The Idler

Magazine

An Illustrated Monthly

 

Volume VII

February, 1895 to July, 1895

London

Chatto and Windus, 214, Piccadilly

1895

 

Stanley J. Weyman

By Robert Harborough Sherard

Photographs by Messrs. T. Jones & Son, Ludlow

"I CAN see no romance in English history, and that is why I write of the history of France. Perhaps, if I lived in France---"

It was a quiet, nervous, little man who said this, as we stood together on the summit of the highest tower of the ruined castle of Ludlow, in Shropshire, which is where Stanley J. Weyman lives. And it was Stanley J. Weyman who spoke.

Yet every stone of the masonries which lay beneath us on every side, spoke of romance, and was mutely eloquent as to a very glorious history--coloured, hazardous, and moving. Nor was much imagination needed to fashion forth, gliding over the outer or inner courts, those whose names will ever be associated with the now dismantled pile of Ludlow Castle: Roger de Montgomery, who began--Joce de Dinan, who completed--this formidable stronghold; Sir Ernauld de Lis, the traitor, and his lady-love, Marianna de Bruer, who admitted him to the castle by a rope-ladder, but slew him when his felonious purpose was made patent; a long array of Mortimers, murderous or elegant, of De Lacy's; a whole most animated masquerade of men in armour, and kirtled women and pages in fanciful attire.

There played in childish sports the two little princes, to whom this castle was the ante-chamber to that sinister bedroom in the Tower of London; there walked the poet Milton, with his ink-horn in his belt, a handsome, ringleted youth, secretary to my lord, the Earl of Bridgewater, with the manuscript of The Masque of Comus, in a roll. Elsewhere, the mind might figure forth the soured and grumbling Sir Henry Sidney, whose grievances, carved in stone, may still be read on a tablet over the inner gate of the castle; his lady seared with small-pox from nursing an ungrateful queen, and their bonny little Philip--later, the English Bayard.

We spent hours together that morning in exploring the ruined stronghold, and Weyman's words made all the place alive--furnished the halls and chambers, peopled the battlements and corridors, so that, in one's fancy, the walls rang with the clamours of York and Lancaster, the stirs of Roundhead and Cavalier. On the watch-tower a phantom moved, watching the Whitcliffe Woods, for treacherous advance from Wales.

"No doubt, it teems with romance; but all is so familiar to me. This was my earliest playground. My first recollections are of Ludlow Castle, and of all the stories of which it was the scene. And over-familiarity, perhaps, you know. . .So I look abroad, and explore periods less familiar to me, which, for this very reason, have for me all the charm of the unforeseen."

It was in the house in Broad Street, in Ludlow, where he still lives with his mother and sister, that Stanley Weyman was born on August 7th, 1855. His father was the principal solicitor in the town, and was, for some time, coroner of the district.

"My name, Stanley, was given me by mere fancy on the part of my parents. I can boast no connection with the Earl of Derby."

Weyman's house is the typical house of the prosperous citizen of an English provincial town. It is built of red brick, and, from the colour of the oak panellings, doors, and rafters--which may be admired in the various rooms inside--must have been standing for over a century. The study where Weyman works is the first room on the left as one enters the house, and his writing-table stands in the furthest corner from the door, to the right of the window. It is a knee-hole table, overlaid with a dhurry, or Indian rug, striped in white and blue and yellow, and is neatly set out with a highly burnished copper inkstand, flanked with highly burnished copper candlesticks; and notable amongst its equipments is a gigantic pen-wiper, of the size of a Prussian bomb. Like all authors who are deliberate and conscientious and take pains, Mr. Weyman's work-room is kept with conspicuous tidiness.

When he rises to look out of the window, he sees opposite to him a possible stimulus, two banking-houses. To his left is the place known as the Butter Cross; and to the right, down the hill, at the foot of which is some of the loveliest river scenery in England, is the mediaeval Old Broad Gate, teeming with romance.

"When I was a boy, there used to dangle under that archway, just by the portcullis slit, a fragment of frayed rope. It was said that with this rope there had been hanged a warden of the Broad Gate, who, in one of the civil wars, had been a traitor. I always believed the story."

English history pleads her picturesqueness from every corner on which, in his walks abroad in the beautiful town of his birth, Weyman's noticeable and inspired eyes may alight; but, in the irony of things, the eyes look away and beyond in strange presbytia.

It seems in the nature of things that Stanley Weyman should have come, after skirmishes in other fields, to write historical romances, when one has seen his birth-place and has listened to the story of his life.

