Robert Louis Stevenson
"Popular Authors" (1888)
Scribner's Magazine, 4 (July 1888), 122-8.
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The scene is the deck of an Atlantic liner, close by the doors of the ashpit, where it is warm: the time, night: the persons, an emigrant of an inquiring turn of mind and a deck hand. "Now," says the emigrant," is there not any book that gives a true picture of a sailor's life?" - "Well," returns the other, with great deliberation and emphasis," there is one; that is just a sailor's life. You know all about it, if you know that." - "What do you call it?" asks the emigrant. - "They call it Tom Holt's Log," says the sailor. The emigrant entered the fact in his note-book: with a wondering query as to what sort of stuff this Tom Holt would prove to be: and a double-headed prophecy that it would prove one of two things: either a solid, dull, admirable piece of truth, or mere ink and banditti. Well, the emigrant was wrong: it was something more curious than either, for it was a work by STEPHENS HAYWARD.
In this paper I propose to put the authors' names in capital letters; the most of them have not much hope of durable renown; their day is past, the poor dogs-they begin swiftly to be forgotten; and HAYWARD is of the number. Yet he was a popular writer; and what is really odd, he had a vein of hare-brained merit. There never was a man of less pretension; the intoxicating presence of an ink-bottle, which was too much for the strong head of Napoleon, left him sober and light-hearted; he had no shade of literary vanity; he was never at the trouble to be dull. His work fell out of date in the days of printing. They were the unhatched eggs of Arab tales; made for word-of-mouth recitation, certain (if thus told) to captivate an audience of boys or any simple people-certain, on the lips of a generation or two of public storytellers, to take on new merit and become cherished lore. Such tales as a man, such rather as a boy, tells himself at night, not without smiling, as he drops asleep; such, with the same exhilarating range of incident and the same trifling ingenuities, with no more truth to experience and scarcely more cohesion, HAYWARD told. If we so consider The Diamond Necklace, or the Twenty Captains, which is what I remember best of HAYWARD, you will find that staggering narrative grow quite conceivable.
A gentleman (his name forgotten-HAYWARD had no taste in names) puts an advertisement in the papers, inviting nineteen other gentlemen to join him in a likely enterprise. The nineteen appear promptly, nineteen, no more, no less: see the ease of the recumbent story-teller, half-asleep, hanging on the verge of that country of dreams, where candles come alight and journeys are accomplished at tile wishing! These twenty, all total strangers, are to put their money together and form an association of strict equality: hence its name-The Twenty Captains. And it is no doubt very pleasant to be equal to anybody, even in name; and mighty desirable (at least in the eyes of young gentlemen hearing this tale in the school dormitory) to he called captain, even in private. But the deuce of it is, the founder has no enterprise in view, and here, you would think, the least wary capitalist would leave his chair, and buy a broom and a crossing with his money, rather than place it in the hands of this total stranger, whose mind by his own confession was a blank, and whose real name was probably Macaire. No such matter in the book. With the ease of dreaming, the association is founded; and again with the ease of dreaming (HAYWARD being now three parts asleep) the enterprise, in the shape of a persecuted heiress and a truly damnable and idiotic aristocrat, appears upon the scene. For some time, our drowsy story-teller dodges along upon the frontiers of incoherence, hardly at the trouble to invent, never at the trouble to write literature; but suddenly his interest brightens up, he sees something in front of him, turns on the pillow, shakes off the tentacles of slumber, and puts his back into his tale. Injured innocence takes a special train to Dover; damnable idiot takes another and pursues; the twenty captains reach the station five minutes after, and demand a third. It is against the rules, they are told, not more than two specials (here is good news for the railway traveller) are allowed at the same time upon the line. Is injured innocence, with her diamond necklace, to lie at the mercy of an aristocrat? Forbid it, Heaven and the Cheap Press! The twenty captains slip unobserved into the engine-house, steal an engine, and forth upon the Dover line As well as I can gather, there Were no stations and no pointsmen on this route to Dover, which must in consequence be quick and safe. One thing it had in common with other and less simple railways, it had a line of telegraph wires; and these the twenty captains decided to destroy. One of them, you will not be surprised to learn, had a coil of rope-in his pocket, I suppose; another-again I shall not surprise you-was an Irishman and given to blundering. One end of the line was made fast to a telegraph post; one (by the Irishman) to the engine: all aboard-full steam ahead-a double crash, and there was the telegraph post upon the ground, and here-mark my HAYWARD! was something