[from Hall Caine My Story]
WHEN I came up to London to become Rossetti's housemate I brought with me the MS. of a collection of lectures which I had written while living in Liverpool. Shortly after the poet's death, when ways and means had begun to present serious problems, somebody recommended that I should submit this MS. to a certain great publishing house, and I took it in person. At the door of the office I was told to write my own name and the name of the person I wished to see, and to state my business. I did so, and the boy who took my message brought back word that I might leave my manuscript for consideration. It seemed to me that somebody might have seen me for a minute, but I had . expected too much. The manuscript was carefully tied up in brown paper, and so I left it. After waiting three torturing weeks for the decision of the publishers, I made bold to call again. At the same little box at the door of the office I had once more to fill up a similar little document. The boy took it in, and I was left to sit on his table, to look at the desk which he had been whittling away with his penknife, to wait and to tremble. After a while I heard a footstep returning. I thought it might be the publisher or the editor of the house. It was the boy back again. He had a pile of loose sheets of white paper in his hands. They were the sheets of my book.
" The editor's compliments, sir, and-thank you," said the boy, and my manuscript went sprawling over the table. I gathered it up, tucked it as deep as possible into the darkness under the wings of my Inverness cape, and went downstairs, ashamed, humiliated, crushed, and broken-spirited. Not quite that, either, for I remember that as I got to the fresh air at the door my gorge rose within me, and I cried in my heart, " By God, you shall-" and something proud and vain.
I daresay it was right and proper and in good order. The book was afterwards published, and I think it sold well. I hardly know whether I ought to say that the editor should have shown me more courtesy. It was all a part of the anarchy of things which Mr. Hardy considers the rule of life. But the sequel is worth telling. That editor became my personal friend. He is dead, and he was a good and able man. Of course he remembered nothing of this incident, and I never poisoned one hour of our intercourse by telling him how, when I was young, and a word of cheer would have buoyed me up, he made me drink the waters of Marah.
And three times since that day the publishing firm I speak of has come to me with the request that I should write a book for them. I have never been able to do so, but I have outgrown my bitterness; and, of course, I show no malice. Indeed, I have now the best reasons for wishing the great enterprise well. But if literary confessions are worth anything, this one may perhaps be a seed that will somewhere find grateful soil. Keep a good heart, even if you have to knock in vain at many doors and kick about the backstairs of the house of letters. There is room enough inside.
Such was my first attempt to become an author. After years had passed, during which I had been occupied in daily journalism, I found myself settled in a little bungalow of three rooms in the Isle of Wight, and there at length I began to write my first novel. By this time I had persuaded myself (perhaps wrongly) that nobody would go on writing about other people's writing who could do original writing himself; and I resolved to live on little, to earn nothing, and never go back to London until I had written something of some sort. As nearly as I can remember I had enough money in my purse to keep things going for four months, and if at the end of that time nothing had got itself done I must go back -bankrupt. Something did get itself done, but at a heavy price of labour and heart-burning.
When I began to think of a theme I found four or five subjects clamouring for acceptance. There was the story of the Prodigal Son, which afterwards became "The Deemster " ; the story of Jacob and Esau, which in the same way turned into" The Bondman " ; the story of Samuel and Eli, which after a fashion moulded itself finally into " The Scapegoat " ; as well as half -a-dozen other stories, chiefly Biblical, which have since been written, or are still on the forehead of the time to come.
But my first favourite at that moment was a Cumberland legend, which I had recited to Rossetti during the time we spent together in the Vale of St. John. It was one of the oldest legends of the Lake mountains, and it told of the time of the Plague. The people were afraid to go to market, afraid to go to church, and afraid to meet on the highway. In these days a widow with two sons lived in one of the darkest of the Cumberland valleys ; the younger son died, and his body had to be carried over the mountains to be buried. Its course lay across Sty Head Pass, a bleak and " brant " space where the winds are often high. The elder son, a strong-hearted lad, undertook the duty. He strapped the coffin on to the back of a young horse, and the funeral party started away. The day was wild, and on the top of the pass, where the path dips into Wastdale, between the breast of Great Gable and the heights of Scawfell, the wind rose to a gale. The horse was terrified. It broke away and galloped over the fells, carrying its burden with it. The lad followed and searched for it, but in vain, and he had to go home at last unsatisfied. This was in the spring, and nearly all through the summer the surviving son of the widow was out on the mountain trying to recover the runaway horse. Only once did he catch sight of it, though sometimes, as he turned homeward at night, he thought he heard in the gathering darkness, above the sough of the wind, the horse's neigh. Then winter came, and the mother died.
