, and hand us over the cheque for it. Nor are even these the most unreasonable of my correspondents; for a few, with many acknowledgments for my kindness in having provided a lucrative profession for them, announce their intention of throwing up their present less congenial callings, and coming up to London (one very literally from the Land's End) to live upon it, or, that failing (as there is considerable reason to expect it will), upon me.

With some of these correspondents, however, it is impossible (independent of their needs) not to feel an earnest sympathy; they have evidently not only aspirations, but considerable mental gifts, though these have unhappily been cultivated to such little purpose for the object they have in view that they might almost as well have been left untilled. In spite of what I ventured to urge respecting the advantage of knowing 'science, history, politics, English literature, and the art of composition,' they 'don't see why' they shouldn't get on without them. Especially with those who aspire to write fiction (which, by its intrinsic attractiveness no less than by the promise it affords of golden grain, tempts the majority), it is quite pitiful to note how they cling to that notion of 'the corn-sieve,' and cannot be persuaded that story-telling requires an apprenticeship like any other calling. They flatter themselves that they can weave plots as the spider spins his thread from (what let us delicately term) his inner consciousness, and fondly hope that intuition will supply the place of experience. Some of them, with a simplicity that recalls the days of Dick Whittington, think that 'coming up to London' is the essential step to this line of business, as though the provinces contained no fellow-creatures worthy to be depicted by their pen, or as though, in the metropolis, Society would at once exhibit itself to them without concealment, as fashionable beauties bare themselves to the photographers.

This is, of course, the laughable side of the affair, but, to me at least, it has also a serious one; for, to my considerable embarrassment and distress, I find that my well-meaning attempt to point out the advantages of literature as a profession has received a much too free translation, and implanted in many minds hopes that are not only sanguine but Utopian.

For what was written in the essay alluded to I have nothing to reproach myself with, for I told no more than the truth. Nor does the unsettlement of certain young gentleman's futures (since by their own showing they were to the last degree unstable to begin with) affect me so much as their parents and guardians appear to expect; but I am sorry to have shaken however undesignedly, the 'pillars of domestic peace' in any case, and desirous to make all the reparation in my power. I regret most heartily that I am unable to place all literary aspirants in places of emolument and permanency out of hand; but really (with the exception perhaps of the Universal Provider in Westbourne Grove) this is hardly to be expected of any man. The gentleman who raised the devil, and was compelled to furnish occupation for him, affords in fact the only appropriate parallel to my unhappy case. 'If you can do nothing to provide my son with another place,' writes one indignant Paterfamilias, 'at least you owe it to him' (as if I, and not Nature herself, had made the lad dissatisfied with his high stool in a solicitor's office!) 'to give him some practical hints by which he may become a successful writer of fiction.'

One would really think that this individual imagined story-telling to be a sort of sleight-of-hand trick, and that all that is necessary to the attainment of the art is to learn 'how it's done.' I should not like to say that I have known any members of my own profession who are 'no conjurors,' but it is certainly not by conjuring that they have succeeded in it.

'You talk of the art of composition,' writes, on the other hand, another angry correspondent, 'as though it were one of the exact sciences; you might just as well advise your "clever Jack" to study the art of playing the violin.' So that one portion of the public appears to consider the calling of literature mechanical, while another holds it to be a soft of divine instinct!

Since the interest in this subject proves to be so wide-spread, I trust it will not be thought presumptuous in me to offer my own humble experience in this matter for what it is worth. To the public at large a card of admission to my poor manufactory of fiction—a 'very one-horse affair,' as an American gentleman, with whom I had a little difficulty concerning copyright, once described it—may not afford the same satisfaction as a ticket for the private view of the Royal Academy; but the stings of conscience urge me to make to Paterfamilias what amends in the way of 'practical hints' lie in my power, for the wrong I have done to his offspring; and I therefore venture to address to those whom it may concern, and to those only, a few words on the Art of Story-telling.

The chief essential for this line of business, yet one that is much disregarded by many young writers, is the having a story to tell. It is a common supposition that the story will come if you only sit down with a pen in your hand and wait long enough—a parallel case to that which assigns one cow's tail as the measure of distance between this planet and the moon. It is no use 'throwing off' a few brilliant ideas at the commencement, if they are only to be 'passages that lead to nothing;' you must have distinctly in your mind at first what you intend to say at last. 'Let it be granted,' says a great writer (though not one distinguished in fiction), 'that a straight line be drawn from any one point to any other point;' only you must have the 'other point' to begin with, or you can't draw the line. So far from being 'straight,' it goes wabbling aimlessly about like a wire fastened at one end and not at the other, which may dazzle, but cannot sustain; or rather what it does sustain is so exceedingly minute, that it reminds one of the minnow which the inexperienced angler flatters himself he has caught, but which the fisherman has in fact previously put on his hook for bait.

