Friday, May 08, 2009

Two Views of the Writer


I guess I've always seen a vital distinction between taking writing seriously and taking writers seriously. All that drunken misbehaviour and silly attitudinizing which we were brought up to consider the prerequisite of the "artist" just don't impress me much (to quote Shania Twain ...)

It always seemed a bit silly to me, to tell you the truth, whether the genius in question was F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas or even our own J. K. B. "There's nothing intellectual about wandering around Italy in a nightshirt trying to get laid," as Blackadder once observed à propos of the crowd of Romantic poets trying to scrounge a free lunch in Mrs. Miggin's pie-shop ...

Writing, on the other hand, with its almost infinite set of possibilities, deserves all the respect we can give it. I'm forced to concede, though, that it is extremely hard at times to distinguish it as a pursuit from the idiosyncratic personalities of its practitioners. Anyhow, the purpose of this post is to reprint my two favourite views of "the writer", both satisfactorily out of copyright and therefore fair game for promulgation on the internet.

They should perhaps be entitled (respectively): Portrait of the Artist as a Consummate Slacker and Portrait of the Artist as a Merry Wag:

Charles Manby Smith, A Working Man’s Way in the World (1853):

One of the main attractions of the paper which we had to produce weekly, consisted, or was supposed to consist, of a romance of the burglary, cut-throat and gallows class of literature, a chapter of which was advertised to appear in every number, This production, which was doubtless a source of gratification to a certain class of readers, was one of infinite annoyance to the compositors and all parties subordinately employed upon the paper. The author was a gay and fashionably-dressed gallant, something over thirty, and apparently one of that class of geniuses who can never do anything till they are goaded to exertion at the last moment. Instead of sending his manuscript to the printer in decent time, he never sent any manuscript at all; but came himself some few hours before the newspaper went to press, and mounting a seat in a closet next the composing-room, set about the perpetration of his weekly quantum in the very jaws of the press gaping to be fed. A sort of easy, sloping-backed stool was prepared for his accommodation, in which, with the full consciousness of genius upon him, he lounged languidly, and threw off the coinage of his brain. His method of composition must, I imagine, have been perfectly unique, and was certainly as troublesome a process for all persons concerned as can well be conceived. I shall describe it for the benefit of aspiring geniuses, and for the sake of showing the public the workings of the inspiration of romance under the spur of necessity – and so many guineas a column.

On the first arrival of the "popular author," whom, by raising myself by stepping on the bed of my frame, I could, and sometimes did, overlook, he would seat himself in front of a broad white quire of vellum, would seize a pen, and, dashing it into the ink, would suffer his right hand to droop at his side, and, distilling the black drops on the floor, employ himself for twenty or thirty minutes in stroking his whiskers, which had naturally a propensity to hang down in the bandit fashion, upwards toward the middle of his face, occasionally wetting his finger and thumb and twisting them into a curl. Suddenly, the right hand would he cautiously raised, and a few words dropped stealthily upon the paper. Then came another long and deliberate sweep at the whiskers, varied with a pull at the chin and a convulsive grasp at the scowling forehead; then a few more unwilling syllables, and then a bout at the whiskers, and so on, and on, till an hour or more had elapsed, when he would ring the hell violently. The ever-watchful "devil" would dart into the closet, and re-appear in an instant with the first edition of the "copy." Here it is; and this, be it remembered, is all the progress that the action of the romance is destined to make for the present week: –

Bluster knocked at the door, and asked if Slackjaw had come.

The woman said no; and the captain brushing past her, entered the room on the left. Slowgo and Bluebag were there before him.

"Where's that hell-hound, Slackjaw?" cried Bluster.

"Vy," said Slowgo, "that ere's a rum kvestion. How the –– can ve tell?"

Suddenly the sound of footsteps was heard without, and Slackjaw immediately after entered the room.

Bluster suppressed his wrath; and the party sat down together to confer and arrange their plans.

“Whereabouts is the crib?" asked Bluster.

“About a mile the tother side o' Bow," responded Bluebag.

"Is the barkers all right?"

"Righter nor a trivet."

“And Jad meets us at the Whitechapel gate?"

“That's the fake."

“At one o'clock if I'm fly?"

"One's the number. 'Tis now 'leven. I wotes for a drop o' heavy afore we starts."

"D–," roared Bluster, "if I'll have any gettin' drunk afore business."
"Just pots round," insinuated Slowgo; "that won't hurt us; and the night’s infernal wet and windy."

The captain conceded "pots round;" which being duly discussed within an hour the party arose and repaired to the appointed spot. They found Jad in the shadow of the turnpike, and, guided by him, pursued their route. It was near two in the morning when they came in sight of the house which it was their "business" to plunder.


