« ElőzőTovább »
DAILY LIFE OF GRUB STREET.
sciousness that they were fitted for higher work, and the feeling that their daily battle for a crust and a garret was wearing out the brain by sheer stress of over-work and under-pay.
Such a life, with its miseries and its fierce rushes into mad debauchery, whenever a driblet of money came, is thus painted by Macaulay in one of his Essays: “All that is squalid and miserable might now be summed up in the word Poet. That word denoted a creature dressed like a scare-crow, familiar with compters and spunging-houses, and perfectly qualified to decide on the comparative merits of the Common Side in the King's Bench prison, and of Mount Scoundrel in the Fleet. Even the poorest pitied him. And they well might pity him. For if their condition was equally abject, their aspirings were not equally high, nor their sense of insult equally acute. To lodge in a garret up four pair of stairs; to dine in a cellar among footmen out of place; to translate ten hours a day for the wages of a ditcher; to be hunted by bailiffs from one haunt of beggary and pestilence to another, from Grub Street to St. George's Fields, and from St. George's Fields to the alleys behind St. Martin's Church; to sleep on a bulk in June and amidst the ashes of a glass-house in December; to die in an hospital and to be buried in a parish vault, was the fate of more than one writer, who, if he had lived thirty years earlier, would have been admitted to the sittings of the Kitcat or the Scriblerus Club, would have sat in Parliament, and would have been intrusted with embassies to the High Allies; who, if he had lived in our time, would have found encouragement scarcely less munificent in Albemarle Street or in Paternoster Row.
“As every climate has its peculiar diseases, so every walk of life has its peculiar temptations. The literary character, assuredly, has always had its share of faults,—vanity, jealousy, morbid sensibility. To these faults were now superadded the faults which are commonly found in men whose livelihood is precarious, and whose principles are exposed to the trial of severe distress. All the vices of the gambler and of the beggar were blended with those of the author. The prizes in the wretched lottery of book-making were scarcely less ruinous than the blanks. If good fortune came, it
A FIERCE, INCURABLE RACE. 297
came in such a manner that it was almost certain to be abused. After months of starvation and despair, a full third night or a well-received dedication filled the pocket of the lean, ragged, unwashed poet with guineas. He hastened to efjoy those luxuries with the images of which his mind had been haunted, while he was sleeping amidst the cinders and eating potatoes at the Irish ordinary in Shoe Lane. A week of taverns soon qualified him for another year of night cellars. Such was the life of Savage, of Boyse, and of a crowd of others. Sometimes blazing in gold-laced hats and waistcoats; sometimes lying in bed because their coats had gone to pieces, or wearing paper cravats because their linen was in pawn; sometimes drinking Champagne and Tokay; sometimes standing at the window of an eating-house in Porridge island to snuff up the scent of what they could not afford to taste; they knew luxury; they knew beggary; but they never knew comfort. These men were irreclaimable. They looked on a regular and frugal life with the same aversion which an old gipsy or a Mohawk hunter feels for a stationary abode, and for the restraints and securities of civilized communities. They were as untamable, as much wedded to their desolate freedom, as the wild ass. They could no more be broken in to the offices of social man than the unicorn could be trained to serve and abide by the crib. It was well if they did not, like the beasts of a still fiercer race, tear the hands which ministered to their necessities. To assist them was impossible; and the most benevolent of mankind at length became weary of giving relief which was dissipated with the wildest profusion as soon as it had been received. If a sum was bestowed on the wretched adventurer, such as, properly husbanded, might have supplied him for six months, it was instantly spent in strange freaks of sensuality, and, before forty-eight hours had elapsed, the poet was again pestering all his acquaintances for twopence to get a plate of shin of beef at a subterraneous cook-shop. If his friends gave him an asylum in their houses, those houses were forthwith turned into taverns. All order was destroyed; all business was suspended. The most good-natured host began to repent of his eagerness to serve a man of genius in distress, when he heard
