ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

Home
Biography
Bibliography

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

Essays
Reviews
Letters

The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

Links
Site Diary
Site Search

REMINISCENCES OF BUCHANAN

 

Among My Autographs by George R. Sims (1904)

Fifty Years of an Actor’s Life by John Coleman (1904)

My Story by Hall Caine (1908)

A Stepson of Fortune by Henry Murray (1909)

Some Celebrities I Have Known by Archibald Stodart-Walker (1909)

Recollections of Fifty Years by Isabella Fyvie Mayo (1910)

My Life: Sixty Years’ Recollections of Bohemian London by George R. Sims (1917)

_____

 

Among My Autographs by George R. Sims (London: Chatto & Windus, 1904, pp. 17, 49-59, 90)

 

p. 17

It was Rossetti who was fiercely attacked by Robert Buchanan in his article “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” to which Swinburne replied in “Under the Microscope” with a wrath and bitterness which have never been equalled in a literary quarrel. Buchanan in after life regretted his attack on Rossetti, and made heartfelt amends in his later years. He told me once that it was the incident of his literary career which he most deeply deplored.

___

 

pp. 49 -59

VI

Robert Buchanan was my friend and close companion for many years. I have most of his works, and among them many of the very early editions which are now rare. I have “Undertones,” the volume of poetry published by Edward Moxon in 1863, and “David Grey,” published by Sampson Low, Son and Marston in 1868; and I have those later works which he published with such extraordinary rapidity in the intervals of play-writing, theatrical lesseeship, financial worry, and much fierce letter-writing in and out of the newspapers. I have the books which he brought out himself at his own office in order to be his own publisher, “The Ballad of Mary the Mother” and “The Devil’s Case,” both “published by the author,” one in ’96 and one in ’97.
     This idea of being his own publisher was part of what may be called “the unwisdom of Robert Buchanan.” He was a man who never quite calculated consequences. When he quarrelled with theatrical managers, he took a theatre himself; when he quarrelled with publishers, he went into their trade. In both instances the result was unsatisfactory. He brought out a charming piece at a matinée at the Adelphi, “The Bride of Love.” In it his sister-in-law, Miss Harriet Jay, made a great success. It was hardly the play for the evening bills. It was poetic, dreamy, scholarly; it was everything but dramatic. Yet, because he wanted it in the evening bills and could not get managers to share his enthusiasm, he took the Lyric Theatre and put up a poetical play with the makeshift matinée scenery. By this speculation he lost thousands of pounds, and loaded himself with difficulties which hampered him to the end of his days.
     There were as many sides to Robert Buchanan’s character as there were to his genius. Over generous to comparative strangers, he was often scarcely just to intimate friends. Bitter, almost malignant, when in a quarrel he took pen in hand, he was tender and gentle as a woman when his sympathies were excited.
     My first acquaintance with him came about through a generous letter which he sent me at the time I was publishing my first attempts at verse in narrative form, under the title of “The Dagonet Ballads” and “Ballads of Babylon.”
     One day this letter came to me, and I need not say brought a glow of pleasure to my cheeks, which at that time were very white, for I was seriously ill and about to pass from the doctor’s hands to those of the surgeon:

5 Larkhall Rise,
         Clapham, December 5, 1880.

     Dear Sir,—Permit a disinterested reader to tell you how much he has been surprised and touched by some

grsimsauto1

of your “Ballads of Babylon.” I know by experience that such testimonies, when they come unexpectedly, sometimes convey pleasure; and it is also in my mind that long ago, when “I” also wrote poems of Babylon, a generous-hearted friend of yours, the late Mr. Tom Hood, wrote out of the fulness of his heart such words as gave me great content.
     Be that as it may, I feel the strength and courage of your poems so much that I send you this hasty brief. One ballad—in which you tell the story of the poor outcast who rescues the clergyman she once branded— is to me indescribably noble and affecting, and worth all the æsthetic jargon of the period.
     I write thus to you, and I believe I shall have an opportunity of writing to the public also, before long, on the same theme.—Faithfully yours,
                                 Robert Buchanan.
Geo. R. Sims, Esq.

     The writer amply fulfilled his promise shortly afterwards in the pages of the “Contemporary Review.”
     It was many years later that we came together as workfellows. The Messrs. Gatti proposed to me that I should enter into partnership with Robert Buchanan to supply a series of plays for the Adelphi Theatre. Buchanan had always been a prolific playwright, and his plays were generally big successes or big failures. Years afterwards, when I worked with him almost day by day, and came to know his methods, I ceased to wonder at the inequality of his workmanship. I doubt if any dramatist of culture ever wrote with such rapidity. He wrote straight away, page after page being filled with his neat handwriting, while he smoked the eternal cigarette. There was no looking up at the ceiling, no pausing for the right word. It was this “writing the scene straight off” that made some of his best work ineffective from the dramatic point of view when it came to a popular playhouse. He despised the exit line, and continued a scene beyond the point at which it attained—speaking theatrically—its climax.
     I remember an instance which illustrates this defect. He had to send a party of soldiers into a church to look for a man who was supposed to be concealed there. Here are the lines as he wrote them:

     Officer: Enter the church, Sergeant, and bring the fellow out!
     Sergeant: Those are your orders, Captain?
     Officer: Yes.
     Sergeant: Then I must obey them. Into the church, lads. Follow me!

     Of course that was set right at rehearsal, because the sergeant was played by a real sergeant, and the soldiers were real soldiers. The military words of command were substituted, and the sergeant did not argue with his superior officer.
     But when writing Buchanan would never dream of stopping for such a detail.
     Many of his plays were big financial successes, notably one or two of his adaptations. But in many, where a little care would have made success certain, he came to grief through over rapidity of execution. 
     He turned out work at a rate which was appalling. He would produce half a dozen plays in a year, and have another half-dozen ready for production. In the pigeon-holes of his study, at Merkland, he had always a score of unacted plays, ranging from comic operas to historical tragedies. On one occasion, when an American manager was in town looking for new plays, Buchanan had an idea which he thought would suit him. In one week he turned the idea into a three-act comedy, took it to the manager, read it to him, received £200 on account, and at the reading threw out an idea for a serious drama. The American manager liked the idea. Buchanan went home, and in three days had a scenario of five-and-twenty pages ready.
     And all this time he was correcting the proofs of a book which was about to appear, at work on a long poem, writing daily letters to the papers on a highly controversial subject, and seeing his solicitor with regard to an action at law which was pending.
     My collaboration with this tireless worker was always a happy one, because “the Bard,” as we liked to call him, was a delightful companion, and his conversation was always brilliant and exhilarating. I spent some of the happiest years of my life in close companionship with Robert Buchanan, and rarely on our “work days,” or rather nights, did I quit his hospitable roof till the small hours of the morning.
     Here is the letter in which Buchanan acknowledged the suggestion that he should enter into partnership with me to supply Adelphi melodrama. The reference

grsimsauto2

to Jericho is explained by the fact that I had written asking him to come to an early decision, as I wanted a holiday, and was thinking of going to the Holy Land: 

     Dear Mr. Sims,—Can call on you to-morrow or Thursday before 12, or between 3 and 5—“morning” preferred. Or glad to see you here after 5 to-morrow, or on Thursday morning. Will you kindly wire your choice? It seems urgent that we should forgather at once, as you are going away so soon. With kind regards.—Truly yours,   
                                                                                                                                         Robert Buchanan.
G. R. Sims, Esq.
     P.S.—How the deuce am I to collaborate with you in Jericho?!

     Our first play, “The English Rose,” made a good deal of money for all of us. Buchanan sold out after a time, and the Messrs. Gatti and myself gave him £2500 for his share.
     Then came “The Trumpet Call,” in which Mrs. Patrick Campbell practically made her London début, and we were financially even more successful.
     Both “The English Rose” and “The Trumpet Call” are still playing in England and in the United States.
     The other plays were not so fortunate. Buchanan had grown tired of Adelphi methods. He had a great poetic scheme in his mind, and he was afraid that his connection with popular melodrama would be against him when he appealed to the critical world with his masterpiece.
     I think at this time he was financially worried as well, and neither his heart nor his brain was in his theatrical work. 
     I will give one more letter because it is signed “The Bard.” In the “Times” notice of the admirable life of

grsimsauto3

her brother-in-law by Miss Harriet Jay the critic objects to the insertion of a “reminiscence” by myself, in which “the Bard” is frequently mentioned. “We could have done with less of ‘the Bard,’” says the critic. Every one has a right to his opinion, but the story of Buchanan’s life would have been incomplete without a reference to this phase of it. He was always known as “the Bard,” and alluded to as “the Bard” by the little company who gathered constantly at his house on “supper-nights,” and at the little Sunday dinner-parties. It was a term of affection and respect bestowed upon him originally, I think, by his friend and frequent companion Mr. Henry Murray; and Buchanan himself, as the letter shows, had smilingly adopted it. The letter is written from the country seat of that Marquess of Ailesbury who was known to sporting fame as “Ducks.” Buchanan was one of a small party staying there for a few days:

Savernake Forest,
         Marlborough,
                   Oct. 28.

