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The Eulogy of Richard Jefferies
Walter Besant


A boat finally came off and piloted us into harbour, which we reached at seven o'clock Saturday morning – eight hours' passage. Numbers were ill – the ladies, most dreadfully; I did not feel a qualm. I went on by the next train at 9.30 to Brussels, and reached it at one o'clock…"

Brussels, at this moment, was full of French people mad with grief and excitement at the conduct of the war and the disasters of their country. Jefferies does not appear, however, to have been much struck with the terror and pity of the situation. It was his first experience of foreign life, not counting his boyish escapade; his delight in the hotel, the table d'hôte, the wine, the brightness and apparent happiness of the Brussels people – they do somehow seem younger and happier than any other people in the world, except, perhaps, the Marseillais – is very vividly expressed. The ladies dazzle him; he thinks of "our London dowdies" and shudders; but alas! he cannot talk to them.

Then he goes back to Swindon, but not, for the present, to Coate. There is trouble at home. His father has to be brought round gradually to look at things from his son's point of view. Till that happy frame of mind has been arrived at he cannot go home. But his mother visits him, and so far as she is concerned all is well. He is out of work and has no money – two shillings and threepence can hardly be called money. Meantime, his mind is still excited by his recent experiences. He will never be happy in the country again; he must find a place in London. It is the kind aunt who fills his purse with a temporary supply.

The following letter relates the difficulties of finding work:

"… It is now four months since I last saw you, and during that time I have unremittingly endeavoured to get money by all the fair means I could think of. Scarcely a day has passed without making some attempt, or without maturing some plan, and yet all of them, as if by some kind of fate, have failed. I have written all sorts of things. Very few were rejected, but none brought any return. I have endeavoured to get employment, but there is none within reach. My old place has been filled up for months, and I could not recover it without resorting to unfair means, unless by some unforeseen accident. The other two papers here are sufficiently supplied with reporters, and though ready enough to receive my writings, don't pay a farthing. There remains a paper at Marlborough to which I applied. They were quite ready to employ me, but said that, as their circulation at Swindon was very small, they could give but a small price – quoting a sum which absolutely would not buy me a dinner once a week. This was no good. Other papers further off refused entirely. As for answering advertisements, or seeking situations in other places, it was useless, from the following circumstance. In the autumn a large London paper failed, and the staff was thrown out. The consequence was, that the market became overstocked with reporters, and all vacancies were speedily filled. My next step was to try the London papers, especially the Pall Mall, with which I have had more or less connection for years. As I told you, three of the Dailies said if I were in town they could give me plenty of work, but not regular employment. In other words, one would employ me one day, another another, until an opening occurred for regular work…"

There are other details showing that it was a terrible time of tightness. Threatenings of county court for a debt of £2 10s.; personal apparel falling to pieces; work offered by the Pall Mall Gazette and other papers if he would go up to London. But how? One must have enough to pay for board and lodging for a week, at least; one must have enough for the railway-fare; one must present a respectable appearance. And now only a single halfpenny left! We have seen with sorrow how the young man had been already reduced to two shillings and threepence. But this seems affluence when we look at that solitary halfpenny. Only a halfpenny! Why, the coin will buy absolutely nothing.

Yet in this, the darkest hour, when he had no money and could get no work – when his own people had ceased to believe in him – he still continued to believe in himself. That kind of belief is a wonderful medicine in time of trouble. It is sovereign against low spirits, carelessness, and inactivity – the chief evils which follow on ill-success.

"… I have still the firmest belief in my ultimate good-fortune and success. I believe in destiny. Not the fear of total indigence – for my father threatens to turn me out of doors – nor the fear of disgrace and imprisonment for debt, can shake my calm indifference and belief in my good-fortune. Though I have but a halfpenny to-day, to-morrow I shall be rich. Besides, though I have had a severe cold, my health and strength are wonderful. Nothing earthly can hurt me…"

The next letter was written in July of the same year, six months later. "I am very busy," he says, "getting well known as a writer. Both Swindon papers employ me; but I am chiefly occupied with my book. I work at it almost night and day. I feel sure it will succeed. If it does not, I know nothing that will, and I may as well at once give up the profession."

I do not think there is anything in the world more full of pity and interest than the spectacle of a clever young man struggling for literary success. He knows, somehow he feels in his heart, that he has the power. It is like a hidden spring which has to be found, or a secret force which has to be set in motion, or a lamp which has to be set alight. This young man was feeling after that secret force; he was looking for that lamp. For eight long years he had been engaged in the search after this most precious of all treasures. What was it like – the noblest part of himself – that which would never die? Alas! he knew not. He hardly knew as yet that it was noble at all. So his search carried him continually farther from the thing which he would find.

On July 28 he writes a most joyful letter. He has achieved a feat which was really remarkable; in fact, he has actually received a letter from Mr. Disraeli himself on the subject of a work prepared by himself. It will be observed that by a natural confusion he mixes up the success of getting a letter from this statesman with the success of his book.

"… I told you that I had been bending all my energies to the completion of a work. I completed it a short time since, and an opportunity offering, I wrote to Disraeli, describing it, and asking his opinion. You know he is considered the cleverest man in England; that he is the head of the rich and powerful Conservative Party; and that he is a celebrated and very successful author. His reply came this morning:

    'Grosvenor Gate.

'Dear Sir,

'The great pressure of public affairs at the present moment must be my excuse for not sooner replying to your interesting letter, which I did not like to leave to a secretary.