carried away upon the engine. All eyes turn to see what it is: an integral part of the machinery! There is now no means of reducing speed; on thunders the engine, full steam ahead, down this remarkable route to Dover; on speed the twenty captains, not very easy in their minds. Presently, the driver of the second special (the aristocrat's) looks behind him, sees an engine on his track, signals, signals in vain, finds himself being overhauled, pokes up his fire and - full steam ahead in flight. Presently after, the driver of the first special (injured innocence's) looks behind, sees a special on his track and an engine on the track of the special, signals, signals in vain, and he too-full steam ahead in flight. Such a day on the Dover line But at last the second special smashes into the first, and the engine into both; and for my part, I think there was an end of that romance. But HAYWARD was by this time fast asleep: not a life was lost; not only that, but the various parties recovered consciousness and resumed their wild career (only now, of course, on foot and across country) in the precise original order: injured innocence leading by a length, damnable aristocrat with still more damnable valet (like one man) a good second, and the twenty captains (again like one man) a bad third; so that here was the story going on again just as before, and this appalling catastrophe on the Dover line reduced to the proportions of a morning call. The feelings of the company (it is true) are not dwelt upon.
Now, I do not mean that Tom Holt is quite such high-flying folly as The Twenty Captains; for it is no such thing, nor half so entertaining. Still it flowed from the same irresponsible brain; still it was the mere drowsy divagation of a man in bed, now tedious, now extravagant-always acutely untrue to life as it is, often pleasantly coincident with childish hopes of what life ought to be-as (for instance) in the matter of that little pleasure-boat, rigged, to every block and rope, as a full-rigged ship, in which Tom goes sailing-happy child! And this was the work that an actual tarry seaman recommended for a picture of his own existence.
It was once my fortune to have an interview with Mr. HAYWARD's publisher: a very affable gentleman in a very small office in a shady court off Fleet Street. We had some talk together of the works he issued and the authors who supplied them; and it was strange to hear him talk for all the world as one of our publishers might have talked of one of us, only with a more obliging frankness, so that the private life of these great men was more or less unveiled to me. So and so (he told me, among other things) had demanded an advance upon a novel, had laid out the sum (apparently on spirituous drinks) and refused to finish the work." We had to put it in the hands of BRACEBRIDGE HEMMING," said the publisher with a chuckle: "he finished it." And then with conviction: "A most reliable author, BRACEBRIDGE HEMMING." I have no doubt the name is new to the reader; it was not so to me. Among these great men of the dust there is a touching ambition which punishes itself; not content with such glory as comes to them, they long for the glory of being bound-long to invade, between six boards, the homes of that aristocracy whose manners they so often find occasion to expose; and sometimes (once in a long lifetime) the gods give them this also, and they appear in the orthodox three volumes and are fleered at in the critical press, and lie quite unread in circulating libraries. One such work came in my mind: The Bondage of Brandon, by BRACEBRIDGE HEMMING. I had not found much pleasure in the volumes; but I was the more glad to think that Mr. Hemming's name was quite a household word, and himself quoted for "a reliable author," in his own literary circles.
On my way westward from this interview, I was aware of a first floor in Fleet Street rigged up with wire window-blinds, brass straps, and gilt lettering: Office for the sale of the works of PIERCE EGAN. "Ay, Mr. EGAN," thought I, and have you an office all to yourself!" And then remembered that he too had once revelled in three volumes: The Flower of the Flock the book was called, not without pathos for the considerate mind; but even the flower of Egan's flock was not good enough for the critics or the circulating libraries, so that I purchased my own copy, quite unread, for three shillings at a railway bookstall. Poor dogs, I thought, what ails you, that you should have the desire of this fictitious upper popularity, made by hack journalists and countersigned by yawning girls? Yours is the more true. Your butcher, the landlady at your seaside lodgings-if you can afford that indulgence, the barmaid whom you doubtless court, even the Rates and Taxes that besiege your door, have actually read your tales and actually know your names. There was a waiter once (or so the story goes) who knew not the name of Tennyson: that of HEMMING perhaps had brought the light into his eyes, or VILES perhaps, or ERRYM, or the great J. F. SMITH, or the unutterable Reynolds, to whom even here I must deny his capitals.-Fancy, if you can (thought I), that I languish under the reverse of your complaint; and being an upper-class author, bound and criticised, long for the penny number and the weekly woodcut!