     Dear George,— I enclosed you a bit of scenario. I shall be up to-morrow (Saturday) and we can then put our wits together. I like the idea more and more.
     Awful weather! Just going out to get wet thro’.

                                                               The Bard.

     I have referred to Miss Jay’s story of his life’s work and his literary friendships. But there is another book, which may be published one day—the autobiography which Robert Buchanan had himself prepared, and in which he had frankly set forth his ideas of his contemporaries.
     It is probably owing to the frankness with which he has in these pages expressed his personal views that they are being held back. There are many celebrities still living who would be rendered exceedingly uncomfortable by their publication.

___

 

p. 90

     Rochefort was a remarkable figure, with his erect bearing, hid French features, and his wealth of piled-up snowy hair. All the cabmen knew him, and I am bound to say liked him, for he was generous to a degree. To me he was always delightfully amiable, and he took a great fancy to Robert Buchanan, at whose house I met him more than once.

_____

 

Fifty Years of an Actor’s Life by John Coleman (Vol. 2, New York: James Pott & Co., London: Hutchinson & Co., 1904, pp. 649-651, 652-654, 661)

pp. 649-651

     On  the  day when  I commenced operations for  my débût a crowd  of authors, actors, journalists, and old friends came, some to seek engagements, others to congratulate me. First came Charles Reade, Wilkie Collins, and Tom Taylor to wish me God-speed. Next, a remarkable-looking man of forty and a girl scarce half that age, neither of whom I had ever seen before. He was clad in an ample Inverness cape of grey frieze, with a white muffler twisted round his huge neck. His fierce blue eyes asserted themselves defiantly through his blue binoculars. His hair was a mass of golden brown, and his beard of burnished gold. His assertant nose (too prononcé for Greek, yet not enough for Roman) and dilated nostrils, his leonine head and chest, combined with a certain “come if you dare” demeanour, suggested the very image of a Viking on the war-path. The girl was tall, slender, dark-eyed, dark-haired, clad in some dark clinging stuff, and there were even then suggestions of statuesque outlines, which indeed afterwards became more amply and superbly developed. He carried a huge, hideous “gamp,” pointed bayonet-wise at my breast, as if about to charge and pin me to the wall behind. The girl, who had evidently never penetrated Stage-land before, gazed curiously at me and the glittering paraphernalia of armour and jewellery scattered around, as who should say, “Where am I, and what manner of man is this player-king?” While they were doubtless summing me up, I took stock of them; hence I recall thus vividly my first impressions of the author of The Shadow of the Sword and London Poems and his pupil and protegée, the authoress of The Queen of Connaught.
     And now to  explain the  cause of this visit. Walt Whitman had fallen on bad times, and his brother poet had made an appeal to the British public on his behalf. I had sent a little cheque, and Robert Buchanan had called to acknowledge it. Although then at the zenith of his great powers, his vigorous attack on “The Fleshly School” had made him many enemies, and barred the doors of the theatre to him. It pleases me now to recall that the very next day I invited him to meet Charles Reade and other men of light and leading at my house in Wigmore Street, that I induced my friend Henry Neville to produce his first drama, and from that time forth commenced a friendly intimacy which continued, with rare intervals, to the day of his untimely and terrible death.

___

 

pp. 652-654

     Whatever diversity of opinion might possibly have existed as to the rendition of Henry V., there was but one opinion as to the splendour of the spectacle, which both Phelps and Greenwood and even Mrs. Charles Kean and Mr. Planché then generously acknowledged had never been equalled, while I am bold enough to assert even now that it has never since been surpassed. By the special grace of Dean Stanley we were permitted to photograph the Abbey and the Jerusalem Chamber, to model and reproduce the Coronation Chair and the mystic Stone of Scone beneath it. Mr. Kean was kind enough to lend me all the sketches and designs which had been prepared for Charles Kean’s sumptuous get-up at the Princesses’, while every scene, every costume, every weapon, every suit of armour, every trophy and banner were prepared from the highest authorities, after the designs of Mr. Godwin, the eminent archæologist. Permission was obtained from the Horse Guards for the pick of the British army to assist in the Coronation, the Siege of Harfleur, the Battle of Agincourt, the Royal Nuptials, and the Triumphant entry of Harry and Katharine de Valois into London. So extensive were the preparations that we had the greatest difficulty in getting ready for our opening.
     At length all obstacles were surmounted, and the eventful night arrived, when I made my first appearance, assisted by one of the best companies then in existence, including Mr. Phelps, Mr. Ryder, Mr. Tom Mead, Mr. Clifford Harrison, M. Leon Espinorn, Miss Margaret Leighton, Miss Emily Fowler, Mrs. Hudson Kirby, Miss Kate Phillips, and numerous other eminent artists. The first item on the programme was a poetic, inaugural address written for the occasion by Robert Buchanan. By the way, Tom Greenwood, Phelps’s partner at the Wells, had kindly volunteered to assist at our “send-off.” When he learned that the address was by Buchanan, the wily old fox said, “If the Fleshly School Gang even guess that he’s the author, they’ll go for the whole crowd of you bald-headed. Better keep it dark and leave the rest to me.” I don’t know whether he actually set the rumour afloat or not, but Charles Reade assured me that E. L. Blanchard (Greenwood’s old friend) confidently asserted in the lobby that night that Algernon Swinburne was the author, and that the assertion was accepted as gospel! However that might have been, the lines were splendid and splendidly declaimed by Miss Leighton, who stirred the house to enthusiasm with her majestic presence and her magnificent voice. Mrs. Seymour told me that shortly after meeting an eminent critic at a dinner party, he gushed over Swinburne’s magnificent composition, alleging it was worthy of Shakespeare himself. When, however, she informed this learned pundit ’twas written by Buchanan, he exclaimed in a fine flush of virtuous indignation, “A fraud—a vile fraud, madame! Had I known it was by that red-headed Scotchman, I’d have crucified the wretch!”
     Those who were present that night can scarcely have forgotten the roar which arose, which came back again and yet again, until the whole audience burst forth into one mighty acclamation, when the curtain revealed to view the war-worn lion of Lancaster lying beneath the shadow of death in the Jerusalem Chamber, nor the generous recognition accorded to Ryder, Mead, and other old favourites. “On their own merits modest men are dumb,” but I may be permitted to say here that perhaps no actor ever made a more triumphant entry into London than he who impersonated the hero of Agincourt on that occasion.

___

 

p. 661

     Soon after this I produced—at Brighton—an adaptation by the author and myself of Robert Buchanan’s noble romance, The Shadow of the Sword. I obtained great kudos in the part of the hero, Rohan Gwenfern, but when I brought the play to town during the dog-days (when every one was away) I gained neither money nor reputation by an experiment attempted under such adverse circumstances.

___

 

[Note: Coleman’s production of The Shadow of the Sword did not meet with Buchanan’s approval and led to a spirited exchange of letters in The Era.]

_____

 

My Story by Hall Caine (London: William Heinemann, 1908, pp. 92-97, 222-223, 271-279)

 

