NINETEENTH CENTURY LITERARY MANUSCRIPTS
Part 2: The Correspondence and Records of Smith, Elder & Co from the National Library of Scotland
Extracts from George Smith's - The Recollections of a long and busy life, c1895
George Murray Smith’s The Recollections of a long and busy life was intended for publication, but was never completed. A few stray details, such as dates and quotations from letters and documents, were not added, but the typescript reminiscences still provide a fascinating insight into the Victorian publishing world and into the lives and careers of many major authors. The following excerpts provide a taste of the overall work.
Chapter 1 - EARLY DAYS
My father, a Scotsman, born in 1789, came up to London in 18— to seek his fortune with the proverbial half-crown in his pocket. He was the son of a man who had a small property which he farmed himself. His father died while he was very young and the property, managed with ill-fortune by an uncle, had vanished before my father came of age. He was educated at ———— School, and had for his school-fellows Sir James Clark, the Queen’s physician, and the eminent physician, Sir John Forbes, who was editor of the “British and Foreign Medical Review”, and who may be said to have represented in his time the literature of his profession. They remained my father’s friends through life. He was apprentices to Isaac Forsyth, a bookseller in the city of Elgin, who was a man of some note in the county, and besides being a bookseller was also a banker.
Mr Forsyth was in many respects a remarkable man and would no doubt have made a position for himself had his lot been cast in a larger sphere. Although he was stone deaf when I knew him he took a keen interest in everything passing in the world. I stayed with him for some time when I was about 16. He was very hospitable and I should have enjoyed his constant dinner parties more if he had not insisted on my sitting beside him and writing down on his slate anything that seemed to excite amusement at the table. “What are they laughing at, Geordie – write it down,” was his constant demand. As was natural at 16 I believed myself to be violently in love with a very sweet and graceful young lady who was staying in the house and who was of course some years my senior. This had not escaped the notice of the keen-eyed old gentleman, and his good-natured allusions to the condition of my heart, which he intended to be confidential, but which were uttered in loud tones, were somewhat embarrassing. My father was always a favourite of Mr Forsyth, who remained his staunch friend through life.
After the expiration of my father’s apprenticeship, like so many other youthful and energetic Scotsmen, he turned his face towards London. I remember his telling us children that his first London experience was a lively but not a pleasant one. He landed on a wharf in the Thames, and, carrying his bag of clothes, he commenced a journey in search of lodgings. As he passed through the Mint near Tower Hill, which was then and is perhaps now a kind of Rag Fair, the shipmen, attracted by his raw appearance and the bundle he carried, began to banter him. “Had he old clothes to sell?” they demanded. Their wit was rough, my father’s temper was short, and there was a fight, from which my father emerged ruffled but triumphant. But a free fight in Rag Fair was, for a raw youth, a somewhat alarming introduction into life in London.
My father found a situation at Rivington’s, the well-known publishers. Mr Rivington of that period, the founder of the firm, was an energetic and clever man of business, but he was eccentric and blunt, and employed methods towards his staff which in these days would be regarded as extraordinary. For example, if a clerk applied for an increase of salary old Mr Rivington would ask, with an air of astonishment, if he had not enough to live on; and, if so, why he wanted more? “How many rolls do you eat for breakfast?” he demanded of one such candidate for an increase of salary. “Two, sir,” was the humble reply. “Why,” the head of the firm exclaimed, indignantly, “I never eat more than one myself! Surely if one is enough for me it is enough for you?” Business was harder and more primitive in London eighty years ago than it is today!
