by Wilkie Collins
* The biographical facts mentioned in this little sketch are derived from Mr. Blanchard Jerrold's interesting narrative of his father's Life and Labors. For the rest --that is to say, for the opinions here expressed on Jerrold's works, and for the estimate attempted of his personal character--I am responsible. This is the only instance of a reprinted article in the present collection, any part of which is founded on a modern and an accessible book. The reader will perhaps excuse and understand my making an exception here to my own rules, when I add that Douglas Jerrold was one of the first and the dearest friends of my literary life.
SOME seventy years ago, there lived a poor country player, named Samuel Jerrold. His principal claim to a prominent position among the strolling company to which he was attached consisted in the possession of a pair of shoes once belonging to the great Garrick himself. Samuel Jerrold always appeared on the stage in these invaluable "properties"--a man, surely, who deserves the regard of posterity, as the only actor of modern times who has shown himself capable of standing in Garrick's shoes.
Samuel Jerrold was twice married--the second time to a wife so much his junior that he was older than his own mother-in-law. Partly, perhaps, in virtue of this last great advantage on the part of the husband, the marriage was a very happy one. The second Mrs. Samuel was a clever, good-tempered, notable woman; and helped her husband materially in his theatrical affairs, when he rose in time (and in Garrick's shoes) to be a manager of country theaters. Young Mrs. Samuel brought her husband a family--two girls to begin with; and, on the third of January, eighteen hundred and three, while she was staying in London, a boy, who was christened Douglas William, and who was destined, in after-life, to make the name of the obscure country manager a household word on the lips of English readers.
In the year eighteen hundred and seven, Samuel Jerrold became the lessee of the Sheerness Theater; and little Douglas was there turned to professional account, as a stage-child. He appeared in "The Stranger" as one of the little cherubs of the frail and interesting Mrs. Haller; and he was "carried on" by Edmund Kean, as the child in "Rolla." These early theatrical experiences (whatever influence they might have had, at a later time, in forming his instincts as a dramatist) do not appear to have at all inclined him toward his father's profession when he grew older. The world of ships and sailors amid which he lived at Sheerness seems to have formed his first tastes and influenced his first longings. As soon as he could speak for himself on the matter of his future prospects, he chose the life of a sailor; and at ten years old he entered on board the guardship Namur as a first-class volunteer. Up to this time the father had given the son as good an education as it lay within his means to command. Douglas had been noted as a studious boy at school; and he brought with him a taste for reading and for quiet pursuits when he entered on board the Namur. Beginning his apprenticeship to the sea as a Midshipman, in December, eighteen hundred and thirteen, he was not transferred from the guardship to active service until April, eighteen hundred and fifteen, when he was drafted off, with forty-six men, to his Majesty's gunbrig Ernest.
Those were stirring times. The fierce struggle of Waterloo was at hand; and Douglas's first cruise was across the Channel to Ostend, at the head of a fleet of transports carrying troops and stores to the battlefield. Singularly enough, his last cruise connected him with the results of the great fight, as his first had connected him with the preparations for it. In the July of the Waterloo year, the Ernest brought her share of the wounded back to Sheerness. On the deck of that brig Jerrold first stood face to face with the horror of war. In after-life, when other pens were writing glibly enough of the glory of war, his pen traced the dark reverse of the picture, and set the terrible consequences of all victories, righteous as well as wicked, in their true light.
The great peace was proclaimed, and the nations rested at last. In October, eighteen hundred and fifteen, the Ernest was "paid off." Jerrold stepped on shore, and never returned to the service. He was without interest; and the peace virtually closed his professional prospects. To the last day of his life he had a genuinely English love for the sea and sailors; and, short as his naval experience had been, neither he nor his countrymen were altogether losers by it. If the Midshipman of the Ernest had risen to be an Admiral, what would have become then of the author of "Black-eyed Susan"?
Douglas's prospects were far from cheering when he returned to his home on shore. The affairs of Samuel Jerrold (through no fault of his own) had fallen into sad confusion. In his old age his vocation of manager sank from under him; his theater was sold; and, at the end of the Waterloo year, he and his family found themselves compelled to leave Sheerness. On the first day of eighteen hundred and sixteen they sailed away in the Chatham boat, to try their fortune in London.