This class of writer is not altogether unconscious of the absence of dramatic interest in his composition. He writes to his editor (I have read a thousand such letters): 'It has been my aim, in the enclosed contribution, to steer clear of the faults of the sensational school of fiction, and I have designedly abstained from stimulating the unwholesome taste for excitement.' In which high moral purpose he has undoubtedly succeeded; but, unhappily, in nothing else. It is quite true that some writers of fiction neglect 'story' almost entirely, but then they are perhaps the greatest writers of all. Their genius is so transcendent that they can afford to dispense with 'plot;' their humour, their pathos, and their delineation of human nature are amply sufficient, without any such meretricious attraction; whereas our too ambitious young friend is in the position of the needy knife-grinder, who has not only no story to tell, but in lieu of it only holds up his coat and breeches 'torn in the scuffle'—the evidence of his desperate and ineffectual struggles with literary composition. I have known such an aspirant to instance Miss Gaskell's 'Cranford' as a parallel to the backboneless flesh-and-bloodless creation of his own immature fancy, and to recommend the acceptance of the latter upon the ground of their common rejection of startling plot and dramatic situation. The two compositions have certainly that in common; and the flawless diamond has some things, such as mere sharpness and smoothness, in common with the broken beer-bottle.

Many young authors of the class I have in my mind, while more modest as respects their own merits, are even still less so as regards their expectations from others. 'If you will kindly furnish me with a subject,' so runs a letter now before me, 'I am sure I could do very well; my difficulty is that I never can think of anything to write about. Would you be so good as to oblige me with a plot for a novel?' It would have been infinitely more reasonable of course, and much cheaper, for me to grant it, if the applicant had made a request for my watch and chain;[6] but the marvel is that folks should feel any attraction towards a calling for which Nature has denied them even the raw materials. It is true that there are some great talkers who have manifestly nothing to say, but they don't ask their hearers to supply them with a topic of conversation in order to be set agoing.

[6] To compare small things with great, I remember Sir Walter Scott being thus applied to for some philanthropic object. 'Money,' said the applicant, who had some part proprietorship in a literary miscellany, 'I don't ask for, since I know you have many claims upon your purse; but would you write us a little paper gratuitously for the "Keepsake"?'

'My great difficulty,' the would-be writer of fiction often says, 'is how to begin;' whereas in fact the difficulty arises rather from his not knowing how to end. Before undertaking the management of a train, however short, it is absolutely necessary to know its destination. Nothing is more common than to hear it said that an author 'does not know where to stop;' but how much more deplorable is the position of the passengers when there is no terminus whatsoever! They feel their carriage 'slowing,' and put their heads expectantly out of window, but there is no platform—no station. When they took their tickets, they understood that they were 'booked through' to the denouement, and certainly had no idea of having been brought so far merely to admire the scenery, for which only a very few care the least about.

As a rule, anyone who can tell a good story can write one, so there really need be no mistake about his qualification; such a man will be careful not to be wearisome, and to keep his point, or his catastrophe, well in hand. Only, in writing, there is necessarily greater art. There expansion is of course absolutely necessary; but this is not to be done, like spreading gold leaf, by flattening out good material. That is 'padding,' a device as dangerous as it is unworthy; it is much better to make your story a pollard—to cut it down to a mere anecdote—than to get it lost in a forest of verbiage. No line of it, however seemingly discursive, should be aimless, but should have some relation to the matter in hand; and if you find the story interesting to yourself notwithstanding that you know the end of it, it will certainly interest the reader.

The manner in which a good story grows under the hand is so remarkable, that no tropic vegetation can show the like of it. For, consider, when you have got your germ—the mere idea, not half a dozen lines perhaps—which is to form your plot, how small a thing it is compared with, say, the thousand pages which it has to occupy in the three-volume novel! Yet to the story-teller the germ is everything. When I was a very young man—a quarter of a century ago, alas!—and had very little experience in these matters, I was reading on a coachbox (for I read everywhere in those days) an account of some gigantic trees; one of them was described as sound outside, but within, for many feet, a mass of rottenness and decay. If a boy should climb up birdsnesting into the fork of it, thought I, he might go down feet first and hands overhead, and never be heard of again. How inexplicable too, as well as melancholy, such a disappearance would be! Then, 'as when a great thought strikes along the brain and flushes all the cheek,' it struck me what an appropriate end it would be—with fear (lest he should turn up again) instead of hope for the fulcrum to move the reader—for a bad character of a novel. Before I had left the coachbox I had thought out 'Lost Sir Massingberd.'

