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4. Robert Buchanan: Some Account of His Life,
His Life’s Work and His Literary Friendships


2. Biography

Robert Buchanan: Some Account of His Life,
His Life’s Work and His Literary Friendships


The Aberdeen Weekly Journal (1 October, 1902 - p.10)



. . .

     I am glad to learn that we are soon to have a “Life of the late Robert Buchanan,” the novelist-poet. It should make lively reading, for Mr. Buchanan was what the Scotch people call a “braw fechter,” and was engaged in many notable controversies. His biographer will find it a somewhat difficult matter to “place” him. He had a strenuous and remarkable individuality that too often dissipated itself in futile tilting at windmills. He was at constant war with the publishers, and sometimes with the public, and he did not always carry the sympathies of the public with him. But the sincerity of his convictions could never be doubted.



The Edinburgh Evening News (20 December, 1902 - p.4)


     The biography of Robert Buchanan, by his sister-in-law, Miss Harriett Jay, will be one of the early books of the spring. She remembers Mr T. P. O’Connor writing that Buchanan could, better than anybody else, have told the story of his own life. This, she says, was so true that in compiling the biography she has endeavoured, as far as possible, to let the poet-novelist speak for himself. As the sub-title states, the volume is an account of Buchanan’s life, of his life’s work, and of his many literary friendships. It will be issued by Mr Fisher Unwin, with portraits.



The Yorkshire Post (21 January, 1903 - p.5)

     The “Life of Robert Buchanan,” by his sister-in-law, Miss Harriet Jay, will be published by Mr. Fisher Unwin this month. Miss Jay inscribes it: “To the memory of Robert Buchanan, who adopted me in my childhood, and who, throughout his life, was to me the kindest of fathers, the best of friends.”



The Gloucester Citizen (29 January, 1903 - p.3)

     I hear that the Life of Robert Buchanan, written by his sister-in-law and adopted daughter, Miss Harriet Jay, will be published in London on Monday next. The volume will contain a number of portraits and illustrations, together with every scrap of reminiscence which the gifted writer published from time to time in various newspapers and magazines. As Miss Jay remarks in her preface, she has allowed the poet so far as possible to speak for himself. “He knew himself,” she adds, “better than any man or woman could possibly know him, no matter how intimate their acquaintance with him might be, and so I have endeavoured to allow him to reveal himself to the world.”



The Scotsman (2 February, 1903 - p. 2)

ROBERT BUCHANAN. Some Account of his Life, his Life’s Work, and his Literary Friendships. By Harriet Jay, Author of “The Queen of Connaught,” &c. London: T. Fisher Unwin.

     Readers of novelty will find relatively little to satisfy them in this biography, for the obituary notices given in the newspapers when Robert Buchanan died less than two years ago were well informed, and the life of that man of letters was uneventful except in the publication of books. Yet the work has its own fresh interest as a piece of literary piety. It is written by Buchanan’s wife’s sister, who had been adopted into his family when a child; and, while coloured by a partiality characteristic of familiar biographers, brings together a larger and more trustworthy body of particulars concerning the author of “The Shadow of the Sword” than is to be found elsewhere. It recounts Buchanan’s boyhood in Glasgow as the son of a busy journalist there, and his going up to London at eighteen years of age, when his father’s fortunes failed. It gives pathetic incidents of that period of early struggles in which Buchanan lived and worked in a garret, and tells over again the story of the ill-starred ambitions, the sad illness, and early death of his companion, the poet David Gray. It tells of the friendships he formed with authors, journalists, and actors in Bohemia, of his marriage, and of his first books that came out in the early sixties. The spirit of these ran counter to the orthodox theologies of their day, and the biographical narrative is at this point appropriately interrupted by a paper in which Mr Henry S. Salt gives his impressions of Robert Buchanan as a humanitarian. The writer’s services to the literature of his time were already so far recognised as to have made him the recipient of a Government pension; but his name was scarcely known to the great public until it came to be connected with the pseudonymous article and pamphlet that attacked the so-called fleshly school of poetry. The reception of invective with which this publication met at the hands of poets and critics is duly recorded by the present biographer, who, without going so far as to maintain the justice of Buchanan’s attack on Swinburne and Rossetti, explains the provocation that led to it, and puts it that Buchanan found in the pleasures of independence more than a compensation for the pains of personal martyrdom. The book then follows the author through his career as a novelist, a poet, and a writer of plays, retracing the steps of a public career known to all reading men of these days, and now supplemented by a record of the few domestic incidents, such as the deaths of Buchanan’s wife and his mother, and of the many pecuniary embarrassments that chequered its private side. Mr George R. Sims contributes to the volume a reminiscence of his dramatic collaboration with Buchanan; and Mr Henry Murray describes from personal knowledge the fondness which the humanitarian poet cherished for speculation upon the turf. As if anticipating the objections of the censorious, Mr Murray does not neglect to tell that Buchanan did not allow the race meetings to interfere with his literary work. “Nay,” he says, “he even carried his literary labours on to the turf. At the time when he was preparing a long commentary on Rénan’s views regarding certain Scriptural episodes we went together to Sandown, and in an interval between two races I found him standing in the middle of Tattersall’s ring, serenely unconscious of the charivari about him, reading his Greek Testament. When the bell rang he slipped the volume into his pocket, marking the place with a tip telegram, and plunged into the fray apparently greatly refreshed by his studies.”
     That passage may be said in no unkindly spirit to give a juster notion of the odd mixture of energies embodied in Buchanan as a man than does the book as a whole, touched so strongly as it is by the natural feeling of a writer perhaps too near her subject to see its lineaments with perfect clearness. The book would have been more complete had it exhibited more fully Buchanan’s place in literature and defined more closely the relation of his works to the fiction and poetry of his own time. As it stands, however, it is an interesting and a valuable memorial that will be eagerly read by the many who remember its subject.



The Echo (2 February, 1903 - p.1)

Robert Buchanan


     It is extremely difficult to estimate the exact place Robert Buchanan will occupy in literary history. He was a man so versatile, so gifted, yet so often pessimistic that his finest efforts were hampered by this failing. Had he concentrated all his energies upon the development of his poetic genius there is little doubt but that he could have added the distinction of a Poet-Laureateship to his already long list of achievements. It was just this final note that everybody was waiting for, and which never came, that robbed his life of final triumph. He was a Lancashire man, “a worker, yet a dreamer who fought Don Quixote-like with many windmills.” His biographer, Harriet Jay (“Robert Buchanan,” T. Fisher Unwin), speaks of him as a lonely man, “not unsociable by disposition, not unsympathetic, but seldom travelling far for sympathy.” One who was ever climbing, but never reaching his intellectual ideals. His pessimism is accounted for by the fact that for many years he was a martyr to the agonies of an overwrought nervous system, which begat isolation, friendlessness, bitterness, misconception, and despair.

School Days

     His father was an ardent Owenite, and soon after Robert was born joined the staff of a newspaper in the capacity of reporter. This, combined with the profits accruing from the small newsvendor’s shop, provided the Buchanan home with the necessaries of life. The school days of the poet were not tinged with very tender memories, for the Scotch Socialist missionary who undertook the training of this fragile branch of the Buchanan family had not only extraordinary views concerning religion, but equally eccentric views concerning the diet of the human race. Hence all the children placed under his care ran the risk of being starved. For Buchanan once said that he had to supplement the grass meals—now called vegetarian—by eating snails gathered in the garden. This necessitated a change of school. Sunday in the Buchanan home was a great day. It was really a congregation of the apostles of progress. And during holiday time the youthful Robert saw a great deal of the strange figures that flitted about his father’s house. Amongst them was Louis Blanc, the famous exile, and Caussidiere, who had been chief of the Parisian police during the last Revolution. The former was one of the most brilliant and cultured of men. He was ever preaching the great Socialistic doctrine of solidarity, and was a stout opponent of tyranny in any form.

Early Influences.

     But the man who contributed largely to the poetic genius of young Buchanan, during those early days, was Lloyd Jones, the famous lecturer and journalist. He it was that first taught the eager, impetuous boy to love old songs and homespun English poetry. A great portion of his boyhood and early youth was spent at Glasgow, and it was here that he “listened to the oracles, and drank in the atmosphere of unbelief.” In that stronghold of Godliness and Sabbatarianism, his father was frequently insulted when walking the streets because he held views and opinions derogatory to the common or orthodox theological Scotch mind. The persecution descended even upon the family, and Robert came in for his share. 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 themselves would say; “his father’s an infidel.”
     The escapades of his schooldays were numerous. He often suffered from homesickness and restlessness, this combination producing a most refractory pupil. On one occasion, when returning to school in one of the Clyde steamers, he left the boat at Dunoon and immersed himself bodily in the sea, returning home with the yarn that he had been nearly drowned. His story was discredited, and Robert returned to the Academy in disgrace, only to try his hardest to get expelled. After scheming for several days he divined a way. Arming himself with an old pistol, the lock of which was broken, and securing the allegiance of two companions, he determined to run away to Rothesay, and, if followed, to sell his life dearly. He was, however, soon captured, without any loss of life.

A Thrilling Life-Story.

     Passing on to the beginning of his literary career, we find him, in May, 1860, in London with only a few shillings in his pocket. Prior to leaving Scotland he had sent some verses to Hepworth Dixon, who was then editing the “Athenæum,” and young Buchanan hoped that he might procure more work in this direction. Mr. Dixon gave him a few unimportant books to review, but these brought in very little money, and thus commenced the great struggle for existence. The story of his life from this point is told in a graphic manner, and the shaping of the huge mass of material at hand is wonderfully done.
     It is a thrilling life-story; life with all its “ups and downs,” warning and hope, occasional glimpses of brightness and moanings of despair, all of which are to be found in the life of common humanity. It is a life that should appeal to all, for the author has brought to bear the necessary sympathy and grace that alone can invest it with strength.
                                                                                                                                                   W. F. B.



