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A VIOLENT CONTRAST,
SEVENTH ERA OF ENGLISH LITERATURE.
FROM THE PUBLICATION OF PAMELA IN 1740 A.D. TO THE DEATH
OF JOHNSON IN 1784 A.D.
LITERARY LIFE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.
Phases of author-life.
Success of a few.
As we look back upon that remarkable era of our literature which runs through Queen Anne's reign and far into that of George the First, we see two phases of author-life—the one rich and brilliant—the other dark, poor, and wretched.
There are no middle tints--nothing but bright light and deepest shadow. If an author made a hit, up he went to the very top of the tree, where the golden fruit grew and the sunlight of courtly favour played ever warmly round him; if he failed to attract attention, there was nothing for even the most hard-working hack but to plod on with as much hope as he could muster, grubbing in the earth around its roots for the wretched food that scarcely kept his bones from starting through the skin,
But the artificial system of encouragement, by which men who wrote well, became, without the possession of other qualifications, Ambassadors, Commissioners, Surveyors, or Secretaries, did not last long. Walpole, a man who cared little for books and less for their writers, came into office, and almost at once the whole literary
THE WORK THAT POOR AUTHORS DID.
profession sank, with a few exceptions, into indigence and obscurity. The exceptions can easily be counted. Pope had made enough by his "Homer" to live snugly at Twickenham; so he was independent of Walpole or any other man. Richardson, the novelist, lived on the profits of his extensive business as a printer. Young, to be sure, got a pension; and Thomson, after tasting the worst miseries of author-life, got £100 a year from the Prince of Wales and a sinecure office worth other £300. But they were a mere handful of the writers who swarmed in London during the last century. Nearly all the rest lived from hand to mouth, a life so wretched and precarious, that Grub Street, in which they herded together, has become a name inseparably associated with rags and hunger.
The mode of life among prosperous writers has been indicated with sufficient clearness in the chapters on Addison and Steele. They wore the clothes, drank the wine, played the games, and resorted to the haunts of fine gentlemen in the time of Anne. They tapped their snuff-boxes, and offered the perfumed pinch with the true modish air, in the dainty drawing-rooms of Covent Garden and Soho Square. They paid their twopence at the bar of the fashionable coffee-houses, and lit their long clay pipes at the little wax tapers that burned on the tables
among the best
There were literary men, however, of Addison's own time, but more especially of a later day, to whom the penny or twopence paid for admission to the coffee-house was often the price of a meal. These poor strugglers were glad to get any kind of work that
could do. They compiled indexes and almanacs; they wrote puffing reviews and short notices of books; they kept a stock of prefaces and prologues always on hand, one of which they gladly sold for halfa-crown. They edited classic authors with notes, and translated works from French, Italian, Latin, or Greek, for fewer guineas than the thin fingers that held their worn-out stump of a goose-quill. It was a red-letter day with them, when one of their articles was accepted by the proprietor of the Gentleman's Magazine. And all this drudgery was in many cases imbittered by the con
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.
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 enjoy 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
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
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