"The very first book that I can remember as a child was Little Arthur's History of England. I was very pleased with it, and read it in preference to my toy-books."

At the age of seven he was sent to a boarding-school, at a place called Tenbury, about ten miles from Ludlow, and stayed there two years. "I remember that I read a great deal, but I do not remember any of the books which I read, nor anything about them, except that there was something very striking about beavers in the book of which I was most fond."

He only remained at Tenbury two years, being forced to leave it "on night, sick of scarlet fever, wrapped in a blanket."

His next school was a dame's school at Shrewsbury, and of this he especially remembers that it was here that the marvellous Jane Eyre first came into his hands. "One of the governesses lent it to me, and I was so enthralled that I read and re-read it, taking it up to bed with me."

"At the age of eleven I returned to Ludlow, and was placed at the Grammar School here. Our head-master's hobby was English history, and in this study he used to drill us in a most effective manner. We were made to stand in line--he facing us, cane in hand--and each boy had an English king named to him, and was required to reel off all the dates of importance in his reign. If he made a mistake, down came the cane. It was effective, in my case at least, for even to-day I am strong on the head of the dates in English history. I remember him with gratitude, for I believe that it was he who laid the foundation of my--well--of this taste for history. He gave me the framework, and what one wants at the outset is the skeleton, which one can afterwards clothe at leisure.

"At the same time, that is to say whilst the head-master at Ludlow Grammar School was thus effectively grounding me in the rudiments of English history, I was bribed by my father to read Macaulay's history, at the rate of sixpence a volume. I hardly needed the stimulus of the bribe, however, for I delighted in Macaulay. He has the wonderful gift of making history all living, and I found his books much more entertaining than a novel--a little epic in prose--and used to take them to my bed with me. Together with Macaulay, I read Ivanhoe. I was fond of Scott at the time, and am so still, though there are some of his books--as for instance, Count Robert of Paris--which I cannot and never could read. On the other hand, I can re-read Quentin Durward with the most complete satisfaction.

"I left Ludlow Grammar School at the age of fifteen and went to Shrewsbury School, where, as I was fifteen, I was placed in the Senior House. But I was such a little chap that the big boys in the Senior House resented my presence. They were very indignant that so small a boy should be put amongst them, and they bullied me frightfully. I led rather a lonely life there, and used to spend most of my time in the House Library. Hypatia and Adam Bede were my favourite books, and impressed me very much at the time. However, later, I won some respect from my fellows by a good performance in a school steeplechase. They saw that though I was a very little chap I had some pluck, and they treated me much better afterwards.

"I was a bad classical scholar, and had no taste for mathematics. No history was taught at Shrewsbury. Though I did not distinguish myself, I attained a respectable position in the school, and passed out with an exhibition at Christ Church, Oxford. I was rather sorry to have to go to the "House." It was hardly the place for a man who had only a moderate allowance. I enjoyed my 'Varsity life very much. My principal amusement was running with the college pack of beagles. I grew amazingly at Oxford, perhaps because I was better fed. I went up in 1874, and took my degree in 1877--a second in history. I studied history mainly under Professor Kitchin, now Dean of Winchester. Together with my degree I took away from Oxford a great number of debts. At the age of twenty-two, I went as classical master and teacher of history to King's School, at Chester, and had a very good time there, and was able to save money. The head-master was an old Shrewsbury man, a very good fellow and one of my best friends.

"And there they are, all my best friends," continued Weyman, pointing at a frame containing six or seven photographs, which hung over a bookcase to the left of the door. The occasion here offered itself to examine the various pictures which covered the walls of this comfortable study, for in the matter of an author's work-room no detail which may contribute to the comprehension of the moral atmosphere should be overlooked.

The pictures are principally those old engravings which many prefer to paintings--a "Blind Man's Buff," a "Village Politician"; and to the right of the writing-table, above a little book-shelf, the mournful face of Beatrice Cenci. On the bookshelf, close at hand, Byron, Horace, Bacon's essays, Pope, and the fairy tales of the Countess d'Aulnoy.

In the matter of poets Weyman "prefers Dryden and Pope"--the poets of the days of the rapier and peruke.

