1897 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alaric Alexander Watts

Margaret Oliphant, "Alaric Attila Watts" William Blackwood and his Sons (1897) 1:495-510.



Quite another development of literary life and energy comes under our observation with another voluminous correspondent, in whose letters the background and machinery of the profession, its trade aspect and commercial interest, are brought very vividly before us. Curiously enough, the extremely active and energetic figure which reveals the ways of the "trade," and all the methods of procuring literary reputation and success in the Twenties, is that of one whose name suggests nothing but a mild kind of poetry, whimsically associated with the fiercest of cognomens, Alaric A. — generally believed to be Alaric Attila — Watts. The poetry has faded, I fear, altogether out of human recollection, but not the name, which owes its tenacity, probably, rather to its alarming character than to the gentle productions of its owner. Alaric, however, had entered very early into the literary lists, and describes himself as having charge at twenty of the "New Monthly Magazine," one of several periodicals set on foot by Mr. Colburn, the London publisher, from whose office came forth almost all the array of fashionable novels — a number which nowadays we should consider insignificant, but which then seemed prodigious; and whose methods of calling attention to the productions issued under his name were the scandal and admiration of the literary world, denounced on all sides, yet quickly developed into a powerful system. The first letter I find of Watts is very long (16 pages, supplemented by as many of memoranda, all on post paper — none of your trumpery note size such as we use in these degenerate days) and diffusely explanatory. He had been transfixed by some stray dart of the many javelins always hurtling through the air from the Edinburgh printing house, and being a man of pacific tendencies and much literary ambition, instead of filling the world with complaints as most of the victims did, he took the better way of explaining how it was that, with entire innocence, of course, he had brought himself within the range of that artillery. He had been, it would appear, a correspondent of Pringle in the earliest beginning of the Magazine, which must have been in his own extreme youth, and after that period had plunged into all that was going on of periodical literature in London, not only editing, or partially editing, the "New Monthly" for a short time, but also doing the same for another short-lived undertaking called "Baldwin's Magazine." While floating thus from one literary undertaking to another, the young man fell in the way of one of Blackwood's recruiting agents, above referred to, in this case Dr Croly. The letter is dated Brompton, 17th December 1821:—

"A. A. Watts to W. Blackwood.

I have accused you in my own mind, and perhaps with justice, of some want of courtesy to me. On the establishment of 'Baldwin's Magazine,' in consequence of my knowledge of, and frequent intercourse with, most of the literary men in and about London, as well as with the principal booksellers, I had frequent opportunities of becoming acquainted with literary news, &c., long before there was a likelihood of their reaching Edinburgh in the regular course. Croly suggested that an occasional communication, even if it consisted only of the small talk of the literary coteries, would be very acceptable to you. Accordingly, on the publication of the first of those scurrilous papers in 'Baldwin's Magazine,' I enclosed a variety of literary memoranda, and, among others, a list of all B.'s contributors, and an account of the infamous tricks resorted to by a certain set to prejudice the sale of your work. I mentioned in my letter that I should have much pleasure in occasionally communicating to you such gossip as I thought likely to prove either serviceable or interesting. I may here mention that it was at my pressing instance that one of your much valued contributors refused any longer to furnish papers for the 'London Magazine.' To the communication above alluded to, which was forwarded through Messrs Cadell & Davies, I received no reply, not even a word of thanks for my disposition to make myself serviceable. Since then I have, of course, contented myself with reading your Magazine, but that I have ever been its warm well-wisher many of our common friends can testify. I have never omitted an opportunity, when one offered, of quoting spirited passages from it in the journals with which I happened to be connected, or over which I could exercise any control. I am ashamed of alluding to such trifles: I only mention them to prove that I have not provoked, at least willingly, such paragraphs as appeared a short time ago in your work. It would be idle to pretend that I was not vexed and hurt at an attempt of the best periodical extant to hold me up to vulgar ridicule. Croly was not the only one of our mutual friends to whom the attack was offensive. But I learn that you will endeavour to prevent the recurrence of similar insults, and I am satisfied."

