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The Slave of the Lamp

Henry Seton Merriman


  By Henry Seton Merriman


  Henry Seton Merriman published his first novel, "Young Mistley," in1888, when he was twenty-six years old. Messrs. Bentley's reader, in hiscritique on the book, spoke of its "powerful situations" andunconventionality of treatment: and, while dwelling at much greaterlength on its failings, declared, in effect, its faults to be the rightfaults, and added that, if "Young Mistley" was not in itself a goodnovel, its author was one who might hereafter certainly write goodnovels.

  "Young Mistley" was followed in quick succession by "The PhantomFuture," "Suspense," and "Prisoners and Captives." Some years later,considering them crude and immature works, the author, at somedifficulty and with no little pecuniary loss, withdrew all these fourfirst books from circulation in England. Their republication in Americahe was powerless to prevent. He therefore revised and abbreviated them,"conscious," as he said himself in a preface, "of a hundred defectswhich the most careful revision cannot eliminate." He was perhaps then,as he was ever, too severe a critic of his own works. But though thesefour early books have, added to youthful failings, the youthful meritsof freshness, vigour and imagination, their author was undoubtedly rightto suppress them. By writing them he learnt, it is true, the techniqueof his art: but no author wishes--or no author should wish--to give hiscopy-books to the world. It is as well then--it is certainly as hehimself desired--that these four books do not form part of the presentedition. It may, however, be noted that both "Young Mistley" and"Prisoners and Captives" dealt, as did "The Sowers" hereafter, withRussian subjects: "Suspense" is the story of a war-correspondent in theRusso-Turkish War of 1877: and "The Phantom Future" is the only novel ofMerriman's in which the scene is laid entirely in his own country.

  In 1892 he produced "The Slave of the Lamp," which had run seriallythrough the _Cornhill Magazine_, then under the editorship of Mr.James Payn.

  To Mr. Payn, Merriman always felt that he owed a debt of gratitude formuch shrewd and kindly advice and encouragement. But one item of thatadvice he neglected with, as Mr. Payn always generously owned, greatadvantage. Mr. Payn believed that the insular nature of the ordinaryBriton made it, as a general rule, highly undesirable that the scene ofany novel should be laid outside the British Isles.

  After 1892 all Merriman's books, with the single exception of "Flotsam,"which appeared serially in _Longman's Magazine_, and was, at first,produced in book form by Messrs. Longman, were published by the firm ofMessrs. Smith, Elder, & Co.

  His long and serene connection with the great and honourable house whichhad produced the works of such masters of literature as Thackeray,Charlotte Bronte, and Robert Browning, was always a source of sincerepleasure to him. He often expressed the opinion that, from the momentwhen, as an inexperienced and perfectly unknown author, he sent "YoungMistley" to Messrs. Bentley, until the time when, as a very successfulone, he was publishing his later novels with Messrs. Smith, Elder, hehad invariably received from his publishers an entirely just and uprighttreatment.

  Also in 1892 he produced "From One Generation to Another": and, twoyears later, the first of his really successful novels, "With EdgedTools." It is the only one of his books of which he never visited the_mise-en-scene_--West Africa: but he had so completely imbuedhimself with the scenery and the spirit of the country that few, if any,of his critics detected that he did not write of it from personalexperience. Many of his readers were firmly convinced of the reality ofthe precious plant, Simiacine, on whose discovery the action of the plotturns. More than one correspondent wrote to express a wish to takeshares in the Simiacine Company!

  "With Edged Tools" was closely followed by "The Grey Lady." Somepractical experience of a seafaring life, a strong love of it, and agreat fellow-feeling for all those whose business is in great waters,helped the reality of the characters of the sailor brothers and of thesea-scenes generally. The author was for some years, and at the time"The Grey Lady" was written, an underwriter at Lloyd's, so that on thesubject of ship insurance--a subject on which it will be rememberedpart of the plot hinges--he was _en pays de connaissance_. For thepurpose of this story, he travelled in the Balearic Islands, having,earlier, made the first of many visits to Spain.