Opposite Weyman's table, so that when he raises his head his eyes fall on them, are Benewell's well-known coloured engravings: "A St. Giles's Beauty" and "A St. James's Beauty." To his left, against the wall as he sits at his desk, is an excellent portrait of James Payn, by Valery, signed by this author, of whom Weyman is presently to speak as "his creator, his kindly father." Over this portrait hangs an excellent Cipriani, an "Apollo." Here and there are tokens of Weyman's sporting tastes--a fox brush or two. "I was always fond of hunting," he says, "but could never afford it till quite recently. . . ." Weyman hunts regularly now, and has a mare called "Emerald," which looks as though she would be hard to beat in a good cross-country run. One notices also numerous horseshoes affixed to the wall, and wonders if it be superstition or affectionate souvenir which place them there.

The most interesting things in Weyman's study, are the historical pictures, "Henri IV., and is the portrait of Charles II. "A portrait of the time," says Weyman, "which I myself cut from a prayer-book printed in his reign." Elsewhere Stuart Mary's, and the Stuart Mary who married an Orange, and did, indeed, inaugurate the period of history in England to which romance was sadly lacking.

"He is one of my best friends," repeated Weyman, referring to the portrait of the head-master of King's School, in Chester, "and on his account I regretted leaving the School. I did this in 1878, and entered as a student at the Inner Temple, where I read law with a man called Bosanquet, who, curiously enough, was of an old Huguenot family. My best friends--you will see some of their faces there--were made in Bosanquet's chambers. I was called to the Bar in 1881, and joined the Oxford Circuit, which we always think the most gentlemanly Circuit. My practice at the Bar was uneventful, and not very remunerative. Some days I would make 15 Pounds, on other days nothing at all. My average income as a barrister was 200 Pounds a year; and if in my best year I earned 300 Pounds, there was a year in which I earned only 20 Pounds. I remember that after I had been a few years at the Bar I was challenged by the Income-tax Commissioners to show cause why, and so on--and went to Westminster and produced my fee-book, from which it became patent that, at that time, my entire earnings from my profession did not exceed 130 Pounds. There-upon the Commissioners said: 'Good morning, Mr. Weyman; we hope you will have better luck in the future.' My very first brief of all, was for the defendant in a case about a tailor's bill, in the Westminster County Court. For the plaintiff was Charles Dickens, the son of the novelist. I lost the case. And," added Weyman, with the modesty which is characteristic of the man, "I have often thought since that if they had had a better man they would have won their case.

"I was, perhaps, too nervous, too sensitive, to succeed at the Bar. I remember being once so bullyragged by the Judge that I had to go outside, and was so sick that in order to recover myself I had to take a pint of champagne. But I liked the work, and the Circuit took me to pleasant places, full of historic souvenirs--yes, souvenirs of English history--Reading, Oxford, Monmouth, Gloucester, Worcester, Hereford, Shrewsbury, and Stafford.

"When, four years ago, I left the Bar and came back to Ludlow to live with my people, I considered myself--then a man of thirty-five--a complete failure. At the Bar I saw men of perhaps less capacity outstripping me. I could not speak--I do not think that writers ever do speak well in public--and I had little presence--men of better presence trampled me under foot.

"Nor had my other endeavour, namely as a writer, been more successful. For at the time that I was at the Bar, I tried--God knows how hard--to eke out my altogether insufficient income with my pen. How I wrote! I had begun by contributing fancy sketches to the St. James's Gazette, at that time under the editorship of Greenwood. Greenwood rather liked my work, and one day asked me to report for his paper. He sent me down to Windsor to describe the marriage of Prince Leopold, and I went, and was excellently placed, and saw it all, but my report was considered altogether unsatisfactory--"

"It was English history."