The notes that follow have a certain interest even now, and at the time were no doubt keenly relished in Edinburgh, as opening up that curious background of literary life about which in all generations there is so much more curiosity than it is worth.

"The 'Guardian' is conducted by a young man of the name of Knight, son of the printer of that name at Windsor, and editor of the 'Etonian.' This man is possessed of much smartness, but he is intolerably pert and flippant. The 'Guardian' is in no respect so good as it was when Croly had the management of it. Its circulation also is very insignificant.

"Hope may say what he chooses, but I know that he is not bona fide the author of 'Anastasius.' Much of the raw material was, however, furnished by him. It is well known who wove the final web. His book on 'Costume' (I have it from Rees) was so deficient in the commonest essentials of composition, that Longman & Co. were obliged to get a person to rewrite it entirely. The idiotic dedication of 'Anastasius' is certainly Hope's.

"The following epigram on 'Colburn's Magazine' I have somewhere heard repeated: —

Colburn, Campbell, & Co. write rather so so,

But puff without dread or discretion;

And each month give us scope for the Pleasures of Hope,

But to end in the Pains of Possession.

"Longman & Co. have, as you may be aware, purchased Pinnock's and Maunder's share in the 'Literary Gazette'; they now take the entire management, and in some respects editorship, upon themselves. Colburn has a share, but takes no trouble beyond that of receiving his dividend. The sale I know to be upwards of 3000, as I have often for weeks together superintended its publication. It is without exception the best advertising medium for books there is. I have no interest whatever in it, and scarcely now contribute a line to its pages; but I would hint that it is worth your while to be upon civil terms with Jerdan, as he has it in his power to render essential service to your publications. A review in the 'Gazette' is of use as an advertising medium. The country papers mostly exchange with him, and consequently quote numerous extracts from the 'Gazette.' These are copied from one to another, and thus you have useful paragraphs without expense. I have known twenty provincials quote anecdotes from the same article.

"The 'Monthly Review' is edited by Griffyths. Francis Hodgson writes a good deal for it. Circulation about 2500.

"Archdeacon Nares still continues covertly to edit Remington's dull mass of orthodoxy, the 'British Critic.' The 'Monthly' and 'British Critic' have been nicknamed Mumpsimus and Sumpsimus. They do not seem to improve a whit.

"The 'Eclectic' is managed by Josiah Conder, late bookseller of St Paul's Churchyard. He writes all his poetical articles (some of which are by no means contemptible) himself. Montgomery usually furnishes one paper monthly for this work: its circulation is about 3000. There is a great deal of black bigotry and cant in its pages. But all Dissenting works have many readers."

These notes run on to an interminable length, and it is impossible to follow them, except in scraps. The gossip was all precious to the compounders of the short papers, the essayists on Things in General, which the Magazine has always loved, and especially to the framers of the 'Noctes,' after it was established, when the merest anecdote was enough to set the wheel of conversation going. "The production of Lord Byron's," which was "handed about among the duly initiated Thebans of Holland House," and which mocked at the king's visit to Ireland in "a blasphemous parody of the advent of our Saviour"; the identification of the author of another of these squibs as "Lady Morgan's gentle Knight, Sir Charles"; the alarming decrease in the circulation of Colburn's Magazine, on every number of which he lost largely, notwithstanding the most heroic puffing; the success of another periodical because of the little or no expense of its production, the contributors being all unpaid, — these were all of the greatest interest to the eager publisher in Edinburgh. Among these scraps of information and gossip the ever-recurring advices about advertisements, and the need of keeping up relations with the newspapers, came in as a chorus in all sort of connections. "His advertisements are exceedingly profitable. I wish you would devote a portion of your cover to this object, as, besides the immediate profit, the circulation of a work is materially assisted by its advertisements." The Magazine had been very careless of all these aids, being in its beginning a romantic adventure altogether, and not founded upon the principles which the smaller fry of trade literary enterprises in London were laboriously working out. Here is a curious illustration of popular taste, which I have no doubt we should find on inquiry to be still the same in our own day:—