My father soon improved his position by an appointment in the house of Mr John Murray – the original John Murray – and with him he got on extremely well. Murray’s temper, however, was hot and his method of governing his staff despotic. My father, a self-respecting Scotsman, with a temper and will of his own, quickly gave Mr Murray to understand that no liberties must be taken with him; and Murray, who knew and valued a good servant, did not respect my father any the less for his self-assertion. Mr Murray evidently had my father in remembrance for at his Coffee-house Sale Dinners (afterwards referred to) he would when he became genial after dinner call out to me, “Come and sit beside me, young Smith,” and he would talk to me about my father. Mr Murray was sometimes more than genial on these occasions and used to make the most atrocious jokes – for instance, when a “Ride through France and Italy” (or a book with some such name) was offered he would say, “Come, Mr Bumpus, this is a book to suit you; give me your name for 104 copies.” The figure of Mr Bumpus of that day lent some point to the remark for he did not look like a man accustomed to have exercise. Mr Murray was always very liberal in his dealings with the book sellers, and he was personally very popular with them. He had some wit. His answer to Lord Stanhope when his lordship pressed him, as was the custom of the time, to take more wine, “It seems to me, my Lord, that you wish to empty your wine cellar into your bookseller” has often been repeated but I do not know that it has been printed. My father used to tell us children of his having been sent to Lord Byron, who had chambers in Piccadilly, to give him a message about the rapid sale of one of his works, and to ask instructions about a new edition. My father said that Lord Byron got up and danced round the room. The scene must have been sufficiently amusing to make an impression on my father’s memory, for many years afterwards when walking with him in Piccadilly, he pointed out the house and the room on the ground floor.
In 1816, my father, who was eager to establish a business of his own, entered into partnership with Alexander Elder. Their undertaking was modest in scale. A small shop was taken in Fenchurch Street, and a bookselling and stationery business was begun there. Elder gave his whole time to the business, but my father, for a time, retained his post at Murray’s, posting up the accounts of the business in the evening.
In 1818 my father married. His wife’s name was Elizabeth Murray. She was the daughter of a successful glass-ware manufacturer, who, after his retirement from business, resided in a house between Margate and Ramsgate. Those were the days of smuggling. My mother told us that kegs of brandy and other smuggled goods were often hidden in the woods of their grounds, and that my grandfather prudently abstained from noticing them when he took his early walks. He was no doubt watched, for on several occasions kegs of brandy were sent to the house with Captain ---------‘s compliments. I gathered from what my mother said that the presents were accepted without much scruple. I have a portrait of my grandfather done in pastel. He has a shrewd expression and a good head, not handsome, but rather good-looking. He had a strong dash of eccentricity. One odd example of this side of his character may be mentioned. He had given my grandmother an (un)usually costly engagement ring. When they were on their honeymoon this ring was suddenly missed. Great was the excitement in the Hotel in which they were staying! A Bow Street runner was sent for, every search was made, a handsome reward was offered; but no trace of the ring could be found and the youthful bride’s honeymoon was quite overcast by the tragedy of this loss. Many years after, when my grandfather died, the ring was found carefully packed away amongst his deeds, with a little piece of paper round it. On the paper written the words “Ladies who leave rings on wash-stands don’t deserve to have rings!”
My grandfather having destroyed his will came up to London to make another, and while stooping to button his gaiters at the Hotel before setting out to visit his lawyer he fell down dead. No will existed. No list of securities could be found; and, though he was believed to be a man of property, and had lived as one, it was found impossible to completely trace his assets. Years afterwards a stranger turned up who paid the sum of £2,000 and interest which he had borrowed from my grandfather. When re-paying it he said, “I knew you had no trace of it.” There must have been many other investments and loans which were not repaid. My grandfather’s pictures, which were supposed to be of great value, were bought by the solicitor who acted for the family; and, by some trick of lawyer-like ingenuity, were bought at very small prices. That particular lawyer was afterwards transported on a reward for similar ingenious performances. As the result of all this the widow with her five children – of whom my mother was one – were left with a limited income.
After his marriage my father, who, by this time, had left Murray, and his newly-wedded wife, set up their household above the shop in Fenchurch Street where, on 19 March, 1824, I was born. It was common then for business people, of even the best standing, to live at their place of business in the City. Merchants frequently had their homes above their offices in Mincing Lane or Mark Lane and the junior partner in a city bank usually resided over the bank. Still in the old buildings in some parts of the City you can see the carved ceilings and the handsome decorations, showing that what today are mere offices a generation or so ago were comfortable, if not handsome and stately, dwelling-places.