pp. 92-97

     Whatever the cause of the book’s immediate success, there can be no doubt that Rossetti himself took great delight in it, and that in the first flush of his new-found happiness he began afresh with great vigour on poetic creation, producing one of the most remarkable ballads of his second volume within a short time of the publication of the first. But then came a blow which arrested his energies and brought his literary activities to a long pause.
     About a year after the appearance of the “Poems,” an article was published in one of the most influential of the reviews, the Contemporary, which was in general a denunciation of the sensual tendencies of the age, in art, music, poetry, and the drama, and in particular an impeachment of the poetry of Rossetti, Swinburne, and William Morris, who were said to have “bound themselves into a solemn league and covenant to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art, to aver that poetic expression is better than poetic thought, and by inference, that the body is greater than the soul, and sound superior to sense.”
     The article, which was entitled “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” a name that was in itself an offence, suggesting the shambles and wounding the very sensibilities which it was supposed to defend, was undoubtedly written with great vigour, much knowledge of literature, and an immense power of popular appeal. It produced a sensible effect, awakening that moral conscience which in the English people always slumbers, like the conventional lion, with one eye open, and being quickly followed by articles in the same spirit appearing in other reviews and newspapers of equal or yet greater standing.
     On its publication in the Contemporary the article bore the signature “Thomas Maitland,” but it afterwards became known that the actual writer was Robert Buchanan, then a young author who had risen to very considerable distinction as a poet, and was consequently suspected, no doubt without much injustice, of being actuated by feelings of envy rather than by desire for the public good.
     Against Rossetti, as the latest and most universally acclaimed of poets, Buchanan’s attack was especially directed; and while it may be freely admitted that there was actually present in some of the poetry assailed a tendency to deviate from wholesome reticence in dealing with human passion, and that to deify mere lust is an offence and an outrage, the sum total of all the poetry that was really reprehensible was probably less than one hundred lines, and therefore too inconsiderable to justify the charge made against its authors of an attempt to ruin society.
     To say that Rossetti felt this charge is not to express his sense of it. He who had withheld his pictures from exhibition from dread of the distracting influences of public opinion; he who for fifteen years had kept back his poems from print in obedience first to an extreme modesty of personal estimate, and afterwards to the command of a mastering passion, was of all men the one most likely to feel deeply and incurably the wicked slander, born in the first instance of jealousy, that he had unpacked his bosom of unhealthy passions and demoralised the public mind.
     If what Rossetti did, under this first fire of the enemy, seems weak or futile, let it be said that only those who know by experience what it is to have this foul accusation made against them, can have any idea of its distracting power. In the first moments of his indignation, he wrote a full and point-by-point rejoinder, printed it as a pamphlet, had a great number struck off; then he destroyed every copy. After that he wrote a temperate but not very effectual letter to the Athenæum; but finding that the accusations he rebutted were repeated immediately with increasing bitterness, he lost hope of stemming the tide of hostile criticism, and announced his intention of abandoning poetic composition.
     One by one some of the remaining friends of earlier years seemed now to have left him. Whether, as I have heard certain of them say, they wearied a little of Rossetti's absorption in the critical attacks made upon him—thinking he put them out of proportion, or interpreted their origin and intention by a light that was scarcely consistent with sanity—or whether Rossetti on his part (as one of the letters I have quoted appears to show) began to think of his old comrades as “summer friends” who fell away at the first breath of winter, the result was the same—he shut himself up in his big house in yet more absolute seclusion than before.
     Nor did the mischief end there. The chloral which he had first taken in small doses, he began now, in moments of physical prostration and nervous excitement, to indulge in to excess; and as a consequence he went through a series of terrible though intermittent illnesses, inducing a morbid condition, in which he was the victim of many painful delusions. Among them, as was perhaps natural, were some that related to the exhumation of his wife’s body, and the curse that was supposed to have followed him for that desecration. This was an idea very liable to torment a mind so susceptible to supernatural suggestion as Rossetti’s; and although one’s soul cries out against a torture that was greater than any sins of his deserved, one cannot but welcome the thought that the seclusion to which he doomed himself, and the illness from which he suffered, were due to something more serious and more worthy of a man than the hostile article of a jealous fellow-poet.

___

 

p. 222-223

     I have one more memory of those cheerful evenings in the poet’s bedroom with its thick curtains, its black-oak chimney-piece and crucifix and its muffled air (all looking and feeling so much brighter than before), and that is of Buchanan’s retraction of all that he had said in his bitter onslaught of so many years before. One day there came a copy of the romance called “God and the Man,” with its dedication “To an Old Enemy.” I do not remember how the book reached Rossetti’s house, whether directly from the author or from the publisher, or, as I think probable, through Watts, who was now every day at Cheyne Walk, in his untiring devotion to his friend, but I have a clear memory of reading to the poet the beautiful lines in which his critic so generously and so bravely took back everything he had said:

“I would have snatched a bay-leaf from thy brow,
     Wronging the chaplet on an honoured head;
In peace and charity I bring thee now
     A lily-flower instead.
Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,
     Sweet as thy spirit, may this offering be;
Forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong,
     And take the gift from me.”

     Rossetti was for the moment much affected by the pathos of the words, but in the absence of his name it was difficult at first to make him beheve they were intended for him.
     “But they are, I’m sure they are, and Watts says they are,” I went on repeating, until he was compelled to believe.
     It was a moving incident, and doubly affecting at that moment, when the poet had just emerged from the long night of so much suffering. And it was fit and meet that Buchanan’s retraction should come before it was too late for Rossetti to hear of it; but if I had wanted anything to prove to me that the cloud that had hung over the poet’s life was not that of another poet’s criticism but a far graver thing, I should have found it in the fact that after the first hour of hearing of the retraction, he never spoke of the matter again.

___

 

p. 271-279

ROBERT BUCHANAN

ABOUT two months after Rossetti’s death I was at work in my chambers in Clement’s Inn on one of my articles for the Mercury, when somebody knocked with his knuckles on the door, and, in answer to my call, came in. It was Robert Buchanan, whom I had never seen before, a thick-set man of medium height, with a broad fresh-coloured face, distinctly intellectual, but certainly not ascetic, or spiritual, or inspired. He had seen something I had written about Rossetti, with a reference to himself, and he had come to thank me and to reproach me at the same time. In a voice that had a perceptible tremor he said:
     “Did you want to heap coals of fire on my head? Good God, man! what did you think you were doing?”
     I was deeply touched by this strange manifestation of his gratitude, giving proof enough that under that rather rugged exterior a real human heart was quivering. We became friends immediately, and if I had any momentary sense of disloyalty to my dead comrade in joining hands with one whose enmity had helped to darken the last years of his life, I persuaded myself, not without reason, that, after all, Rossetti and Buchanan had a good deal in common, and but for the devilish tangle of fate they might even have been friends.
     At that first meeting we talked of Rossetti only, and I well remember Buchanan’s long silence, the quivering of his eyelids and the moistening of his eyes, when I told him how the poet, whom he had wronged so deeply, had praised his “Lights o’ Leith.” A few days afterwards he wrote a long letter, which was intended to explain the motive which had led him to make his unjust attack:
     “In perfect frankness, let me say a few words concerning our old quarrel. While admitting freely that my article in the Contemporary Review was unjust to Rossetti’s claims as a poet, I have ever held, and still hold, that it contained nothing to warrant the manner in which it was received by the poet and his circle. At the time it was written the newspapers were full of panegyric; mine was a mere drop of gall in an ocean of eau sucrée. That it could have had on any man the effect you describe I can scarcely believe, indeed, I think that no living man had so little to complain of as Rossetti on the score of criticism. Well, my protest was received in a way which turned irritation into wrath, wrath into violence; and then ensued the paper war which lasted for years. If you compare what I have written of Rossetti with what his admirers have written of myself, I think you will admit that there has been some cause for me to complain, to shun society, to feel bitter against the world; but, happily, I have a thick epidermis, and the courage of an approving conscience.
     “I was unjust, as I have said; most unjust when I impugned the purity and misconceived the passion of writings too hurriedly read and reviewed currente calamo; but I was at least honest and fearless, and wrote with no personal malignity. Save for the action of the literary defence, if I may so term it, my article would have been as ephemeral as the mood which induced its composition. I make full admission of Rossetti’s claims to the purest kind of literary renown, and if I were to criticise his poems now, I should write very differently. But nothing will shake my conviction that the cruelty, the unfairness, the pusillanimity has been on the other side, not on mine. The amende of my dedication in ‘God and the Man’ was a sacred thing— between his spirit and mine; not between my character and the cowards who have attacked it. I thought he would understand—which would have been, and indeed is sufficient. I cried, and cry no truce with the horde of slanderers who hid themselves within his shadow. That is all. But, when all is said, there still remains the pity that our quarrel should ever have been. Our little lives are too short for such animosities. Your friend is at peace with God—that God who will justify and cherish him, who has dried his tears, and who will turn the shadow of his life-dream into full sunshine. My only regret now is that we did not meet—that I did not take him by the hand; but I am old-fashioned enough to believe that this world is only a prelude, and that our meeting may take place—even yet.”
     During the next two years I saw a great deal of Buchanan. We were constantly together, and I think we became sincerely attached to each other. It was impossible not to admire his compelling power, his immense vigour, his courage, and even his audacity. There was a sense in which he was the true literary man, the born “slinger of ink.” His control over his vehicle was such as I have never seen equalled, and what he could do he could do without an effort. As a journalist he was worth a wilderness of the men who were always depreciating him in the newspapers. He would write an article while they were nibbling a pen and gazing vacantly at a sheet of paper, having a quick sense of what the public wants, the art of swift assimilation, and a never-failing power of vigorous expression.
     He knew life, too; and though he knew books, and knew them well, he had not spent all his days within the four walls of a library. In his youth he had gone through bitter privations, tramping the streets with David Gray and lodging in a top room in the “New Cut,” where a tender-hearted Cockney servant-girl would smuggle up a dish of half-cold potatoes from the kitchen in pity of the hunger of the struggling boys from Scotland.
     There was a heart in him, too, and when he permitted himself to speak out of it the world had no choice but to hear; so that the time had been when in recognition of the power, the pathos, the humour, and the undoubted literary form of his earlier poems, he was recognised as the heir-apparent to Tennyson.
     That time was long past when I came to know him, but he was still the lusty, brawny, stalwart fellow who had more than once fluttered the literary dovecots. His hostility to the profession of letters was beginning to run to seed. He had an honest contempt for the mutual admiration of the little cliques who were then so busy tinkering up fictitious reputations; and his big robustious body would rock with derisive laughter at the little kinking humour of what he thought the Oxford manner—the manner of the don turned journalist.
     Already he was rapidly becoming the Ishmael of literature, with his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him. He would make no terms with his literary contemporaries to win their confidence or disturb their distrust. No clubs, no public dinners, no literary gatherings ever knew him; and when he saw himself left out of lists of men of letters, which included battalions of weaklings who were not fit to wipe his boots, he growled out his disgust and spat at literature.
     But the spirit of literature keeps a swift revenge for the literary men who lower her flag, just as she loves the best, if she works the hardest, those who hold her standard high. Buchanan as a force in literature began to disappear. The man who had written the “Ballad of Judas Iscariot” declined on inconspicuous melodrama, and wasted himself in casual journalism. Setting the intelligence of the public low, he deliberately gave them what he thought they wanted, judging of that by the quality of what he saw succeed. The high conscientiousness of earlier years, whereby he had seen that less than his best was less than was due from any artist to the public, had gone down in the general débâcle of his literary character.
     Then came a more tragical development. In his last years life went hard with him. He had been an affectionate son, husband, and friend, and his dear ones were beginning to suffer. At that his rebellious spirit seemed to break all bounds, and even his faith began to fail. He seemed to me sometimes like a man at war with the Almighty. It was only the struggle of a big soul, badly beaten in the fight of life, to reconcile itself to the ways of God with men; but the Ishmael in Buchanan, lying out in the desert and crying for a drink of water, became a trying thing to see.
     In those last years he railed at the world and nearly everything in it; but he kept a warm place in his heart for a few (his devoted sister-in-law above everybody), and I have never heard that he wrote a word against me. Very early in our friendship he asked me to collaborate with him, and I attempted to do so; but there was nothing to correct my faults in Buchanan’s undoubted qualities, and our literary partnership died almost before it was born.
     After a few years we parted company, not from any quarrel, but by that gradual asundering that makes a wider breach than open rupture. I never ceased to think of him with affection, or to regret what I saw of the decay of his noble gifts, the lowering of his natural quality; and when he celebrated his sixtieth year, I wrote to wish him many happy returns of the day, and to lament the space by which life and the world had divided us.
     His reply was painful reading. He was ill, he had lost his mother, the world had forgotten his existence, and but for one “angel in the house,” heaven alone knew what would have become of him. It was a pretty thing to wish a man many happy returns of a day that had dawned on misery that was more than he could bear. Only one good thing, he said, had emerged from his sufferings—he had put away for ever all my own  pitiful superstitions about a beneficent Providence who ruled the world in righteousness!
     I was hurt but not hopeless. Down to the last Ishmael was crying in the desert, but he was not unheard there, and when the end came everything was well.

