Friday, February 29, 2008

My Nineties: Ernest Dowson, Leonard Smithers, Beardsley and Wilde

In 1923, Walter T. Spenser published his memoirs of bookselling in London, Forty Years in My Bookshop. One chapter in particular deals with his experiences in the 1890s, indeed, the very fact that there was a separate chapter called 'My Nineties' gives a good indication of how, even this early on, the Ninties were being viewed as a distinct, almost anomolous period. Spencer's memoirs are not always gripping but sometimes fascinating, he comes across as, by turns, irritating and pompous, gracious and interesting. It is often memoirs like these which provide some of the best anecdotes about the other characters of the period. In this extract we hear about Ernest Dowson, Leonard Smithers, Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde. The chap in the photo above is Leonard Smithers.

...Only a bus ride away from my shop we come to the scene of one of the saddest happenings in modern literature, the downfall of Oscar Wilde at the Old Bailey on May 25th 1895. But we hardly need go so far if we wish to tread the London that was familiar to that ill-fated figure and to those strange-witted contemporaries and associates of him whom we instinctively recall at the mere mention of the eighteen-nineties - though most disproportionately, as we realise when we think of the other men who were writing during the same period.

We hardly need to go so far as the Old Bailey, I say, because several of them lived (and died) in the neighbourhood of Bloomsbury. There was hardly a week that passed for many years when one or other of the group could not have been found entering my shop. Ernest Dowson, Aubrey Beardsley, Sir Richard Burton, Leonard Smithers - often have I talked with them all. When Dowson was not spending his afternoons among my books he was wasting them at a public-house a little lower down New Oxford Street. Sometimes he would persuade a crony to come across to me with the manuscript of one of his poems and beg me to give a few shillings for it. He was too ashamed to come himself. Back the messenger would go with the capital that within a very short time would have liquidated itself in further supplies of alcohol. This reluctance of Dowson’s to sell his own manuscripts is, I find, shared generally among authors. They prefer other folk to do the sad work in their behalf.

Ernest Dowson was a handsome though rather weak-faced man. He was disinclined to write although he must have done a fair amount. He made several translations of French authors for Leonard Smithers, a publisher of Wilde’s, and he brought to me a translation of the “Memoirs of Richelieu,” which I purchased, as I myself was publishing at that time, or at any rate, contemplated doing so. But Dowson’s manuscript still remains in my strongbox unpublished.

I only knew Leonard Smithers in any personal way during the last few years of his life. The letters written by Oscar Wilde, which I possess and to which I shall presently refer, occasionally throw some light in this rather sordid publisher’s general character. When I met Smithers he had already fallen on evil days, and during those final years I purchased practically everything he had to sell, including his Wilde letters, written from France after the release of Wilde from prison and imploring Smithers to send various outstanding moneys. In one of these, written shortly before Wilde’s death, the poet exclaims; “For God’s sake send me at least five pounds by return. I am face to face with starvation and death.”

In my shop is a volume by Lord Alfred Douglas, which Smithers published, probably in 1899: “The Duke of Berwick, a Nonsense Rhyme by the Belgian Hare. Author of Tales with a Twist. Illustrated by Tony Ludovici.” On the picture-board cover is a coloured illustration of a duke with a dog, coronets on the ducal head and on the dog’s coat. Along with this volume I have the manuscript of the verses in pencil by Lord Alfred Douglas elsewhere, “this book never had a life as a real book at all.”

Smithers fell so low before he died - a Marlowesque kind of death it was, in the Seven Dials district - that he resorted to desperate methods for the few pounds he needed to keep himself alive. Once he came to me and said: “Mr Spencer, I have some epigrams by Oscar Wilde that have never been published. If I print an edition de luxe of a hundred and twenty-five copies illustrated with woodcuts by Aubrey Beardsley, also belonging to me, will you take the whole edition at ten shillings each?”

I agreed to this, and he promised to deliver them to me as soon as they were printed. They came in several different lots, and I began to think that here was an important new Wilde publication, when I was amazed to find half-a-dozen callers in my shop offering me copies of the little book I was about to issue myself! Smithers had printed far more than he supplied to me, and made similar arrangements with other booksellers!

I have seen copies of this pamphlet of epigrams sold at a guinea each. The yellow cover reads: “Phrases and Philosophies for the use of the Young by Oscar Wilde, London, MCMIII.” The Beardsley illustrations came at the beginning and at the end of the thirty-six sayings: and the sayings themselves are entirely characteristic of the man who wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest.” “The first duty of life,” says Wilde, “ is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has yet discovered.” “Avoid arguments of any kind,” he says again, “they are always vulgar, and often convincing.” Relations, we are told, are simply a tedious pack of people who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live not the smallest instinct about when to die. “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.” “A truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes in it.” And, finally, “to love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.”...

PS. John C., I'm glad you enjoyed the skyscrapers, they are quite magical I think: sometimes, particularly the really Deco looking ones, almost seem like 'fantastic architechture' like some of the stuff that you've had on Feuilleton from time to time. Jim D., thank you for the note about the Hospital and, yes, I thought it was amazing that there's a hospital anywhere in the world which can be classified as a skyscraper. I was just being lazy I'm afraid, I could have given the names and details of the all the buildings featured but, in a way, that's not what's important - it's all about the way they look I guess.

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