'I think the subject of your work of the highest interest, and I should have confidence in its treatment from the letter which you have done me the honour of addressing to me. I should recommend you to forward your MS. to some eminent publisher whom interest and experience would qualify to judge of it with impartiality.

'Believe me, dear sir,

'With every good wish,

'Your faithful servant,

B. Disraeli.'

"A recognition like this from so great an intellectual leader is a richer reward to one's self than the applause of hundreds, or than any money can possibly be. And it is a guarantee of success, even in a money sense; for what publisher would not grasp at a work commended by Disraeli? This is a day of triumph to me. In an obscure country village, personally totally unknown, name never heard of, without the least assistance from any living person, alone and unaided, I have achieved the favourable opinion of the man who stands highest in our age for intellectual power, who represents the nobility, gentry, and clergy of the land, who is the leader of half England. This, too, after enduring the sneers and bitter taunts of so many for idleness and incapacity. Hard, indeed, have I worked these many months since I last saw you, and at all times it has been my intention – and looked forward to as a reward – to write and tell you of my success. And at last – at last! Write to me and tell me you rejoice, for without someone to rejoice with you, success itself is cold and barren. My success is now assured…"

A few days later he has to tell his aunt of another brilliant success of the same shadowy character. He calls it a "singular stroke of good fortune." One of the best publishing houses in London had promised to consider his new novel – which of his new novels was it? – carefully.

"I cannot help thinking that their 'full consideration' is a very promising phrase. I really do think that I am now upon the threshold of success… The idea of writing the book came to me by a kind of inspiration, and not from study or thought. I am now engaged upon a magazine article, which I think will meet the taste of the public. Since finishing the book, I have written a play which can either be published or acted, as circumstances prove most propitious. I have also sketched out a short tale, founded on fact, and have sent the MS. of a history of Swindon to the local paper, and expect a fair sum for it. I am engaged to go to Gloucester next week for a day – perhaps two – to report a trial. So that you see I am not idle, and have my hands as full as they can hold."

Quite as full as they can hold; and all the time he is drifting further and further from the haven where he would be. Yet his fortune lies at his feet, if he will but stoop to pick it up. It lies in the hedges, and in the fields, and woods; it lies upon the hillside. He can see it red as gold, flashing with the splendid light of a million diamonds, if he will open his eyes. But the time is not yet.

The firm of publishers declined, but in courteous and even flattering terms, to publish the work in question. The author at once made up his mind that the book was not "in their line," and sent the MS. to another firm.

The second firm apparently declined the work; but in another month the author writes triumphantly that Messrs. – are going to publish it. Now nothing remains but to settle the price.

"I cannot help," he says, "feeling this a moment of great triumph, after so much opposition from everyone. All my friends prophesied failure, and when I refused to desist from endeavouring, grew angry with me, and annoyed me as much as possible… I will let you know as soon as we have agreed upon the price, and, of course, I shall have the pleasure of sending you some copies when it appears."

Alas! he was mistaken. There was much more than the remuneration to be settled before the work was published; in fact, it never was published.

The last letter of the packet has no other date than May 7. From internal evidence, however, it must have been written in the year 1873.

"I have just had a great disappointment. After keeping the manuscript of my novel more than two months, Mr. – has written to decline it. It really does seem like Sisyphus – just as one has rolled the stone close to the top of the hill, down it goes again, and all one's work has to be done over again. For some time after I began literary work I did not care in the least about a failure, because I had a perpetual spring of hope that the next would be more fortunate. But now, after eight years of almost continual failure, it is very hard indeed to make a fresh effort, because there is no hope to sustain one's expectations. Still, although I have lost hope entirely, I am more than ever determined to succeed, and shall never cease trying till I do.

"It seems so singular to me that, although publishers constantly decline my works, yet if by any chance something that I have written gets into print, everybody immediately admires it, so that it does not seem that there is any want of ability. You remember those letters in the Times? They were declined by one editor of a much less important paper. The moment they were published everyone admired them, and even the most adverse critics allowed that the style and literary execution was good. I could show you a dozen clippings from adverse newspapers to that effect. This is the reflection that supports me under so many disappointments, because it seems to say that it is through no fault of mine. Thinking over this very deeply lately, and passing over in review the facts and experience I have obtained during the last eight years, I have come to the conclusion that it is no use for me to waste further time in waiting for the decisions of publishers, but that I ought to set to work and publish on my own account. What, then, shall I publish? A novel costs some £60 or £80 at least. This I cannot possibly afford; I have no friends who can afford it. I can borrow, it is true, but that seems like putting a noose round your own neck for some one else to hang you with. But then many authors have made a name and even large sums of money by publishing very small books…"

He goes on to show in his sanguine way how a little book is bound to bring in a great profit.

He then adds:

"… Having tried, therefore, every other plan for succeeding, I have at last determined to try this. Do you not think I am right? It is only risking a few pounds – not like £60 or £80. The first little book I have selected to issue is a compendium of reporting experience for the use of learners. It is almost finished – all but binding – and the first copy issued you shall see. It will be published by J. Snow and Co., 2, Ivy Lane.

"Then with regard to Swindon. I have so enlarged my account of it, and so enlarged the account of the Goddard family, that I have determined to publish the work in two parts. First to issue the Goddard part, by which means I shall not risk so much money, and shall see how the thing takes. Besides, I know that the Goddards would prefer it done in that way. I estimate the cost of the first part at about £10; and as the manuscript has been completed and lying idle for nearly three months, I should like to get it out at once, but I do not like to give the order until I have the cash to meet the bill.

"You have no idea of the wretched feeling produced by incessant disappointment, and the long, long months of weary waiting for decisions without the least hope…"

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