_____

 

A Stepson of Fortune: The Memories, Confessions, and Opinions of Henry Murray (London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd., 1909, pp. 198, 204-237)

murray

p. 198

     I may as well, while I am about it, make a clean sweep of the narration of my misfortunes in the merely literary line. In the year 1900, Robert Buchanan—of whom I shall presently have a good deal to say—was smitten with paralysis. His recovery was pronounced to be quite hopeless, and on the strength of my long and intimate connection with him I was commissioned by a young publisher, who had recently started in business, to write a critical study of his life-work. Buchanan lingered for nine months, and then died with almost startling suddenness, and the book was on the market within a week or two of his death. It went well, but, owing to the publisher’s retirement from business, it has disappeared from the list of the living as completely as the books I have already mentioned had done aforetime.

___

 

pp. 204-237

     It was not long after parting with Christie at Nice that I made a journalistic liaison which resulted, in a rather odd and out-of-the-way fashion, in cementing the longest, firmest, and dearest friendship of my life. I joined the staff of the Hawk, a sixpenny weekly paper run and officered by a small crowd of cheery journalistic Ishmaelites, of whom one or two, including Augustus Moore and James Glover—the latter now and for many years past musical conductor at Drury Lane—were old friends of mine. It was an impudent, irreverent, utterly irrelevant and candidly libellous little sheet, which, by sheer dint of those qualities plus a good deal of slangy cleverness, rapidly became a power among that curious social contingent known as “The Smart Set.” Like the ideal Christian in relation to this passing world, I was rather in the Hawk office than of it, having neither the money nor the inclination to mix much with the crowd for which the paper catered. It had, or professed to have, a serious side, and it gave me chances which more “respectable” journals would never have afforded for the plain expression of my convictions on many subjects. I have always had a strong dash of l’esprit frondeur, and took full advantage of my liberty. The late Harry Quilter had just started his brilliant but short- lived Universal Review, and in one of his earlier numbers appeared an article by Robert Buchanan on “The Modern Young Man as Critic,” written with all that forthright candour which used to mark its author’s polemical utterances. Moore and myself were more or less liés with one or two of the people Buchanan most pitilessly attacked, and Moore suggested that I should reply to the article. The passage in which, in my “Critical Appreciation of Robert Buchanan,” I recounted the incident may as well do duty here.
     “My feelings towards Buchanan at that time were of a somewhat mixed description, compounded of admiration for the genius evidenced in his best work and regret that he should so often fall below the lofty level which, in his happier moments, he attained and kept so easily; and in my criticism of ‘The Modern Young Man as Critic’ the second of those sentiments certainly found stronger expression than the first. I had at that time a tendency, which perhaps even now I have not altogether outworn, to let my pen run away with me, and to express the passing mood of the moment with unnecessary strength. What I said was, as Buchanan himself subsequently confessed, true enough, but it was truth savagely spoken, and I have to own that the article was permeated by a certain air of personal resentment quite unjustified by the circumstances of the case. My acquaintance with Buchanan was at that moment of the slightest, but as the hazards of life drew us closer and closer together I regretted my virulence more and more, and when, some months after the appearance of my ill-tempered article, Buchanan, by a most thoughtful and quite unsolicited act of friendship, showed how kindly he had come to regard me, I felt that the hour for full confession had arrived. I wrote to him, avowing myself the author of the article and apologising more for its manner than its matter. His reply was like himself—frank, cordial, generous. ‘Nobody knows better than I how, in these random fights of the literary arena, a man loses his temper and strikes harder than he need. I have many such sins on my conscience. There is really very little in your article that you need regret, and indeed, knowing how you feel on these matters, I do not see how you could well have written otherwise. . . . To requite your candour, I was fairly certain that you had written the article, and quite certain, if my belief was true, that you would sooner or later “own up” to it. Don’t avoid me like the plague because you have voluntarily gone into the confessional, but come up to dinner next Sunday and do penance.’ The matter was never again mentioned between us, and this apparently untoward accident was the starting-point of an absolutely unchequered friendship of more than twelve years’ duration. I mention it here only because it was so richly characteristic of a side of Buchanan’s nature which the majority of people, knowing him merely from his published utterances, could hardly believe him to possess. A man of passionately cherished ideals, most of which were utterly opposed to the practice of his day; a man who, while he lived, must freely speak whenever truth he saw, at whatever cost to the feelings or interests of individuals; he was incapable of the least personal malice towards an opponent.”
     Buchanan’s influence upon my character, my outlook upon the world, my entire nature, was profound, and will be life-long. It is my most constant and enduring regret that I did not come into intimate contact with him sixteen years earlier, at the outset of my active career. This book is a record of my own personal experiences, and not a detailed study of the lives of other men—an autobiography, not a literary cinematograph of other personalities. But no man can truly recount his own life without telling in part the lives of other men, and Buchanan was so cardinal a factor in mine, and was, moreover, in himself so interesting a figure, that I shall make no apology for presenting as clear an idea of the antecedent forces which had made him what he was when I met him as my poor skill can compass.
     Perpetually, and at all epochs of his life, it had been Buchanan’s fortune to be in revolt against his immediate surroundings. Born into Robert Owen’s “New Social World,” “nourished,” as he himself has told us, “on the husks of Socialism and the chill waters of Infidelity,” having hardly, until at ten years of age he went to Scotland, heard the name of God, the innate theological leaven which was to make him all his life a seeker after some divine sanctification of our moral existence worked in him from his earliest years. In his “Latter Day Leaves” he tells us: “All my experience, my birth, my education, my entire surroundings, were against the birth or growth of the sweet spirit of natural piety; all the human beings I had known or listened to were confirmed sceptics or boisterous unbelievers. Yet while my father was confidently preaching God’s non-existence, I was praying to God in the language of the canonical books. I cannot even remember a time when I did not kneel by my bedside before going to sleep, and repeat the Lord’s Prayer. So far away was I from any human sympathy in this foolish matter, that this praying of mine was ever done secretly, with a strong sense of shame and dread of discovery.” The elder Buchanan’s friends, Lloyd Jones, Archibald Campbell, William Turvey—names which are not even names to the present generation, which cares for as little as it knows of the debt it owes to them and their intellectual kindred—were apostles of free-thought, of which he was himself, in his day, an enthusiastic advocate. Not merely in pious Glasgow, but throughout Great Britain generally, men of such views were, at that time, social outcasts, shunned and boycotted by all respectable people. In her biography of Buchanan, Miss Harriett Jay tells us: “The poet’s father was an object of special detestation, and he himself, as the son of a notorious unbeliever, was very early taught the lesson of social persecution. If he made an acquaintance of his own age, that boy was generally warned against him and taught to give him the cold shoulder. ‘Don’t play with yon laddie,’ the boys would say, ‘his father’s an infidel.’ Ridiculous as the record of this persecution may appear, it caused the lad at the time a great deal of misery, and later on, when we spoke together of those days of his youth, he assured me that many a time he had prayed with all his soul that his father would mend his ways, go to Church, and accept the social sanctities like other men.”
     This bitter apprenticeship had its results, readable alike in his life and in his work. The chilly atmosphere of atheism revolted him, and he escaped from it—entirely for a brief time, though I doubt if after he took to the study of modern thought, as expounded by Spencer, Huxley, Haeckel, and Buchner, there was ever a moment in which he felt complete certainty of God or of eternal life. His brain and heart were at odds upon the question, and remained to the last unreconciled. That life-long struggle and the vivid memory he retained to the last of his childish unhappiness, which might have soured or hardened a poorer nature, were to him influences almost purely beneficent. He learned in suffering what he taught in song, and not only in song but in daily word and deed: a large tolerance of all forms of doubt and belief, an abiding sense of the sacredness of that inner light which every thinking man must kindle and tend within himself. His obstinate clinging to a religious scheme of which he came to see clearly the logical weakness was in no small measure and to a great degree unconsciously the result of his poetic temperament. Christianity and many of its corollaries were æsthetically beautiful to him. Miss Jay tells how he loved the sound of church bells, and the reading of the passage vividly recalls one summer Sunday morning in the country, when we lay sheltered from the brilliant sunshine by the branches of a huge elm, listening to the mingled music from the spires of half a dozen adjacent villages. “What will life be worth when that is heard no more?” he asked. His sense of abiding kinship with those he loved was a deeper reason for his obstinate clinging to the hope of immortality. It was so strong and militant that at moments its angry revolt seemed to conquer his intellect completely. As Tennyson has it—