No sooner did this precious morsel of "copy" appear than it was cut up into eight or ten small pieces, and in a very few minutes a proof of the whole was in the hands of the author, whose occupation for the remainder of the night it was, by a process well understood and exceedingly profitable to the geniuses of romance of the present day, to spin it out to the required length of from two hundred and fifty to three hundred lines of minion type. Directly a proof was obtained, the types were distributed, as we knew from experience they would not be worth correcting, and we lay upon our oars awaiting the second edition. This generally employed the author for another hour, and by dint of numerous insertions and interlineations, with some few substitutions, was made to assume an appearance somewhat like the following: –

It wanted a little more than an hour of midnight when Bluster knocked stealthily three times with his knuckles at the door of the house indicated in the last chapter.

The door was opened by a foul-faced and filthy figure in the garb of a woman, who carried a farthing candle, which she shaded with her left hand, and threw the light full in the face of the captain.

Bluster asked in a hoarse whisper if Slackjaw had yet arrived.

The had doggedly replied that he had not, and flavouring the injunction with a curse, the captain, brushing past her, entered the dingy little parlor on the left, where Slowgo and Bluebag, who had arrived before him, enveloped in a cloud of tobacco-smoke, puffed their short-pipes by the light of a glimmering fire in a rusty grate.

"Kiddies all," said the captain, as he stepped into the reeking chamber.

"Nothing but," growled Slowgo in response.

"Where's that –– hell-hound, Slackjaw?" asked Bluster, evidently irritated.

"Vell now," says Slowgo, "that ere's vat I calls a rum sort of a kveer kvestion; how the –– should ve know vere he is?"

"Less of your jaw," retorted the captain, who wanted but little to render him furious. "I want none of that."

Suddenly the sound of hasty but cautious footsteps was heard without; they stopped at the door, and the three gentle taps announced the arrival of a confederate. The grim hostess was heard leisurely ascending the stairs, and a minute after the door was noiselessly opened, and the dilatory Slackjaw entered the room.

The arrival of the cracksman seemed to appease in some degree the irritable captain; he suppressed his rising wrath; and after a Jew guttural salutations had been exchanged, the party sat down together to confer and arrange their plans.

"Whereabouts is the crib we're a goin' to crack?" asked Bluster.

"About a mile the tother side o' Bow," responded Bluebag. “I knows the track fast enough."

"How about the barkers, Slackjaw?"

"Right as a trivet," said that worthy, showing the butts of a brace of pistols stuck into the breast-pocket of his coat.

"And Jadder meets us at the Whitechapel gate?"

"That's the fake."

"At one o'clock, or else it's no go."

"One's the chime. 'Tis now past 'leven. I wotes for a drop o' heavy afore we starts."

"No, that be d–d. B–t me if I'll have any getting drunk afore business. Crack the crib, and bag the swag, and then get drunk as h–. That's my maxim."

"Just pots round, captain," insinuated Slowgo. "That won't hurt us. The night's infernal wet and windy. Hang it, let's have a little drop inside as well as out."

The captain conceded "pots round." A gallon of beer was brought in by the angry amazon, who coolly helped herself to a long draught before she left the room. Bluster drank a double share, by way of keeping his men sober; and having discussed the contents of the can within the hour, the party arose and repaired to the appointed spot.

They had a good hour's walk before them. Doggedly and silently they proceeded on their way, and came within sight of the turnpike-gate just as the heavy bell of St. Paul's rung out ONE! They found the ever-punctual Jadder lurking in the shadow of the toll-house, and, guided by him, pursued their route. When they had passed through the straggling village of Bow, Bluster inquired of Jadder whether the cart was already in waiting on the spot.

“All right," said the other. "Solomons is there with his blind blood-mare, and Levy's trap. Ten mile an hour, and room for all of us."

It was near two in the morning when our reckless adventurers came in sight of the house which, standing invitingly alone, and at least a furlong from any other dwelling, had aroused the cupidity and daring of the burglar's jackall, Jadder.