The Daily Telegraph (2 February, 1903 - p.5)


     Among English men of letters of the second half of the nineteenth century there were few with greater literary power than Robert Buchanan, who, after a troubled, disappointed life, passed away eighteen months ago in his sixtieth year. His biography, written by his sister-in-law, Miss Harriet Jay, who lived with him for many years is published to-day by Mr. Fisher Unwin, and fully confirms the general impression which he made upon his contemporaries. She says quite frankly, “His life was a lonely one, he was from first to last a lonely man; not unsociable by disposition, not unsympathetic, but seldom travelling far for sympathy—always climbing, climbing, but never quite reaching the heights on which he had set his intellectual ideals. . . . For many years he suffered a martyrdom from ill-health, from the infinite delicacies of an overwrought nervous system; thence came isolation, friendlessness, bitterness, misconception, and despair.” Those sentences account for much; Buchanan’s life was a sad one, and this is a very sad, though a very interesting book. Buchanan was always in revolt; he was “born in the strangest odour of infidelity”; he was always fighting someone. And yet, as his biographer shows, he was a most unselfish soul, loyal and honest above all things. “No man needed kindness so much and received so little. He was stabbed again and again, and scarcely one arm was ever stretched out in his defence.” In a word, he misunderstood others and was himself misunderstood.
     During his later years he himself told the public the story of much of his life, in many fragments of autobiography. Notably he wrote a vivid description of his coming to London in 1859, of his life in “the dear old ghastly bankrupt garret,” of his friendship with David Gray, and the pathos of Gray’s early death. Many besides Buchanan—for example, Monckton Milnes and Lawrence Oliphant—believed that in Gray there died a poet of great genius. He believed it himself, as witness the following:

People don’t seem to understand me. . . . Westminster Abbey; I was there all day yesterday. If I live I shall be buried there—so help me, God! A completely defined consciousness of great poetical genius is my only antidote against utter despair and despicable failure.’

     When Gray wrote that he was dying of consumption. Buchanan plunged into literature headlong, reading and working hard. He was made editor of the long-since dead “Welcome Guest,” and published therein Miss Braddon’s first novel, but he was often perilously near starvation, and lived precariously. Yet he made the acquaintance of many of the leading men of letters of his day and soon, by means of his contributions to the magazines, earned a tolerable income. It was in 1863 that he published his first volume of verse, “Undertones,” followed by a steady succession of other volumes, for which he received considerable sums. Buchanan had certainly no right to complain of want of public appreciation. But by 1868 he was in serious financial difficulties. “When he had money,” says his biographer, “he spent it like a lord; when he hadn’t it he lived upon credit, and then, finding himself in difficulties, he endeavoured to extricate himself by hard work and speculation.” His wife was equally unpractical, and “so, like a couple of babies, they muddled through life, tasting sometimes of its joys, but oftener of its sorrows.”
     Miss Jay describes his life in Scotland and Ireland, his lifelong friendship with Roden Noel, and his still-remembered attack on the Rossetti school in his famous essay on “the Fleshly School of Poetry”—a quarrel which added to the reputation of neither party to the dispute. We have also an interesting account of how he came to write his best novels, “God and the Man,” and “The Shadow of the Sword,” both of which were conceived and partly written as poems. Then there is the story of his plays, his poems, his domestic afflictions. Buchanan must have earned large sums of money. His versatility was amazing. He wrote poetical drama and melodrama, novels and ballads, essays and lyrics. But he was a born gambler, and money melted in his hands. His speculations never succeeded. “If he took a theatre he invariably lost by hundreds and sometimes by thousands, and that, too, in the very plays which proved the fortune of others.” He sold “Alone in London” for a mere song; the purchasers cleared £14,000 out of it in ten years from the provinces. Buchanan took to the Turf at fifty. He even carried his literary labours to the race-meetings. Mr. henry Murray gives a curious instance of this:

     At the time when he was preparing a long commentary on Renan’s views regarding certain Scriptural episodes we went together to Sandown, and in an interval between two races I found him standing in the middle of Tattersall’s ring, serenely unconscious of the charivari round him, reading his Greek Testament. When the bell rang he slipped the volume into his pocket, marking the place with a tip telegram, and plunged into the fray, apparently greatly refreshed by his studies.

     Once, at Lingfield, when he meant to lay £100 upon an outsider, he and his friends did not notice the flight of time. The horses were off before they started to invest the money, and they were just too late. The carelessness cost them £2,000, which would have saved “The Society Butterfly” at the Opéra Comique and himself from bankruptcy. Such stories could be multiplied. But to return to Buchanan’s literary achievements. In the winter of 1893 he published “The Wandering Jew,” a poem of bold and startling originality. This he had begun as far back as 1866, on the death of his father, and for years after it was finished Buchanan kept it locked in his desk.

     It was taken out from time to time, pondered over, then carefully replaced, for it was ever his favourite child. His reason for withholding it from the world was a curious one, inexplicable even to himself, for he was not a superstitious man. In some unaccountable way the idea had taken hold of him that with the publication of this work his career would come to an end. . . . I remember his telling with a curious smile that while he was correcting the last proofs a dog came and howled mournfully under his study windows.

Its publication made a great stir. The clergy took the poem up, preached upon it and against it, and it gave rise to abundant controversy. But its power was undeniable, even by those who most disliked its central conception.
     Miss Jay’s book has many faults of arrangement. It is rather disconnected, and the interpolated appreciations by those who knew Buchanan still further break its continuity. But the authoress succeeds in giving a clear presentment of a very remarkable literary man who was his own worst enemy. He achieved many great successes, yet his whole career spelt failure.



T. P.’s Weekly (6 February, 1903 - p.1-2)


Robert Buchanan.*

The sadness of Buchanan’s life.

     “The story of his life,” writes Miss Harriet Jay, “is in many respects a sad one.” Indeed it is; I know few sadder. It is the second time, within a few weeks, that I have to deal with the life of a Scotchman, and a second time I have to speak of that life as ruined by the want of some of the most distinctive of Scotch virtues. Robert Buchanan, unlike poor Burns, was born into a time when literature had its full market price. He worked incessantly; no fewer than fifty-one volumes were published by him, while the whole output of Burns can be contained in one not very large volume. Burns was a poet alone; while Buchanan was dramatist, novelist, and journalist, as well as poet; and though Buchanan died prematurely according to our standard of to-day, there is a difference between dying at thirty-seven, as Burns did, and at sixty, as did Buchanan. And yet there is sadness throughout all the story of the one man as of the other; and Buchanan, almost as much as Burns—except that the vice of drinking was absent, died in bankruptcy of hope and pocket. Burns had one great consolation entirely unknown to Buchanan. His generation recognised the supreme genius of Burns; the reputation of Buchanan always seemed to slip away from him; he never attained the literary position to which his extraordinary and varied gifts entitled him. To miss genius and the highest fame altogether is a more tolerable lot than to just miss them; and that was the fate of Buchanan. He just missed genius; he just missed supreme fame. He made a great deal of money in his time; he had some very brilliant moments of success; his name was known all over the world; but if you compare his position, say, with that of Mr. Rudyard Kipling, you will see how far he was from reaching the heights. It was partly because, owing to faults of temper and temperament, his reputation was of noise, conflict, apparently boisterous and not always considerate self-assertion; and trying three great branches of literary effort, he was regarded as missing the highest in them all. And thus it was that he spent his life in struggle—much of it ignoble; that he was embittered; that he had, as Miss Jay says, “few friends and many enemies”; that somehow or other, with all his notoriety, there was a sense of ineffectiveness and of baulked achievement; and thus it was that he ended in something like darkness and ruin.

A dreamer by heredity.

     There are several factors that go to the unmaking of so richly endowed a nature; and some of these factors belong to forces and times which lay beyond Buchanan’s control. Poor Buchanan, as Miss Jay says, was never able to learn the art of compound addition; his expenditure was always beyond even his occasional princely income; he was an incurable dreamer who saw the realities of life, and especially of money, in no rigid lines of accuracy, but in the confused limning of his imagination. And of this the chief secret is that he came from a family of dreamers. He was a dreamer by the mighty and resistless force of heredity; his fate was fashioned for him in this rough world before he entered upon it.
     It will doubtless be a surprise to many people who regarded Buchanan as so typically Scotch, that he was not born in Scotland. He first saw the light in Caverswall in Lancashire, and it was on August 18, 1841. It was the epoch of Robert Owen, that generous dreamer, who sought to recreate the world on new principles of fraternity and Socialism.

When his words of promise—wrote Buchanan—sounded like a trumpet-note to so many youthful sons of toil, one of the first to respond was a poor journeyman tailor in Ayrshire, who, throwing down goose and scissors, straightway aspired to the rôle of Socialist reformer; was soon welcomed and appreciated for his keen Scottish intelligence, his wide, if uninstructed reading, and his rugged eloquence on the platform; in due time became one of Owen’s most valuable Missionaries; and before many years had elapsed was famous among his own people, and infamous among the orthodox, as Robert Buchanan, poet and iconoclast. That man was my father.

     On the mother’s side Buchanan came also from the race of rebel dreamers; his mother was a daughter of “lawyer Williams,” a solicitor of Stoke-upon-Trent, and, like Buchanan’s father, a freethinker and a Socialist.

The father’s bankruptcy.

     The father of Buchanan suggests most of the son’s career. The two had the same incapacity for measuring money, of realising ways and means; they had the same recklessness and unconquerable hopefulness; they were both gamblers. Indeed, it was the faults and weaknesses of the father that did much to create the misfortunes of the son. His father, as proprietor of the “Glasgow Sentinel,” was doing well and becoming a prosperous man, when, fired by ambition to achieve a huge fortune, he started two other journals, and this brought him to the Bankruptcy Court. That inauspicious change in the fortunes of the family did not come till Robert Buchanan was nearly twenty years of age, and until he had been brought up in all the luxurious habits and wants of that first heritage of our time, the proprietorship of a successful newspaper. It was characteristic of both father and son that both accepted this vast change of fortune with considerable equanimity. “Even if I never loved my father before,” wrote Buchanan many years afterwards, “I should have loved and venerated him then for the patience and gentleness with which he accepted the blow.” “He was as weak as water,” is another of the son’s comments on the father.

     But looking back over the years I see in him who had so many faults a nobility, a loving-kindness which I have scarcely seen in any other man. For the rest he was a childish creature, dear and simple as a child. His very faults were childish, nay, his very vices, but it is much to be able to say of him—what could not be said of one man in a thousand—that in all my recollection of him. I cannot remember one cruel or unkind act, or even one unkind word.

It is characteristic of Buchanan’s father that after his failure he calmly settled down to writing serial stories, and there is little record of any break almost to the end in the perfect equanimity with which he received Fortune’s different phases.

Buchanan’s natural piety.

     It is easy to see, then, where Buchanan got this recklessness about money; but it is a curious instance of the somewhat contrary effects which come from early upbringing, that Buchanan, who never heard even the mention of the word God till he was a grown boy, who was brought up in a home in which, on both sides, all existing religions were regarded as mere childish superstitions, should from almost the first have had undefinable and uncertain, but strong leanings toward some form of religious faith.

     For the life of me I cannot tell how the sweet spirit of natural piety arose within me. All my experience, my birth, my education, my entire surroundings were against its birth or growth, 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.

To this vague faith in a Creator, Buchanan, though he never approached even orthodoxy, clung throughout all his life; his poems and his most intimate writings agree in always proclaiming the immortality of the soul, a life after death.

Invades London.