My mother was a remarkable woman, of quite exceptional shrewdness and strength of mind, and of extraordinary courage. She was never downcast; she carried anxieties easily. No stroke of disaster ever shook her serene courage. My father had an anxious mind. Business cares lay heavy upon him. And my mother’s stronger nature and force of character were a great stay to him. The relations betwixt my mother and myself were, from my earliest memory, and until she died, more than ordinarily tender and intimate. Every interest was shared with her and every plan discussed. My father was an old-fashioned man of business; not brilliant, but a model of industry and method. His standard of business virtues was antique. He held that punctuality, a good handwriting, and a sober demeanour, were the cardinal business virtues. Of the higher intellectual qualities that go to modern business – knowledge of the world, of cities and of men, the faculty for far-reaching combinations, the gift for diplomacy, etc. – he had perhaps a limited conception. He was a man of stubborn integrity and of a standard of honour which might be termed romantic. In his ledger the first entry was a curious bit of literature: a prayer that, in the transactions recorded in its pages, there might be found nothing dishonourable.
A striking example of my father’s keen sense of honour may be told here. A great Indian firm with whom Smith Elder & Co had large transactions had failed. There were complicated accounts between the two firms and Smith, Elder & Co were advised that they were legally entitled to escape a large proportion of their liability by means of counterclaims. My father’s conscience was too tender for this operation. He insisted on the firm discharging its obligations in full, and thus sharing the loss caused by the failure of that house. I am afraid this would be reckoned a poor stroke of business nowadays. But with my father the question of honour was supreme, though his partners – and perhaps many other people – regarded him as foolishly sentimental. Some years afterwards there came another crisis in Indian business affairs, and firms were toppling into bankruptcy on every side. A leading house which had been interested in the failure previously mentioned offered my father’s firm important facilities; and in doing so referred to the previous transaction, saying in effect, “We know Mr Smith to be an honest man!”
I have, of course, many vague and childish recollections of the London of those early days. I recollect the ancient watchmen, with their watch boxes, and the advent of the modern policeman – or “peeler”, as he was called. The policemen excited a good deal of attention in their new uniforms. I remember my mother’s amusement at a maiden sister of hers who came by coach to London on a visit, blushing and smirking before our dining-room window so unmistakably that my mother asked her what was the matter. With much embarrassment she stated that a gentleman in uniform had followed the coach from the suburbs and was even now walking up and down before the house. She had, of course, been misled by a series of policemen. A hackney coach-stand was opposite our shop in Cornhill and often my boyish sleep was disturbed by the harsh clang caused by the letting down of the iron-steps which formed part of the old and clumsy hackney carriages. I was eight years old when the great Reform Bill of 1832 was passed, and distinctly remember the mob sweeping through the streets and shouting, “Light up, or you’ll have your windows broken”. And we had to light up the candles which had been temporarily fastened at our windows.
My school-boy life was brief. It ended when I was only fourteen years old. I fear I was not a source of unmixed delight to my various masters. I was, in fact, what is known as “a troublesome boy”. I cannot, looking back, accuse myself of any disgraceful fault. I was not idle, nor dull. I was always first or second in my classes. I was never guilty of what might be called dishonourable conduct. Had I been fortunate enough to have fallen into the hands of a wise teacher, or of one who understood a boy’s nature and had the art of capturing a boy’s imagination, I really think I might have made a respectable scholar. But I was troubled with a sort of impish humour; my teachers never succeeded in inspiring me with any respect; and my contributions to school history, though amusing enough when contemplated through the perspective of half a century, must have been highly aggravating to those responsible for my progress at the time.
Chapter II - BUSINESS TRAINING
The business of Smith, Elder & Co was now prospering and a new partner named Patrick Stewart had been taken into the firm. Stewart was the son of an Edinburgh divine of some fame and a ward of Mr Aeneas Mackintosh, at that time the head of the great firm of Mackintosh & Co, of Calcutta. He was a young man of social tastes and, in some respects, of brilliant gifts. His guardian arranged that Stewart should join my father’s firm, and advanced the necessary capital, which was to be repaid by the firm out of Stewart’s share of the profits. As it turned out that money was never repaid until, in later years, I myself paid it.
Stewart developed good business gifts, and his Indian connections brought a considerable increase of business, of a new kind, to the firm. It began by supplying books to the libraries of officers, and ledgers and stationery to merchants, in India and China and the East; but it grew into a very considerable export trade, the firm buying and shipping to its constituents goods of every kind.