This second edition of "copy" was cut up and divided like the former, and a quarter of an hour supplied the author with his second proofs. The types were again distributed, and again we waited for a third edition of copy. This came forth in due time, presenting an appearance as different from the second as the first had been from that. Descriptions of Slowgo and Slackjaw were interpolated; oaths and slang ejaculations were knowingly sprinkled about among the conversations, as so much spice in the savoury mess. A speech is introduced from the hostess, who is bullied into silence by Bluebag. Slackjaw supplies a paragraph on the merit of his "pops," and establishes his claim to the gallows by the gratuitous confession of half a score murders. Bluster blusters after the model of Ancient Pistol struck silly; and some spicy descriptions of the exploits of Solomon's blood-mare are added in a style that would edify the votaries of the turf. These voluminous additions swell the chapter to more than half of its required length; and the author is now asked whether he will have the matter of the third proof distributed. If he consents that it should remain, it is a sign that no more merely verbal interpolations are coming, or at least very few, but that the additions to be made will be of separate paragraphs only, Another hour passes away, and the fourth edition of "copy" comes into our hands – the author sometimes handing it to us himself – the overworked devil being found proof against "kicking up," fast asleep on the floor. We now begin to see the end of our labours, The author has left his characters, and called upon the elements to contribute their quota of matter to his hungry columns. The rain now begins to rush down in torrents; the wind can do no less than howl a perfect hurricane; the thunder roars, and the mad lightnings leap from their hiding-places. All of a sudden the raging tempest abates; the stars twinkle brightly beyond the scudding clouds; the moon rises over the distant range of hills; she is horned like the crescent, and suggests an allusion to the turbaned Moslem; or she is a week old; or she shines in full splendour; or she is in her last quarter, and glares ominously on the scene – or perhaps she don't rise at all, but hidden in her "secret interlunar cave," refuses her placid countenance to a deed of violence – perhaps of blood! But wind, rain, hail, snow and tempest, and moon or no moon, all contribute their several portions to the two feet two inches of type which are indispensable to enable the popular author to turn over his long column decently, and pocket his five or ten guineas, as it may be, creditably to himself. The fourth edition, however, seldom finishes the chapter. A fifth and often a sixth is required before the necessary quantum, is made up. Single lines of a parenthetical character were frequently the last resource of our exhausted genius; and I have know a hiatus of more than a dozen lines filled up in extremity by “Ha!” “Ugh!” “Indeed!” “You don’t say so!” “The devil?” &c. &c., ejaculations which were kept standing on a galley in a separate lines, to be had recourse to in a case of last emergency, When at length the deed was done, and the imprimatur had issued from his lips, our son of genius would light a refreshing cigar and with both hands occupied in the propulsion of his obstinate whiskers upwards and forwards, would stalk grandly down-stairs, deposit his gentility in a cab, and rattle home to bed.

E. F. Bleiler, who quotes this passage in his introduction to the Dover reprint of that immortal penny-dreadful Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood (1847), remarks that it's not possible to identify the Newgate novelist Smith describes, "since the incident is dated 1835, too early for [Edward] Lloyd, [Thomas Peckett] Prest or [James Malcolm] Rymer. G.W.M. Reynolds could fit the date and the physical description, but he was probably in Paris at this time."

The method of padding described here sounds only too depressingly familiar from other forms of pulp literature (student essays, for instance) then and now, however.

[J M W Turner: Beckford's Fonthill]

W. P. Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences (1887) vol. 2, pp. 132-37:

A distant connection of mine, who, I must presume, was a person of an inquiring mind, found himself involved in a curious adventure. … There was one house, and that the most interesting of all, that shut its door against my inquisitive friend and everybody else. Fonthill Abbey, or Fonthill Splendour as it was sometimes called, situated a few miles from Bath, was a treasure-house of beauty. Every picture was said to be a gem, and the gardens were unequalled by any in England, the whole being guarded by a dragon in the form of Mr. Beckford [author (among other works) of the Gothic romance Vathek]. 'Not only,’ says an authority, ‘had the art-treasures of that princely place been sealed against the public, but the park itself – known by rumour as a beautiful spot – had for several years been inclosed by a most formidable wall, about seven miles in circuit, twelve feet high, and crowned by a chevaux-de­-frise.’ These formidable obstacles my distant cousin undertook to surmount, and he laid a wager of a considerable sum that he would walk in the gardens, and even penetrate into the house itself.

Having nothing better to do, he spent many an anxious hour in watching the great gate in the wall, in the hope that by some inadvertence it might be left open and unguarded; and one day the happy moment arrived. The porter was ill, and his wife opened the gate to a tradesman, who, after depositing his goods at the lodge (no butcher or baker was permitted to go to the Abbey itself), retired, leaving the gate open, relying probably upon the woman's shutting it. Quick as thought my relative passed the awful portals, and made his way across the park. Guided by the high tower – called 'Beckford’s Folly' – my inquisitive friend made his way to the gardens, and not being able immediately to find the entrance, was leaning on a low wall that shut the gardens from the park, and taking his fill of delight at that gorgeous display – the garden being in full beauty – when a man with a spud in his hand – perhaps the head-gardener – approached, and asked the intruder how he came there, and what he wanted.