The first refuge of the Jerrolds was at Broad Court, Bow Street. Poor old Samuel was now past his work; and the chief dependence of the ruined family rested on Douglas and his mother. Mrs. Samuel contrived to get some theatrical employment in London; and Douglas, after beginning life as an officer in the navy, was apprenticed to a printer, in Northumberland Street, Strand.
He accepted his new position with admirable cheerfulness and resolution; honestly earning his money, and affectionately devoting it to the necessities of his parents. A delightful anecdote of him, at this time of his life, is told by his son. On one of the occasions when his mother and sister were absent in the country, the little domestic responsibility of comforting the poor worn-out old father with a good dinner rested on Douglas's shoulders. With the small proceeds of his work he bought all the necessary materials for a good beefsteak pie--made the pie himself, succeeded brilliantly with the crust--himself took it to the bake-house--and himself brought it back, with one of Sir Walter Scott's novels, which the dinner left him just money enough to hire from a library, for the purpose of reading a story to his father in the evening, by way of dessert. For our own parts, we shall henceforth always rank that beefsteak pie as one among the many other works of Douglas Jerrold which have established his claim to remembrance and to regard. The clew to the bright, affectionate nature of the man--sometimes lost by those who knew him imperfectly, in after-life--could hardly be found in any pleasanter or better place, now that he is gone from among us, than on the poor dinner-table in Broad Court.
Although he was occupied for twelve hours out of the twenty-four at the printing-office, he contrived to steal time enough from the few idle intervals allowed for rest and meals to store his mind with all the reading that lay within his reach. As early as at the age of fourteen, the literary faculty that was in him seems to have struggled to develop itself in short papers and scraps of verse. Only a year later, he made his first effort at dramatic composition, producing a little farce, with a part in it for an old friend of the family, the late Mr. Wilkinson, the comedian. Although Samuel Jerrold was well remembered among many London actors as an honest country manager; and although Douglas could easily secure from his father's friends his admission to the theater whenever he was able to go to it, he does not appear to have possessed interest enough to gain a reading for his piece when it was first sent in to the English Opera-house. After three years had elapsed, however, Mr. Wilkinson contrived to get the lad's farce produced at Sadler's Wells, under the title of "More Frightened than Hurt." It was not only successful on its first representation, but it also won the rare honor of being translated for the French stage. More than this, it was afterward translated back again, by a dramatist who was ignorant of its original history, for the stage of the Olympic Theater; where it figured in the bills under the new title of "Fighting by Proxy," with Liston in the part of the hero. Such is the history of Douglas Jerrold's first contribution to the English drama. When it was produced on the boards of Sadler's Wells, its author's age was eighteen years.
He had appeared in public, however, as an author before this time, having composed some verses which were printed in a forgotten periodical called Arliss's Magazine. The loss of his first situation, through the bankruptcy of his master, obliged him to seek employment anew in the printing-office of one Mr. Bigg, who was also the editor of a newspaper called the Sunday Monitor. In this journal appeared his first article--a critical paper on "Der Freischütz." He had gone to the theater with an order to see the opera; and had been so struck by the supernatural drama and the wonderful music to which it was set, that he noted down his impressions of the performance, and afterward dropped what he had written, anonymously, into the editor's box. The next morning his own article was handed to him to set up in type for the forthcoming number of the Sunday Monitor.
After this first encouragement, he began to use his pen frequently in the minor periodicals of the time; still sticking to the printer's work, however, and still living at home with his family. The success of his little farce at Sadler's Wells led to his writing three more pieces for that theater. They all succeeded; and the managers of some of the other minor theaters began to look after the new man. Just at this time, when his career as dramatist and journalist was beginning to open before him, his father died. After that loss, the next important event in his life was his marriage. In the year eighteen hundred and twenty-four, when he was twenty-one years of age, be married his "first love," Miss Mary Swann, the daughter of a gentleman who held an appointment in the Post-office. He and his bride settled, with his mother and sister and a kind old friend of his boyish days, in Holborn; and here--devoting his days to the newspapers, and his evenings to the drama--the newly-married man started as author by profession, and met the world and its cares bravely at the point of the pen.
