Monday, December 5, 2016

Gentlemen authors

In the days when Pope lashed the victims of the Dunciad, there was struck out a theory of the genteel pretensions of authors, which was very clear, and to those on the right side of the hedge very satisfactory. There was to be, on the one hand, a knot of polite well-bred men, possessed of true learning and genius, the companions of statesmen, the associates of fashionable wits, the oracles and models of an Augustan age. On the other hand, there was to be Grub-street with its greasy historians and translators, its flea-bitten, bailiff-driven booksellers' hacks, its starving, low, virulent poets, and dunces. But a hundred years have changed all that. The greatest literary man of the last half of the eighteenth century came out of Grub-street and conquered the polite world by something that was better than gentility. Society, too, has fined off into a series of imperceptible gradations, and in the world of authorship, as in the sphere of other callings, there is no saying where gentility begins or ends. Mr.Thackeray, in his last number of the Virginians, has stigmatized some of his critics as “Young Grub-street.” But Young Grub-street would not answer to the name, would hold up its head with imperturbable coolness, and be apt to call out “Old Grub-street" in return. Society gains a great deal, if it also loses something, by this superficial equality; and although privately it is impossible not to make distinctions, convenience and courtesy equally bid us pronounce that all the authors of the present day are gentlemen. Still there are certain literary occupations which at least make us wonder that a gentleman will venture to engage in them. There is, for instance, the province of contemporary biography, and of living on the bodily presence and the mental characteristics of an eminent man. And when the eminent man is himself a writer, then there are no limits to what may be said, or to the manner of saying it. The biographer can have his fling, and can gratify vulgar curiosity by the minuteness of his description, and himself by the ingenuity of his invidious praise. As an example —a rather singular example—we may take a portrait of Mr. Thackeray, which has i. appeared in a paper called Town-Talk, and which, as the whole literary world knows, has subsequently been acknowledged by Mr. Edmund Yates. It is not often that one gentleman author goes so plainly and directly into particulars about another, as Mr. Yates does in the following passage:–
‘Mr. Thackeray is forty-six years old, though from the silvery whiteness of his hair he appears somewhat older. He is very tall, standing upwards of six feet two inches, and as he walks erect his height makes him conspicuous in every assembly. His face is bloodless, and not particularly expressive, but remarkable for the fracture of the bridge of the nose, the result of an accident in youth. He wears a small grey whisker, but otherwise is clean shaven. No one meeting him could fail to recognise in him a gentleman; his bearing is cold and uninviting, his style of conversation either openly cynical, or affectedly good-natured and benevolent; his bonhomie is forced, his wit biting, his pride easily touched—but his appearance is invariably that of the cool, suave, well-bred gentleman, who, whatever may be rankling within, suffers no surface display of his emotion.’
To do this kind of biographical business is a strange pursuit for an author and a gentleman. If print were not the vehicle of expression, and a writer were not the subject, it would be thought offensive to be so personal, and coarse to be so plainspoken. But there is certainly the defence that contemporary biography sells well, and that, the more personal and plainspoken it is, the better it sells. And even if Mr. Yates has, we will not say endangered, but tested his reputation as a gentleman author by penning and selling this hue-and-ery delineation of a fellow writer, it may perhaps be doubted whether there is not a sort of justice in Mr. Thackeray being the victim; for Mr. Thackeray is the great creator and support of the “new profession”—that of what is euphemistically called lecturing, but what is really taking a man's personal appearance into the market. When any one man has written works which have been read by thousands, and has excited an interest in large classes of the population, there are sure to be a great many persons that would like to see the man himself whose writings they know so well. They like to see him, and to say they have seen him. Mr. Thackeray has thought, and others have thought with him, that there was money to be made largely and easily out of this curiosity. Why should he not show himself? There is a character in Evelina who goes to the play every evening, on the plea that he is willing to pay five shillings a night in order that his friends may see he is alive. Mr. Thackeray effected the same object much more cleverly, and made other persons pay him the five shillings, that they might see he was alive. He took into the market his “silvery hair,” his “bloodless and not particularly expressive face,” his “fractured nose,” and his “small grey whiskers.” He sold a good stare at them to thousands of curious and eager purchasers. Mr. Thackeray was a gentleman by birth and education, and he probably knew that this publicity of private life—this coining money out of his personal appearance—was not a proceeding of a very high stamp. He was, we may suppose, aware that reserve and a hatred of vulgar notoriety are marks of a gentleman's character and bearing. But really the thing was so lucrative. There was nothing wrong in it; and why should he not put his pride in his pocket if he put a heavy purse there too? We do not pretend to quarrel with his decision; but there certainly is some reason why he should complain less than most men of being photographed by Mr. Yates. Mr., Thackeray makes money by showing himself at a lecture, and Mr. Yates makes money by describing what is shown. We do not pretend that the two things are exactly the same, but then Mr. Thackeray and Mr. Yates are not exactly in the same literary position; and if it was, as we hope, a descent for Mr. Yates to draw this biographical portrait, it was indisputably a descent for a man of honourable family and good education to make the tour of the platforms that bid highest for a peep at him.