208 WAITING ON A MANAGER. .
his guest roaring for fresh punch at five o'clock in the morning.” Through such a life some, like Samuel Johnson, struggled up to competence and fame; but by far the greater number perished prematurely, worn out with the toils and fiery fevers of the rugged and perilous way; and there was not a man of those who passed safely through the furnace, but bore the deep scars of the burning with him to the grave. Men who lived thus on the verge of starvation, would not, as we may well suppose, be very nice in their taste, or very choice in the expressions which they hurled at a political or literary foe. They needed to be kept in order; and many brethren of the literary craft were, therefore, no strangers in the eighteenth century to the pillory and the scourge. When an author had finished a play, his first care was to carry the precious manuscript to the most likely manager he knew; and to this great man he confided it with many low bows and cringing civilities. Weeks—perhaps months—passed by; and the theatrical season drew near its close. Still no missive from the theatre. With fear and trembling the threadbare, haggard author presents himself at the stage door, and is ushered, after some delay, into the presence of the autocrat. He humbly ventures to remind His Dramatic Highness of the play left there many months ago; and is rewarded for the sickening suspense he has endured, and the abject humility he has had to assume in making his approaches to the presence, by the cool assurance that such a thing has been utterly forgotten until that moment. And sure enough, after tumbling over heaps of similar papers, the dusty manuscript is found lying as it was left, tied up with the very red string which the wretched dramatist had begged from his landlady to encircle the all-important roll. He is a lucky man if this second reminder induces the manager to read and accept the play; the chances are that it is returned unread, with the consolatory remark that dozens of authors have been so treated during the season. If he has heart and pluck enough to persist, the only hope of really getting his work put on the stage, is to curry favour with some nobleman's
DANCING ATTENDANCE ON A GREAT MAN. 299
valet, who may induce his Lordship to read the play and recommendit to a manager. One poor fellow, who had danced attendance thus upon a leading London manager for many months, at last grew sick of the constant drain upon his temper and his patience, and demanded his play again. It could not be found. Fruitless search was made,-it was gone. And when the broken-spirited literary hack ventured to complain of such treatment, the irritated manager, thrusting his hands into a drawer, drew out a bundle of manuscript plays with, “Choose any three of these for your miserable scribble, and let me hear no more of it or you.” Equally trying to the spirit, and yet more galling in the abject humility it demanded, was the hanging on at a great man's door, or the waiting in a great man's hall to pluck my Lord by the sleeve as he passed to his carriage, and beg a subscription for a forthcoming volume of poetry or prose. Success in such an undertaking depended much upon the number of half-crowns the poor author could afford to invest in buying the good-will of the porter or confidential footman of His Grace or Sir John. Not even the highest literary man was free from this humiliation of cringing before the great. No book appeared without a fulsome dedication or flattering apostrophe addressed to some person of quality, as the phrase then went, whose footman came smirking to the author's dingy room a few days after publication with a present of five, or ten, or twenty guineas—the sum varying according to the amount of flattery laid on the belauded name, or perhaps oftener according to the run of luck which the gratified fashionable had happened to meet at the card-table of the night before. In such miserable ways alone could the author of the eighteenth century eke out the poor pittance which the booksellers of the time—Tonson, Lintot, or Curll—could or did afford to pay for original works. But we must not suppose, as we might be led to suppose if we judged alone from the works of disappointed authors, that every London bookseller of the day was a kind of trading Ogre, who fattened on the blood and brains of the writers he employed. The sale of books in general was small and slow. The circle of book-readers was narrow; but still narrower was the
READING IN THE SHOP.
circle of book-buyers. Indeed many men never bought books at all; but when any work came out of which they wished to get a sight, they went to the bookseller's shop day after day, and for a small subscription obtained leave to read at the counter. Marking their page where they left off in the afternoon, they came back again and again, until the volume was finished. This practice, which crowded the shops and stalls of the booksellers a hundred years ago with a floating population of readers, laid the foundation of those useful circulating libraries and reading-clubs which so abound in modern days.