“Like a man in wrath, the soul
Stood up and answered, ‘I have felt’!”

“I don’t care a curse for your ‘scientific evidence,’” I have heard him say to a friend with whom he was disputing. “It isn’t thinkable that I should not meet certain people again. I must meet them, and I know that I shall.” He would not admit at such moments that his intense longing for the society of his lost friends was no proof of the validity of his hope, nor that future generations, nourished in the Thanatist creed, would accept eternal separation with none of the pangs he suffered. “They will lose more than they will gain,” was his reply to such attempts at consolation. “It is only the certainty of an immortality to be shared with the souls we love that can give such a wretched business as life the smallest value. If this existence is all, it is not worth a burned-out match.”
     “Our friends and our enemies,” says Thackeray, with his own easy and delightful cynicism, “both paint our portraits, and both portraits are like us.” That is true as a general statement, but like most other general statements it has its exceptions, and the most glaring exception I have ever known was furnished by Robert Buchanan. The portraits of him painted by his enemies were ludicrous caricatures, or rather, clumsy libels, for caricature is only worthy of the name when it depends on the wilful distortion of some really characteristic feature, and is recognisable without having the name of its alleged original displayed in large letters on the frame. I have listened on many occasions to views of Buchanan’s character, and more—to personally guaranteed excerpts from his biography—which, in their ludicrous falseness to the very groundwork of his being as I intimately knew it, remain among the most marvellous utterances I have ever heard from human lips. Such libels on his character and travesties of his actions were, in the cases I refer to, invariably the utterances of people absolutely unacquainted with him, but that such legends should have been invented and should have gained the smallest degree of currency was typical of much. It was the result of the bitterness which characterised the literary quarrels of the older generation, as evidenced in the furiously indecent diatribes of the earlier writers for the Quarterlies and “Blackwood’s.” Buchanan’s onslaught on the reputation of certain pets of the critical Press—e.g. Messrs. Swinburne and Rossetti—and on certain powerful journalistic cliques, had begotten a passion of hatred in the breasts of the smaller partisans of the people he attacked, who found no aspersion too foul for the disturber of the feast of mutual flattery. A legend sprang up, a sort of “archetypal” figure was invented, horrific as the horned and tailed devil of the mediæval Christian. We are more tolerant, perhaps because less in earnest, nowadays, and look back with wonder on the fashions of conducting disputes which, even to our fathers, seemed natural enough.
     Mark Twain somewhere remarks that “the principal difference between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.” An exemplification of this great truth may be found in the fashion in which certain legendary misstatements regarding Buchanan’s once-famous article on “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” published in the Contemporary Review, still pass from mouth to mouth. Mr. J. Comyns Carr’s recently-published volume, “Some Eminent Victorians,” and the article headed “Anonymous” in the current edition of Chambers’s Encyclopædia, both contain garbled statements regarding that effusion. It is, or should be, perfectly well known that the signature of “Thomas Maitland” was appended to the article, not by Buchanan, but by the editor of the Review. The statement that in the body of that article Buchanan had anonymously puffed his own compositions, could be repeated only by deliberate malice or by ignorance of the article itself. That article contains an imaginary cast of a performance of the tragedy of Hamlet by a company of contemporary poets, Tennyson figuring in the title-part, and Buchanan as “Cornelius,” a “super,” who, in the first act, speaks in a kind of brief duet with the scarcely more important character, “Voltimand,” one single line addressed to the King—

“In that, and all things, will we show our duty.”

That was the only reference, either to himself or his work, made in the entire article. These facts have been stated a score of times before, and will probably need to be stated as often again.
     Buchanan was constitutionally passionate and occasionally wrong-headed. He cherished ideals which were often impracticable, and other ideals to whose fulfilment he himself frequently failed to attain. He occasionally allowed his pen to run away with him, and expressed the passing mood of the moment with needless strength. In a word, he was human, and had the defects of his qualities. But the defects, like the qualities of which they were the shadows, were essentially those of a strong, honest, fearless man, and he never shrank from “owning up” when he felt that the heat of conflict had made him intemperate and unjust. Perhaps the most illuminating words I have ever read on this aspect of his character are contained in the chapter contributed to Miss Jay’s “Biography” by Mr. R. E. Francillon: “The right reading of Buchanan was, I am convinced, that his very genius had prevented him from outgrowing, or being able to outgrow, the boyishness of the best sort of boy; while too many of us only too quickly forget what any sort of boyhood means. And the grand note of the best sort of boy is a sincere passion for justice, or rather a consuming indignation against injustice—the two things are not exactly the same. The boy of whatever age can never comprehend the coolness with which the grown-up man of the world has learned to take injustice as part and parcel of the natural order of things, even when himself the sufferer. The grown-up man has learned the sound policy of not sending indignation red-hot or white-hot to the post or the press, but of waiting till it is cool enough to insert in a barrel of gunpowder without risk of explosion. But the boy rebels, and, if he be among the great masters of language, hurls it out hot and strong, in the full belief that no honest feelings could be so weak as to be wounded by any honest words. Of course he was wrong. Complete honesty is perfectly compatible with even abnormal thinness of skin, and with an even exceptionally plentiful crop of corns. He would often have been amazed and shocked could he, to whom hard hitting was so easy, have estimated the effect of his blows. I do not believe Robert Buchanan to have been capable of a malign or vindictive thought; I know that I never heard him utter an unkindly word. I wish, above all else, that those who thought of him as I had thought of him before knowing him could have met him at home—Strasz-Engel, Haus-Teufel (‘Street Angel, House Devil,’ say the Germans)—not that they have any monopoly of the experience. I have never heard the natural converse of the saying, but it is impossible to think of Buchanan without its suggestion.”
     Perhaps Buchanan did himself most harm, not by exposing the faults of men of real value, but by castigating the offences and ridiculing the pretensions of the smaller fry of literature and criticism. As he wrote in The Outcast:—

“I’ve often, vexed by shrill annoys,
Birched Art’s precocious little boys.”

It would have been very much better to have left such a task to other hands. Such small fry are as dangerous as hornets if provoked, and may be as useful as bees if fed and flattered, or even if left alone. It is not the gros bonnets of the Press, the stately three-deckers of literature and criticism, which it is principally the astute man’s business to conciliate. It is the journalistic cock-boat which swarms on the waters of the Press which does the real execution. As many a beautiful and fertile island owes its existence to the incessant efforts of millions of scarce-perceptible insects, so many a great reputation has been steadily and solidly built by the animalculæ of journalism. Years before a certain enormously popular novelist had attained to his present pride of place I prophesied his triumph, from the simple circumstance that whenever business took me to his place of residence I found him surrounded by a crowd of journalistic wirepullers, individually of small account, but with strength enough in their mass to create any number of literary reputations. Some day, no doubt, these scribbling condottieri will find their general. A man clever enough to form such a mob into a disciplined and obedient regiment could become a veritable artistic kingmaker, and might die worth any amount of money. Balzac’s immortal “Treize” would not be “a circumstance” compared with such a federation. Quite seriously, I see no impossibility in the suggestion, and recommend it to the attention of any reader who believes himself to possess a turn for business organisation. Buchanan never could be persuaded either to conciliate such people or to let them alone. The truth is, he loved a fight, and if there happened to be no single opponent in the field worthy of his steel he was not above charging and slashing among the horde of penny-a-liners. He seemed to say, with old Ruy de Silva in “Hernani”—

                               “Êtes-vous noble? Enfer!
Noble ou non, pour croiser le fer avec le fer
Tout homme qui m’outrage est assez gentilhomme.”