The struggle at starting was a hard one. His principal permanent source of income was a small weekly salary paid to him as dramatist to the establishment, by one Davidge, manager of the Coburg (now the Victoria) Theater. This man appears to have treated Jerrold, whose dramas brought both money and reputation to his theater, with an utter want of common consideration and common gratitude. He worked his poor author pitilessly; and it is, on that account, highly satisfactory to know that he overreached himself in the end, by quarreling with his dramatist, at the very time when Jerrold had a theatrical fortune (so far as managers' interests were concerned) lying in his desk, in the shape of "Black-Eyed Susan." With that renowned play (the most popular of all nautical dramas) in his hand, Douglas left the Coburg to seek employment at the Surrey Theater--then under the management of Mr. Elliston. This last tradesman in plays--who subsequently showed himself to be a worthy contemporary of the other tradesman at the Coburg --bid rather higher for Jerrold's services, and estimated the sole monopoly of the fancy, invention, and humor of a man who had already proved to be a popular, money-bringing dramatist at the magnificent rate of five pounds a week. The bargain was struck; and Jerrold's first play produced at the Surrey Theater was "Black-Eyed Susan."
He had achieved many enviable dramatic successes before this time. He had written domestic dramas--such as "Fifteen Years of a Drunkard's Life," and "Ambrose Gwinett"--the popularity of which is still well remembered by playgoers of the old generation; but the reception of "Black-Eyed Susan" eclipsed all previous successes of his or of any other dramatist's in that line. Mr. T. P. Cooke, who, as the French say, "created" the part of William, not only found half London flocking into the Borough to see him; but was actually called upon, after acting in the play, as a first piece, at the Surrey Theater, to drive off in his sailor's dress, and act in it again on the same night, as the last piece, at Covent Garden Theater. Its first "run" mounted to three hundred nights; it afterward drew money into the empty treasury of Drury Lane: it remains, to this day, a "stock-piece" on which managers and actors know that they can depend; and, strangest phenomenon of all, it is impossible to see the play now without feeling that its great and well deserved dramatic success has been obtained with the least possible amount of assistance from the subtleties and refinements of dramatic art. The piece is indebted for its hold on the public sympathy solely to the simple force, the irresistible directness, of its appeal to some of the strongest affections in our nature. It has succeeded, and it will succeed, not because the dialogue is well, or, as to some passages of it, even naturally written; not because the story is neatly told, for it is (especially in the first act) full of faults in construction; but solely because the situations in which the characters are placed appeal to the hearts of every husband and every wife in the theater. In this aspect of it, and in this only, the play is a study to any young writer; for it shows on what amazingly simple foundations rest the main conditions of the longest, the surest, and the widest dramatic success.
It is sad, it is almost humiliating, to be obliged to add, in reference to the early history of Jerrold's first dramatic triumph, that his share of the gains which "Black-Eyed Susan" poured into the pockets of managers on both sides of the water was just seventy pounds. Mr. Elliston, whose theater the play had raised from a state of something like bankruptcy to a condition of prosperity which, in the Surrey annals, has not since been paralleled, not only abstained from presenting Jerrold with the smallest fragment of anything in the shape of a token of gratitude, but actually had the pitiless insolence to say to him, after "Black-Eyed Susan" had run its three hundred nights, "My dear boy, why don't you get your friends to present you with a bit of plate?"*
* When this article was first published in Household Words, a son of Mr. Elliston wrote to the conductor to protest against the epithets which I had attached to his father's name. In the present reprint I have removed the epithets; not because I think them undeserved, but because they merely represented my own angry sense of Mr. Elliston's treatment of Jerrold--a sense which I have no wish needlessly to gratify at the expense of a son's regard for his father's memory. But the facts of the case as they were originally related, and as I heard them from Jerrold himself, remain untouched--exactly as my own opinion of Mr. Elliston's conduct remains to this day unaltered. If the "impartial" reader wishes to have more facts to decide on than those given in the text, he is referred to Raymond's "Life of Elliston"--in which work he will find the clear profits put into the manager's pocket by "Black-Eyed Susan," estimated at one hundred and fifty pounds a week.