"There is at this time, you must know, a bit of a schism between the Divan [Messrs Longman & Co.] and the Emperor of the West [Murray] about Dame Rundell and her Cookery Book. The Chancellor has referred the dispute between the old woman and M. to the lower courts: meanwhile she is preparing an improved edition of the book, which Longmans have agreed to publish. At his late sale Murray offered the old book to the trade, and was so elated by the preference given to his edition, that, after the numbers subscribed for were fixed, he informed the purchasers that they should pay 3s. 6d. instead of 3s. 10d. By this well-timed piece of generosity the subscriptions were immediately doubled. Murray's plan is by far the best as respects his publishing arrangements. He charges a good price to the public on his commodity, in order that he may be enabled to afford the TRADE a larger profit; and it is quite natural that the retail booksellers should interest themselves most in the sale of those works which bring them the greatest profit.

"You will perhaps smile to learn that with us, next to the Scotch novels and Byron, the best selling books are Dr. Kitchener's. Another impression of 2000 copies of the Cook's Oracle is now at press. I often meet the old gentleman: he is half cracked, yet there is wherewithal to be amused at in him. He was sorely smitten with your clever notice of his book, and considers that you have through his sides aimed a deadly blow at all scientific and legitimate cookery.

"Wilson's 'Valerius' [adds the annalist, whose conception of the group of writers in Edinburgh seems less clear than his knowledge of their English contemporaries] has not had fair-play in London: it is an admirable book, but I cannot describe the malevolent hatred cherished against this gentleman by the Cockneys, on the supposition that he assists in managing your Magazine. Nor is Mr. Galt much less the object of their detestation. Every personal allusion or offensive paragraph in your work is forthwith attributed to him. And if his works were not generally received here as the productions of Mr. Lockhart, they would perhaps stand a still less chance of having justice done them than is the case at present."

Mr. Watts, however, was not an amiable critic, and there are many hard sayings scattered through these curious charts of the obscure London coteries of the day.

"Charles Lamb [he says, speaking of another Magazine] delivers himself with infinite pain and labour of a silly piece of trifling, every month, in this Magazine, under the signature of Elia. It is the curse of the Cockney School that, with all their desire to appear exceedingly off-hand and ready with all they have to say, they are constrained to elaborate every petty sentence, as though the web were woven from their own bowels. Charles Lamb says he can make no way in an article under at least a week."

This prodigious budget would seem to have pleased Mr. Blackwood, whose next communication was so satisfactory that Alaric begins at once to unfold his plans for being of service to the publisher and his Magazine:—

"THE THATCHED COTTAGE,

WALHAM GREEN, near LONDON. January 29, 1822.

Now that we understand each other, I may venture one or two points in which I can be of use to you. It is my wish, as soon as I can manage to effect it, to get our London and some of our best Provincial Editors (with many of whom I am on tolerably good terms) into a regular train of quotation from your Magazine at the beginning of each month. Sometimes when room could not be found for anything complete, a smart syllabus of its contents would answer every purpose. The advantages of having such a work of high talent quoted from are obvious. Brilliant extracts speak to the intellect of the newspaper reader if he happens to possess any; and since the accession of Colburn to the throne of imperial supremacy, people have begun to decide for themselves, and will no longer rely upon mere advertisements. Some of the London gentlemen of the press are most willing to quote clever papers from your work; but then, they argue, the matter must either be transcribed or their Magazines spoiled, and even this trifling circumstance acts as a preventive. A parcel of waste sheets forwarded to me every month would obviate this weighty difficulty; but this aid, and the distribution of about a dozen Magazines as I will suggest, would enable me to organise a plan by which you can be, I doubt not, very extensively quoted. I will write more particularly on this subject on the next opportunity.