     When the crash came in the fortunes of the family, young Buchanan showed the courage to strike out for himself, and on May 5, 1860, he started from the once luxurious home in a third-class carriage to fight for fortune in London. He had only a few shillings in his pocket; in one possession only was he rich; it is worth mentioning as characteristic. This was an excellent stock of clothes, and amongst it a sumptuous silk-quilted dressing-gown which his mother had bought for him just before his father failed. He had the usual experiences of the young literary provincial who comes to London in similar plight; he settled down finally in a top room in a lodging-house in that unsavoury district of Stamford Street, Blackfriars. He dreamed, he worked, he starved, and he was not unhappy for some years in this wretched abode. It was at that period that he made the acquaintance of Charles Gibbon—a novelist of much charm, now, I fear, almost forgotten, and together the two lived and worked, hoped and starved, in the “bankrupt garret” in Stamford Street.

     Although their earnings at that time were not great they were both at work far into the watches of the night, reading, writing, studying like young fellows cramming for an examination. Every night a pot of strong coffee was set upon the hob, and out of this pot they refreshed themselves, fighting hard against the natural desire for sleep, and again and again tumbling off into a troubled doze till daylight came and they crept wearily to bed.

First Fame.

     Buchanan’s parents had meantime drifted to London, the father “trying his hand at the manufacture of cheap fiction,” and Buchanan went to live with them at the little house they had taken in Kentish Town. Already Buchanan had shown some talent for writing for the stage. He had written and been paid for a pantomime when he was but fourteen, and now he, with Gibbon, adapted a piece out of Banim’s powerful story, “Crohoore of the Billhook.” It was accepted and produced at the Standard Theatre; the fee of the authors was £20! It was in the production of that play that an amusing episode in the life of Buchanan took place; I alluded to it in writing about him after his death, but I did not state the facts correctly. Here they are, as given by Miss Jay authoritatively:—

     Before the play was drawn from representation the authors appeared in it themselves, Mr. Gibbon taking the part of a young lover, and Mr. Buchanan that of the hero, called Shadrack the Shingawn. As they knew the play by heart they had no rehearsals. The part played by Mr. Buchanan was that of a hunchback falsely accused of murder, and he made the character so hideously disfigured a monster that somebody inquired whether he was representing Shakespeare’s Caliban. However, the audiences out eastward were not critical, and the performance passed off with a certain measure of applause. The crux of the performance came in the penultimate act, when Shadrack had to rescue the heroine from a violent death, descending by a rope from the top of a precipice, seizing the heroine in his arms as he swung over the abyss from the branch of a tree, and ascending with her to the cliffs above. For this effect, which demanded an athlete rather than an actor, there had, as I have said, been no rehearsal, and it is more than probable that the aspiring actor showed some little doubt and trepidation, for the lady whom he was to save was in agonies of terror. However, all went well. Shadrack descended by a rope from the flies, clasped the lady in his arms, and was drawn back amid round after round of deafening applause.

Success and extravagance.

     In 1864 Buchanan published “London Poems.” The book took the town by storm, obtained him the acquaintance of some of the leading literary men and women of his time, and a Civil List pension of £100 a year. From that time forward Buchanan never had to complain of neglect. He jumped into fame, and if he had been a different man he would equally have jumped into a great fortune. But, as Miss Jay says,

     A taste for luxury of all kinds had been instilled into him by his mother, while from his father he inherited a love of speculation. From neither had he learned the value of money; when he had it he spent it like a lord, when he hadn’t it he lived upon credit, and then, finding himself in difficulties, he endeavoured to extricate himself by hard work, or by plunging into hazardous speculations which very often had the effect of sinking him still deeper in the mire.

As a gambler.

     Extravagance, indeed, often took the shape of reckless gambling. There is a chapter of this book written by his friend Mr. Henry Murray, with that writer’s usual brilliancy, which is one of the most painful in the whole volume. It is a description of Buchanan as a gambler on the racecourse. The chapter ought to have been written; the biography and the picture of the man would have been incomplete without it; and in biography I am for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But all the same there is something infinitely saddening in seeing this very fine fellow—with all his wonderful powers, his pathos, his humanity, his mastery of so many literary arts, his love of truth and his influence over the hearts and consciences of men—to find him on a racecourse taking and giving the odds, and risking hundreds of the money he had earned in blood and tears, on so uncertain a chance as the running of a horse.
     There was another and more creditable form of extravagance:

     It must not be supposed—writes Miss Jay—that all his money went in the purchase of mere personal pleasures. His generosity was without parallel, and he never refused a request for help if it was in his power to grant it. If a friend happened to be in “Queer Street” he would lend him a hundred pounds with as little hesitation as he would lend ten, and it was a peculiarity with him that he never looked for the return of such money, no matter how large the sum might be, but always regarded it as so much to the good if it happened to come his way again.

     And so it was that this man of genius was “darkly doomed,” as Miss Jay puts it, “to much ignoble pot-boiling.” Let us be charitable; for he paid the penalty for his weakness.
     I have only to add here that Miss Jay has told the story with fascinating skill—with perfect frankness—as will have been seen, and yet with justice. I was unable to lay down the book from the first moment I took it in my hands. It deserves to take its place among the very fine biographies in our language.
                                                                                                                                                             T. P.

     * “Robert Buchanan, Some Account of His Life, His Life’s Work, and His Literary Friendships.” By Harriet Jay. (Fisher, Unwin.)



The Academy (7 February, 1903)


A Literary Man.


THIS biography of Robert Buchanan, diffuse in its very title, is written by his sister-in-law, who was also his adopted daughter. Trained (as she says) from her earliest years to look up to him with reverence as the embodiment of all the moral—and other—virtues, she is therefore the last person in the world to write his life in any true sense. She is at the same time well fitted to produce the usual domestic “great and good man” record. And being a novelist, she is also able to make her biography readable—for which we are thankful exceedingly. It is on the usual principle of letting the man “speak for himself,” and is quite a capable piece of work in its kind, which we love not.
     A Scot born in England of an English mother, and educated in Glasgow, Buchanan all his life fought fiercely for things he could not quite achieve—which he had it not in him quite to achieve. He was a thinker—enough not to be quite a poet; a poet—enough to spoil his thinking. He was poor, and had to struggle for a living; which is a very bad thing for a poet in days when no man can live by poetry. He was versatile enough to do many things for a living, but not versatile enough to do them quite well enough. He was almost great in several ways, and ate his heart out in the stormy effort for that little more. Full of energy and sensitiveness, and impatience, and consciousness of powers which somehow did not work out to rounded issues, he struck all round him, made many enemies, gained few friends, and was not a contented or successful man. Perhaps, though a fighter, he was not altogether strong.
     His father was an Ayrshire tailor, who, under the influence of Robert Owen, turned Socialist orator, journalist, reformer, and infidel; his mother, young, pretty, adored and adoring, the parent of his own quick emotions, was the daughter of a Midlands’ lawyer, also a Socialist. He went first to a London school, where the master held peculiar (and seemingly economical) views on the diet of the young, which resulted in small Robert falling back on a supplementary diet of garden snails, and coming home chiefly bones. He removed to a French and German school kept by a Gallic gentleman, and his parents to a cottage at Norwood—where, among other social and Socialistic acquaintance, he had the society of Louis Blanc. Thence he passed to a small day-school at Glasgow, where his father edited the “Glasgow Sentinel,” and soon prospered in the world. It was not a very happy position for poor young Robert. His schoolfellows practised the gospel of Christianity by warning one another: “Don’t play with yon laddie, his father’s an infidel!” Often he “prayed with all his soul that his father would men his ways, go to church, and accept the social sanctities like other men.” Nor did the poor little poet take kindly to the bare creed or negation of creed in which he was trained:—

“While my father was confidently preaching God’s non-existence,” says he, “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.”

He was in after-life, of course, an Agnostic, with “a strong sense of natural religion”—which vague phrase you can interpret for yourself. Sent to a boarding-school at Rothesay, in the Isle of Bute, he began to develop all the characteristics of his after self. Worshipping his mother, he was bitterly homesick. He also fell in love. He was twelve, and she was nine; and they parted—never to meet again. “Again and again my youthful Juliet rushed into my arms,” he writes,” again and again our tears mingled together.” Naturally, being Robert Buchanan, he began to write verse, for the first time. He met a dazzling vision (let us hope it was before the “youthful Juliet”); her name was Rebecca, and he rhymed it with “deck her.” Did not Tennyson write—

I wove a crown before her,
To show that I adore her,
For her I love the dearest,
A garland for Lenora—

or something like it? Let us excuse poor Robert at twelve. The spirit of revolt which was his throughout life came with those of love and poetry. “Were you that devil of a boy who was at school with my daughter at Rothesay?” wrote to him a gentleman some years later. He was. he made up his mind to get expelled (having first tried jumping off a steamer, coming home dripping, and saying he had fallen overboard) and he got expelled—perhaps the only time he got his desire.
     So he passes ultimately to the Glasgow High School, and he makes friends with a “poet” on his father’s staff, one Hugh Macdonald, who teaches him Scottish song. Macdonald also published the boy’s first ballad in the “Glasgow Times”—perhaps the strongest argument against Macdonald being a poet. But “the very air was full of poetry. Why, in the adjacent town of Paisley alone the poets were to be counted by thousands. Macdonald knew them all.” Great Phœbus! “It is more than likely that if you stopped a policeman on his beat in the streets of Glasgow, you would find that he was a poet, and that he knew his Shakespeare and even his Shelley, to say nothing of his Burns!” After which, it seems necessary to remind the reader that Miss Jay is a novelist.
     But all this seems to explain, or help to explain, Buchanan’s habitual lack of poetic completion, of severity with himself in what he wrote. He learned to associate poetry with too unexacting a standard. There are hardly in the literature of the world a thousand poets. Of higher import was it that he saw Vandenhoff in “King Lear,” and for the first time grasped the greatness of the play, if not of Shakespeare (for his understanding of Shakespeare shows limitations, like most things concerned with him). The players themselves he came to know, and writes:—

Morals they had none to boast of; they tippled, they swaggered, they ran after petticoats and petticoats ran after them; but the spirit of the savage old literature ran in their veins like blood, and they had the fine qualities of their defects. Their very speech was archaic, their very oaths were reminiscent of Bardolph and Pistol . . . . Among them, for a short period, drifted a young player of another nature, afterwards known to the world as Henry Irving. A quiet, studious young man, even then ambitious, but exhibiting little talent even as a “walking gentleman,” I was much drawn to him by his thoughtful personality, so different to the wilder personalities of his companions, and I took him to my father’s house and introduced him to my mother.