In 1838, when I was fourteen years, of age, I was apprenticed to Stewart. My indentures extended for seven years, during which period I received no salary . . . .
Stewart was a member of the Clothworkers’ Company, and my father of the Stationers’ Company; and I ultimately took up my “freedom” from the latter. The firm by this time had removed to 65 Cornhill, ad the family lived over the shop. My business hours were from 7.30 in the morning till 8 o’clock in the evening, with half an hour for breakfast, an hour for dinner, and half an hour for tea. My father, who was essentially a man of detail, and had a delight in thoroughness, held that I must learn everything from the very bottom. I was taught the art of making up parcels, was sent to a pen-maker to learn how to make and mend quills, to a binder to learn how to bind books, etc, etc. My hours were needlessly long; and, in particular, the interval between half past seven and nine o’clock, when we breakfasted, I had nothing to do then I improved the time by reading the Bible from end to end, including the genealogical chapters of the Old Testament. I was very fond of the Book of Job, and, with the tenacious memory of a boy, became very familiar with it.
Many years afterwards I was at a dinner party, the Dean of Westminster being one of the guests. Someone quoted the phrase about being “saved by the skin of his teeth”; whereupon one of the guests remarked, “What wonderful phrases these Americans do invent!” A discussion arose as to the origin of the phrase; no one suspected its scriptural source, and I turned to the Dean – who had written a learned commentary on the Book of Job – and said, “You and I at least know where it comes from!” In that gathering nobody but the Dean and myself, it turned out, knew that the phrase came from the Book of Job. There is no doubt a touch of modern, and very American, exaggeration in the words. The Dean was so pleased by my scriptural knowledge – a knowledge entirely due to the tedium of the too long hours of my apprentice – that he sent me next day, as a present, his commentary on Job.
Amongst my earliest business tasks was that of copying all foreign letters into the letter-book, copying-presses being yet unknown. This was a good business education for me. Most of the correspondence was by Stewart, who had charge of the export branch, and he was an expert in the construction of a business letter.
Chapter III - A START IN BUSINESS
Elder, who had charge of the publishing department of the firm, was not a very capable man of business. He failed in judgement. He never pursued a steady policy. His enterprise had the fervours, and the chills, of an intermittent fever. I had no responsible position in the firm, but the business instinct was slowing awaking in me. I was shrewd enough to see that no steady policy was pursued in the publishing department. If a book made a success then, for a time, he published almost everything that offered itself. This naturally produced a harvest of disasters; then, for a while, nothing at all was published. Various efforts were made to improve the management of the publishing department. A Mr Folthorpe, who afterwards had a large library at Brighton, was engaged as manager but with little success; a Mr Reid followed him, who was also a failure.
I had often discussed the matter with my mother, who had a keen and businesslike intelligence. I was eager to assume a responsible position in the business. On the deposition of Mr Reid, the latest manager of the publishing business, I persuaded my father – who, in turn, persuaded his partners – to put me in charge of the publishing department. I was to have the modest sum of £1,500 at my disposal. I stipulated that I was not to be questioned, or interfered with, in any way as to its use, and with this sum I was to make what publishing ventures I pleased. Behold me, then, a youth of not yet twenty, searching the horizon for authors whose literary bantlings I might introduce to an admiring – and, as I fondly hoped, purchasing world!
My first venture was the publication of R H Horne’s – “Orion” Horne – “New Spirit of the Age”. I doubt whether any publisher has ever been as much interested in a book as I was in these particular volumes. It was, from the publisher’s point of view, my first-born. I have since had publishing and commercial ventures involving comparatively very large sums, but not one has ever given me such anxious care as these volumes. I read every line of the book, first in manuscript, and then in proof. I poured upon the unfortunate author all sorts of youthful criticisms and suggestions. I had sleepless nights over the book.
My second book was “The Queens of the Stage” by Mrs Baron Wilson, a work of no special merit but not financially unsuccessful. The authoress was a middle-aged widow – or “grass-widow” – who exercised a somewhat florid hospitality in Woburn Place. The behaviour at her entertainments was of a decidedly free and easy kind. It was the sort of house where, if anyone wanted a piece of bread at supper, someone else would throw it across the table to him. I published a small volume of poems or Mrs Wilson’s daughter. Her mother paid for the publication, because, as she confided to me, “I want my daughter to marry and it is a good thing for a girl to have a literary reputation!”