"Perhaps. Yes. It was not printed nor was I paid for it, and that was the end of my journalistic experiences. So then I tried short stories for the magazines, and failed at that; until one day there came into my hands Anstey's tale, The Black Poodle, about which everybody was talking. I said to myself: 'Let me see why everybody is talking about this story,' and I took it home and read and re-read it, till I came to the conclusion that its captivation lay in the fact of the extreme carefulness of its workmanship. I pulled it to pieces, sentence by sentence, and saw that each sentence had been polished and elaborated till no further elaboration was possible. So I determined that I also would elaborate and polish, and these things I did in a story which I wrote and called, King Pippin and Sweet Clive. I sent it to the Cornhill. James Payn read it, and so greatly approved of it that he asked me up to the office, and encouraged me to continue writing. 'But' he said, 'why do you not write a novel? You can never make an income out of writing short stories.' I answered, 'Sir, I have no idea of plot--construction such as is necessary for the production of a novel.' And then the kind man gave me a full hour of his time in a paternal discourse on the carpentry of fiction. He encouraged me to try, and I did try, and again I failed. I wrote a novel of modern life, and it was lamentably bad. I think that it was called The New Rector, a title which I have since used again. And as to that first novel, I am putting it to its best use, and am writing on the back of the pages of the manuscript. But of my writings at that time, why should I speak of them. I never made more than 50 Pounds a year during all those years, and was a failure in this profession as I was at the Bar. So the day came when I sickened of unsuccess, and turned my steps back to the house where I was born, and where there was a home and a refuge for me. But though I had determined to abandon the Bar, I did not altogether sever my connection with it, and continued, as I still continue, my subscriptions to Bar charities, keeping up my friendships with the men who have remained on the Circuit. Thus, next week, I am going over the Shrewsbury to meet the barristers on Circuit at the Assizes there. And as I did not throw my wig away, when, disheartened with unsuccess, I turned, a defeated man of thirty-five, back to my mother's house, so also I did not put my pen altogether away. History had always fascinated me, and amongst the first things which I wrote here, was a study on Oliver Cromwell's Kinsfolk, which appeared in the Historical Review.

A remarkable study it was, if one may judge from the following letter which, very shortly after its appearance in that review, the celebrated Frederic Harrison wrote to its author, a letter worth transcribing:--

"Athenaeum Club,

"Pall Mall, S. W.,

"16th January, 1891.

"My Dear Sir,

"I have just read your very interesting account of Oliver Cormwell's Kinsfolk in the Historical Review, and I hope that you will follow it up by giving us a second paper on the actual descendants of the Protector. You are, no doubt, familiar with James Waylen's House of Cromwell. The compilation of my little summary, in an 'Appendix' to the Life, gave me much labour. I believe it to be accurate as far as it goes. . . . . .

Faithfully Yours,

"Frederic Harrison."

 

"It was, however, by a mere accident," continued Weyman, "that I was put on the road which has led me, well, to--to--well, to being respectfully greeted by the clerks at that bank over the way, who formerly,--enfin. I was up in London, and was sitting in the smoking-room of my club in St. James's Street, the New University Club, thinking rather despondently of my past, and even more despondently of my future, when I happened to notice, on the little table which stood by the chair on which I was sitting, a copy of Professor Baird's History of the Huguenots. I took it up, and rather mournfully turned over its leaves. Those were Rider Haggard's imperial days, the days when fiction, to be popular and marketable, had to rumble with thunder, and drip with blood. And the book in my hand set me thinking that one might successfully write of carnage and the stir of arms in a period which was elegant and refined. I thought of the Huguenots and St. Bartholomew's Eve; and, later, as I was washing my hands, I thought out the plot of The House of the Wolf. At the same time, I had not forgotten what I had learned as to the absolute necessity of taking pains, and over that story I spent infinite labour. I polished and re-wrote, and touched and re-touched, and I could, with difficulty, in the end allow myself to let it go forth, wondering whether all had been well said, no word or deed forgot. It was accepted, and from the serial use of it and the book-rights I derived, in all, the sum of 200 Pounds. I may add, that only a few weeks ago the publishers of this book sent me a complimentary cheque of 100 Pounds. Why, I do not know; it was not needed now."

Weyman gladly proclaims his indebtedness to Professor Baird who set him on the road by which he has come so triumphantly to his own. Professor Baird on his side, perhaps recognizing his literary kinship to Weyman, his spiritual child, wrote to him in June of this year (1894), the following letter of greeting:--

 

"219, Palisade Avenue,

"Jonkers, N. Y.

"MY DEAR SIR,

"I have just been reading two of your recent works--The House of the Wolf, and A Gentleman of France--and have been so much gratified that I must express to you the great pleasure and profit I have derived from them. You have entered very happily, it seems to me, into the spirit of the times of which you treat, and the narrative is as true to history, as it is full of living interest. My own studies have led me, these many years, in the same general direction; and as travellers meeting on the highway or in the by-paths may properly greet one another, I offer no excuse for giving you my hearty congratulations on the marked success of your literary undertaking.

"I remain, dear Sir,

"Very truly your,

"Henry M. Baird."

 

Weyman, on his side, not only admits that Baird put him in the right direction, but states that the Professor's book about the Huguenots helped him not only in The House of the Wolf, but also in The Gentleman of France.