     His father’s sudden and complete failure made him risk the venture of throwing himself on London, whither his poetic ambitions drew him. With plenty of clothes but little in his pockets he reached Euston, to have his luggage impounded on account of a lost ticket. He had no friends, did not know where to go. Lying in Regent’s Park, with tears in his eyes, he saw a youth looking at him; a close-cropped youth with a pugilistic aspect and a short clay:—

He reminded me instantly of . . . the Artful Dodger, and by that token he was quite as ragged and disreputable-looking. We got into conversation, and . . . hearing that I was without a home, he invited me to accompany him to his quarters in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch . . . Late that afternoon I found myself in the east of London, in a sort of low lodging-house, or thieves’ kitchen. It is all like a dream now, but I remember my new friend was very kind to me, and saved me from impolite attentions on the part of my companions. The whole place reminded me of Oliver Twist, and I fancy Fagin was there as well as my friend the Dodger, whose bed I shared that night, throwing myself full dressed upon it and sleeping like a top till morning. There were other beds in the wretched room, and other youths and men of my friend’s persuasion, but no one molested me, and, what is more wonderful, no one robbed me of the small sum in my pocket. I rose up in the early dawn, and shook hands with my friend, who was half asleep. I never saw him again.

It is not “the cheese,” as Buchanan might have been told, for one gentleman in misfortune to prey on another. The account shows some of the weaknesses which explain Buchanan’s want of success. It is over-wordy in the original (he cannot say “rose” without adding “up”). He conveys no idea, gets no grip of the scene he visited; an alert writer would have seized it in a few strokes.
     We have dealt at some length with this early and preliminary period of Buchanan’s life, because it shows his character in the making. What he was as boy and youth, he remained throughout. Whether success would have mitigated his character, one knows not. That first delusive success with his London poems must have made his comparative obscurity afterwards the harder to bear. His life becomes mainly a record of literary struggles, and largely the writing of “pot- boilers”; and in these pages has a very fragmentary appearance. It resolves itself into a series of papers by various hands on “Buchanan’s this” and “Buchanan’s that.” The spirit of revolt was strong in him; and we fancy that, like Shelley, he would have made or found antagonisms however his life had run. Where he did not quarrel with men, he held aloof from them. Proctor, the semi-poet, was kind to him in his first friendless days; but (despite Proctor’s invitations) he kept “intending” to call on him again till the old man’s death. He was poor, and pride held him back, suggests Miss Jay. We suspect pride had much to do with all his isolation. He was “no hero-worshipper,” she says. We suspect he could not afford to hero-worship, while he felt himself dubiously one of the heroes. He offended Lewes by irreverence towards the divinity of George Eliot. Lewes kept her behind a curtain, and no one might approach till he drew it, says Buchanan. It tempted his irreverence. He was friendly with browning; but they cooled to each other. Browning said that “White Rose and Red” was “a beautiful poem! a beautiful poem!” clasping his hand warmly. But later, when Lecky, at an Academy dinner, eulogized the “City of Dream,” Browning murmured, “Of whom is he speaking? Of Buchanan, the writer of  plays?” So insincerity is hinted—or a little more than hinted. They disagreed over Walt Whitman, whom Browning denounced “on moral grounds,” yet after confessed he knew only from “garbled” extracts. (The phrase is Buchanan’s.) Buchanan’s enthusiasm for Browning also “lessened as the years wore on,” he says—but does not suggest insincerity. It is a glimpse of the misfortune of temperament to which his isolation was due. Of noble impulses, ideals, and efforts, of energy resurgent against misfortune, of a warm heart centred on a few, we get glimpses, and plenteous declarations. But not from these fragmentary materials for a biography is it possible to form a coherent idea of Buchanan the man. On the whole, in his attitude towards life as towards religion, one conceives him an Agnostic, dreaming of something unrealised, passionately striving towards it, and feeling himself benighted in the search.



The Referee (8 February, 1903 - p.11)

From the ‘Mustard and Cress’ column by Dagonet (George R. Sims):

     Quite the book of the week is Miss Harriett Jay’s Life of her brother-in-law,

Robert Buchanan.

It is the deeply-interesting story of a strange and fascinating personality. I knew Buchanan the poet and Buchanan the playwright intimately. Though during the later years of his varied career I was constantly his workfellow and companion, I never quite knew Buchanan the man.

     There are two professional friendships the breaking of which, both, alas! by the same swift stroke of doom, left me for a time with a void in my life. One was my friendship with Frederic Clay, the composer, the other my friendship with Robert Buchanan, the author.

     Few men have had such staunch friends and such

Bitter Enemies

as the burly Scottish poet, novelist, and dramatist, who was tender as a child in his affections, fierce as a tiger in his hatreds. He did most of his work with enthusiasm, but some of it was uncongenial. It was the uncongenial work that brought him perhaps the most money.

     He was a rapid writer, filling sheet after sheet with his small, neat handwriting at a speed which would have rendered my caligraphy indecipherable, even to myself. He wrote usually at a little table, but when he felt weary of the position he would write for an hour or two standing at a high desk. He smoked cigarettes incessantly, and he always wore a white waistcoat.

     These are little personal details. That which I love best to recall of

The Fine Old Highland Raider

—we called Buchanan that sometimes in jest—was his beautiful homeliness. In his home he was at his best. Many a time when the dear old mother and his devoted sister-in-law had bidden us good night have I stayed on until two, three, and four o’clock in the morning and listened while he rearranged the whole social system and gave me his frank views of men and things. His life was at times a drama—at times a fantasy. Alas! that it should have ended in a tragedy.



T. P.’s Weekly (13 February, 1903)


     In my “Book of the Week” in the last issue of this paper, I had no time or space to devote to a figure which stands out from the life of Robert Buchanan. It is an omission I feel I ought to repair. Miss Jay, in her admirable biography of her brother-in-law, quotes the following words, which I wrote of her sister immediately after the death of Buchanan himself. I give them again, because they represent so well my feelings now as when they were written.

     She was a very beautiful woman, stately and statuesque in figure, with beautifully chiselled, regular features, fine eyes, and a gay and almost bubbling spirit. But early in her married life she was attacked by one of those painful internal maladies which are the death of health and domestic happiness, and often she suffered tortures. Indeed, I remember seeing her once laughing and chattering like some bright singing bird, and in the midst of it a shade suddenly fell upon her face, and turning to me she said, “If you speak to me, I shall have to burst into tears.” I was young in years and even younger in experience, and knew nothing at that time of that strange world of laughter and tears, of heroic suffering and tragic depression, which is the world of the invalid woman, but the moment remained with me afterwards, an illuminating glimpse into the unfathomable depths of secret and silent sorrow and pain in which we move unconsciously among our fellow men and women.

     This was the impression made upon me by the wife of Robert Buchanan; it was made after seeing her altogether not more than half a dozen times. But I find from the inner light thrown upon her life by her sister that the impression was correct, and that I was right in thinking that I had met in this beautiful and touching creature one of those women who are as the salt of the earth. She was already an invalid when I saw her; and it will be seen that then her chief endeavour was to conceal her suffering, and that in the intervals between her intolerable pains she laughed and joked with the best of them. I remember, that on one occasion, just after I had been returned to Parliament for the first time, she insisted that I should get up and make a speech, just to give her an idea of what a speech was like. Of course, I refused; whereupon she got up, and, standing with some difficulty on her trembling limbs, and with a little more pallor in her face, uttered a few words of mock-heroic speech. I think it was on that same afternoon that she suddenly turned to me, and gave me that glimpse into the depths to which I have alluded in the passage already quoted.

     Miss Jay tells the sequel of the story. It is almost too painful to read; but it is so full of pathos and heroism—perchance, also of not unnecessary suggestion—that I cannot refrain from giving it. It was just after Buchanan had published his remarkable story, “God and the Man,” and had had it performed with success on the stage; in other words, just as he was seeing light out of the dark abyss of debt and difficulties in which he was plunged—it was at that moment that he suddenly heard the dread news that the disease from which his wife had suffered all those years was cancer! “For two long years she was slowly dying.” And poor Buchanan was not rich enough to sit down and grieve; he had to slave on, writing anything and everything, which brought in money to help to cure—or, if that were impossible, to relieve—the poor sufferer.
     Buchanan heard by chance of “the life-saving properties of the Mississippi spring water.”

     He had had—writes Miss Jay—I need hardly say, doctors without end, and, indeed, every quack in the country who professed to cure cancer was brought to her bedside. At times, when she heard of the advent of some new doctor, she would refuse to see him, saying wearily, “What is the use? It always ends in the same way—let me die!” But to her husband’s piteous appeal of “Just to please me,” she ever yielded—and so the doctors came and went, their remedies were tried, but ever with the same result. When we heard of the marvellous water she was lying almost at the point of death, and so weak was she that she could scarcely lift her hand. Without loss of time the water was procured—she drank of it, and it seemed as if a miracle was about to be performed. Gradually, though very slowly, her weakness gave place to ever-increasing strength, and in time she rose from her bed looking like a girl of twenty. . . . But though her strength increased up to a certain point, it seemed as if that point could not be passed. Though she went about the house as usual, though, when the spring came, she took some walks in Regent Street to look at the gaily bedecked shop-windows and to study the fashions—though her bright, rippling laughter was often the gayest of the gay, one could see by the shadows which sometimes darkened her face that all was not well with her—that she knew, in fact, but that she would not speak, because she dreaded to shatter the illusions which she had ceased to share.

     Then they took the poor woman to the sea for which she longed; they decided on Southend. Miss Jay describes an incident of that journey which is one of the most touching and characteristic I ever read. It is all in accord with the utter unselfishness, the courage, the bright hopefulness of Robert Buchanan’s wife.

     There is—writes Miss Jay—a long flight of steps at Fenchurch Street Station which leads up to the platform. I remember how eagerly she made for those steps, while her husband was at the ticket-office, in order that he might not see how difficult it was for her to mount them. A gentleman coming down as she was going up, paused for a moment and offered her his arm, which was curtly and irritably refused. “Why did he do that?” she asked, turning to me. “I am quite well able, quite strong enough, to walk alone!”

     The hopeless battle was again renewed; but Mrs. Buchanan knew that it was hopeless all along. Her one effort was to keep that knowledge from others, and especially from her husband. She refused to have morphia administered. Sometimes she tore the bedclothes to keep herself from shrieking aloud, and “her great anxiety was to keep her husband from the room.” “He is always wanting to do something for me,” she said to her sister, “and I know that nothing can be done. I want to be left alone.”

     When the attacks passed off she was always very calm and resigned; sometimes, indeed
her laugh was quite gay.

     Finally she died, “in her husband’s arms, her head resting on his shoulder.”

     Poor Buchanan had his faults, and wrecked his life in the end; but assuredly this noble devotion to wife and mother which belong to his life are something to extenuate and atone for far worse and far greater errors than his. I have told the story of his wife, however, to bring out her virtues rather than his, and because I believe it is only one instance of thousands around us in which women bear the worst of tortures in silence and in loneliness rather than o’ercast  the souls of those whom they love. As a type of that class poor Mrs. Buchanan deserves to live in the hearts of all good men and women for ever.
                                                                                                                                                             T. P.



