Letters by Charles Read concerning Griffith Gaunt


SIR--There is a kind of hypocrite that has never been effectually exposed, for want of an expressive name. I beg to supply that defect in our language, and introduce to mankind the PRURIENT PRUDE. Modesty in man or woman shows itself by a certain slowness to put a foul construction on things, and also by unobtrusively shunning indelicate matters and discussions. The "PRURIENT PRUDE," on the contrary, itches to attract attention by a parade of modesty (which is the mild form of the disease), or even by rashly accusing others of immodesty (and this is the noxious form).

"Doctor Johnson," said a lady, "what I admire in your dictionary is that you have inserted no improper words."

"What! you looked for them, madam?" said the doctor.

Here was a "PRURIENT PRUDE," that would have taken in an ordinary lexicographer.

The wickeder kind of "PRURIENT PRUDE" has committed great ravages in our English railways, where the carriages, you must know, are small and seldom filled. Respectable men found themselves alone with a shy-looking female, addressed a civil remark to her, were accused at the end of the journey of attempting her virtue, and punished unjustly, or else had to buy her off: till at last, as I learn from an article in the Saturday Review, many worthy men refused to sit in a carriage where there was a woman only; such terror had the "PRURIENT PRUDE" inspired in manly breasts. The last of these heroines, however, came to grief; her victim showed fight; submitted to trial, and set the police on her: she proved to be, as any one versed in human nature could have foretold, a woman of remarkably loose morals; and she is at this moment expiating her three P's--Prudery, Prurience, and Perjury--in one of her majesty's jails.

Some years ago an English baronet was nearly ruined and separated from his wife by one of these ladies. He was from the country, and by force of habit made his toilet nearer the window than a Londoner would. A "PRURIENT PRUDE" lurked opposite, and watched him repeatedly; which is just what no modest woman would have done once; and, interpreting each unguarded action by the light of her own foul imagination, actually brought a criminal charge against the poor soul. The charge fell to the ground the moment it was sifted; but in the meantime, what agony had the "PRURIENT PRUDE" inflicted on an innocent family!

Unfortunately the "PRURIENT PRUDE" is not confined to the female sex. It is not to be found among men of masculine pursuits; but it exists among writers. Example: a divorce case, unfit for publication, is reported by all the English journals. Next day, instead of being allowed to die, it is renewed in a leader. The writer of this leader begins by complaining of the courts of law for giving publicity to Filth.--(N.B. the ridiculous misuse of this term, where not filth but crime is intended, is an infallible sign of a dirty mind, and marks the "PRURIENT PRUDE.") After this flourish of prudery, Pruriens goes with gusto into the details, which he had just said were unfit for publication. Take down your file of English journals and you will soon lay your hand on this variety of the "PRURIENT PRUDE." A harmless little humbug enough.

But, as among women, so among writers, the "PRURIENT PRUDE" becomes a less transparent and more dangerous impostor, when, strong in the shelter of the Anonymous, which hides from the public his own dissolute life and obscene conversation, he reads his neighbor by the light of his own corrupt imagination, and so his prurient prudery takes the form of slander, and assassinates the fair fame of his moral, intellectual, and social superior.

Now the five or six "Prurient Prudes" who defile the American Press, have lately selected me, of all persons, for their victim. They are trying hard to make the American public believe two monstrous falsehoods: first, that they are pure-minded men; secondly, that I am an impure writer.

Of course, if these five or six "Prurient Prudes" had the courage to do as I do, sign their names to their personalities, their names and their characters would be all the defense I should need. But, by withholding their signatures they give the same weight to their statements that an honest man gives by appending his signature, and compel me, out of respect to the American public, whose esteem I value, to depart from the usual practice of authors in my position, and to honor mere literary vermin with a reply. The case, then, stands thus. I have produced a story called "Griffith Gaunt, or Jealousy." This story has, ever since December, 1865, floated The Argosy, an English periodical, and has been eagerly read in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly. In this tale I have to deal, as an artist and a scholar, with the very period Henry Fielding has described--to the satisfaction of "Prurient Prudes"; a period in which manners and speech were somewhat blunter than nowadays; and I have to portray a great and terrible passion, Jealousy, and show its manifold consequences, of which even Bigamy (in my story) is one, and that without any violation of probability. Then I proceed to show the misery inflicted on three persons by Bigamy, which I denounce as a crime. In my double character of moralist and artist, I present, not the delusive shadow of Bigamy, but its substance. The consequence is, that instead of shedding a mild luster over Bigamy, I fill my readers with a horror of Bigamy, and a wholesome indignation against my principal male character, so far as I have shown him. Of course "Griffith Gaunt," like "Hard Cash," is not a child's book, nor a little girl's book: it is an ambitious story, in which I present the great passions that poets have sung with applause in all ages; it is not a boatful of pap; but I am not paid the price of pap. By the very nature of my theme I have been compelled now and then to tread on delicate ground: but I have trodden lightly and passed on swiftly, and so will all the pure-minded men and women who read me. No really modest woman will ever suffer any taint by reading "Griffith Gaunt," unless, indeed, she returns to its perusal, unsexed, and filled with prurient curiosity, by the foul interpretations of the "Prurient Prudes." Then come a handful of scribblers, whose lives are loose and their conversation obscene: they take my text, and read it, not by its own light, but by the light of their own foul imaginations; and, having so defiled it by mixing their own filthy minds with it, they sit in judgment on the compound. To these impostors I say no more. The two words, "Prurient Prude," will soon run round the Union, and render its citizens somewhat less gullible by that class of impostor. One person, however, has slandered me so maliciously and so busily, that I am compelled to notice him individually, the more so as I am about to sue an English weekly for merely quoting him. The editor of a New York weekly called The Round Table has printed a mass of scurrility direct and vicarious to this purport:

1. That "Griffith Gaunt" is an indecent publication;
2. That it is immoral;
3. That, like other novelists, the author deals in adultery, bigamy, and nameless social crimes;
4. But that, unlike the majority of my predecessors, I side with the crimes I depict;
5. That the modesty and purity of women cannot survive the perusal of "Griffith Gaunt";
6. That this story was declined by some of the lowest sensational weekly papers of New York, on the ground that they did not dare to undertake its publication.
7. Passing from personal to vicarious slander, he prints the letter of an animal calling itself G. S. H., who suggests that some inferior writer wrote "Griffith Gaunt," and that I lent my name to it for a foreign market, and so he and I combined to swindle the Boston publishers.--This in England, we call felony.

Now, sir, I have often known some obscure dunce, who had the advantage of concealing his nameless name, treat an esteemed author with lofty contempt in the columns of a journal, and call his masterpiece a sorry production. I myself am well accustomed to that sort of injustice and insolence from scribblers, who could not write my smallest chapter, to save their carcasses from the gallows, and their souls from premature damnation. But the spite and vanity of our inferiors in the great, profound, and difficult art of writing, are generally satisfied by calling us dunces, and bunglers, and coxcombs, and that sort of thing.

In all my experience I never knew the Press guilty of such a crime as the editor of The Round Table has committed. It is a deliberate attempt to assassinate the moral character of an author and a gentleman, and to stab the ladies of his own family to the heart, under pretense of protecting the women of a nation from the demoralizing influence of his pen.

You will see at once that I could not hold any communication with The Round Table or its editor, and I must, therefore, trust to American justice and generosity, and ask leave to reply in respectable columns.

In answer to statements 1, 2, 4, and 5, I pledge the honor of a gentleman that they are deliberate and intentional falsehoods, and I undertake to prove this before twelve honest American citizens, sworn to do justice between man and man.

As to No. 3, I really scarce know what my slanderer means. Griffith Gaunt, under a delusion, commits Bigamy: and of course Bigamy may by a slight perversion of terms be called Adultery. But no truthful person, attacking character, would apply both terms to a single act. Is Bigamy more than Polygamy? And is Polygamy called that, and Adultery too, in every district of the United States?

As to "the nameless social crimes," what does the beast mean? Did he find these in his own foul imagination, or did he find them in my text? If it was in the latter, of course he can point to the page. He shall have an opportunity.

Statement 6, is a lie by way of equivocation. The truth is, that before "Griffith Gaunt" was written, an agent of mine proposed to me to sound some newspaper proprietors, who had hitherto stolen my works, as to whether they would like to buy a story of me, instead of stealing it. I consented to this preliminary question being put, and I don't know what they replied to my agent. Probably the idea of buying, where they had formed a habit of stealing, was distasteful to them. But this you may rely on, that I never submit a line of manuscript to the judgment of any trader whatever, either in England or in America, and never will. Nothing is ever discussed between a trader and me except the bulk and the price. The price is sometimes a high one; but always a fair one, founded on my sales. If he has not the courage to pay it, all the worse for him. If he has, the bargain is signed, and then and not till then, he sees the copy.

I never intrusted a line of "Griffith Gaunt" to an agent. I never sent a line of it across the Atlantic to any human being, except to the firm of Ticknor & Fields: and even to that respectable firm, one of the partners in which is my valued friend, I did not send a line of it until they had purchased of me the right to publish it in the United States. And this purchase was made on the basis of an old standing agreement.

