[from Hall Caine My Story]
I HAD written two novels with their scenes in Cumberland, my mother's country, before I thought of carrying out the suggestion of Rossetti that I should try to become the novelist of Manxland; but now I began to see how readily the island lent itself to literary treatment, not merely for its own sake but also for the sake of those great themes of human sin and sorrow which are never so well illustrated as when brought down to a little scene, a narrow focus, from the general to the particular. So I went with my project of becoming a Manx novelist to consult a famous Manxman of his day, the Rev. Hugh Stowell Brown.
Brown disapproved of it altogether. "Don't attempt it," he said. "If you do, you will have a lasting disappointment. The readers of novels don't care one straw about the Isle of Man. Nobody cares about it, and I would earnestly counsel you to dismiss the thought."
Fortunately for myself, I think, I saw reasons for doubting the wisdom of Brown's advice, and by way of experiment, I wrote a little Manx story which no one remembers now, except in America, where they are so indulgent to my failure that they sell it at five cents in tens of thousands. But under happier inspiration I tried again. In dismissing me with his wet blanket, my friend had said
" But if you must write about that God-forsaken little island you ought to go to my brother Tom." I did not go to his brother Tom, but with characteristic sweetness his brother Tom came to me. Thus began one of the tenderest and truest friendships of my life, my friendship with the racy, the brilliant, the entirely charming and delightful author of " Fo'c's'le Yarns"; the most loyal, the most generous, the most unselfish of men. If I quote from the letters he wrote to me at the beginning of our acquaintance more than one passage which modesty might call upon me to suppress, I shall do so with one object onlyto reveal to the reader the large generosity, the measureless charity, the splendid if too lavish appreciativeness which made T. E. Brown, for all who knew him, the most fascinating of friends.
" It may be late," he wrote, " but even so I must write to tell you with what pleasure I have read your Cumberland story. I think it is wholly delightful. The style too is admirable ; in fact, it is a style, and a very fine one. We are now looking out, somewhat nervously, for a successor to George Eliot, and we should, many of us, be well content to see a successor to Mrs. Gaskell. I feel that you belong to this rank of novelists, and that the sweet gravity of your manner, and the total absence of straining, brings you perhaps nearer to the latter than to the former. But these circumstances of distinction are very great, and have gladdened many beside me. Please pardon this intrusion upon your privacy. I would not have ventured to address you thus, if I had not reason to believe that you are, remotely it may be, a fellow-countryman of mine. Am I wrong in supposing that you derive your second name from the Isle of Man? You published some time ago, in the Liverpool Mercury, a tale of Manx life, which much interested me, and served rather to justify my conjecture.
" I am a Manxman, with a root in Cumbria, and am passionately fond of both countries ; consequently I am, in some sort, made to be one of your most sympathetic readers.
" It `is possible you may have read a book of mine called ' Fo'c's'le Yarns,' in which I have tried to tell a few Manx stories. If, as is indeed most probable, my little venture has not come under your notice, I would esteem it an honour if you would allow me to send you a copy. My object, however, in writing to you now, is to assure you of my warm admiration and sympathy. The mention of my own book you will, I trust, regard as an attempt to produce credentials of my aptness to feel the sympathy which I have tried to express."
If this letter indicated a breadth of sympathy that was apt to lose itself in generosity, I will quote again to show that Brown could be a very severe as well as a very appreciative critic. When I began to lay the keel for my first serious Manx novel, I sent a scenario to the author of " Fo'c's'le Yarns," and this is part of his reply
" Thanks for this admission to the secrets of your workshop. The story is most interesting. I think it best to return the sketch, as it is convenient for purposes of reference.
" It could not possibly be placed in the Isle of Man nor timed in the nineteenth century.
"The Isle of Man does not give you the remoteness of place which you want. Norway might, Kamtschatka might! but the Isle of Man-no.
"Then as to time
"The history of the Isle of Man since the Revestment (1765 ?) is not legendary, nor has it been otherwise than very clearly defined since the Reformation. It is an eventless history, but quite ascertained, and rigid within its narrow compass. The constitution has been singularly unbroken ; there is not the faintest hint of any such resolution as you postulate. The House of Keys was co-optative in my own time, and the change to the popular method of election was the merest migration 'from the blue bed to the brown.'