The Times Literary Supplement (13 February, 1903 - p.46-47)
[Reviewed by Edward Verrall Lucas]


ROBERT BUCHANAN. Some account of His Life, His Life’s Work, and Literary Friendships. By HARRIETT JAY. (Unwin. 10s. 6d. Net.)

     This portly volume once more suggests the need for the more serious consideration of biographical values. The men of whose lives a pedestrian year-by-year record, such as this, is necessary require to be separated more rigorously from the men of whom a bird’s-eye view would suffice. Some one should decide; if the publishers are not capable, there should be a necrologist-in-chief, to whom intending biographers should apply before setting forth on their tasks. Then we should be spared the pain of having to say that Miss Harriett Jay’s memoir of her brother-in-law, the late Robert Buchanan, is both out of proportion and insufficiently instructive. We are afraid, indeed, that Mr. Gosse’s indictment of the widow as biographer must be extended to the sister-in-law. Love and admiration and a sweet charity Miss Jay has in abundance, but she was too near her subject, and she has few of the more important gifts of either the biographer or the critic. The whole man is not in these pages; we doubt, indeed, if more than a moiety of him is here, or rather would have been here but for the contributory chapter by Mr. R. E. Francillon, to which we shall return later.
     Robert Buchanan, neither by performance nor by character, was subject for the near-of-kin pedestrian biographer; but he was eminently fitted for the brief monograph by a student of men and letters. The facts of his life, after his childhood and youth were over, were unimportant. His work was rarely better than second-rate in any of the many departments of intellectual industry which he attempted; his friends were not notable, nor was his own personality conspicuous. He wrote nothing that will endure, such was his fecundity and want of distinction and style. He wrote a little good poetry, but much that was indifferent; he wrote little good criticism (although much that by its wrongheadedness made other people think); he wrote second-rate novels and second-rate plays. We dislike to have to put the case thus baldly; but it is necessary to show why Robert Buchanan, in common with too many other men whose biographies make heavy volumes, was no subject for the painstaking treatment which has been accorded him. But, on the other hand, Robert Buchanan was curiously well fitted to be the subject of a discriminating monograph which should state as many of the facts of his life (particularly his parentage and early years) as were necessary, and then pass on to focus him as a whole. He was fitted for such treatment for several reasons. He was a very perfect type of the literary Berserk; he was a fearless and headstrong champion of what he believed to be right and opponent of what he believed to be wrong; he was a superb weaver of angry prose; he was once found at Sandown-park between two races, reading his Greek Testament with a tipster’s telegram to mark the place; it was he who said one of the best things of Ruskin that was ever written, in the compactest form, when he called him in one of his satires

Half seraph and half shrew;

and he was the author of the “Ballad of Judas Iscariot” and certain other striking poems of strong individuality, if undistinguished in form.
     The monograph, however, has not been written. Instead, we have Miss Jay’s diffuse volume, which, were it not for the contribution of six pages by Mr. Francillon, who met Buchanan very occasionally but instantly divined his character, would tell us of essentials little more than we knew before. Mr. Francillon writes:—

     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. . . .
     In short, he always gave me the impression of being thrown into a world into which he had never really grown, where he was never at home, but always in a foreign country whose language he could not learn, despite all his efforts, and whose manners and customs, despite his desire to adopt them, he could not understand. It was not that, like many mystics, he in his inmost mind regarded life as a sort of dream to be slept through pleasantly or painfully, as the case might be, but not with serious concern. On the contrary, while to the Celtic part of him the unseen life was fully as real as the seen, to another element in him the seen was as real as the unseen. And so the two hostile realities became mixed without becoming fused, so that the ordinary man of ordinary affairs, who knows this world (or at least his own little part of it) very well—who indeed makes this world what it is—found Buchanan exceedingly easy to misunderstand.

This is the temper in which we would have had the monograph on Buchanan written. Miss Jay’s lengthy biography has, however, as we have said, come instead. It is a well-published book (save for its flat back), and will be found readable by those who want an emotional and superficial account of an author’s life. For ourselves, we can but regret that so little has been made of the more interesting episodes, such as, for example, Buchanan’s friendship with Thomas Love Peacock. We could well have spared reminiscences of the “Bard” by Mr. George R. Sims to have more of Buchanan’s own autobiographical sketches; and a few of his best poems might have been given. Here we leave the work—with a prayer for the speedy arrival of the necrologist-in-chief.



The Guardian (17 February, 1903 - p.4)


     Miss Jay does not pretend to approach her subject critically. She collaborated with Buchanan in some of his later dramatic work, and he was always her generous and intimate friend. If her devotion leads her sometimes into mistake, we must recognise that generally she writes with moderation and with a reserve that will not be misunderstood. It strikes us sometimes that the life is a little lacking in the intimate touches that might give a clearer impression of personality. Buchanan’s attitude to the world was perhaps rather artificial, and a great part of the book is made up of letters and reminiscences in which his opinions are stated and restated. Miss Jay’s plan is not, we think, the best that could have been adopted. The compromise between a general trend of narrative and the grouping of particular features is not very skilfully carried out, and the positions of certain chapters, written by other friends, seem to be determined arbitrarily. There is one by Mr. H. S. Salt on Buchanan’s “Humanitarianism,” an “Impression” by Mr. R. E. Francillon, “A Reminiscence” by Mr. G. R. Sims, and a short account of his connection with the turf by Mr. Henry Murray. Miss Jay refrains from any criticism of Buchanan’s work and is content to indicate its reception by the public and by certain of his contemporaries. The earlier parts of the book are the most coherent, and we are shown the causes which made of Buchanan, naturally genial, a persistent rebel. He belonged to the ostracised faction, and as he was born in the “odour of infidelity” his early life was passed among theorists, “atheists,” and uncomfortable people of various epithets. There are some interesting passages about the influence of Robert Owen, and the initial steps of the poetical career are clearly traced. Among those who showed him kindness in his youthful struggles in London were Barry Cornwall and Lord Houghton. Other acquaintances or associates, whose names may serve to suggest Buchanan’s wide and various  interests, were Louis Blanc, Hermann Vezin, Peacock, Edmund Yates, G. H. Lewes, George Eliot, Browning, Charles Reade, Whitman, and Roden Noel, his “most intimate and life-long friend.” Certainly Buchanan lived a very full and, we may believe, upon the whole a happy life. Miss Jay’s biography shows us a man of many good and generous impulses who “fought bravely for the good of Humanity” but never quite got himself in hand. The diversities of his pursuits may be illustrated by a passage from Mr. Murray’s chapter:—

     “At the time when he was preparing a long commentary on Rénan’s views regarding certain Scriptural episodes we went together to Sandown, and in an interval between two races I found him standing in the middle of Tattersall’s ring, serenely unconscious of the charivari about him, reading his Greek Testament. When the bell rang he slipped the volume into his pocket, marking the place with a tip telegram, and plunged into the fray, apparently greatly refreshed by his studies.”

A bibliographical list includes some fifty volumes of prose and verse, which, together with the numerous plays of which he was author, wholly or in part, makes a formidable body of work. Whatever may be the ultimate verdict upon it, admiration and respect are compelled by a life of such fine activities.



The Sphere (21 February, 1903 - p.20)


                                                                                                                   LONDON, February 18th, 1903.
. . .

     We are certainly living in an age when everybody is being over-biographed; the tragedy, moreover, lies in the fact that no one seems to be able to write a good biography. The last really good biography in English literature was Sir George Trevelyan’s Macaulay. Next in attractiveness I would name Mr. Lang’s Lockhart. Since these there has been a constant multiplication of dull volumes in which there has been no sense of proportion whatever. Lord Tennyson’s “Life” of his father was a case in point; Mr. Graham Balfour’s “Life” of Stevenson was another; and our own immediate day has seen dull, dreary “Lives” of Dr. Martineau and Mr. Coventry Patmore.

     Miss Harriett Jay, the sister-in-law of Robert Buchanan, who has become his biographer, has at least one distinctive merit in that she has compressed her “Life” into one volume. As an example of what the criticism of our day is worth I find among the “opinions of the press” that this “Life” of Buchanan is written “with insight into character,” “sound judgment,” and so on. It would seem that it does not matter much how poor a book is but you will find a number of people to praise it. Yet there is not the slightest presentation in this book of the fighting, litigious individual whom many of us were able to admire in spite of his constant warfare.

     My own impressions of Buchanan were not very agreeable certainly; he gave me some very bad quarters of an hour because he fastened on me personally an action for libel for which I was only indirectly responsible. An unfavourable criticism of one of his plays appeared in a paper of which I was editor, and I had visions of myself in gaol in consequence, a martyr to someone else’s dramatic ideals. Fortunately for me Mr. Buchanan’s finances were not at that time in a condition to enable him to carry on the case. Then, again, I did not find him very satisfactory in business relations. I purchased a serial story from him, but the process of extracting copy almost tempts me to reminiscences. These things, of course, may be put down to the eccentricity of genius.

     I think that had Buchanan died somewhere about 1870, before he had written his article on the “Fleshly School of Poetry,” he would have left a most interesting memory. His name would have gone down in literature with his friend, David Gray, as a true poet and a brilliant prose writer—as an “inheritor of unfulfilled renown.” His Story of David Gray was altogether admirable. From the moment of his quarrel with Mr. Swinburne and D. G. Rossetti he seems to have been always in the wars; moreover, his literary work after that date was never really good—his stories merely pot-boiling, his poems only second-rate. The Shadow of the Sword was, it is true, as good as many much-boomed novels, but it was not literature. Again, it is not pleasant to take up a “Life” of a literary man and find a chapter by one of his friends on his relations with the turf.

     Yet, when all is said, Buchanan’s “Life” would have made a much more vigorous book if it had been written by someone who stood more apart from him than Miss Jay was able to do. It should have been possible to have written a “Life” showing him—by extracts from his correspondence in newspapers and from his miscellaneous writings—as the very embodiment of sound common sense, as a man who always said the downright and sincere thing however much exasperation he might cause at the moment. Miss Jay gives no glimpses of this life of intellectual work and of strenuous fighting. When all is said, there are plenty of interesting points in the biography. There are, indeed, some references to Browning that would better have been omitted; but there are capital descriptions of George Eliot, of George Henry Lewes, and of Charles Reade. The point is brought home that much of the truculence of Buchanan’s later life arose from the bitter grief that his wife’s death caused him—a fact that must always assist to a a charitable judgment.
. . .
                                                                                                                                                     C. K. S.