The character was drawn from life, but unfortunately from hearsay; he had flourished—to the great terror of his neighbours—two generations before me, so that I had to be indebted to others for his portraiture, which was a great disadvantage. It was necessary that the lost man should be an immense scoundrel to prevent pity being excited by the catastrophe, and at that time I did not know any very wicked people. The book was a successful one, but it needs no critic to point out how much better the story might have been told. The interest in the gentleman, buried upright in his oak coffin, is inartistically weakened by other sources of excitement; like an extravagant cook, the young author is apt to be too lavish with his materials, and in after days, when the larder is more difficult to fill, he bitterly regrets it. The representation of a past time I also found it very difficult to compass, and I am convinced that for any writer to attempt such a thing, when he can avoid it, is an error in judgment. The author who undertakes to resuscitate and clothe with flesh and blood the dry bones of his ancestors, has indeed this advantage, that, however unlifelike his characters may be, there is no one in a position to prove it; it is not 'a difference of opinion between himself and twelve of his fellow-countrymen,' or a matter on which he can be condemned by overwhelming evidence; but, on the other hand, he creates for himself unnecessary difficulties. I will add, for the benefit of those literary aspirants to whom these remarks are especially addressed—a circumstance which, I hope, will be taken as an excuse for the writing of my own affairs at all, which would otherwise be an unpardonable presumption—that these difficulties are not the worst of it; for when the novel founded on the Past has been written, it will not be read by a tenth of those who would read it if it were a novel of the Present.

Even at the date I speak of, however, I was not so young as to attempt to create the characters of a story out of my own imagination, and I believe that the whole of its dramatis personae (except the chief personage) were taken from the circle of my own acquaintance. This is a matter, by-the-bye, on which considerable judgment and good taste have to be exercised; for if the likeness of the person depicted is recognisable by his friends (he never recognises it by any chance himself), or still more by his enemies, it is no longer a sketch from life, but a lampoon. It will naturally be asked by some: 'But if you draw the man to the life, how can he fail to be known?' For this there is the simplest remedy. You describe his character, but under another skin; if he is tall you make him short, if dark, fair; or you make such alterations in his circumstances as shall prevent identification, while retaining them to a sufficient extent to influence his behaviour. In the framework which most (though not all) skilled workmen draw of their stories before they begin to furnish them with so much even as a door-mat, the real name of each individual to be described should be placed (as a mere aid to memory) by the side of that under which he appears in the drama; and I would strongly recommend the builder to write his real names in cipher; for I have known at least one instance in which the entire list of the dramatis personae of a novel was carried off by a person more curious than conscientious, and afterwards revealed to those concerned—a circumstance which, though it increased the circulation of the story, did not add to the personal popularity of the author.

If a story-teller is prolific, the danger of his characters coinciding with those of people in real life who are unknown to him is much greater than would be imagined; the mere similarity of name may of course be disregarded; but when in addition to that there is also a resemblance of circumstance, it is difficult to persuade the man of flesh and blood that his portrait is an undesigned one. The author of 'Vanity Fair' fell, in at least one instance, into a most unfortunate mistake of this kind; while a not less popular author even gave his hero the same name and place in the Ministry which were (subsequently) possessed by a living politician.

It is better, however, for his own reputation that the story-teller should risk a few actions for libel on account of these unfortunate coincidences than that he should adopt the melancholy device of using blanks or asterisks. With the minor novelists of a quarter of a century ago it was quite common to introduce their characters as Mr. A and Mr. B, and very difficult their readers found it to interest themselves in the fortunes and misfortunes of an initial:

It was in the summer of the year 18—, and the sun was setting behind the low western hills beneath which stands the town of C; its dying gleams glistened on the weather-cock of the little church, beneath whose tower two figures were standing, so deep in shadow that little more could be made out concerning them save that they were young persons of the opposite sex. The elder and taller, however, was the fascinating Lord B; the younger (presenting a strong contrast to her companion in social position, but yet belonging to the true nobility of nature) was no other than the beautiful Patty G, the cobbler's daughter.

This style of narrative should be avoided.