  One of the strongest characteristics in his nature, as it is certainlyone of the strongest characteristics in his books, was his sympathywith, and, in consequence, his understanding of, the mind of theforeigner. For him, indeed, there were no alien countries. He learnt thecharacter of the stranger as quickly as he learnt his language. Hisgreatest delight was to merge himself completely in the life andinterests of the country he was visiting--to stay at the mean_venta_, or the _auberge_ where the tourist was never seen--tosit in the local cafes of an evening and listen to local politics andgossip; to read for the time nothing but the native newspapers, and noliterature but the literature, past and present, of the land where hewas sojourning; to follow the native customs, and to see Spain, Polandor Russia with the eyes and from the point of view of the Spaniard, thePole or the Russian.

  The difficulties--sometimes there were even serious difficulties--ofvisiting places where there was neither provision nor protection madefor the stranger, always acted upon him not as deterrent but incentive:he liked something to overcome, and found the safe, comfortable,convenient resting-places as uncongenial to his nature as they wereunproductive for the purposes of his work.

  In 1896 "The Sowers" was published. Merriman's travels in Russia hadtaken place some years before--before, in fact, the publication of"Young Mistley"--but time had not at all weakened the strong and sombreimpression which that great country and its unhappy people had left uponhim. The most popular of all his books with his English public, Merrimanhimself did not consider it his best. It early received the complimentof being banned by the Russian censor: very recently, a Russian womantold the present writers that "The Sowers" is still the first book thetravelling Russian buys in the Tauchnitz edition, as soon as he is outof his own country--"we like to hear the truth about ourselves."

  In the same year as "The Sowers," Merriman produced "Flotsam." It isnot, strictly speaking, a romance: some of its main incidents were takenfrom the life of a young officer of the 44th Regiment in Early Victoriandays. The character of Harry Wylam is, as a whole, faithful to itsprototype; and the last scene in the book, recording Harry's death inthe Orange Free State, as he was being taken in a waggon to themissionary station by the Bishop of the State, is literally accurate.Merriman had visited India as a boy; so here, too, the scenery is fromthe brush of an eye-witness.

  His next novel, "In Kedar's Tents," was his first Spanish novel--pureand simple: the action of "The Grey Lady" taking place chiefly inMajorca.

  All the country mentioned in "In Kedar's Tents" Merriman visitedpersonally--riding, as did Frederick Conyngham and Concepcion Vara, fromAlgeciras to Ronda, then a difficult ride through a wild, beautiful andnot too safe district, the accommodation at Algeciras and Ronda being atthat time of an entirely primitive description. Spain had for Merrimanever a peculiar attraction: the character of the Spanishgentleman--proud, courteous, dignified--particularly appealed to him.

  The next country in which he sought inspiration was Holland. "Roden'sCorner," published in 1898, broke new ground: its plot, it will beremembered, turns on a commercial enterprise. The title and the mainidea of the story were taken from Merriman's earliest literary venture,the beginning of a novel--there were only a few chapters of it--whichhe had written before "Young Mistley," and which he had discarded,dissatisfied.

  The novel "Dross" was produced in America in 1899, having appearedserially in this country in a well-known newspaper. Written during aperiod of ill-health, Merriman thought it beneath his best work, and,true
to that principle which ruled his life as an author, to give to thepublic so far as he could of that best, and of that best only, hedeclined (of course to his own monetary disadvantage) to permit itspublication in England in book form.

  Its _mise-en-scene_ is France and Suffolk; its period the SecondEmpire--the period of "The Last Hope." Napoleon III., a character bywhom Merriman was always peculiarly attracted, shadows it: in it appearsJohn Turner, the English banker of Paris, of "The Last Hope"; anadmirable and amusing sketch of a young Frenchman; and an excellentdescription of the magnificent scenery about Saint Martin Lantosque, inthe Maritime Alps.