The Westminster Budget (27 February, 1903 - p.21-22)


     This is in certain respects a depressing book. It shows early promise never realised, excellent opportunities often missed, and brilliant talents, if not at times wasted, at least frequently employed on work quite unworthy of them. It reveals a man endowed with many lovable qualities soured and in revolt against his fellows—the bitterness, it must be added, largely arising from causes which the exercise of common-sense and common prudence might to a very large extent have avoided. It was quite another man that those who made Buchanan’s acquaintance only through his earlier writings—his “Idylls and Legends of Inverburn,” for instance—knew. How far the poet’s earlier experiences may have been responsible for much that occurred in his later life it were, perhaps, idle to inquire. There was certainly a good deal connected with his boyhood that is not without pathos, and every allowance ought perhaps to be made. In preparing her biography Miss Jay had many advantages. She was adopted into the poet’s family when a child, and knew her subject as no survivor knew him. The portrait she gives, while very sympathetic, as it could hardly fail to be, is truthful. Miss Jay, if she usually tries to excuse the poet’s failings, never hides them. The fault of her book is that it has so little to say concerning Buchanan’s literary efforts beyond a bare enumeration of them. But it certainly shows us the man as he lived and moved, and by many will be found to be intensely interesting. A good deal of the narrative takes the form of autobiography—the touching story of the poet’s connexion with David Gray, for instance, being told in Buchanan’s own words, as well as many reminiscences of his early years. Buchanan can hardly, perhaps, be called fortunate in his birth. He was reared in a home where revolutionary views were daily discussed and among people whose beliefs concerning Christianity caused the boy to be often shunned by his fellows. Treatment of that kind, foolish and unpardonable as it was, was bound to have an effect on a very sensitive temperament, and it no doubt left its mark. The story of how Buchanan ran away from Glasgow to London at the age of nineteen, when misfortune fell upon his father, is of course well known. For a time he had considerable difficulty in earning a living, but it was only for a time. One of his first friends in London was Barry Cornwall, who assisted him pecuniarily, and whose kindness unfortunately Buchanan never repaid. Very soon his literary work attracted attention. He began to do reviewing for the Athenæum. He wrote in All the Year Round, and Temple Bar, and came into contact with George Henry Lewes. He seems, however, to have had a decided repugnance to George Eliot—a prejudice which ultimately was the cause of the friendship with Lewes coming to an end. He also got to know Browning, but his relations with that poet were not afterwards altogether pleasant. Buchanan’s first book of poems, “Undertones,” published in 1863, made a great hit; his second volume, “Idylls and Legends of  Inverburn,” which followed two years later, was even more successful. He had married at twenty, and for a time fortune highly favoured him. But there were rocks and quicksands ahead. He caused much excitement and made certain influential enemies by his attack on “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” That attack was published under a pseudonym in the Contemporary Review. It created a tremendous stir, and Buchanan asserted afterwards that it was not conscientiously dishonest. “I really believed then,” he said, “that Rossetti was an affected, immoral, and over-praised writer.” He also states that after the publication of his review Tennyson averred to him that one of Rossetti’s sonnets was “the filthiest one he had ever read.” Browning, he likewise asserted, had in private been equally emphatic. The critical journals, however, described him as a “disguised assassin,” and his biographer says that for years afterwards he was assailed with every insult that malice could invent for his destruction. So cruel, indeed, and so relentless was this persecution of him that when in the year 1872 he published his “St. Abe and His Seven Wives,” he found it expedient not only to issue the book anonymously but to take every precaution to prevent the name of the author from being known. It is pleasant to remember that later Buchanan came forward and made amends both in his inscription of “God and the Man,” and in his maturer appreciation of Mr. Rossetti in his “Look Round Literature.” When in his prime Buchanan took to fiction. His “Shadow of the Sword” was published in 1876, and showed that he possessed other qualities besides those of a true poet. Into that story and “God and the Man” Buchanan put the best work of which he was capable. More might have followed of equally high merit had things gone well with him, but domestic calamity overtook him; he was in need of money, and he “scribbled at fiction” in order to get money. “His output,” says Miss Jay, “was very great and very rapid, and although his income increased his position as a novelist declined; many of his later novels were written, as it were, with his left hand, and it is certain that had he been a man of means they would never have been written at all.” About 1885 he turned his attention to plays, and most of his subsequent life was devoted to work of that character. Several of his own novels he dramatised; he also collaborated with Mr. G. R. Sims, and he produced other plays. Money came pouring in, but it went almost as soon as it was received, and his health finally gave way. The loss of his mother in 1894 was a great blow to him, and from that he never really recovered. He returned to his work for a time, but not with the same enthusiasm, and after suffering for eight months, during which he was as helpless as a child, he passed away in June 1901. At one period of his career Buchanan protested, inwardly at least, against the infidelity which surrounded him in his early home. “While my father,” he said, “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.” To Sir Leslie Stephen, as late as 1896, he said: “I cannot say that I am of your opinion that this life is worth anything without another and a higher. Frankly I hope I shall never think so.” It would, perhaps, be difficult to give an exact name to his religious beliefs; he was on this, as on some other things, “exceedingly easy to misunderstand.” Buchanan’s literary output covered nearly thirty years. How much of it, one wonders, will live? Certain it is that a good deal of it is the genuine metal which time will never tarnish.

     * “Robert Buchanan: Some Account of his Life, his Life’s Work, and his Literary Friendships.” By Harriett Jay, Author of “The Queen of Connaught,” &c. (Fisher Unwin.)



The New York Times (7 March, 1903)


LONDON, Feb. 26.—The life of Robert Buchanan, by Harriet Jay, his sister-in-law, has the merit of giving a truthful portrait of the man. As a rule, this cannot be said of a biography written by one who is in warm sympathy with the subject. When a man has been dead a hundred years or so, a biographer may be expected to tell the truth about him, but a biography written within a year after the death of the subject, and written, too, by a personal friend, almost inevitably takes on the coloring of friendship, and gives us a purified and glorified impression of the dead man. But Buchanan was one of the most transparent of men, and it was not a difficult task to show him as he was. certainly Buchanan was a poet, for he wrote not a little verse that was worthy of the name of poetry, although he also wrote much that was simply rhyme and nothing more. He was a novelist, but his books always suggested that they were written merely to sell, and not because the writer had any thing to say or any love for his art. He was a clever and savage critic, but his personal animosities made his criticism occasionally worthless. He never attained a commanding position in literature, and it is doubtful if anything written by him will survive.
     But for many years Buchanan was a prominent personality in London. He had a strong nature, and he spent his life in revolt against most things. He might be summed up as an intelligent, warm-hearted man, with an ungovernable temper, and a disposition to attack everything that other people liked. He came up to London as a friendless and penniless young poet, and he received much kindness. How he repaid some of it, by savage attacks on men who had helped him, will not be forgotten, especially as he had the bad taste to make his attacks under the disguise of another name than his own. He never recovered his position after that unfortunate event. Men were afraid of trusting to his friendship, and as the knowledge of this grew upon him, he became more and more of an Ishmaelite.
     And yet Buchanan was really a kindly man. It is doubtful if he fully comprehended how virulent and abusive were his attacks upon other authors, and it is probable that he was somewhat surprised to find that they were indignant. When he saw a head he hit it, but he thought it rather hard that the owner of the head should be seriously annoyed. He knew that the angry impulses which made him attack friends, and whatever they held dear, were passing moods, and he wondered that others attached importance to them. He did not really hate Christianity although he reviled it with vigor. It was something that commonplace people believed in, and therefore he attacked it, but in his heart he did not despise it, except, perhaps, when Mr. Richard Le Gallienne defended it.
     Had Robert Buchanan ever learned the value of self-restraint, and practiced it, his life would have been a very different one. He would have succeeded in literature far better than he did succeed, and he would have gained the esteem and respect of his fellows. The whole trouble with him was that he uniformly gave way to his impulses, and mocked at the idea of restraining them. He was a lovable man who made himself disliked without a shadow of excuse for so doing.
     Miss Jay does not say this in plain language. Indeed, it is by no means certain that she holds any such opinion of Buchanan as I have expressed. But in her book we cannot fail to see just what manner of man Buchanan was. The story is for that reason a pitiful one. There was so much that was good, so much that was clever, in the man, that it is an infinite pity that he never learned to govern himself. But it should be remembered that he was brought up in Scotland, where the strict restraints to which he was subjected had a natural tendency to beget in him a hatred of all restraint. Had he been born and bred in a more liberal land he might have been a very different man.



The Illustrated London News (7 March, 1903 - p.19)

Robert Buchanan: Some Account of His Life, His Life’s Work, and His Literary Friendships. By Harriett Jay. (London: Fisher Unwin. 7s. 6d.)

     In one matter Robert Buchanan has been fortunate far above his fellows. Few men have had a more discreet biographer than this unfortunate man of genius, whose life should prove a terrible object-lesson to all those anxious to adopt a purely literary career. What if Miss Jay has, when dealing with her adopted father, been “to his virtues very kind and to his faults a little blind”? She has evidently striven to tell the truth honestly even concerning the famous “Fleshly School” episode, which undoubtedly did much to injure permanently Buchanan’s reputation as a man and as a writer. Further, the author of this most interesting and pathetic book—the most pathetic volume of the kind published since the autobiography of Mrs. Oliphant—has as far as possible allowed her hero, for so he undoubtedly was, to speak for himself. That she did so adds greatly to the value of the volume, and will give every intelligent person who reads between the line a fairly accurate idea of Buchanan’s strangely complex personality. As Miss Jay naïvely observes in her preface, “a careful study of his diaries, and some of the private papers which he left behind him, revealed to me certain phases of his character of which I had no previous knowledge whatever.” Perhaps the most interesting chapters in the book are those dealing with Robert Buchanan’s early childhood, boyhood, and flight to London in 1859. Much has been said concerning the evil effects of a spoilt childhood; but it may be honestly doubted whether Buchanan would have been different from what he was had he been brought up in the most severe and well-regulated Scottish home, instead of in the luxurious Bohemian atmosphere which seems to have been created round him by his over-indulgent mother and kindly, gifted, unpractical father. Infinitely sad, and of course in no sense new to the world of letters, is the poignant story of David Gray, the young Scottish poet-friend of Buchanan, whose letters, written to his parents after his disastrous journey south, where he had hoped to conquer fame and fortune, are among the most terrible ever published, and of which perhaps the best known and the most often quoted is that containing the passage: “I do not know whether I shall be able to come back—sleeping none at night—crying out for my mother, and her so far away. Oh, God! I wish I were home, never to leave it more. Tell everybody that I am coming back, coming back no better—worse, worse. . . . Get my own little room ready—quick, quick! Have it all tidy and clean and cosy against my home-coming. I wish to die there, and nobody shall nurse me except my own dear mother, ever, ever again.” Small wonder that the experience of his unhappy friend’s poverty, illness, and death left a permanent mark on Buchanan’s soul, and influenced for ever his views of life. There are many painful episodes in this book, passages where Buchanan apparently displays almost vulgar ingratitude to the famous men and women who seem, on the whole, to have been remarkably kind to him; but it must be remembered in this connection that anything like undeserved prosperity apparently roused the most unreasonable anger and hatred in his nature. Miss Jay tells with simple pathos the story of the one episode in Buchanan’s life which may be said to have been hidden from even his most intimate later friends. I refer to the illness and death of his beautiful and beloved wife. With her, all that was best and finest in his nature seems to have gone, or at least become sadly atrophied. He gave himself up—though it is difficult to see why he should have done so—to what Miss Jay styles “much ignoble pot-boiling”; and though it is admitted that he made very large sums of money by so doing, he became involved in a tangle of pecuniary difficulties. Considering all these things, perhaps his death in the sixtieth year of his age should not be wholly a grief to the small group of friends who remained faithful to him to the last.



The Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia) (28 March, 1903 - p.9)



     “Robert Buchanan,” by Harriet Jay. London: T. Fisher Unwin. 1903.

     It is difficult to sum up a man of such varied, yet erratic, talent as Robert Buchanan. In thanking Lecky, the historian, for a kindly notice of a poem, he sadly described himself as “a wanderer in the wastes of literature.” As “The Outcast” and “God and the Man” abundantly show, he possessed many of the qualities of a great poet and a great novelist, but his gifts never came to their full fruition. He seemed never quite to have satisfied himself as to his proper metier. “Stiff in opinions” he was, and if not “always in the wrong” it mat be said with much truth that he was “everything by starts, and nothing long.” His memoir by his sister-in-law is written with a loving hand, but it enables us to see that Buchanan might with only too much truth have said with Cassius—“The fault is not in the gods, but in ourselves, if we are underlings.” He was vain and extravagant, and was an adept in what Whistler calls the “gentle art of making enemies.” “The struggle for existence,” we are told, “which darkened his whole life was mainly the result of his early training—a taste for luxury of all kinds had been instilled into him by his mother, while from his father he inherited a love of speculation.” The son of a Scotch socialist lecturer and journalist, he found himself in 1860, in his nineteenth year, dependent for his livelihood on his own resources. He went to London and took lodgings with a friend, David Gray, in a garret, for which he paid 7/ a week. Here is his own account of his early trials:—

     “I had no companions, I had not even an acquaintance, save Hepworth Dixon, of the ‘Athenæum,’ from whom I carefully concealed my poverty and terrible isolation, and whom I saw at intervals in his editorial office in Wellington-street, Strand. A little later on I introduced myself to W. G. Wills, of ‘All the Year Round,’ and to John Morley, then a boy like myself, and editing the ‘Literary Gazette,’ and still later I made the acquaintance, at the General Post-Office, of Edmund Yates, who was sub-editing ‘Temple Bar;’ but, in reality, these men were strangers to me—strangers to whom I could neither retail my troubles nor unburthen my ambition. . . . To me, who still survives, the recollection of these early days in London seems, at this distance of time, only a kind of wild dream; but I can see the ghastly ‘garret’ still, and poor Gray stretched on the bed or sitting up in a fanciful old dressing-gown which I had given to him, still hopeful, still full of feverish plans and aspirations, still not realising that he was doomed to die. He had kindly visitors from time to time—Milnes himself, Laurence Oliphant, Charles Mackay, and others; so that he was not quite desolate. When he departed and I was left to my own devices, I myself was desolate indeed.”

     In the sixties to be a versifier was something of a distinction, and two volumes of verse from Buchanan’s pen, “Undertones” and “Idylls,” attracted some attention. These were followed in the same decade by “Legends of Inverburn,” “London Poems,” and “Ballad Stories of the Affections.” His poetic abilities were so generally recognised that no one was surprised when they procured for him, though not yet 30, a Civil List pension of £100 a year. Though fond of luxury, he had a great repugnance to society, and his combative spirit kept him from being a hero-worshipper. He would bend at the shrine neither of wealth nor intellect, and his attitude towards the latter may be judged from what he says about George Henry Lewes and “Sibyl,” as he called George Eliot.

     “She posed behind a curtain, and Lewes acted as showman. No one could approach the oracle save with reverence, fear, and bated breath. If she was ‘composing’ she must not be disturbed; if she descended from the tripod, it was a god-like condescension; if she deigned, in that deep voice of hers, to make a remark about the weather, it was celestial thunder; if she joked, which she did ‘wi’ difficulty,’ as we say in Scotland, her joke was Summer lightning on Minerva’s brow. This state of affairs was complicated by the fact of her peculiar relationship to Lewes. She had few female acquaintances, and those only worshippers, and her attitude towards the outside world, while sternly contemptuous, was at the same time morbidly uneasy. I am obliged to confess that my attitude towards the Sybil, when I was introduced to her by Lewes, was always somewhat irreverent. I was an impudent youngster, but I hated absolutism in any form. Towards any godhead which I really worshipped—towards Dickens, for example—I could have abased myself in the dust. But it unluckily happened that the works of George Eliot had never stirred me very deeply, and that I was rather amused than awed by her personality. With Lewes himself moreover, I had to be very careful; he was very kind to me, but as the price of his sympathy he demanded a certain acquiescence which I could not always give, and my impudence more than once provoked him into angry remonstrance. Once, indeed, when I asserted myself a little too strongly, he threatened that if I did not behave myself he would give me the cold shoulder, to which my reply was, I fear, ‘Give me the cold shoulder, and be hanged.’”

     For Robert Browning he seems to have had a greater regard. But this was short-lived. One gathers that the elder poet tired of his young admirer. At all events he dropped him. Buchanan’s feelings are thus expressed:—

     “My last meeting with him was at one of the Royal Academy soirees, which follow the annual dinner. By that time we had fallen asunder a good deal, though we never had had any open disagreement, but as years wore on my enthusiasm had lessened, and I was not in the way of being useful to him as a friendly critic. We had only exchanged a handshake and a few words, but I felt that his manner was a little chilly. I was informed afterwards that at the Academy dinner, when Lecky, in responding to the toast of “Literature,” had startled the company by generously and warmly eulogising my ‘City of Dream,’ Browning had murmured to his next neighbour, ‘Of whom is he speaking? Of Buchanan, the writer of plays?’ I was just then collaborating with Sims on a melodrama for the Adelphi, and the question was construed by those who heard it, as an expression of ironical contempt. Naturally enough, Browning may have fancied that in writing plays for the market I was selling my birthright for a mess of pottage; but he knew better than most men that I had no option—it was either that or practical starvation. . . . On former occasions he had proclaimed his admiration for my work in terms as strong as any used by Lecky, and I cannot help thinking that, had I still been writing criticism, he might have been more tolerant of my occasional backslidings in literature. I well remember our meeting just after I had published ‘White Rose and Red’ anonymously. He bounded into my rooms with outstretched hands, and almost before we had exchanged a word launched out into eager eulogy of the work. I said something in smiling deprecation, but he did not listen. ‘O, it’s a beautiful poem; a beautiful poem,’ he cried again and again, with florid emphasis on the adjective. I think he was honest, and I am sure I hope so; but I had powerful organs at my command at that time, and he knew it.”

     It was in 1870 that Buchanan published in the “Contemporary Review” over the signature of “Robert Maitland,” his famous attack on “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” Some of the tendencies in the verse of Swinburne and Rossetti were assailed with unmeasured invective, and as the result Buchanan’s reputation was not enhanced in literary circles. He was denounced in the Athenæum as a “disguised assassin,” and though Tennyson, Browning, and others, we are told, privately agreed with him—Tennyson describing one of Rossetti’s poems as “the filthiest thin g he had ever read,” Buchanan had to fight the battle alone. But there is no resisting the power of genius, and much was forgiven the author of “The Shadow of the Sword,” which appeared in 1876. Between this year and 1900 he produced a succession of novels, but after the publication of “God and the Man” his powers as a fictionist, and, indeed, as a litterateur generally, exhibited a steady decline. In his later years he devoted much attention to the stage, dramatising the two stories referred to, as well as other novels, his own and other people’s, besides adapting foreign plays and collaborating in the production of Adelphi melodramas. It was only too clear, however, that the inspiring motive of much of his work was not a single-minded desire for fame, but a passion for money making, or it would be more correct to say, for accumulating the means for indulging in what his sister-in-law describes as “his expensive personal tastes,” and a growing addiction to gambling:—

     “It is a curious fact that, despite his many struggles, he never could master the art of compound addition, so that whatever his income was he always managed to be a little in arrear. He could no more help being prodigal with his great gains than the sun can help shining. I have known him to go to Trouville with £200 in his pocket and return at the end of a week without a penny of it, even although that £200 happened to be his last, and the spending of it meant that he had to shut himself up in his study, and work incessantly till the deficiency could be made good.”

     Mr. Henry Murray, who contributes a chapter on Buchanan’s turf experiences, tells us he was a born gambler:—

     “Whenever he had a little money he never rested until he had ventured it in some speculation, and, whatever that speculation might be, he never by any chance came off an eventual winner.” He took to the turf in the brief heyday of his success as a playwright, when he was making money hand over hand, plunged into it with ardor, and lost consistently and heavily. He contrived to combine the pursuit of sport with his unceasing literary activity. “At the time when he was preparing a long commentary on Renan’s views regarding certain Scriptural episodes we went together to Sandown, and in an interval between two races I found him standing in the middle of Tattersall’s ring, serenely unconscious of the charivari about him, reading his Greek Testament. When the bell rang he slipped the volume into his pocket, marking the place with a tip telegram, and plunged into the fray, apparently greatly refreshed by his studies.”

     Hardly wonderful is it that in the end he “was standing in the Bankruptcy Court, after all his gains, a practically ruined man.” The conditions under which he wrote in his later years were certainly not favorable to mental productiveness, but some of his best work was done under them. His sombre, powerful, agnostic poem, “The Wandering Jew,” a work fit to rank in literary merit with “The City of Dreadful Night,” appeared on the eve of his financial crash. Who, having once read them, can obliterate from his mind the haunting cadence of the lines which begin—

“Tombed from the heavenly blue
He lies in dreamless sleep,
The Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.”

While this poem, which impugned the doctrine of the Resurrection, was still in manuscript Buchanan told G. R. Sims that its publication would mean the close of his literary career, that publishers would take nothing more from him. If an agnostic, Buchanan was not without hope. In 1896 he thus expresses himself:—

     “I am ready to admit that my religion is only a yearning, my hope only a hope, born even out of a certain kind of despair; but through all the aberrations of a stormy personal career, and amid all the vicissitudes of fame and fortune, I have never ceased to cherish it, and the day it dies within me will be the day of my intellectual and moral extinction. It includes, I need not say, the forlorn and perhaps foolish faith of my childhood—the faith (to be carefully distinguished from belief) in personal immortality, in a supreme God or Good, and in the Life after Death.”