Well, I know that glory now. I have tried and on the whole I have failed: just as EGAN and HEMMING failed in the circulating libraries. It is my consolation that Charles Reade nearly wrecked that valuable property, the London Journal, which must instantly fall back on Mr. Egan and the king of us all, George Meredith, once staggered the circulation of a weekly newspaper. A servant-maid used to come and boast when she had read another chapter of Treasure Island: that any pleasure should attend the exercise never crossed her thoughts. The same tale, in a penny paper of a high class, was mighty coldly looked upon; by the delicate test of the correspondence column, I could see I was far to leeward; and there was one giant on the staff (a man with some talent, when he chose to use it) with whom I very early perceived it was in vain to rival. Yet I was thought well of on my penny paper for two reasons: one that the publisher was bent on raising the standard-a difficult enterprise in which he has to a great extent succeeded; the other, because (like Bracebridge Hemming) I was "a reliable author." For our great men of the dust are apt to be behind with copy.
How I came to be such a student of our penny press demands perhaps some explanation. I was brought up on Cassell's Family Paper; but the lady who was kind enough to read the tales aloud to me was subject to sharp attacks of conscience. She took the Family Paper on confidence; the tales it contained being Family Tales, not novels. But every now and then, something would occur to alarm her finer senses; she would express a well-grounded fear that the current fiction was "going to turn out a Regular Novel"; and the family paper, with my pious approval, would be dropped. Yet neither she nor I were wholly stoical; and when Saturday came round, we would study the windows of the stationer and try to fish out of subsequent woodcuts and their legends the further adventures of our favourites. Many points are here suggested for the casuist; definitions of the Regular Novel and the Family Tale are to be desired; and quite a paper might be written on the relative merit of reading a fiction outright and lusting after it at the stationer's window. The experience at least had a great effect upon my childhood. This inexpensive pleasure mastered me. Each new Saturday I would go from one newsvendor's window to another's, till I was master of the weekly gallery and had thoroughly digested" The Baronet Unmasked," "So and so approaching the Mysterious House," "The Discovery of the Dead Body in the Blue Marl Pit," "Dr. Vargas Removing the Senseless Body of Fair Lilias," and whatever other snatch of unknown story and glimpse of unknown characters that gallery afforded. I do not know that I ever enjoyed fiction more; those books that we have (in such a way) avoided reading, are all so excellently written I And in early years, we take a book for its material, and act as our own artists, keenly realising that which pleases us, leaving the rest aside. I never supposed that a book was to command me until, one disastrous day of storm, the heaven full of turbulent vapours, the streets full of the squalling of the gale, the windows resounding under bucketfuls of rain, my mother read aloud to me Macbeth. I cannot say I thought the experience agreeable; I far preferred the ditch-water stories that a child could dip and skip and doze over, stealing at times materials for play; it was something new and shocking to be thus ravished by a giant, and I shrank under the brutal grasp. But the spot in memory is still sensitive; nor do I ever read tnat tragedy but I hear the gale howling up the valley of the Leith.