"Again, I propose, if you consider it will be of the slightest service, to give you a private letter, consisting chiefly of loose memoranda of whatever is passing in the principal literary circles in London or even in the Trade, opinions of your work, &c. Some of your finest strokes of satire have lost their point with us, from being of too local a nature: it will be but fair to give us a bit now and then which we Londoners can fully enter into the spirit of.

"Lastly, though I place but slight value on my individual assistance as a contributor, I have it often in my power to secure articles from well-known men for your pages, so that I may become the medium of clever communications when I am unable to originate them.... No ceremony need ever be used in the rejection of any paper proceeding from me which does not appear to suit your purposes."

This letter gives an amusing picture of the literary handy-man, ready for every use, from furnishing paragraphs for the newspapers to purveying articles for the Magazine. We do not find much indication of the latter in the rest of the correspondence; but the use of provincial papers in spreading the name of Blackwood by apt quotation is again and again referred to as the most excellent and profitable means of advertisement, costing nothing and bringing in many subscribers. Mr. Watts was thus unconsciously the literary parent of those busy gentlemen who compile such publications as "Tit-bits" and the "Review of Reviews," though his motive perhaps was higher, since he intended not only to supply material costing nothing for his newspapers, but to render a service to the original source from which that material was drawn — an idea not, we fear, much cultivated now.

The following antiquated gossip may still have a certain interest. Mr. Alaric Watts was not very good-natured in his comments, let us hope chiefly because a story is generally more telling in a report of this kind when it is seasoned with a little venom, and not from any darker motive. But the great Potentate of Albemarle Street, the Emperor of the West, had many detractors.

"PUTNEY, Jan. 10, 1822.

Some time ago Murray entered into an arrangement by which he was to give Stewart Rose a thousand guineas for a complete edition of Ariosto, upon which the literary exquisite is said to have employed himself for these two years past. The other day, however (so his friend Lord John Russell told my brother-in-law), he received a laconic epistle from Murray declaring off the bargain, and mentioning that he had another quick hand engaged on it, who would be "ready" directly. Now the said Stewart Rose taketh this very much to heart, and awful consequences are likely to ensue."

Abuse of Murray continues to be the subject, at great length, of Mr. Watts's following letters. Here, however, is a sketch of a literary celebrity of the time which is a little less diffuse than usual, and not without vividness as a picture. It comes among the gallery of portraits of contemporary writers, especially gentlemen of the press, with which Watts regularly furnished Blackwood, probably by way of material for the satires on London life which he requested:

"The author of' L—' has written a powerful philippic against avarice. He is one of the greatest misers breathing. His income net is about 1800 a-year; add to this the profits of his Rectorship at Kew and Petersham, and another living in Devonshire, which bring it to about 2500. With these ample means he lives in a garret in Princes Street at the rate of about 20s. a-week. To the business of poet and critic he adds that of wine-merchant. I have dealt with him for many years in this commodity. He sells good and cheap, but will cheat you if he can. It is most surprising that such things should be winked at, and that he should retain his gown about his shoulders. He is one of the most impudent egotists I have ever known, and yet he is really possessed of first-rate talents — an anomaly, as I believe our quacks are usually what they seem. I once called upon him, and found him at dinner. On a dirty oaken table without a tablecloth were arranged a few cracked and broken pieces of crockery. In a few minutes the maid entered with a teal and a dish of green peas (this was at a time of the year when they were at least a guinea a quart). I expressed my surprise at his inconsistency, when he observed, 'I care nothing for appearances; but my stomach fares as well as if I inhabited a palace: my dinner yesterday cost me 2, 7s., — this is not an unusual thing with me.' I went away thoroughly disgusted. He has written a capital lampoon on the 'New Monthly' gang, which I must obtain and send you."