Another difficulty of the story-teller, and one unhappily in which no advice can be of much service to him, is how to describe the lapse of time and of locomotion. To the dramatist nothing is easier than to print in the middle of his playbill, 'Forty years are here supposed to have elapsed;' or 'Scene I.: A drawing-room in Mayfair; Scene II.: Greenland.' But the story-teller has to describe how these little changes are effected, without being able to take his readers into his confidence.[7] He can't say, 'Gentle reader, please to imagine that the winter is over, and the summer has come round since the conclusion of our last chapter.' Curiously enough, however, the lapse of years is far easier to suggest than that of hours; and locomotion from Islington to India than the act, for instance, of leaving the room. If passion enters into the scene, and your heroine can be represented as banging the door behind her, and bringing down the plaster from the ceiling, the thing is easy enough, and may be even made a dramatic incident; but to describe, without baldness, Jones rising from the tea-table and taking his departure in cold blood, is a much more difficult business than you may imagine. When John the footman has to enter and interrupt a conversation on the stage, the audience see him come and go, and think nothing of it; but to inform the reader of your novel of a similar incident—and especially of John's going—without spoiling the whole scene by the introduction of the commonplace, requires (let me tell you) the touch of a master.

[7] That last, indeed, is a thing which, with all deference to some great names in fiction, should in my judgment never be done. It is hard enough for him as it is to simulate real life, without the poor showman's reaching out from behind the curtain to shake hands with his audience.

When you have got the outline of your plot, and the characters that seem appropriate to play in it, you turn to that so-called 'commonplace book,' in which, if you know your trade, you will have set down anything noteworthy and illustrative of human nature that has come under your notice, and single out such instances as are most fitting; and finally you will select your scene (or the opening one) in which your drama is to be played. And here I may say, that while it is indispensable that the persons represented should be familiar to you, it is not necessary that the places should be; you should have visited them, of course, in person, but it is my experience that for a description of the salient features of any locality the less you stay there the better. The man who has lived in Switzerland all his life can never describe it (to the outsider) so graphically as the (intelligent) tourist; just as the man who has science at his fingers' ends does not succeed so well as the man with whom science has not yet become second nature, in making an abstruse subject popular.

Nor is it to be supposed that a story with very accurate local colouring cannot be written, the scenes of which are placed in a country which the writer has never beheld. This requires, of course, both study and judgment, but it can be done so as to deceive, if not the native, at least the Englishman who has himself resided there. I never yet knew an Australian who could be persuaded that the author of 'Never Too Late to Mend' had not visited the underworld, or a sailor that he who wrote 'Hard Cash' had never been to sea. The fact is, information, concerning which dull folks make so much fuss, can be attained by anybody who chooses to spend his time that way; and by persons of intelligence (who are not so solicitous to know how blacking is made) can be turned, in a manner not dreamt of by cram-coaches, to really good account.

The general impression perhaps conveyed by the above remarks will be that to those who go to work in the manner described—for many writers of course have quite other processes—story-telling must be a mechanical trade. Yet nothing can be farther from the fact. These preliminary arrangements have the effect of so steeping the mind in the subject in hand, that when the author begins his work he is already in a world apart from his everyday one; the characters of his story people it; and the events that occur to them are as material, so far as the writer is concerned, as though they happened under his roof. Indeed, it is a question for the metaphysician whether the professional story-teller has not a shorter lease of life than his fellow-creatures, since, in addition to his hours of sleep (of which he ought by rights to have much more than the usual proportion), he passes a large part of his sentient being outside the pale of ordinary existence. The reference to sleep 'by rights' may possibly suggest to the profane that the storyteller has a claim to it on the ground of having induced slumber in his fellow-creatures; but my meaning is that the mental wear and tear caused by work of this kind is infinitely greater than that produced by mere application even to abstruse studies (as any doctor will witness), and requires a proportionate degree of recuperation.

I do not pretend to quote the experience (any more than the mode of composition) of other writers—though with that of most of my brethren and superiors in the craft I am well acquainted—but I am convinced that to work the brain at night in the way of imagination is little short of an act of suicide. Dr. Treichler's recent warnings upon this subject are startling enough, even as addressed to students, but in their application to poets and novelists they have far greater significance. It may be said that journalists (whose writings, it is whispered, have a close connection with fiction) always write in the 'small hours,' but their mode of life is more or less shaped to meet their exceptional requirements; whereas we storytellers live like other people (only more purely), and if we consume the midnight oil, use perforce another system of illumination also—we burn the candle at both ends. A great novelist who adopted this baneful practice and indirectly lost his life by it (through insomnia) notes what is very curious, that notwithstanding his mind was so occupied, when awake, with the creatures of his imagination, he never dreamt of them; which I think is also the general experience. But he does not tell us for how many hours before he went to sleep, and tossed upon his restless pillow till far into the morning, he was unable to get rid of those whom his enchanter's wand had summoned.[8] What is even more curious than the story-teller's never dreaming of the shadowy beings who engross so much of his thoughts, is that (so far as my own experience goes at least) when a story is once written and done with, no matter how forcibly it may have interested and excited the writer during its progress, it fades almost instantly from the mind, and leaves, by some benevolent arrangement of nature, a tabula rasa—a blank space for the next one. Everyone must recollect that anecdote of Walter Scott, who, on hearing one of his own poems ('My hawk is tired of perch and hood') sung in a London drawing-room, observed with innocent approbation, 'Byron's, of course;' and so it is with us lesser folks. A very humorous sketch might be given (and it would not be overdrawn) of some prolific novelist getting hold, under some strange roof, of the 'library edition' of his own stories, and perusing them with great satisfaction and many appreciative ejaculations, such as 'Now this is good;' 'I wonder how it will end;' or 'George Eliot's, of course!