  For the benefit of "The Isle of Unrest," his next book, Merriman hadtravelled through Corsica--not the Corsica of fashionable hotels andhealth-resorts, but the wild and unknown parts of that lawless andmagnificent island. For "The Velvet Glove" he visited Pampeluna,Saragossa, and Lerida. The country of "The Vultures"--Warsaw and itsneighbourhood--he saw in company with his friend, Mr. Stanley Weyman.The pleasure of another trip, the one he took in westernFrance--Angouleme, Cognac, and the country of the Charente--for thescenery of "The Last Hope," was also doubled by Mr. Weyman's presence.In Dantzig--the Dantzig of "Barlasch of the Guard"--Merriman made a stayin a bitter mid-winter, visiting also Vilna and Koenigsberg; part of theroute of the Great Retreat from Moscow he traced himself. He wasinclined to consider--and if an author is not quite the worst judge ofhis own work he is generally quite the best--that in "Barlasch" hereached his high-water mark. The short stories, comprised in the volumeentitled "Tomaso's Fortune," were published after his death. In everycase, the _locale_ they describe was known to Merriman personally.At the Monastery of Montserrat--whence the monk in "A Small World" sawthe accident to the diligencia--the author had made a stay of some days.The Farlingford of "The Last Hope" is Orford in Suffolk: the Frenchscenes, as has been said, Merriman had visited with Mr. Weyman, whose"Abbess of Vlaye" they also suggested. The curious may still find theoriginal of the Hotel Gemosac in Paris--not far from the Palais d'OrsayHotel--"between the Rue de Lille and the Boulevard St. Germain."

  "The Last Hope" was not, in a sense, Merriman's last novel. He left athis death about a dozen completed chapters, and the whole plot carefullymapped out, of yet another Spanish book, which dealt with the Spain ofthe Peninsular War of 1808-14. These chapters, which were destroyed bythe author's desire, were of excellent promise, and written with greatvigour and spirit. His last trip was taken, in connection with thisbook, to the country of Sir Arthur Wellesley's exploits. The plot of thestory was concerned with a case of mistaken identity; the sketch of aGuerilla leader, Pedro--bearing some affinity to the Concepcion Vara of"In Kedar's Tents"--was especially happy.

  It has been seen that Merriman was not the class of author who "sits inFleet Street and writes news from the front." He strongly believed inthe value of personal impressions, and scarcely less in the value offirst impressions. In his own case, the correctness of his firstimpressions--what he himself called laughingly his _"coupd'oeil"_--is in a measure proved by a note-book, now lying before thewriters, in which he recorded his views of Bastia and the Corsicansafter a very brief acquaintance--that view requiring scarcely anymodification when first impressions had been exchanged for realknowledge and experience.

  As to his methods of writing, in the case of all his novels, except thefour early suppressed ones, he invariably followed the plan of drawingout the whole plot and a complete synopsis of every chapter before hebegan to write the book at all.

  Partly as a result of this plan perhaps, but more as a result of greatnatural facility in writing, his manuscripts were often without a singleerasure for many pages; and a typewriter was really a superfluity.

  It is certainly true to say that no author ever had more pleasure in hisart than Merriman. The fever and the worry which accompany many literaryproductions he never knew.

  Among the professional critics he had neither personal friends norpersonal foes; and accepted their criticisms--hostile orfavourable--with perfect serenity and open-mindedness. He was, perhaps,if anything, only too ready to alter his work in accordance with theiradvice: he always said that he owed them much; and admired theirperspicuity in detecting a promise in his earliest books, which hedenied finding there himself. His invincible modesty made him ready toaccept not only professional criticism but--a harder thing--the adviceof critics on the hearth. It was out of compliance with such a domesticcriticism that the _denouement_ in "The Sowers" was re-written asit now stands, the scene of the attack on the Castle being at firstwholly different.

  The jealousy and bitterness which are supposed to be inseparable fromthe literary life certainly never affected Merriman's. He had no traceof such feelings in his nature. Of one who is known to the publicexclusively through his writings, it may seem strange--but it is not theless true--to say that his natural bent was not to the life of aliterary man, but to a life of action, and that it was fate, rather thaninclination, which made him express himself in words instead of deeds. Awriter's books are generally his best biography: the "strong, quietman," whose forte was to do much and say nothing; who, like MarcosSarrion, loved the free and plain life of the field and the open, was anatural hero for Merriman, "as finding there unconsciously some image ofhimself."

  To any other biography he was strongly opposed. His dislike of theadvertisement and the self-advertisement of the interview and thepersonal paragraph deepened with time. He held strongly andconsistently, as he held all his opinions, that a writer should be knownto the public by his books, and by his books only. One of his lastexpressed wishes was that there should be no record of his private life.

  It is respect for that wish which here stays the present writers' pen.



  _July_ 1909.