"The stage is inadequate for your romance ; and moreover it is quite occupied by the most obstinate fixtures. Your Dooiney (sic) Mooar is less than a fable. Where can you get him in? He is not, I suppose, the Earl of Derby, or the Duke of Athol ; but, if he is not, he ought to be; for these gentlemen hold the field, and you can't get rid of them. It is impossible to conceive the privileged class, or nobles, of whom you speak. The fact is, you would take the Isle of Man as the merest physical basis, and construct upon it a whole system of manners, institutions-a social system, in short, which it never knew. It can't be done at the distance ; it can't be done at all.
" Now, why not cut away your socio-politico-revolutionary setting altogether, and rely, as no doubt you desire to do, on the sheer humanities ? The Dooiney Mooar need not be a Lear, but he might be an old Manx gentleman ; and instead of resigning a seigniority, he might resign his landed estate. Such a person, and grouped around him nearly all the rest of your story, you could place about the year 1800. The Duke of Athol held a sort of court in those days : he brought over with him to the island a choice assortment of swashbucklers, and captains and miscellaneous blackguards. . . . This Athol episode is, I think, capable of treatment ; but it brings us perilously near our own time. Bishop Wilson was an 'epoch-making' personage. The Church and State question was then prominent. He was a complicated man, or at any rate, a composite one. Never was man more beloved, never was there a serener saint, never a more brutal tyrant. But why seek this sort of person in the Isle of Man ? Think of Laud and his tremendous stage.
Has any one ever ' done' him, and the robin coming into his study, and ' all to that'?
" But yours is a Romance ? Not an unconditional Romance, though, I suppose ? Your sketch, as related to a background, is more like a Fiction founded upon fiction ; or, to express it nautically,
Fiction -by-fiction -half -fiction -with -a-little-bit-offiction."
An opinion like that was not to be gainsaid and I went to work again, getting a little closer to Manx soil, though still conscious that my theme was floating over the real Isle of Man as over an island of Prospero that had the interest and perhaps the charm without the responsibilities of an actual country. In this second effort I had the constant sympathy and assistance of my correspondent ; and when at length my work was done the best reward that came to me was the whole-hearted enthusiasm with which my first Manx novel was received by the brilliant Manxman.
" I have broken a finger and can hardly guide a pen," he wrote, " but I must write at least a scratch or two to tell you of the delight with which I have read the new book. I confess the first volume did not attract me much. The quotations from ' Fo'c's'le Yarns' are stitched on in a patchy way, like Dick-Quayle-Vessey's buttons. Afterwards you shake yourself free from these tags and bobs, and your Manx does not suffer for it. Do you feel nervous about this dialect business ? I think, if I were you, I'd drop it.
" You seem to have used a poor lecture of mine on Manx proverbs. Again, I should say, ' Drop it l' and sic rnelius situm.
"The proverbs seem lugged in, and some of them hang in the air à propos de bottes. To me all this kind of thing gives an air of weakness. But in the second vol. we rise to very noble work indeed. Here I have little to do but to confess my warmest admiration, and so on to the very end."
Then follow five or six pages in Brown's minute and delicate hand of just and searching criticism, coupled with splendid if extravagant praise, and then this characteristic passage
" I do so rejoice in that stark atmospheregrey, grim, almost colourless ; the very style is in outline; no fat paint, no prettiness, no ornamentdark silver, dark steel, if you like. Mind, I would not have you overdo this ; your sentences are just on the point of becoming jerky ; they are rigid, but you must not let them become abrupt, snapped off by the keenness of their own internal tension. It is extraordinary how whole passages of this book affect me as beautiful frostwork ; the icicles seem to ring in the thin air.
" But I do like this : partly it is a veAems, i.e. I have a savage sort of exultation in the thought that to you our island is not a mere fairy scene of the ' lovely ' and the ' sweet,' and the ' really you know such a charming little place,' such ferns, such mosses-positively demmee a little paradise of primæval simplicity, not incapable of Lawn Tennis!
" Lord God! What a reception for the Edwins and Angelinas, this cold stern rebuke of yours. But to the owe-roc, to those who know, what comfort, what ghostly consolation in this dourness. Why, there is not even a picnic, is there?
" You have evidently given up the notion of a story which we discussed some time ago you had thought of a story which should be based upon some revolutionary social change. I thought this would transcend the little Manx canvas. I remember-you spoke of Lear and Macbeth, and so people do, but it's really Gervinus-Dowden, and you are well rid of it.