Once more a dead body was to be carried over the fells for burial, and once again a coffin was strapped on the back of a horse. It was an old mare that was chosen this time, the mother of the young one that had been lost.
The snow lay deep on the pass, and from the cliffs of the Scawfell Pikes it hung in a great toppling mass. All went well with the little funeral party until they came to the top of the pass, and though the day was calm the son held the rein with a hand that was like a vice. But just as the mare reached the spot where the wind had frightened the young horse, there was a terrific noise ; an immense body of snow had parted at that instant from the beetling heights overhead, and rushed down into the valley with the movement as of a mighty earthquake and the deafening noise as of a peal of thunder. The dale echoed and re-echoed from side to side and from height to height. The old mare was affrighted. She reared, leaped, flung her master away and galloped off. When the funeral party had recovered from their consternation they gave chase, and at length, down in a hollow place, they saw what they were in search of-a horse with something strapped to its back. But when they came up with it they found it was the young horse with the coffin of the younger son. They led it away, and buried the body it had carried so long. But the old mare they never recovered; and the body of the mother never found sepulchre.
Such was the legend, sufficiently terrible and even ghastly, which was my favourite theme when I began to think of my first novel. Rossetti had been impressed by it, but he had strongly advised me not to tackle it. " It is strong," he said, " but it lacks sympathy, and without sympathy no novel can live."
His judgment had disheartened me, but now I thought I saw a way to meet his objection. The sympathy so necessary to the story was to be got out of the elder son; he was to think God's hand was upon him. But whom God's hand rested on had God at his right hand ; so the elder son was to be a splendid fellow-brave, strong, calm, patient, long-suffering-a victim of unrequited love, a man standing square on his legs against all weathers.
About this central figure and legendary incident I first grouped a family of characters. They were heroic and eccentric, good and bad, but they all operated upon my hero. Then I began to write.
Shall I ever forget the agony of the first efforts ? There was the ground to clear with necessary explanations. This I did in the way of Scott, in a long prefatory chapter. Having written the chapter I read it aloud, and found it unutterably slow and dead. Twenty pages were gone, and the interest was not touched. Throwing the chapter aside, I began with an alehouse scene, intending to work back to the history in a piece of retrospective writing. The alehouse was better, but to try its quality I read it aloud, after the " Rainbow" scene in " Silas Marner"; and then cast it aside in despair. A third time I began ; when the alehouse looked tolerable the retrospective chapter that followed it seemed flat and poor. How to begin by gripping the interest, how to tell all and yet never stop the action-these were agonising difficulties.
It took me nearly a fortnight to start that novel, sweating drops of blood at every fresh attempt. I must have written the first half volume four times at the least. After that I saw the way clearer, and got on faster. At the end of three months I had written nearly two volumes (it was in the days of the three-volume novel), and then, in good spirits, I went up to London.
My first visit was to J. S. Cotton, a close friend (at that time editor of the Academy), and to him I detailed the lines of my story. His rapid mind saw a new opportunity.
" You want peine forte et dure," he said. " What's that ? " I asked.
" An old punishment, a beautiful thing," he answered. '' Where's my dear old Blackstone ? " And the statute containing the punishment for standing mute was read to me. It was just the thing I wanted for my hero, and I was in rapture. But I was also in despair; to work this fresh interest into my theme, half of what I had written would need to be destroyed l
It was destroyed, the interesting piece of ancient jurisprudence took a leading place in my scheme, and after two months more I got well into the third volume. Then I took my work down to Liverpool, and showed it to my friend, John Lovell. After he had read it he said
" I suppose you want my candid opinion?" " Well, ye-s," I said.
It's crude," he said. " But it only wants subediting."
I took it back to London, began again at the first line, and wrote every page over again. At the end of another month the story had been reconstructed, and was shorter by some fifty pages of manuscript. It had drawn my heart's blood to cut my "best" passages, but they were gone, and I knew the book was better. After that I went on to the end and finished with a tragedy. Then the story was sent back to Lovell, and I waited for his verdict.