"The House of the Wolf," he added, was written for, and accepted by, Comyns Carr, of the English Illustrated Magazine, who was pleased with it, and asked me to write him another story for the same magazine. So I set to work and produced The Story of Francis Cludde. In the meanwhile, however, the editor of the English Illustrated Magazine had been changed, and the young man who had taken Comyns Carr's place said about my Story of Francis Cludde, 'Oh, hang it! I won't have this story. I don't like it.' It was a great blow, as at that time I had no footing. The House of the Wolf was no great success then, though from certain letters which I received, I knew that a certain number of people liked it. So I had to take my Story of Francis Cludde into the market, and eventually succeeded in selling it for serial publication in The Leisure Hour. The editor, Mr. Stephens, said to me in making our arrangement: 'If it takes, we will give you a little more money.' Some time later, he sent me a cheque for 60 guineas more than I had bargained for. It was afterwards published in book form by Cassell's, and this year had a 'boom' in America, so that altogether out of that contemptuously-rejected Story of Francis Cludde I have made from 700 to 800 Pounds."

It is very evident to any one who speaks to Stanley Weyman, that here is a man who has suffered bitterly and long--maybe too long--for, though he is at all times winning, sympathetic, genial, and of a hospitality of which there is record only in the courtly days of which he writes, his face bears the imprint of disappointment, and, even when speaking of unrivalled successes achieved, the quiet voice has none of that enthusiasm of the man who has striven and conquered. There is an evident grudge against the past in one who, in the irony of fate, has torn his triumph from the very vitals of the past.

"My real success began with The Gentleman of France," of which, I may say, that I bestowed upon it, in almost feverish anxiety, all the care of which I was capable. I gave it a whole year of unremitting labour. I have told you what were my materials. I might add that the volumes of the London Library, a most excellent collection, greatly assisted me in matters of detail. Thus, for my information on cut and thrust--my technicalities of fencing--I am much indebted to Castle's excellent Schools and Masters of Fence from the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century. But, in fact, I am not diffuse in matters of detail or of stage properties. For instance, I invent the costumes in which my characters parade. I think that Scott was the last writer who was conscientious as to his documentation on these points."

He who writes of stirring adventures has had no adventures in life, "at least only one. That was when, in 1886, I was travelling in the Pyrenees with a friend, and got arrested by the gendarmes, who took us for Belgian spies, connected with the Carlist rising over the frontier. They marched us, under bayonets and revolvers, many miles along the high roads; and if I refused to walk they dangled handcuffs in my eyes. We passed one night in a cell--and that was an adventure, though there was no chance of escape. The next day we were taken, under strong escort, to Oberon, and there eventually discharged. No, I have no adventures, and here my life is a very quiet one. We are old-fashioned folk, who go to bed early, and attend church regularly on Sundays. Yet, quiet as life is in this old town, I often long for a quieter life. I would love to live in the country, to see cattle outside my window."

Weyman is as conscientious and as painstaking in his work to-day as he was in the time of his stress. "I write very slowly and correct and re-write." A page of his MS. Gives abundant proof of his laboriousness.

"I work on an average five hours a day, and I think that that is the utmost that a brain-worker can attempt. My best hours are in the morning, and again from tea-time to dinner. I greatly dislike working in the afternoon, and never do so if I can help it. I never produce more than a thousand words a day, for I firmly believe in doing absolutely my best. Now that, perhaps, I might allow myself to do slovenly work, I am more careful than ever. I hardly dare let a manuscript go out of my hands, but polish and polish, and especially do I spend time over my proofs. Under the Red Robe I did with more speed, and it was completed in thirteen weeks. But this strain is telling on me and I am longing for a holiday. One cannot go on for ever. I want to take a whole year's rest, and I mean to do so as soon as I have got through the work now before me--The Red Cockade and other things new on the stocks. I want to go away--to get to the country."

It was strange to hear Weyman speak so, when it was remembered that once the Old Broad Gate at the bottom of his street was passed, one came out into country than which England can show no country fairer--the river, the weir, the mill, the mediaeval bridge, the heights of Whitcliffe, the forest stretching into Wales, cliffs, and paths, and winding roads, the hills of Shropshire, and broad expanses of the greenest fields. Here was that characteristic presbytia which looks away and beyond, and so overlooks, as where, blind to the wonderful suggestions of Ludlow Castle, the eyes fix themselves on the Palace of the Louvre, the Royal House of Pau.

 

End.

Prepared by Donna Rudin