" Your story fits the Isle of Man like a lid to a box. Now if you had gone fumbling about after aeons and transition aeons and the progress of Society, God damn it, man ! where should we have been ? adrift upon the sea of Nowhere, in the good ship Utopia, Captain O6-ris. As it is, I have but to unstopper this alabaster box of precious ointment, and up leaps the genuine Manx perfume, so that the house is filled with the savour thereof. Never mind the little hitches of dialect, never mind Dick-QuayleVessey's buttons ! Whether it's the blood in you, or the poet and diviner, you know all about it, you need not that any should tell you concerning Man, for you know what is Man, and that in two senses."
Rather later Brown wrote an amusing letter on the fact that for nearly a year after publication of this first Manx novel, the island itself appeared to be totally unaware of its existence.
"I am perfectly amazed that, as yet, no notice of your book has appeared in the Manx papers. But they are so curious, these Manx pressmen ! Conceive these worthy persons week after week cramming their sheets with reports of Tynwald, and Local Companies, with the facetioe of Auctioneers, the recriminations of Town Commissioners, the lucubrations of Lockerby v. Cowin of ' The Belvidere,' and not a word, so far as I know, in recognition of the fact that they have been caught to the breast of genius, and that when all their little turmoils shall have passed into the Limbo of fatuities,
The Deemster' will live in the literature of the English nation, their own descendants abashed and wondering, and asking what their fathers meant by an indifference so stupid and so unaccountable. Of course I can see that the year 1887 must always be an epoch in Manx history, the year ' The Deemster ' was published, not the year of the three rival steam-boat companies."
It is hard for me to hold my hand in quoting from Brown's letters, and if I have already gone too far in reproducing my own glorification, I ask my readers to believe that of all the rewards that have come to me for my books the most precious by far was the fact that certain of them were clasped to the breast of the man of genius who wrote " Fo'c's'le Yarns."
I have written several Manx novels since that first one, calling up as from an inexhaustible granary the crops of incident and character which I had unconsciously gathered in my youth, and perhaps it is by these books, whatever their shortcomings, that my name is best known to the public in general ; but it has always been a source of pathetic amusement to me to remember how the island itself received its first novelist.
If novels had been written about it before, that fact had made no impression upon its consciousness, and if dialect poems of great raciness and charm had been published by Brown, the rumour of them had unhappily not gone far. But now for the first time a writer of storybooks had penetrated into its households, getting into the heart of the country, going into the farmhouses, and deliberately sitting down by the turf fire in the " chollagh." The outside world cannot understand what that means; but we who are of the soil and have visions of stern old Churchmen and grim old Methodists in every village, who never saw a novel in their lives, and would not have touched one with the longest "grip " if it had been tossed over the tail-board of a cart, can realise the feelings with which the island must have grasped the fact that a degenerate son of her own was (as the worthy preacher on the " plan-beg " put it) "actually earning his living by telling lies."
It was not at once, however, that our sober, class-leading island reconciled itself to the idea that these novels were fictions at all. I was constantly hearing them discussed as fact. Shortly after the publication of " The Deemster," a good Manxman wrote to tell me that he had known Dan Mylrea from his boyhood up, that he had often warned the poor boy against the way he was going, and that when drink got the better of him at last and he killed his cousin Ewan, he had come to his house on the night of the murder and given him the knife with which he had committed the crime-and my correspondent had kept it ever since.
After "The Bondman," I chanced on an old Manxman in Kirk Maughold, who told me that he had known the place all his life, and he remembered Adam Fairbrother and the six big lazy brothers, and the girl Greeba, and the mill at Port-e-Vullin (for it was " himself that felled it "), but he was " plagued mortal " to fix Jason, the Icelander, and he couldn't meet with anyone in the parish who remembered anything about him. After "The Manxman" a shrewd old friend of mine, living by the watertrough on Ballure, conceived the idea that he was the hero of that story; a photographer photographed him in that character, and now the good canny man does a comfortable business by selling souvenirs of himself as the only original Pete Quilliam, whom Kitty Cregeen was so heartless as to run away from.
But whatever the attitude of the Isle of Man towards the novels that are associated with my name, I count it a sufficient return for all the labour they gave me that they brought the brotherly friendship of T. E. Brown. Rossetti alone excepted, he was the most brilliant and fascinating creature I have ever known. Half sailor, half parson, as W. E. Henley happily described him, a thick-set, almost 'stocky" person to look upon, with a roll in his walk, and a sort of lurch in his talk, too, with a square jaw, a moist and glistening eye, a mouth that could be as firm as if cast in bronze, and then as soft as if blown in foam; strong, yet tender, full of the joy of life, delighting in the mere sense of being alive, loving the mountains and the sea and the sky and the song of birds, but humanity above everything, and woman above all-he was a man, and I think a great one.