Which was magnificent, but not war as wise men make it.

     The period of my more intimate acquaintance with Buchanan came about in a fashion characteristic of the somewhat “casual” natures of both of us. I had been for some time a frequent visitor at his house and guest at his table when, originally with the purpose of doing with him some piece of work which somehow never got done, I became an inmate under his roof. I went there for a day or two, like Ned Strong to Clavering Park, in “Pendennis,” and stayed there nearly two years. When from time to time I mooted the subject of my departure Buchanan would not hear of it, and I am glad to believe that his constant asseveration that I was of great use to him was more or less really true, though a third person might often have been excused for wondering in what the use consisted. The only joint work bearing our joint names we ever issued were the novelised version of his Haymarket play, The Charlatan, and the comedy, A Society Butterfly, produced at the Opéra Comique, and of which the history shall presently be given. My real utility was as an intellectual strop and chopping-block. Buchanan was in certain respects, and apart from his warm domestic affections, a lonely man. He had never been, nor cared to be, popular with the bulk of men of anything like his own intellectual rank. I have seen but few people under his roof whose names were known outside the circle of their personal acquaintance. Herbert Spencer, of whom I have already spoken, I saw there only once. Hall Caine, then a young man just beginning to rise above the literary horizon, came occasionally. That old-time actor, the late John Coleman, who in his ingrained staginess of voice and manner suggested Mr. Crummles, and in his lightning alternations between the depths of despair and the summits of irrational optimism recalled Mr. Micawber, was a more frequent figure. During his term of collaboration on Adelphi melodrama with Mr. George R. Sims he naturally saw a good deal of that genial jester, who could keep him in roars of laughter for hours at a time. The good things Sims said at Buchanan’s supper-table were infinite in number, and among the best was one at my expense. I had been holding forth with most convincing eloquence regarding the condition of English fiction, and proclaiming the absolute necessity, if the art was not to sink wholly beneath contempt, of a fuller and more fearless treatment of sexual problems, when Sims shot my rhetoric dead by interjecting the heartless remark—“Murray’s Guide to the in-Continent.”
     For years Buchanan had never possessed a male friend with whom he could be at his intellectual ease, who was interested in the problems of life and thought which most deeply interested him, and the fact that on every conceivable issue our views were diametrically opposed, and that we were both tough and enduring disputants, made me, I fully believe, a rather valuable companion to him. Scores of times the morning light surprised us in the midst of some interminable argument, and if, as was certainly the case, I was greatly the gainer by our interchange of thought, I gave back the best I had. During those two years of intimacy I came to know him more completely than I had ever known any other human creature with the exception of my brother Christie, and I am absolutely sincere in saying that he was, quite beyond comparison, the best man I have ever known—the bravest, the most honest, the most cordial, the most kindly, the wisest in counsel, the readiest in help. There was not in his heart one hint of malice, nor in his blood one black drop against any creature in the whole round world. The only approach to a disagreement we ever had together was when he remonstrated with me à propos of an assault I had made on a writer who had some little time previously assaulted Buchanan himself on no provocation whatsoever and with unmeasured virulence. “For God’s sake,” he wrote, “leave —— alone. People who know of our friendship will think you are abusing him to please me. And you are unjust—more unjust than I was when I answered him. The man has done good stuff, and you only stultify yourself when you deny his merit.” A life of incessant conflict can be good for no man, but no man born to such a life was ever less injured by it than Buchanan. I have read somewhere a story of some hard-fisted old Baresarker who, having knocked his enemy into a turbulent river, jumped in and fished him out at the imminent peril of his own life. That was the sort of double feat of which Buchanan was eminently capable.
     It was a common sentiment regarding him, and one which finds utterance in Miss Jay’s “Biography,” that Buchanan’s connection with the theatre was, from the view-point of his higher moral and mental interests, a mistake. I cannot think so. As is often, though by no means invariably, the case with men of his type, he added to his intellectual Ishmaelism the sunnier temperament of the born Bohemian. He loved life: his nature demanded warm human contact, and he found both abundantly in the theatre, which, “respectable” as it has become of late years, is yet, and by its very constitution must for ever remain, the one impregnable citadel of social freedom. And he needed money. Personally a Spartan, with absolutely no expensive desires until, rather late in life, he tasted the pleasures of the Turf, he wanted money wherewith—literally—to live, to express the bubbling generosity of his temperament. He had spent the years most men spend in the pursuit of pleasure “sitting,” as he himself expressed it, “empty-stomached on Parnassus,” and when at last he descended from that dignified but rather comfortless altitude into the city streets he found the life there, in spite of its many horrors and squalors, good, sweet, fit on the whole for a man to live among and enjoy. That his stage work was coarse and poor contrasted with his verse is true enough. But it should, in plain justice, be recognised that here, as elsewhere, the duality of his nature asserted itself, and that the cheap sentiment of the Adelphi and the frivolity of the Vaudeville never either contaminated his more serious effort nor choked the springs of loftier thought. Read consecutively, Buchanan’s output gives us the clearest mental image of a strenuous mounting of the slippery crags of artistic achievement. The City of Dream, Mary the Mother, The Devil’s Case, The Outcast, were all written during the period of his dramatic activity, and their artistic value is high, and their inspiration sprang, crystal pure, from the deepest wells of the poet’s moral being. He touched pitch—if the writing of popular drama be to touch pitch, which I for one most resolutely deny—and was not defiled. He mingled with the sharpers of theatrical finance and with the moral riff-raff of the Turf, and neither could leave a fleck upon his honesty nor on his enduring conviction of the inherent rightness of human nature. He was indeed himself the Archetypal Poet of whom he wrote:—

“Who, ’spite the bitter fight for bread,
     ’Spite Samson’s mill-work blindly done,
’Spite piteous tears in secret shed,
     Still kept his forehead to the sun.”