     Not impossibly the persecution to which his father was subjected by the orthodox may go to explain Buchanan’s antagonism to the dominant creed. He himself says:—

     “It was not till I was taken by my parents to reside in Scotland that I came face to face with the dismal superstition against which my father and these men, his friends, were passionately struggling. I then learned for the first time that to fight for human good, to be honest and fearless, to love the light, was to be branded as an enemy of society and an atheist. I saw my father so branded, and I have not forgotten my first horror when children of my own age avoided me, on the score that I was the son of an ‘infidel.’ But I learned now that there was more real religion, more holy zeal for humanity, in these revolters against the popular creed than in most of the Christians who preach one faith and practice another.”

     The keynote of Buchanan’s nature is struck by Mr. R. E. Francillon—a novelist of whom too little is known—in the following passage from a chapter contributed to this biography:—

     “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. 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 until 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.”



From A Bookman’s Letters by W. Robertson Nicoll (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1913 - Chapter 36, p. 323- 330)



MR. BIRRELL discussed some time ago the question, Is it possible to distinguish between a good book and a bad book? He came to the conclusion that it was very difficult to draw the line. Is it possible to distinguish a good man from a bad man ? It is by no means easy. The question is rarely raised by a biographer. As a rule, one lays down a biography feeling that he has learned something, that the man of whom he has been reading has some quality of nobleness or of patience which may well be admired and followed. But the Life of Robert Buchanan written by Miss Harriet Jay in 1902 almost forces a moral judgment on Buchanan. I hope to resist the compulsion, and to content myself with drawing attention to some materials for the solution of the problem. I do not think there will be any difference of opinion as to Buchanan’s intellectual gifts and literary achievements. He had an unquestionable touch of genius, and has done some fine things. But by far the larger part of his work is quite dead, and only the merest fragments can survive.
     I hasten to say that Miss Jay has done her work admirably, with true affection and lenity, and yet with a frank and serious candour. The great literary power manifested in her early book, The Queen of Connaught, has not failed her. Her style is simple and unambitious, but it has a touch of distinction, and alike in what she says and in what she does not say one cannot but mark her understanding of the issues, and her determination to be at once just and merciful. It weighs heavily on Buchanan’s side that he retained through life the warm affection of three such women as his mother, his wife, and his sister-in-law. They were by no means blind to his failings, but they loved him in spite of all. Let that be remembered whenever he comes up for judgment. Buchanan’s life was in many respects extraordinary and abnormal. Miss Jay says that he was from first to last a lonely man, that he had few friends and many enemies, and that he received from the world many cruel blows. No man, she says, has been oftener abused, though no man needed kindness so much and received so little. How do the facts bear this out? Buchanan’s parents were prosperous in his childhood. He had comforts and even luxuries, and he had a fair education at the High School and University of Glasgow. When he was only eighteen he went off to London, and for a short time he had a pretty hard struggle. In 1861, when he was only twenty, he married a lovely girl in her ’teens, and by that time he was doing fairly well. He had been accepted as a contributor to the Athenæum, and he worked also for other periodicals of importance in their day, such as All the Year Round and Temple Bar. He was employed by the Morning Star as a foreign correspondent. He obtained admission to the inner circle of literary people. Among others he was welcomed by George Henry Lewes and George Eliot, by Barry Cornwall, by Miss Mulock, by Thomas Love Peacock, by Edmund Yates, and by Robert Browning. He was also on very intimate terms with Charles Gibbon and William Black. In 1863, when he was twenty-two, his first volume of poems, Undertones, appeared, and was followed not long after by Idylls and Legends of Inverburn. He came into connection with the most generous of all publishers, Alexander Strahan. His work for Strahan is not adequately recorded in this biography. There was a time when Buchanan wrote most of the St. Paul’s Magazine. One of his first contributions to a London magazine was a poem in Good Words, which, by the way, was signed Williams Buchanan, and though Miss Jay does not say so, I believe the poet’s name was Robert Williams Buchanan. More than that, R. H. Hutton, of the Spectator, took him up with vehement enthusiasm, as much later he took up William Watson. The result was that, before he was twenty-five, Buchanan was offered £400 for a volume of poems, and was able to take a house near Oban. We are told that he lived there the life of a regulation country gentleman. His tastes were expensive, and he gratified them. He had his shooting and his fishing, while his yacht was riding at anchor in Oban Bay. Now I should like to know what right Buchanan had to complain of the world? Is there any case of a young author making so prosperous a start? He had hardly arrived in London as a mere boy when the most exclusive houses and the most jealously guarded periodicals were open to him, when the chief critics of the day—George Henry Lewes and Hutton and Hepworth Dixon—were loudly chanting his praises; when publishers were competing for his poems as they would compete for hardly any poet nowadays; and when he was able to live like a country gentleman, with his shooting, his fishing, and his yachting. True, the country life came after a few years, but it is perfectly evident that from the date of his marriage Buchanan must have been making an income of very comfortable proportions. So far as I know, and so far as this biography shows, he had no enemies then. He never had to run the gauntlet of criticism. He was accepted from the first, and all things opened fair for him. The truth is, not that Buchanan did not make friends, but that he could not keep friends. I remember well the manner in which he wrote of Hutton towards the end of his life, and it raised the question whether Buchanan knew what gratitude meant.
     Clouds came over the bright opening of his life. Was this because friends played him false? I do not think so. It was because he played himself false. Miss Jay virtually acknowledges that he had no conscience about his literary work—that is, he did not feel bound to do his best. He was always recklessly extravagant, and we are told in this volume that his wife had no faculty for saving any more than he had. In consequence, he was always impoverished. No matter how much his income was, he always contrived to spend more. Money had to be found, and he got it somehow by writing incessantly. But how badly he could write! It is melancholy to read the list of his books. After God and the Man, nearly all might be struck out with great advantage to his reputation; in fact, some volumes which preceded God and the Man, especially Napoleon Fallen and the Fleshly School of Poetry, might very well be spared. I will not raise questions as to the authorship of some books published under Buchanan’s name, a subject on which I do not profess to know more than other people.
     But this is a small part of the indictment. The gravest charge against Buchanan is not that he wrote quantities of disgraceful rubbish, but that he introduced a truly diabolical spirit of malignity into literary controversy. As to literary controversies, there is a distinction. Many of them are merely theatrical. They give amusement to both sides, and to the public. Even these, perhaps, do harm to literary men. They do not show them in their best light. But there are literary controversies that blight lives and poison minds, and of such were Buchanan’s. I do not wish to take up again the excessively disagreeable story of Buchanan’s attack on Rossetti. On this, as on almost every point, Miss Jay has written with admirable sense and good feeling. Rossetti was quite open to criticism, and even severe criticism. No less a man than Lowell wrote adversely and severely of his poems in the North American Review. But what cannot be excused to any critic is that he should write to avenge real or fancied insults. Mr. Swinburne, it seems, made a contemptuous allusion to the poems of Buchanan’s early friend, David Gray. Buchanan thought that Swinburne was retaliating on himself for his review of Poems and Ballads in the Athenæum. That article, which lies before me, was offensive in the highest degree, and there is hardly any provocation that could have justified it. Buchanan resolved to strike at Rossetti, and did so. Miss Jay says: ‘His motive was, I know, primarily revenge.’ It is too well known that the attack, contemptible as it was in form and spirit, grievously injured Rossetti, and was, in fact, the primary cause of his decline and death. Buchanan repented and retracted, but the mischief was done. He did not learn wisdom or charity from the quarrel. He went on to denounce other writers, great and small, with equal unscrupulousness, and from the same motive, that of revenge. I hope it is not necessary to argue that criticism inspired in this fashion is evil, and that it brands the name of the perpetrator. In conducting his warfare Buchanan stuck at nothing. For example, he wrote afterwards that Tennyson and Browning were with him, and that Tennyson told him that he considered a certain sonnet of Rossetti’s the ‘filthiest thing he had ever  read.’ I say that under no circumstances is it justifiable to hold such language. When Buchanan published this statement Tennyson was dead, and unable to contradict it. It rests entirely on Buchanan’s word; and, frankly, I believe that the statement was not true, for in the reminiscences contributed by Mr. Palgrave to Lord Tennyson’s memoir, there is a eulogium by Tennyson on this very sonnet. Nobody will suppose that Palgrave lied, nor do I say that Buchanan lied. There were innumerable misstatements in the later papers of reminiscences published by him in the Sunday Special and elsewhere. He imagined that he was speaking the truth, no doubt. It is very disagreeable to write in this strain, but it is necessary in the interests of justice. Buchanan is a warning to all critics. If they are unfortunate enough to cherish personal animosity towards any author, it is perfectly plain that they have no right under any circumstances to review his books. If they use their power as critics to avenge real or imagined personal wrongs, they are vermin who ought to be, as soon as possible, caught, cracked, and extirpated. It must also be pointed out that there is a peculiar baseness in attacking, not the man who has done you wrong, but another man who has done you no wrong, and is simply the friend of your enemy. Every one concerned for the reputation of literature ought to denounce without mercy all such practices. I wish I could think they were quite given over now.
     In the latter part of his life Buchanan took to play-writing, and received very large sums of money. Miss Jay tells us that he squandered them all. Whatever his income was, he always managed to be a little in arrear. ‘He could no more help being prodigal with his great gains than the sun can help shining.’ In 1894 he was standing in the bankruptcy court a practically ruined man. Mr. Henry Murray tells us that he was a born gambler, and though he was fully fifty years of age before he ever saw a racecourse, he took to the sport of racing with the same youthful ardour which characterised his pursuit of all that attracted his attention. He was a persistent loser, though we are told that he never regretted the money which the turf cost him. Buchanan had a right to be poor. He had a right to spend his income; but had he the right to become bankrupt? If he had become bankrupt through an unavoidable misfortune, was it not his duty to strain every nerve in order to repay his creditors? That was the view taken by Sir Walter Scott, and it is well to read Scott’s journal after this biography in order to recover one’s faith in human nature. We are told nothing here of the sum for which Buchanan failed, or of the money he provided for his creditors, and it is not my business to give the particulars. There is no doubt that Buchanan could be generous, that he was often very lavish in his gifts. But justice comes before generosity, and it has to be asked whether Buchanan was just.
     Let it be remembered that he was a man of fine gifts, of much humanity, and that by those who knew him best he was most dearly beloved. There is a great deal in this book, too much, I think, about Buchanan’s notions on Christianity. We are told that when he was preparing an article on the subject, he went down with a friend to the Sandown Races. His friend found him in the middle of the ring serenely unconscious of the carnival, reading his Greek Testament. When the bell rang he slipped the volume into his pocket, marked the place with a tip telegram, and plunged into the fray apparently greatly refreshed by his studies.



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