Compare these facts with the impression a miserable prevaricator has sought to create, to wit, that the proprietor of some low journal was allowed to read the manuscript, or unpublished sheets, of "Griffith Gaunt," and declined it on the score of morality.

Statement 7, which accuses me of a literary felony, is a deliberate, intentional falsehood. The Argosy is sold in New York in great numbers, price sixpence. The editor of The Round Table is aware of this, and has seen "Griffith Gaunt " in it, with my name attached yet he was so bent on slandering me by hook or by crook, that he printed the letter of G. S. H. without contradiction, and so turned the conjecture of a mere fool into a libel and a lie.

I shall only add that I mean to collar the editor of The Round Table, and drag him and his slanders before a jury of his countrymen. He thinks there is no law, justice, or humanity for an Englishman in the great United States. We shall see.

Pending the legal inquiry, I earnestly request my friends in the United States to let me know who this editor of The Round Table is, and all about him, that so we may meet on fair terms before the jury.

All editors of American journals who have any justice, fair play, or common humanity to spare to an injured stranger, will print this letter, in which one man defends himself against many; and will be good enough to accept my thanks for the same in this writing.



P. S.--I demand as my right the undivided honor of all the insults that have been misdirected against Messrs. Ticknor & Fields, of Boston. Those gentlemen have had no alternative: they could not bow to slander, and discontinue "Griffith Gaunt" in The Atlantic Monthly, without breaking faith with me, and driving their subscribers to The Argosy. The whole credit, and discredit, of "Griffith Gaunt," my masterpiece, belongs to me, its sole author, and original vender.



SIR--You have read my letter to the American Press, cited one paragraph, and perverted that from its true intention, by surpressing its context. By this means you exaggerate my arrogance, and stir the bile of the publishers. I must request you to be more scrupulous, and to print the whole truth. The Round Table had stated that "'Griffith Gaunt' was declined by some of the lowest sensational weekly papers of New York, on the ground that they did not dare to undertake its publication." This was a monstrous piece of insolence; and I had to show a distant public that it must be a falsehood. But this I had no means whatever of doing, except by revealing my real way of treating with traders at home and abroad. You are welcome to blarney the publishers by telling them that artists (penny-a-liners excepted) write for money, but publishers publish for glory. I cannot go quite this length with you, not wanting their advertisements; but still I do not wish to affront these gentlemen without provocation, and so I insist on your printing this explanation, which your own disingenuousness has rendered necessary.

On the 17th October "Griffith Gaunt" was published in three volumes; on the 19th a copy was probably in your hands. On that day you revived and circulated a slander that tends to injure its sale very seriously, and to destroy the personal character of its author: you announced in your columns that "an American critic declares the story to be indecent and immoral; and that, on this point, having vainly attempted to read it, you offer no opinion."

Now it may be very polite of cold hashed mutton to affect a singular contempt for venison: but in your case it is not reasonable; you are familiar with drudgery; you contrive to read dozens of novels that are the very offal of the human mind; ay, and to praise them too. You know why.

Now, advertisements are a fine thing; but justice is a finer, whatever you may think. And justice required of you either to hold your tongue about "Griffith Gaunt," or else to read it.

But even assuming that you really had not the brains to read "Griffith Gaunt" for pleasure, nor yet the self-respect and prudence to wade through it before lending your columns to its defamation, at least you have read my letter to the American press; and, having read that, you cannot but suspect this charge of immorality and indecency to be a libel and a lie. Yet you have circulated the calumny all the same, and suppressed the refutation.

I am afraid the truth is, you have got into your head that the law will allow you to indulge a perverse disposition, by defaming and blackening the moral character of a respected author, provided you use another man's blacking. Pure chimera! The law draws no such distinction. It serves tale-bearers with the same sauce as tale-makers; it protects honest men alike against the originators and the reckless circulators of calumny. Believe me, your only chances to avoid very serious consequences are two: you must either meet me before a jury, and justify the American libel you have Anglicized and circulated; or else you must contradict it at once, and apologize to the man you have wronged. I offer you three days, to read "Griffith Gaunt" and decide upon your course. If, at the end of that time, you do not distinctly and categorically state that "Griffith Gaunt" is not an indecent and immoral book--and apologize to its author--I shall sue the proprietor of the Globe, as I am suing the proprietor of the London Review, for composing and printing an American libel with English type, and then publishing and selling it in English columns; in other words, for collecting foreign dirt with English hands, and flinging it upon the personal character of an English citizen.


October 22d, 1866.

The editor of the Globe having made public comments on this letter, yet kept the letter private, the writer requests less unscrupulous editors to repair this injustice.

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