ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
HARRIETT JAY BOOK REVIEWS
4. Robert Buchanan: Some Account of His Life,
The Aberdeen Weekly Journal (1 October, 1902 - p.10)
READERS & WRITERS
(By J. CUTHBERT HADDEN.)
. . .
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.
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)
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.”
The Echo (2 February, 1903 - p.1)
POET AND NOVELIST.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
T. P.’s Weekly (6 February, 1903 - p.1-2)
THE BOOK OF THE WEEK.
“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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* “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.
ROBERT BUCHANAN: SOME ACCOUNT OF HIS LIFE, HIS LIFE’S WORK, AND HIS LITERARY FRIENDSHIPS. By Harriet Jay. (Fisher Unwin.)
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.
“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,
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
THE WIFE OF ROBERT BUCHANAN.
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.
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
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.
The Times Literary Supplement (13 February, 1903 - p.46-47)
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.
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 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. . . .
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)
ROBERT BUCHANAN: SOME ACCOUNT OF HIS LIFE, HIS LIFE’S WORK, AND HIS LITERARY FRIENDSHIPS. By Harriett Jay. London: T. Fisher Unwin. Pp. 324. 10s. 6d. net.
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)
A LITERARY LETTER
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.
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)
MR. ALDEN’S VIEWS.
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.
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)
THE BOOK OF THE WEEK.
“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
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.