My home (or what served for it) was now on the fourth floor of New Court, in Lincoln's inn, and one morning Lovell came puffing and blowing and steaming (the good fellow was a twenty-stone man) into my lofty nest. He had re-read my novel coming up in the train.
"Well?" I asked nervously. "It's splendid !" he said.
That was all the favourable criticism he offered. All save one practical and tangible bit.
"We'll give you £ 100 for the serial right of the story for the Weekly."
He offered one unfavourable criticism.
" The death of your hero will never do," he said. ,If you kill that man, you'll kill your book. What's the good? Give no more than the public will take from you to begin with; and by - and - by they'll take what you give them."
It was practical advice, but it went sorely against the grain. The death of the hero was the natural sequel to the story-the only end that gave meaning, and intention, and logic to its motif. I had a strong predisposition towards a tragic climax in a serious story. To close a narrative of disastrous events with a happy ending, it always seemed necessary to turn every incident into accident. That was like laughing at the reader. Comedy was comedy; but comedy and tragedy together was farce. Then, a solemn close was so much more impressive. A happy ending nearly always frayed off into rags and nothingness; but a sad one closed and clasped a story as with a clasp. Besides, a tragic end might be a glorious and satisfying one, and need by no means be squalid and miserable. But all these arguments went down before my friend's practical assurance: "Kill that man and you kill your book."
With much diffidence I altered the catastrophe, and made my hero happy. Then, thinking my work complete, I asked Watts-Dunton (the friend to whose wise counsel I owed so much in those days) to read some "galley " slips of it. He thought the rustic scenes good, but advised me to moderate the dialect; and he propounded to me his views on the use of patois in fiction.
" It gives a sense of reality," he said, "and also has the effect of wit; but it must not stand in the way."
The advice was sound. A man may know over much of his subject to write on it properly. I had studied Cumbrian to too much purpose, and did not realise that some of my scenes were like sealed books to the general reader. So once again I ran over my story, taking out some of the " nobbuts " and the " dustas " and the " wiltas."
My first novel was now written; but I had still to get it published. In my early days in London, while trying to live in the outer court of the calling wherein the struggle for existence is keenest and bitterest and cruellest, I conceived one day the idea of offering myself as a reader to the publishers. With this view I called on several of them, who have perhaps no recollection of my early application. I recall my interview with one of them. He was sitting at a table when I was taken into his room, and he never once raised his head from his papers to look at me. I just remember that he had a neck like a three-decker and a voice like a peahen's.
" Well, sir ? " he said.
I mentioned the object of my visit. " What can you read ? "
" Novels and poems," I answered.
"Don't publish either; good day," he said; and I went out.
But one of the very best, and quite, I think, the very oldest of publishers now living, received me differently.
" Come into my own room," he said. It was a lovely little place, full of an atmosphere that recalled the publishing-house of the old days-halfoffice, half-study-a workshop where books might be made, not turned out by machinery. I read many manuscripts for that publisher, and must have learned much by the experience. And now that my novel was finished I took it to him first. He offered to publish it the following year. That did not suit me, and I took my book elsewhere. Next day I was offered fifty pounds sterling for my copyright. That was wages at the rate of about four shillings a day for the time' I had been actually engaged upon the work, straining brain and heart and every faculty. Nevertheless, one of my friends urged me to accept it.
" Why ? " I asked.
" Because it is a story of the past, and therefore not one publisher in ten will look at it."
I used strong language, and then took my novel to Chatto & Windus. Within a few hours Mr. Chatto made me an offer, which I accepted.
The story I have told of many breakdowns in the attempt to write my first novel may suggest the idea that I was merely serving my apprenticeship to fiction. It is true that I was, but it would be wrong to conclude that the writing of a novel has been plain sailing with me ever since. Let me " throw a crust to my critics," and confess that
I am serving my apprenticeship still. Every book that I have written since has offered even greater difficulties. Not one of the little series but has at some moment been a despair to me ; there has always been a point of the story at which I have felt confident that it must kill me. I have written nine novels (that is to say, about ninety), and sworn as many oaths that I would never begin another. The public expects a novel to be light reading. It may revenge itself for occasional disappointment by remembering that a novel is not always light writing.