     Mr. Israel Zangwill shed a welcome ray of light on Buchanan’s personality when he wrote: “The mistake people make about Buchanan is that they think that there is only one of him. There are at least a score of Buchanans, and most of them have not even a nodding acquaintance with the others.” As a pendant to that brilliant bit of analysis let me recount an incident from my recollections of Buchanan’s Turf career. It was at a time when he was amassing material for a study of the life of Christ. I found him standing in the middle of Tattersall’s ring, absorbed in the study of his Greek Testament, perfectly oblivious of the life about him until, at the warning clangour of the saddling-bell, he restored the volume to his pocket, marking his place with a tip-telegram, and plunged amid the roaring “pencillers,” as eager for the fray as any one among them. It was at once one of the quaintest oddities of my experience and a wonderful touch of unconscious self-portraiture.
     We had been occupied one day in turning over an old trunk full of disjecta membra, such as every busy literary workman is sure to accumulate, and had come across an incomplete first act of a comedy, written some years previously. It bore no name, and was in a quite inchoate condition. At Buchanan’s request I read it, and gave it as my opinion that it was worth knocking into shape and completing. We were rather languidly discussing its possibilities when I chanced upon a paragraph in one of the daily papers to the effect that Mr. George Edwardes had offered Mrs. Langtry her own terms to appear as a dancer at the Empire. This gave me a notion of how the idea of the piece might be put to immediate profit, and with Buchanan’s consent I at once took a cab to Pont Street and interviewed the lady, with whom I had already a slight but friendly acquaintance. Mrs. Langtry laughed at the rumour—she was far too ambitious of the legitimate laurels of the regular stage to compromise her hopes by accepting such an offer—indeed, I have an impression that the report was altogether unfounded, and that the proposition had never been made at all. I then suggested to her that it might prove a strong attraction if she would consent to appear in a piece of which the principal clou should be a scene in which she danced—such a scene, for instance, as might take place at a great country-house at which the guests should get up a mimic realisation of a London music-hall to take the place of the ordinary “private theatricals.” Mrs. Langtry grasped the idea at once, and Buchanan and I set to work on the piece, for which we hit upon the title, A Society Butterfly. Mrs. Langtry liked the piece so well that she would gladly have financed it herself, and looking back on what actually happened I am sorry that that arrangement was not adopted. But Buchanan’s fortunes were desperate, and we determined to float the venture by forming a syndicate, the piece representing our contribution to the capital, and we taking half the profit. The syndicate, when formed, consisted of four members besides ourselves. One of them was a lady who appeared in the cast, and another a gentleman, at that time a conspicuous figure in the City, and at this moment working out a sentence of two years’ hard labour. Whatever may have been his failings in other directions, with us he was perfectly square and above-board, which is more than can be said for two other members of the syndicate, who reduced every shilling they advanced to less than half its value by unbusiness-like delay and irritating interference.
     One of our earliest necessities was, of course, the finding of a suitable theatre. A certain commodious house in the West End had been vacant for some months past, and we determined to apply for it, and wrote with that object to a lady, celebrated some years earlier as a beautiful and accomplished actress, who was known to all London as the sole proprietor of the building in question. We received an answer from the lady’s solicitors, referring us to her husband. We called upon the gentleman, and the consequent interview was one of the quaintest bits of comedy I remember. He was a long, lean, hard-bitten old Scotsman, with a truly wonderful resemblance to a deerhound—I have seen dogs of that breed that might have sat for his portrait—and he had an accent with which phonetics would wrestle in vain. “Ye want to tak the theeter?” he said. “Ay! Weel, the rent is a thoosand puns pair week, the tenant tae provide gahs, eelectreeceetee, an’ watter.” Buchanan explained that we were not, for the moment, buying theatres, and that all we wanted just then was to hire one. “Ay,” said the old gentleman. “Ah ken pairfectly weel what ye want. Those are the tairms”— and he repeated them. “And who do you suppose is going to pay such terms?” asked Buchanan. “Nae leevin’ cratur, ootside o’ Bedlam. Ye see,” he continued, with a dry twitch of the lips which appeared to be the nearest approach to a smile of which he was capable, “Ah built yon hoose as a bairthday present for my wife, an’ med it ower till her by a deed o’ geeft in the strectest legal forrm. But, not havin’ takken final leave o’ ma beesiness senses, Ah pit in a clause to the effec’ that Ah was to hae the lettin’ o’t at ony rent Ah thocht rizzonable at ony given moment. Sax months syne her leddyship and I had a wheen pickle meesunderstandin’, an’ she tuik hersel’ aff to Pawris. The theeter was lat, an’ the rent was paid till her as pair contrac’. Then the run o’ the piece feenished, the tenancy detairmined, and Ah’m askin’ the tairms Ah tauld ye. Ah’m thinkin’ it likely my wife’ll be back in the coorse of a week or twa.” We left the old gentleman with a strong sense of his powers as a domestic diplomatist, and ultimately took the Opéra Comique, for which we paid £60 per week, nearly half of which was made up to us by the rent of the bars, sublet to a speculating firm of caterers.
     The Opéra Comique has disappeared from the face of London, so nothing I can say about it now can hurt anybody’s pocket or anybody’s feelings. It was, during its existence, a house of mixed fortunes. It had held great successes at odd times, among which it will suffice to mention Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, Ariane, As in a Looking-glass, and Joan of Arc, but it had also known long periods of failure, and it was at such a time that we succeeded in obtaining the lease at so low a rental. Theatrical managers and speculators are—with the possible exception of publishers—more dominated by superstition than any other class of people in the world, and I met plenty of folk who took it for granted that in leasing the Opéra Comique we had reduced failure to an absolute certainty. Fail we did, as the sequel will show, but our failure was not in any sense the fault of the theatre. It never is. Years earlier, I had heard Augustus Harris sum up and terminate a discussion on that subject one evening at the Greenroom Club, in his usual trenchant style.  “Unlucky theatres be damned! Get the right piece and put the right people into it, and the public will tumble over each other to get there, if you produced it up in the ball of St. Paul’s or down in the sewers.” Harris had a right to speak, for Drury Lane, which under his management was a veritable gold mine, had been a synonym for failure for years before he took it. One of my few wealthy acquaintances, who had backed more than one preceding management, used to say that he never passed down Catherine Street without feeling a pain in his cheque-book. I am old enough to remember all Belgravia and Mayfair crowding to the Philharmonic, which occupied in Islington part of the site now covered by the Grand Theatre, and was known by the excellently-descriptive cognomen of “The Dust Hole,” when Génèvieve de Brabant, one of the first specimens of Opéra Bouffe seen in England, was produced there. There is not a theatre in London of twenty years’ standing which has not known similar fluctuations of fortune. People said openly that Mr.— now Sir—John Hare must be mad to spend hundreds of pounds in renovating the Globe—another vanished theatrical landmark. Yet the Globe had in its time held Jo, Les Cloches de Corneville, The Private Secretary, Charley’s Aunt, and a dozen other huge successes; and Sir John’s production there of The Gay Lord Quex was one of the biggest hits of recent years.

     Augustus Harris was altogether too remarkable a personality to be passed over with a casual mention. My connection with him was never really intimate, but we were friendly acquaintances, and something more than that, for several years. Such intimacy as we had together began a little unpropitiously. The World, his first production at Drury Lane, and one which has never been surpassed in the peculiar features of the class of melodrama with which he was associated, was in the early nights of its hugely successful run when I turned up at the theatre one evening accompanied by a friend. I have learned since that it is not considerate to ask for “paper” for a declared success, but I was in the first flush of my short-lived happiness and importance as a critic of a London daily, and had a sort of unformulated conviction—which some critics seem to retain their whole lives long—that it should be the joy and pride of any manager to give me anything in that way I cared to ask for. Harris was standing beside the box-office, and I made my appeal to him personally for a couple of stalls. He set his thumbs in the armholes of his dress waistcoat—a favourite gesture—and replied, “My dear Henry Murray, would you like to put your hand in my pocket and take out a guinea?” Somewhat nettled, I replied to the effect that I had known the time, and that not so long ago, when the feat would have been impossible, and was turning away when he drew me back with a laugh, and gave me the vouchers with so charming a good temper that I repented me of my ill-natured retort. We got on together excellently afterwards, and he showed the kindness with which he regarded me on more than one occasion, and in his own peculiar fashion. I was sitting one night in the rotunda at Drury Lane, plunged in a brown study, when I became aware of somebody regarding me. Looking up I recognised Harris. “What are you looking so rotten miserable about?” was his greeting. I replied that I had not known that I did so look. “What’s the trouble?” he continued; and went on without waiting for an answer, “There’s only one trouble in the world that matters—money. Would twenty pounds do you any good?” “Do you know anybody it wouldn’t do good to?” I asked in return, perhaps a little crustily, for I thought of course that he was merely chaffing me. “A civil question deserves a civil answer,” said Harris, and repeated his query. I naturally replied, “Yes.” “Then come along and you shall have it,” he said, and in the calmest fashion led the way to his office, where he made out and handed to me a cheque for the amount mentioned. I never knew, and never shall know, his motive, if it was not sheer kindness of heart rather eccentrically exhibited. On another occasion I called on him on some matter of business at his house in St. John’s Wood. At the end of our interview, he said, “This is my birthday. What have you brought me?” I replied that being ignorant of the occasion I had nothing to offer but the customary good wishes. “That won’t do,” he said. “This is my birthday, and gifts must pass; so, if you won’t give me anything, I’ll give you something.” He presented me with a box of a hundred excellent cigars and a pretty little silver cigarette-case, the latter of which was filched from my pocket in the street less than a week after.
     That he was not merely generous, but genuinely tender-hearted, was proved to me by an odd little incident. He was made one of the sheriffs for the County of London, and on the day on which the appointment was gazetted I met him at the theatre. The piece then running was A Sailor and his Lass, by Buchanan and Miss Harriett Jay, and its last act contained a gruesome scene, in which the hero—a part played by Harris himself—wrongfully convicted of murder, performed his last toilet in the condemned cell in Newgate, and was then strapped by the executioner previous to passing on to the gallows. The accuracy of some details of the scene had been questioned by one or two of the papers, so, after congratulating Harris on his elevation to civic dignity, I jestingly added that the next time he needed to reproduce such an effect he would probably have actual personal experience to go upon. “What do you mean?” he asked in a startled voice. I explained that the sheriffs took it in rotation to superintend executions taking place within the sphere of their duties, and that on the doctrine of averages he would pretty certainly be called upon to witness the extinction of at least one criminal during his year of office. “I see a man hanged!” he exclaimed. “Not for the Bank of England! I’d rather throw up the berth—I’d rather be hanged myself!” I have seldom seen a man more relieved than he was at my explaining that he could always employ a deputy, and that there would not be the least difficulty in finding one.
     Harris was a king of managers and producers, and I do not believe that any man that ever lived could have taught him his business. His recipe for concocting the huge spectacles by which he made his name and his fortune was beautifully simple. “There are three things,” he once said to me, “that the great British public cares for—love, the Turf, and battles. You can get a good piece out of any one of ’em, but mix ’em, and you’ve got the public by the short hairs.” I am not much of a theatre-goer in these latter days, and can say little of the autumn dramas recently produced at Drury Lane from actual experience, but I have never seen a detailed notice of one of them which has not suggested Augustus Harris floating, a sort of tutelary spectre, above the heads of the collaborators whose names figure on the bill.
     He was a man who did everything greatly, and indulged in both work and pleasure on the gigantic scale. I shall never forget the first time I saw him eat. I had wandered into the stalls of the Adelphi during a performance of The English Rose. He was in a box, in which he signalled to me to join him. We saw the performance out together, and crossed the Strand to the Tivoli, then not a music hall, but a restaurant. He ordered the biggest fowl in the house to be grilled according to some peculiar fashion he detailed to the cook, and a bottle of whisky. I ate a fair portion of the fowl, and accounted for two moderate doses of the spirit. He quietly and unostentatiously disposed of the remainder, and we went to the Greenroom Club, where, in an absent-minded sort of way in the intervals of conversation, he took a light dessert, consisting of the major part of a small Stilton cheese, a basket of pulled bread, and a glassful of celery, washed down with more whisky. No amount of alcohol seemed ever in the least to disconcert him, and long spells of toil which would have utterly exhausted others left him fresh and fit. Perhaps, had he been more akin to other men in the articles of nerve and driving-force, he might have had a longer career—a fuller one would have been hardly possible. He ran till he dropped, and there is a sad, pathetic ring in the memory of the last words he ever spoke: “Let no one wake me—I want a good long sleep.” It is hard to imagine that glowing spark from the great central incandescence quenched in the cold darkness of death. If, some day passing the familiar portals of the theatre he ruled, I should find him standing there, his hat at the old angle, his feet apart, his bright eye beaming its old, cheery, friendly defiance of all created things, “I should not feel it to be strange.”