Watts afterwards changed his residence to Leeds, where, with considerable grumbling to be banished from town, he continued for some time as editor or manager of the 'Leeds Intelligencer,' one of the oldest of contemporary newspapers. Here we find him stronger than ever in business tactics, and the need of pushing the Magazine, through the unpaid advertisement by quotation in the Provincial press, with which he had a large connection. The following letter is dated from Leeds, Nov. 8, 1822. This was at the time of the king's visit to Scotland, when the country, as is well known, with Sir Walter Scott at her head, had gone wildly out of her wits with loyalty, and the First Gentleman in Europe had received such a reception as would not have been unworthy of the wisest and best monarch in the world. Blackwood shared the general passion, and commemorated the event in his own way with that mingled daring and calculation which best answers success. He published another second number almost simultaneously with the first, which he called the Coronation number, and in which he embodied the frantic loyalty of the moment, and in so doing carried off triumphantly an accumulation of articles which perhaps on their own merits would not have taken the first place. This experiment has never been tried in periodical literature (not newspaper) but by himself. It was on this subject that Watts addressed him:—

"Your king's visit made an extraordinary noise all over the kingdom, but especially in London, where it was received with perfect enthusiasm by the 'Times,' and approbation by the moderate Whigs. The leading article in that number was a most splendid piece of writing. All I could do was to write off and get a few extracts into several of the Provincial papers, — the Cornwall, Chester, Devonshire, Staffordshire, Liverpool, Manchester, and several of the Yorkshire journals. This I did, and shall now have an opportunity of accomplishing regularly. If you will have the trouble to have ten or a dozen Magazines addressed to various newspapers which I will point out, I will engage that you shall be quoted largely every month by upwards of twenty of the best Provincials. This will be of great service in making 'Maga' known. I shall of course give her an extended notice myself every month, and profit by every possible opportunity of mentioning her in other ways. In order to further my views in respect to Newspaper Quotations, you must have one or two brief articles in each number. If this were the case, at least ten papers would copy voluntarily from the twenty I shall have in training; but unless you give them something perfect in itself of a reasonable length for quotation, there will be no chance of our accomplishing our aim. I could command twelve papers within sixty miles of this place, all well circulated. Turn this over in your mind. I am preparing a notice of some length for the 'Intelligencer,' which I shall have extracted as often as I can."

In respect to this, Watts adds in another letter:—

"It is much to be wished that our friend Christopher would give us an article composed of short light pieces, for the purpose of inducing newspaper quotation, something after the manner of D'Israeli, classed under a general head. You would find your account in this."

The idea of Christopher the perverse lending himself to any such trade transaction is incredible, and we cannot but feel that Blackwood himself, unaccustomed to these modes of business, must have grown very tired of the continual suggestion. I cannot find, indeed, that he took any notice of those persistent and often repeated solicitations. He writes in his usual large manner of thanks for articles sent by Watts, and the news that were always welcome to him; but the bait of the twenty newspapers all ready to quote and to extend the reputation of' Maga' does not seem to have tempted him. Probably he had too high an opinion of "my Magazine" to think such contrivances needful.

But the news and the anecdotes, whether perfectly trustworthy or not, were always palatable, and sweetened the many irrelevancies of the correspondence. Specially when the news was of the circle of Albemarle Street, and the aristocracy of letters which was supposed to give itself airs in that abode of the English gods, was the gossip agreeable in Edinburgh, a little sore with the consciousness that its best men were beginning to be drained away. Lockhart had gone a short time before, and perhaps it was with no great distress that it was heard in the saloon in Princes Street that Murray's new paper, "The Representative," was not the great success it had been expected to be. The following report is curious, from the introduction of the somewhat fantastic figure of the mystic and extraordinary youth, whom, at that early period of his career, nobody pretended to understand. Watts writes from London, October 7, 1826:—

"It is certainly not true that the entire loss has come out of Murray's pocket. Lords Lowther and Hertford have, I am confidently informed, borne a large part of it. Murray was much pleased with the philip [sic] at young D'Israeli in the 'Noctes' a month or two ago. This fellow has humbugged him most completely. After the tricks of which he has been guilty, he will scarcely dare show his face in London again for some time. You are aware, I daresay, that 'Vivian Grey' was palmed off upon Colburn by Mrs. Austin, the wife of the Honourable Mr. Warde's [sic] lawyer, as the production of the author of 'Tremaine'! and upon this understanding Colburn gave three times as much as he would otherwise have done."