My next publishing venture brought me into relations with Leigh Hunt and did this in rather a strange way. I went to Peckham to dine with a Mr Thomas Powell, and while I waited in his little drawing-room for a few minutes before dinner I took up a neatly written MS which was lying on the table, and was reading it when Powell entered the room. “Ah!” he said, “that doesn’t look worth £40 does it? I advanced £40 to Leigh Hunt on the security of that MS and I shall never see my money again.”
When I was leaving I asked Powell to let me take the MS with me. I finished reading it before I went to sleep that night and next day I asked Powell if he would let me have the MS if I paid him the £40. He readily assented; and, having got from him Leigh Hunt’s address, I went off to him at Kensington, explained the circumstances under which the MS had come into my possession, and asked whether, if I paid him an additional £60, I might have the copyright. “You young prince!” cried Leigh Hunt in a tone of something like rapture, and the transaction was promptly concluded. The work was “Imagination and Fancy”.
It was succeeded by “Wit and Humour” and other books, all of which were successful, and the introduction was the foundation of a friendship with Leigh Hunt, and with the members of his family, which was very delightful to me.
Leigh Hunt was of tall stature, with sallow, not to say yellow complexion, and long hair. His mouth lacked refinement and firmness, but he had large expressive eyes. His manner, however, had such a fascination that after he had spoke for five minutes, one forgot how he looked. He wrote the most charming letters, perfect alike in form and spirit.
At his house I first met Robert Browning. He was a pretty constant visitor; in fact, I seldom dined there without meeting him, and we soon came into very friendly relations. Browning presented me with all his early books, with a friendly inscription, and these I still possess. Browning just then was keenly interested in the success of one of his plays about to be produced. Helen Faucit – afterwards Lady Martin – acted in this play, and Browning was accustomed to speak of her in the most enthusiastic fashion. This was some time before he met his future wife, and I remember Powell cherished the strongest conviction that Browning was over head and ears in love with Helen Faucit!
On the whole my first modest experiences in publishing were successful, and brought me into pleasant social relations with several authors; I remember I was very indignant that the firm would not allow me to add the profits of my ventures to the original sum which formed my publishing capital. I had reckoned on increasing that capital by the profits I made until I could undertake really large transactions; but this expectation was disappointed, and my yearly profits melted into the general balance-sheet of the firm.
Trollope was a man of remarkable, and even boisterous energy, both of mind and body. I remember on one occasion, when staying for a day or two at his house, I rose early and, looking out of my window, saw Trollope dragging a garden roller at what might be called a canter round the garden. He explained that he did that every morning for exercise when he was not hunting! Trollope had scarcely imagination enough to comprehend the limitations of those who did not share his own rough and over-running vigour. During this same visit he proposed, out of mere kindness of heart, that they should put a bar up and my wife might then relieve the dullness of her country visit by jumping over it on his favourite hunter for an hour or two each morning! This was, for my wife, a very alarming proposition, indeed, as she as a timid horsewoman. But a timid horseman, or horsewoman, was, to Trollope, unthinkable. He came to me one day in Waterloo Place with his head a good deal cut about and bandaged. I asked him what had appened? He said a horse had thrown him while hunting and kicked him. “I am not much hurt,” he added; “but those brutes in Essex” – meaning his hunting friends – “insisted on asking after the horse’s hoofs”, pretending to believe that they must have sustained much more damage than my head!”
Trollope’s somewhat aggressive energy vibrated in the very accents of his voice. He was a very loud talker, and I remember Thackeray, going to the Garrick Club at the exact moment when Anthony Trollope and Charles Reade were having a discussion in the smoking-room. The discussion was audible to the whole street! Reade was, in point of audibility, not, perhaps, quite equal to Trollope, but he was a very good second. Thackeray paused on the doorstep as the two overpowering voices floated down to him, threw up his eyes and hands, and said, “what must they have been at eighteen!” They were both about fifty at that time.