All this while I would never buy upon my own account; pence were scarce, conscience busy; and I would study the pictures and dip into the exposed columns, but not buy. My fall was brought about by a truly romantic incident. Perhaps the reader knows Neidpath Castle, where it stands, bosomed in hills, on a green promontory; Tweed at its base running through all the gamut of a busy river, from the pouring shallow to the brown pool. In the days when I was thereabout, and that part of the earth was made a heaven to me by many things now lost, by boats, and bathing, and the fascination of streams, and the delights of comradeship, and those (surely the prettiest and simplest) of a boy and girl romance-in those days of Arcady there dwelt in the upper story of the castle one whom I believe to have been the gamekeeper on the estate. The rest of the place stood open to incursive urchins; and there, in a deserted chamber, we found some half-a-dozen numbers of Black Bess, or the Knight of the Road, a work by EDWARD VILES. So far as we are aware, no one had visited that chamber (which was in a turret) since Lambert blew in the doors of the fortress with contumelious English cannon. Yet it could hardly have been Lambert (in whatever hurry of military operations) who had left these samples of romance and the idea that the gamekeeper had anything to do with them was one that we discouraged. Well, the offence is now covered by prescription; we took them away; and in the shade of a contiguous fir-wood, lying on blaeberries, I made my first acquaintance with the art of Mr. Viles. From this author, I passed on to MALCOLM J. ERRYM (the name to my present scrutiny suggesting an anagram on Merry), author of Edith the Captive, The Treasures of St. Mark, A Mystery in Scarlet, George Barington, Sea-drift, Townsend the Runner, and a variety of other well-named romances. Memory may play me false, but I believe there was a kind of merit about Errym. The Mystery in Scarlet runs in my mind to this day; and if any hunter after autographs (and I think the world is full of such) can lay his hands on a copy even imperfect, and will send it to me in the care of Messrs. Scribner, my gratitude (the muse consenting) will even drop into poetry. For I have a curiosity to know what the Mystery in Scarlet was, and to renew acquaintance with King George and his valet Norris, who were the chief figures in the work and may be said to have risen in every page superior to history and the ten commandments. Hence I passed on to Mr. EGAN, whom I trust the reader does not confuse with the author of Tom and Jerry; the two are quite distinct, though I have some-times suspected they were father and son. I never enjoyed EGAN as I did ERRYM; but this was possibly a want of taste, and EGAN would do. Thence again I was suddenly brought face to face with Mr. Reynolds. A school-fellow, acquainted with my debasing tastes, supplied me with The Mysteries of London, and I fell back revolted. The same school-fellow (who seems to have been a devil of a fellow) supplied me about the same time with one of those contributions to literature (and even to art) from which the name of the publisher is modestly withheld. It was a far more respectable work than The Mysteries of London. J. F. SMITH when I was a child, ERRYM when I was a boy HAYWARD when I had attained to man's estate, these read for pleasure; the others, down to SYLVANUS COBB I have made it my business to know (as far as my endurance would support me) from a sincere interest in human nature and the art of letters.
What kind of talent is required to please this mighty public? that was my first question, and was soon amended with the words, "if any." J. F. SMITH was a man of undeniable talent, ERRYM and Hayward have a certain spirit and even in EGAN the very tender might recognise the rudiments of a sort of literary gift; but the cases on the other side are quite conclusive. Take Hemming, or the dull ruffian Reynolds, or Sylvanus Cobb, of whom perhaps I have only seen unfortunate examples-
they seem not to have the talents of a rabbit, and why any one should read them is a thing that passes wonder. A plain-spoken and possibly high-thinking critic might here perhaps return upon me with my own expressions. And he would have missed the point. For I and my fellows have no such popularity to be accounted for. The reputation of an upper-class author is made for him at dinner-
tables and nursed in newspaper paragraphs, and, when all is done, amounts to no great matter. We call it popularity, surely in a pleasant error. A flippant writer in the Saturday Review expressed a doubt if I had ever cherished a "genteel" illusion; in truth I never had many, but this was-and I have lost it. Once I took the literary author at his own esteem; I behold him now like one of those gentlemen who read their own MS. descriptive poetry aloud to wife and babes around the evening hearth; addressing a mere parlour coterie and quite unknown to the great world outside the villa windows. At such pigmy reputation, Reynolds or COBB, or Mrs. SOUTHWORTH can afford to smile. By spontaneous public vote, at a cry from the unorganic masses, these great ones of the dust were laurelled And for what?
Ay, there is the question: For what? How is this great honour gained? Many things have been suggested. The people (it has been said) like rapid narrative. If so, the taste is recent, for both Smith and Egan were leisurely writers. It has been said they like incident, not character. I am not so sure. G. P. R. James was an upper-
class author, J. F. Smith a penny pressman; the two are in some ways not unlike; but-here is the curiosity-James made far the better story, Smith was far the more successful with his characters. Each (to bring the parallel home) wrote a novel called The Stepmother; each introduced a pair of old maids; and let any one study the result! James's Stepmother is a capital tale, but Smith's old maids are like Trollope at his best. It is said again that the people like crime. Certainly they do. But the great ones of the dust have no monopoly of that, and their less fortunate rivals hammer away at murder and abduction unapplauded.