Nobody, it is apparent, had a notion then what that curious youngster, with all his strange pretensions, was to be, and his behaviour at this crisis earned him many hostile comments. But Watts's notes are never, as we have said, of an optimistic kind. He has a keen eye for the smallnesses of the great, and those mean details into which, with a little care on the part of the reporter, the largest transaction may be brought down. Here is a glimpse of the "dessous des cartes" of an affair which very much interested and dazzled the spectators of that time, the melting away of the mystery which had surrounded the wonderful Abbey of Fonthill, with all its secret magnificence, so carefully defended from the eyes of the crowd. Beckford's grandeur and seclusion were no doubt sham to a great degree, and the ruthless vulgarising of the mystery hurt nobody's sentiment: but the pleasure with which the romantic palace, with all its rare and beautiful collections, was unveiled, and the lowest of trade tricks played amid its conventional prodigies and wonders, brings squalor and misery into the very heart of the shrine.

"Beckford sells Fonthill Abbey and its appendages to old Farquhar for upwards of 300,000, reserving to himself a third of the pictures and books, and purchasing afterwards, by private contract, another third. It occurred to Phillips, the auctioneer, that the sale of these effects would afford a glorious opportunity for the exercise of his accustomed ingenuity and honesty. He first goes round the trade in London to solicit book commodity of all descriptions to fill up vacuums in the Library at Fonthill. In short, the better half of the books sold were what they were described, the rakings and refuse of the Row and its vicinity. This infamous trash was mixed up with some really splendid and valuable items, once the bona fide property of Mr. Beckford, and catalogued as the Fonthill Library, collected with infinite taste and expense during a period of forty years. I do not speak upon slight authority, for my friend Hermann, one of the proprietors of the 'Intelligencer,' who was at that time in Wiltshire, inspected the books, and described the great part of them as the vilest trash that ever were sold at an auction mart."

The influential journalist, with the twenty newspapers which he had it in his power to turn into unconscious mediums of advertisement, and his own special journal on which he expected to establish his fortunes, seems to have come to little with advancing years. Instead of realising a large sum by the transfer to other hands of the "Leeds Intelligencer," he would appear to have had the worst of the bargain with a "smart" competitor, and to have returned to town little the better for his exile. The last letter I find addressed to him by Mr. Blackwood is full of thanks for the "splendid accompaniment" of a recent letter, the "magnificent presents," which would appear to have been copies of the Annuals which were the favourite productions of the period, filled with contributions from all the most famous names, and illustrated with the most wonderful of engravings on steel, and all the triumphs of typography, — yet, perhaps, more surely destined to the contempt of oblivion than almost any production of the press. Mr. Blackwood regrets that he can make no return for these sumptuous articles. "All I can do is to show them and speak of them to my friends in the way they merit to be spoken of, as the finest specimens which have ever appeared." They were too late to be noticed in an article in the month's issue, but he hopes there will be "something good in next number." "I need not tell you, however," says the cautious publisher, "that this is a thing of which I cannot speak with certainty, as so much depends upon the circumstances of the moment. For unless a writer happens to be in the humour for it, and can do the article with his whole heart and soul, it is worth nothing, and is abandoned." "A writer" here evidently means Wilson, who very often found himself unable to take up a subject which was suggested to him "with his whole heart and soul," too much one would say for any collection of Annuals. Mr. Blackwood ends his letter with an apology for not having written, which is not caused, he says, by any feeling of unfriendliness. "But you have been busy with your own concerns as I have been with mine, and have not had time to take that interest in 'Maga,' or to send me literary news, &c., as formerly, and therefore our correspondence has of course slackened."