     To return to A Society Butterfly. Buchanan was, in sporting parlance, “going for the gloves,” and was determined to give adverse fortune no chances. Few pieces produced by a scratch management have been better cast. Beside Mrs. Langtry, our company comprised that admirable actor, the late William Herbert; Miss Rose Leclerq, the Dugazon of her country and generation, quite the best aristocratic old woman I have ever seen on the English boards; Mr. Fred Kerr, who had already won the place he has since retained in the affections of the London public; poor Edward Rose, a quaint comedian, a graceful jester, and a thoroughly good and lovable fellow, whose all-too-early death was at once a loss to the stage and to the drama; and Mr. Allan Beaumont, then an excellent “old man,” and now a Professor of Elocution at the Guildhall. All were happy in their parts, and all worked with right good will, although in that particular the palm must be awarded to Mrs. Langtry, who had not only to acquire the words and the business of the leading part, but also to study a “Butterfly Dance” specially arranged for her by Mr. Willie Ward. It would be an exaggeration of flattery to say that Mrs. Langtry, as we know her, is actually a great actress, but since my experience with her on the stage of the Opéra Comique, I have had a conviction that she has missed the highest distinction in her adopted profession only because she came to its practice too late in life. Had she begun her professional career ten, or even half a dozen years earlier, at a period when her personality was less fixed and more malleable, she might have made a truly great artist. She possesses in a high degree the sentiment of the boards, and she has a gift Providence is not too fond of bestowing upon women of unusual physical beauty—the gift of brains. I cannot acquit the beautiful lady of her share in our disaster, but that makes it only the more imperative that I should give her the meed she fairly earned, and no chorus girl on her promotion could have been more willing, more patient, more eager to give all possible satisfaction to the management than was Mrs. Langtry. And in one particular she acted with a rare generosity, for which both Buchanan and myself were deeply grateful. She insisted on taking from our shoulders the financial burden of dressing her for her part, and the series of Parisian “creations” in which she appeared would certainly have strained our modest resources. And here we made one mistake—a mistake so foolish that it will remain inexplicable to me until I die how we could have made it—we insisted on providing the “butterfly dress” in which she was to perform her dance. That mistake resulted in the ruin of our hopes. The butterfly dress arrived a night or two before the evening we had advertised for production, and at the first sight of it Mrs. Langtry refused, point-blank and absolutely, to appear in it. And here the syndicate came in and clinched our ruin. A postponement of a day or two would have given Mrs. Langtry time to slip across to Paris, to select a dress suited to her own taste, and so to appear in the dance, which was, as I have said, the very hub of our piece. But the syndicate raised a despairing wail about the folly, the madness, of “disappointing the public.” Buchanan and I pointed out to them that their fear was based on what is perhaps the hollowest of all the innumerable silly superstitions which beset—and besot—the managerial mind; that the public was profoundly indifferent whether or not A Society Butterfly was ever played at all; that all that that section of the public which would be present on the first night—whenever that might be—would care about, was whether the piece then presented interested or failed to interest them. But our logic was vain. They held us to the letter of our agreement—we had advertised to open on a certain night, and open we must. Without the dress, the dance was meaningless, and had to go by the board; so in hot haste we set to work to devise a series of “living pictures,” in the last of which Mrs. Langtry was to appear as “Lady Godiva” about to mount for her solitary progress through Coventry.
     The great night arrived, and the house was packed with an audience which may fairly be described as distinguished. The two first acts went magnificently, and I have seldom seen an audience on better terms with itself and its entertainers. Mrs. Langtry’s appearance in the third act was the signal for a genuine ovation. She had reserved the most beautiful of her dresses for that scene, and the now historic jewels, afterwards so cleverly stolen from the custody of her bankers, were all displayed. She must have been pawnable as she stood for at least five-and-twenty thousand pounds. The act proceeded prosperously until it arrived at the tableaux vivants, of which the first two or three were mere “bread-and- butter” arrangements, intended only to usher in the great effect of our leading lady’s appearance as “Lady Godiva.” The tableaux were shown on a mimic stage built over the real one, and composed mainly of a huge sheet of thick plate-glass, beneath which had been arranged four powerful limelights. These were supplemented by four others in the flies, and by yet four more in the wings, the intention being to create the illusion of a figure poised in mid-air in an atmosphere of blinding light. As, however, the only lime which acted was a blue one, which fell on the back of Mrs. Langtry’s head and converted it into the semblance of a bowl of snap-dragon, the intention passed unrealised. In a theatrical experience of thirty years I have never seen so sudden a change come over the spirit of an audience. The house, which five minutes earlier had been rippling with laughter and echoing with applause, instantaneously became a pandemonium compared with which the parrot-house at the Zoo, or the House of Commons on an Irish field night in the palmiest days of the Parnellite régime, would have seemed a haunt of dull tranquillity.
     It was a nasty knock, and I have seldom enjoyed myself less than during the hour I spent next morning in skimming the notices in the daily papers. Buchanan was acutely hated by a good many pressmen, and what little sentiment existed amongst them regarding myself was not entirely friendly. The incidents which arose out of one of the notices can now only be touched upon with reserve, since the person who wrote it is dead. He was a person of importance in his day—or rather, to speak more justly, the journal for which he wrote was important—and what he had to say was so obviously spiteful and so flagrantly unjust that Buchanan and I determined publicly to resent it. This we did by appearing before the curtain after the second act on the following night. Buchanan read the notice to the audience, and proceeded to a plain, unvarnished statement of his opinion of the writer; I following with a few brief words of endorsement. The house, delighted, as any chance assembly of people always will be, by such a manifestation of the fighting spirit, cheered uproariously. Buchanan was in fine comminatory form that night, and I thought—and think—that no honest man with a grain of pluck could have sat quiet under so tremendous an insult so publicly inflicted. But the journalist in question did not happen to be conspicuous either for honesty or for courage, and there was no fight. 
     A bad first-night reception does not necessarily spell death to a theatrical venture, and A Society Butterfly played for seven weeks to houses each one of which held rather more money than its predecessor —the most encouraging symptom a struggling entertainment can show. We had touched paying business, and the receipts were still mounting, when we made our second and fatal mistake in our diplomatic relations with our principal star. After the second night the butterfly dance had been performed by a clever lady who bore a marked physical resemblance to Mrs. Langtry, a likeness so increased by a mere dash of make-up that a good many people not intimately acquainted with the latter lady’s personal appearance accepted her as Mrs. Langtry in person. But the majority of the public was, of course, better informed. While Mrs. Langtry refrained from performing the dance the piece was practically meaningless, and we did our best to persuade her to perform that part of her contract, but in vain. The piece, she declared, was “doing well enough as it was.” A little patience and diplomacy might have accommodated everything, but here again the syndicate was peremptory, and we had to offer Mrs. Langtry the alternative—dance or go. She went, and, with an understudy in her part the receipts fell practically to nothing, and within another week the “Butterfly” had fluttered its last.
     The ruin of the piece was made inevitable by what was perhaps the most galling accident I remember in a not too fortunate career. Buchanan and I went down to Lingfield one afternoon specially to back a horse named Theseus, about which we had received private information we thought too valuable to be neglected. We moored the brougham rather far down on the carriage line, and stayed with it, so as to keep away from the excitement of the ring, and avoid temptations to fritter away our capital—£100—on bets on earlier events, Theseus being booked for the fourth race. We had reckoned on the horses parading as usual before the stands, instead of which they passed round by the other end of the oval to the starting-place, and the first intimation we had of their presence in the field was the roar which announced their start for the race. I set out on a desperate run for the ring, and reached the gate in time to see the horse we should have backed cantering home with a disdainful ease. He had started at 20 to 1, and we had missed £2000—a sum which would have enabled us to defy the syndicate and follow our own course of action. I have to confess that I raged exceedingly, but Buchanan took the contretemps as he accepted every other misfortune I ever saw him undergo, with unruffled tranquillity.

_____

 

Reminiscences of Buchanan continued

or back to Biography

 

Home
Biography
Bibliography

 

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

 

Essays
Reviews
Letters

 

The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law

 

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

 

Links
Site Diary
Site Search