'The fact is, I found the gate in the wall open, and having heard a great deal about this beautiful place, I thought I should like to see it.'

'Ah,' said the gardener, 'you would, would you? Well, you can't see much where you are. Do you think you could manage to jump over the wall? lf you can, I will show you the gardens.’

My cousin looked over the wall, and found such a palpable obstacle – in the shape of a deep ditch – that he wondered at the proposal.

'Oh, I forgot the ditch! Well, go to the door; you will find it about a couple of hundred yards to your right, and I will admit you.'

In a very short time, to his great delight, my cousin found himself listening to the learned names of rare plants, and inhaling the perfume of lovely flowers. Then the fruit-gardens and hot-houses – 'acres of them’, as he afterwards declared – were submitted to his inspection. After the beauties of the gardens and grounds had been thoroughly explored, and the wager half won, the inquisitive one's pleasure may be imagined when his guide said:

‘Now, would you like to see the house and its contents? There are some rare things in it – fine pictures and so on. Do you know anything about pictures?'

‘I think I do, and should, above all things, like to see those of which I have heard so much; but are you sure that you will not get yourself into a scrape with Mr. Beckford? I've heard he is so very particular.'

‘Oh no!’ said the gardener, 'I don't think Mr. Beckford will mind what I do. You see, I have known him all my life, and he lets me do pretty well what I like here.’

'Then I shall be only too much obliged.'

‘Follow me, then,' said the guide.

My distant cousin was really a man of considerable taste and culture, a great lover of art, with some knowledge of the old masters and the different schools; and he often surprised his guide, who, catalogue in hand, named the different pictures and their authors, by his actue and often correct criticism .... When the pictures had been thoroughly examined, there remained bric-a-brac of all kinds, costly suits of armour, jewelry of all ages, bridal coffers beautifully painted by Italian artists, numbers of ancient and modem musical instruments, with other treasures, all to be carefully and delightfully examined, till, the day nearing fast towards evening, the visitor prepared to depart, and was commencing a speech of thanks in his best manner, when the gardener said, looking at his watch:

‘Why, bless me, it's five o'clock! ain't you hungry? You must stop and have some dinner.'

‘No, really, I couldn't think of taking such a liberty. I am sure Mr. Beckford would be offended.'

‘No, he wouldn't. You must stop and dine with me; I am Mr. Beckford.'

My far-off cousin's state of mind may be imagined. He had won his wager, and he was asked, actually asked, to dine with the man whose name was a terror to the tourist, whose walks abroad were so rare that his personal appearance was unknown to his neighbours. What a story to relate to his circle at Bath! How Mr. Beckford had been belied, to be sure! The dinner was magnificent, served on massive plate – the wines of the rarest vintage. Rarer still was Mr. Beckford's conversation. He entertained his guest with stories of Italian travel, with anecdotes of the great in whose society he had mixed, till he found the shallowness of it; in short, with the outpouring of a mind of great power and thorough cultivation. My cousin was well read enough to be able to appreciate the conversation and contribute to it, and thus the evening passed delightfully away. Candles were lighted, and host and guest talked till a fine Louis Quatorze clock struck eleven. Mr. Beckford rose and left the room. The guest drew his chair to the fire, and waited the return of his host. He thought he must have dozed, for he started to find the room in semi-darkness, and one of the solemn powdered footmen putting out the lights.

'Where is Mr. Beckford?' said my cousin.

'Mr. Beckford is gone to bed,' said the man, as he extinguished the last candle.

The dining-room door was open, and there was a dim light in the hall.

'Mr. Beckford ordered me to present his compliments to you, sir, and I am to say that as you found your way into Fonthill Abbey without assistance, you may find your way out again as best you can; and he hopes you will take care to avoid the bloodhounds that are let loose in the gardens every night. I wish you good-evening. No, thank you, sir: Mr. Beckford never allows vails [tips].'

My cousin climbed into the branches of the first tree that promised a safe shelter from the dogs, and there waited for daylight; and it was not till the sun showed itself that he made his way, terror attending each step, through the gardens into the park, and so to Bath. ‘The wager was won,’ said my relative; 'but not for fifty million times the amount would I again pass such a night as I did at Fonthill Abbey.’

Har-de-har-har!

Those of you who are devotees of the English ghost-story writer M. R. James will observe that certain aspects of this anecdote have been transplanted into his stories "Casting the Runes" and "Mr Humphrey's Inheritance" ...

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