So unusual a mixture of saint and, let me say, sinner, of scholar and poet and parson and ordinary human being I have never met in any other being. He was capable of the highest flights of the spirit when it is alone with God and feels the knitting together of the riven tissues, the dew of Hermon, the balm of Gilead ; but there was no sanctimoniousness about Brown ; no sickly and mawkish religiosity. He loved to adjust his ideas to the rugged level of everyday life, to tune his talk to the common lingua vulgaris (with an occasional " Damn it all, man"), whatever conventions might be made to bleed. No affectation ever touched him, no pretence, no humbug of any kind. As a poet he had the fulness of maternal delight in all that came up from the depths of his being, and as a man he had the never-failing joy of his masculinity.
He had been Vice-Principal of Clifton College, and when he retired from his post he made his home in the Isle of Man. With no material interest in the welfare and prosperity of his native island, with few (how few!) intellectual associates there, parting from the friends and ways of life of thirty years, nevertheless when the burden of his work was done he returned to the Isle of Man because he loved it, because it was linked with the tenderest memories of his childhood and the fondest recollections of his youth ; because the graves of his kindred were there, and he had heard the mysterious call that comes to a man's heart from the soil that gave him birth.
I suppose there was a sense in which I heard it too, for shortly after Brown went back to the island I also returned to it. And then-though there was so great a difference between usdifference of age, character, and attainmentswe became the closest friends, the most constant companions. We tramped the glens and climbed the hills together ; and Brown would lie on the heather for sheer love of the odour of the earth and plunge in the " dubs " of cool water that tumbled and roared in the deafening caverns of the rocks.
Five years only were given him to indulge his great love of home, yet how much he got into them! How he spent himself for the Manx people, without a thought of himself! If only a handful of his countrymen called to him he came at their bidding. He was at everybody's service, everybody's command. Distance was as nothing even to his failing strength, time as nothing, labour as nothing ; and the penalties he paid he did not count.
Sometimes his friends have thought that the island did not appreciate all this, did not realise it to the full, did not rightly apprehend the sacrifices that were being made, or the generous disproportion of the man to the work which he allowed himself to do. But there can be no question of that kind now. Manxmen and Manxwomen know to-day that the island lost in Brown the greatest man who was ever born to it, the finest brain, the noblest heart, the largest nature that we can yet call Manx. We do not point to his scholarship merely, though that was splendid, or to the place he won in life, though it was high and distinguished ; or yet to his books, though they were full of the fire of genius and racy of the soil he loved the best. None of these answer entirely to the idea we have of the man we knew and loved so well. But the bright and brilliant soul, so strong, so humorous, so tender, so easily touched to sympathy, so gloriously gifted, so beautifully unselfish-this is the idea that answers to our memory of the first of Manxmen in the present age or any other.
When I pass from the island's loss to my own I can hardly trust myself to speak. I saw him last at my own house at Greeba on a day in 1897 when I was about to leave home for a visit to Rome, and I think he had walked across the mountains (no unusual adventure) to bid me good-bye. His health had been failing for some tune, and he was rather silent and I thought sad. At length, when we were alone, in reply to some remark of my own he said
" I don't wish to frighten you, but I want to tell you that . . . I'm afraid I will not be here when you come back."
He would die soon ; he felt it ; he knew it ; he was not going to make any fuss about it ; life on the whole had been worth living, and he was content.
I did not believe for a moment that he was right, and I would not take his warning seriously, though I see now that I might have done so, knowing how free he was from morbid thoughts. All the same, the last letter I wrote before leaving home was written to him, saying, "Good-bye, and God bless you," and such other words of farewell as one sends to one's friend on the eve of a long journey. But he was to take the longer journey of the two, and I had got no farther than Paris when four lines in the Figaro-meagre in their details, full of errors, but only too obviously authentic-told me that Brown was dead.
I felt then, and I feel now, that with Brown's death something of myself died too, the better part of myself. I had leaned on him as on an elder brother, a wiser, stronger, purer, serener nature, to whom I could go at any time for solace, and counsel and support. I did nothing without consulting him, and took no serious step without his sanction. My stories were told to him first, and he was always aware of my plans and intentions. If I have done anything which deserves to be remembered, it is only myself can know how much of what is good in it is but a reflection from the light of his splendid genius. He was the subtlest of appreciators, the most enthusiastic of admirers, the most inspiring of critics, the most loyal of friends. To my moods of depression he brought the buoyancy of his big heart, so full of hope and courage; sustaining me amid the despondency of failure as well as the rarer, but no less real, despondency of success.