I return to linger about my seaman on the Atlantic liner. I shall be told he is exceptional. I am tempted to think, on the other hand, that he may be normal. The critical attitude, whether to books or life-how if that were the true exception? How if Tom Holt's Log, surreptitiously perused by a harbour-side, had been the means of sending my mariner to sea? How if he were still unconsciously expecting the Tom Holt part of the business to begin-perhaps to-
morrow? How, even, if he had never yet awakened to the discrepancy between that singular picture and the facts? Let us take another instance. The Young Ladies' Journal is an elegant miscellany which I have frequently observed in the possession of the barmaid. In a lone house on a moorland, I was once supplied with quite a considerable file of this production and (the weather being violent) devoutly read it. The tales were not ill done; they were well abreast of the average tale in a circulating library; there was only one difference, only one thing to remind me I was in the land of penny numbers instead of the parish of three volumes. Disguise it as the authors pleased (and they showed ingenuity in doing so) it was always the same tale they must relate: the tale of a poor girl ultimately married to a peer of the realm or (at the worst) a baronet. The circumstance is not common in life; but how familiar to the musings of the barmaid The tales were not true to what men see; they were true to what the readers dreamed.
Let us try to remember how fancy works in children with what selective partiality it reads, leaving often the bulk of the book unrealised, but fixing on the rest and living it; and what a passionate impotence it shows-what power of adoption, what weakness to create. It seems to be not much otherwise with uneducated readers. They long, not to enter into the lives of others, but to behold themselves in changed situations, ardently but impotently preconceived. The imagination (save the mark!) of the popular author here comes to the rescue, supplies some body of circumstance to these phantom aspirations, and conduct the readers where they will. Where they will that's the point; elsewhere they will not follow. When I was a child, if I came on a book in which the characters wore armour, it fell from my hand; I had no criterion of merit, simply that one decisive taste, that my fancy refused to linger in the middle ages. And the mind of the uneducated reader is mailed with similar restrictions. So it is that we must account for a thing otherwise unaccountable the popularity of some of these great ones of the dust. In defect of any other gift, they have instinctive sympathy with the popular mind. They can thus supply to the shop-girl and the shoe-black vesture cut to the pattern of their naked fancies, and furnish them with welcome scenery and properties for autobiographical romancing.
Even in readers of an upper class, we may perceive the traces of a similar hesitation; even for them a writer may be too exotic. The villain, even the heroine, may be a Feejee islander, but only on condition the hero is one of ourselves. It is pretty to see the thing reversed in the Arabian tale (Torrens or Burton-the tale is omitted in popular editions) where the Moslem hero carries off the Christian amazon; and in the exogamous romance there lies interred a good deal of human history and human nature. But the question of exogamy is foreign to the -purpose Enough that we are not readily pleased without a character of our own race and language; so that when the scene of a romance is laid on any distant soil, we look with eagerness and confidence for the coming of the English traveller. With the readers of the penny press the thing goes further. Burning as they are to penetrate into the homes of the peerage, they must still be conducted there by some character of their own class, into whose person they cheerfully migrate for the time of reading Hence the poor governesses supplied in the Young Ladies Journal. Hence these dreary virtuous ouvriers and ouvrières of Xavier de Montépin. He can do nothing with them and he is far too clever not to be aware of that. When he writes for the Figaro, he discards these venerable puppets and doubtless glories in their absence; but so soon as he must address the great audience of the halfpenny journal out come the puppets and are furbished up, and take to drink again, and are once more reclaimed, and once more falsely accused. See them for what they are-Montépin's decoys; without these he could not make his public feel at home in the houses of the fraudulent bankers and the wicked dukes.
The reader, it has been said, migrates into such characters for the time of reading: under their name escapes the narrow prison of the individual career, and sates his avidity for other lives. To what extent he ever emigrates again, and how far the fancied careers react upon the true one, it would fill another paper to debate. But the case of my sailor shows their grave importance. "Tom Holt does not apply to me," thinks our dully-imaginative boy by the harbour-side, "for I am not a sailor. But if I go to sea it will apply completely." And he does go to sea. He lives surrounded by the fact, and does not observe it. He cannot realise, he cannot make a tale of his own life; which crumbles in discrete impressions even as he lives it, and slips between the fingers of his memory like sand. It is not this that he considers in his rare hours of rumination but that other life, which was all lit up for him by the humble talent of a Hayward-that other life which, God knows, perhaps he still believes that he is leading-the life of Tom Holt.