[8] Speaking of dreams, the composition of Khubla Khan and of one or two other literary fragments during sleep has led to the belief that dreams are often useful to the writer of fiction; but in my own case, at least, I can recall but a single instance of it, nor have I ever heard of their doing one pennyworth of good to any of my contemporaries.

Although a good allowance of sleep is absolutely necessary for imaginative brain work, long holidays are not so. I have noticed that those who let their brains 'lie fallow,' as it is termed, for any considerable time, are by no means the better for it; but, on the other hand, some daily recreation, by which a genuine interest is excited and maintained, is almost indispensable. It is no use to 'take up a book,' and far less to attempt 'to refresh the machine,' as poor Sir Walter did, by trying another kind of composition; what is needed is an altogether new object for the intellectual energies, by which, though they are stimulated, they shall not be strained.

Advice such as I have ventured to offer may seem 'to the general' of small importance, but to those I am especially addressing it is worthy of their attention, if only as the result of a personal experience unusually prolonged; and I have nothing unfortunately but advice to offer. To the question addressed to me with such naivete by so many correspondents, 'How do you make your plots?' (as if they were consulting the Cook's Oracle), I can return no answer. I don't know, myself; they are sometimes suggested by what I hear or read, but more commonly they suggest themselves unsought.

I once heard two popular story-tellers, A who writes seldom, but with much ingenuity of construction, and B who is very prolific in pictures of everyday life, discoursing on this subject.

'Your fecundity,' said A, 'astounds me; I can't think where you get your plots from.'

'Plots?' replied B; 'oh! I don't trouble myself about them. To tell you the truth, I generally take a bit of one of yours, which is amply sufficient for my purpose.'

This was very wrong of B; and it is needless to say I do not quote his system for imitation. A man should tell his own story without plagiarism. As to Truth being stranger than Fiction, that is all nonsense; it is a proverb set about by Nature to conceal her own want of originality. I am not like that pessimist philosopher who assumed her malignity from the fact of the obliquity of the ecliptic; but the truth is, Nature is a pirate. She has not hesitated to plagiarise from even so humble an individual as myself. Years after I had placed my wicked baronet in his living tomb, she starved to death a hunter in Mexico under precisely similar circumstances; and so late as last month she has done the same in a forest in Styria. Nay, on my having found occasion in a certain story ('a small thing, but my own') to get rid of the whole wicked population of an island by suddenly submerging it in the sea, what did Nature do? She waited for an insultingly short time (if her idea was that the story would be forgotten), and then reproduced the same circumstances on her own account (and without the least acknowledgment) in the Indian seas. My attention was drawn to both these breaches of copyright by several correspondents, but I had no redress, the offender being beyond the jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery.

When the story-teller has finished his task and surmounted every obstacle to his own satisfaction, he has still a difficulty to face in the choice of a title. He may invent indeed an eminently appropriate one, but it is by no means certain he will be allowed to keep it. Of course he has done his best to steer clear of that borne by any other novel; but among the thousands that have been brought out within the last forty years, and which have been forgotten even if they were ever known, how can he know whether the same name has not been hit upon? He goes to Stationers' Hall to make inquiries; but—mark the usefulness of that institution—he finds that books are only entered there under their authors' names. His search is therefore necessarily futile, and he has to publish his story under the apprehension (only too well founded, as I have good cause to know) that the High Court of Chancery will prohibit its sale upon the ground of infringement of title.


It is now nearly a quarter of a century ago since a popular novelist revealed to the world in a well-known periodical the existence of the 'Unknown Public;' and a very curious revelation it was. He showed us that the few thousands of persons who had hitherto imagined themselves to be the public—so far, at least, as their being the arbiters of popularity in respect to writers of fiction was concerned—were in fact nothing of the kind; that the subscribers to the circulating libraries, the members of book clubs, the purchasers of magazines and railway novels, might indeed have their favourites, but that these last were 'nowhere,' as respected the number of their backers, in comparison with novelists whose names and works appear in penny journals and nowhere else.

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