It would, however, be very unfair if we did not acknowledge that it is extremely hard to sacrifice a large sum of money for a mere punctilio—that most men, and most critics, if tried, would prefer the money to so shadowy a thing as self-approbation—and that there are always a hundred good reasons why money should be made. Few men love themselves, or think more anxiously and wisely for themselves, than parents do for their children, while yet their hopes for their issue are high, and they have not been disheartened by bitter experience. Now, let us suppose that the darling of a family is a mischievous, olive-coloured, hump-backed little pickle. The parents promise themselves that they will keep and cherish this strange nursling for ever. But Barnum comes that way, and settles that this is exactly the child for an “Original Chinese Dwarf.” He proposes a moderate sum to the parents, and is repulsed with scorn. He is not to be beaten back, and bids higher and higher. At last the point is reached when the parents begin to hesitate. They picture all that they could do with the money, and are secretly a little flattered by the urgency of the speculator. Finally they are overcome by what they consider a sense of duty. It will be so obviously for the advantage of their little boy that he should be the Well-known Chinese Dwarf, and common prudence enjoins that they should look to the future, and provide a comfortable maintenance for the poor lad. And so the affair is arranged, and Jemmy, goes away in a caravan. If parents who act thus are guilty of a weakness, it is a weakness from which few would escape. It might indicate a more noble and generous feeling if they had preferred poverty and privacy for their darling; but after all they have acted prudently, and have done no harm. Just so, we must admit that all Mr. Thackeray would have gained by refusing to be Barnumized, was something infinitesimal and inappreciable; and he would have lost a sum of money which the aspect of a bloodless face and a broken nose can rarely procure. To go to market with himself, and satisfy curiosity at a scale of prices regulated according to proximity, was not to do anything dishonourable. It was not anything ungentlemanly, like cheating at cards, or telling a lie. It was, at worst, an offence against taste; and all that could be said about it was that it tended to degrade literature and to foster the appetite for intrusion into other men's affairs, which is apt to be impertinently gratified at the special expense of authors. We can easily conceive that, although a man of Mr. Thackeray's sensibility would perceive that to do this was a departure from the strictest code of high feeling, yet calm philosophy would tell him that such a departure might be justified by a large pecuniary profit. We feel sure that, in some way or other, he thought it only due to himself or to others to let Barnum have his Chinese Dwarf; and it is certain that nine-tenths of any number of persons subjected to the same trial would have decided as he did, and that the few who might decide otherwise would have very little of palpable and visible advantage to show as a compensation for the money they rashly threw away.

We may even admit that it is a debateable point whether there is any derogation from his position in a gentleman going about in his literary caravan. It may be argued that he is still the same man, with the same feelings, opinions, and principles, and that he is only combating the essentially ungentlemanly notion that a man ceases to be a gentleman when he earns his bread honestly in an unusual way. Looking only to the individual, this is to a great extent true, and we must own that Mr. Thackeray is the same man alike when, we have paid our five shillings for the privilege of looking at him, and when we have enjoyed it gratis. But if we turn our thoughts to the whole literary profession, we are inclined to think that the bad effect of a vendible publicity is discoverable. Mr. Thackeray, might maintain that Mr. Yates was taking rather a liberty with him, if he had not himself provided his oil, with a sufficient excuse. That a man near the head of a calling should entitle his inferiors to take a liberty with him, is in itself an evil. At any rate, if we are not to say that it is derogatory to Mr. Thackeray to show himself, nor to Mr. Yates to photograph the show, we may venture to admire more unmixedly those who set themselves against this, literary unreserve. It is not one of the least debts of gratitude that the country owes to the Laureate, that he has always consistently maintained that a gentleman is not to be intruded upon, nor to intrude himself on others, because he has a gift for verse-making. If we recognise the common-sense which says that money is better than a punctilio, we may also sympathize with the nobler scorn which refuses to let same degenerate into notoriety. No one who even knows Mr. Thackeray only by his books, and has not the honour of an acquaintance which the first gentleman in the kingdom might be pleased to possess, can doubt that he is a man of honour and high feeling. But he has made what, if judged on other than pecuniary grounds, appears to us a mistake. Against this mistake Mr. Tennyson has repeatedly protested, and we think that he has chosen the better part.

Saturday Review, July 17, 1858.

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