The extraordinary success of "Black-Eyed Susan" opened the doors of the great theaters to Jerrold, as a matter of course. He made admirable use of the chances in his favor which he had so well deserved, and for which he had waited so long. At the Adelphi, at Drury Lane, and at the Haymarket, drama after drama flowed in quick succession from his pen. The "Devil's Ducat," the "Bride of Ludgate," the "Rent Day," "Nell Gwynne," the "Housekeeper"--this last the best of his plays in point of construction--date, with many other dramatic works, from the period of his life now under review. The one slight check to his career of prosperity occurred in eighteen hundred and thirty-six, when he and his brother-in-law took the Strand Theater, and when Jerrold acted a character in one of his own plays. Neither the theatrical speculation nor the theatrical appearance proved to be successful; and he wisely abandoned, from that time, all professional connection with the stage, except in his old and ever-welcome character of dramatist. In the other branches of his art--to which he devoted himself, at this turning-point of his career, as faithfully as he devoted himself to the theatrical branch--his progress was not less remarkable. As journalist and essayist, he rose steadily toward the distinguished place which was his due among the writers of his time. This middle term of his literary exertions produced, among other noticeable results, the series of social studies called "Men of Character," originally begun in Blackwood's Magazine, and since republished among his collected works.
He had now advanced, in a social as well as in a literary point of view, beyond that period in the lives of self-made men which may be termed the adventurous period. Whatever difficulties and anxieties henceforth oppressed him were caused by the trials and troubles which more or less beset the exceptional lives of all men of letters. The struggle for a hearing, the fight for a fair field in which to show himself, had now been bravely and creditably accomplished; and all that remains to be related of the life of Douglas Jerrold is best told in the history of his works. Taking his peculiar literary gifts into consideration, the first great opportunity of his life, as a periodical writer, was offered to him, unquestionably, by the starting of Punch. The brilliant impromptu faculty which gave him a place apart, as thinker, writer, and talker, among the remarkable men of his time, was exactly the faculty which such a journal as Punch was calculated to develop to the utmost. The day on which Jerrold was secured as a contributor would have been a fortunate day for that periodical, if he had written nothing in it but the far-famed "Caudle Lectures," and the delightful "Story of a Feather." But the service that he rendered to Punch must by no means be associated only with the more elaborate contributions to its pages which are publicly connected with his name. His wit often flashed out at its brightest, his sarcasm often cut with its keenest edge, in those well-timed paragraphs and short articles which hit the passing event of the day, and which, so far as their temporary purpose with the public is concerned, are all-important ingredients in the success of such a periodical as Punch. A contributor who can strike out new ideas from the original resources of his own mind is one man, and a contributor who can be depended on for the small workaday emergencies which are felt one week and forgotten the next, is generally another. Jerrold united these two characters in himself; and the value of him to Punch, on that account only, can never be too highly estimated. At this period of his life the fertility of his mental resources showed itself most conspicuously. While he was working for Punch, he was also editing and largely contributing to The Illuminated Magazine. In this publication appeared, among a host of shorter papers, the series called "The Chronicles of Clovernook," which he himself always considered to be one of his happiest efforts, and which does indeed contain, in detached passages, some of the best things that ever fell from his pen. On the cessation of The Illuminated Magazine, he started The Shilling Magazine, and contributed to it his well-known novel, "Saint Giles and Saint James." These accumulated literary occupations and responsibilities would have been enough for most men; but Jerrold's inexhaustible energy and variety carried him on through more work still. Theatrical audiences now found their old favorite addressing them again, and occupying new ground as a writer of five-act and three-act comedies. "Bubbles of the Day," "Time Works Wonders," "The Cat's-paw," "Retired from Business," "Saint Cupid," were all produced, with other plays, after the period when he became a regular writer in Punch.
Judged from the literary point of view, these comedies were all original and striking contributions to the library of the stage. From the dramatic point of view, however, it must not be concealed that they were less satisfactory; and that some of them were scarcely so successful with audiences as their author's earlier and humbler efforts. The one solid critical reason which it is possible to assign for this, implies in itself a compliment which could be paid to no other dramatist of modern times. The perpetual glitter of Jerrold's wit seems to have blinded him to some of the more sober requirements of the dramatic art. When Charles Kemble said, and said truly, that there was wit enough for three comedies in "Bubbles of the Day," he implied that this brilliant overflow left little or no room for the indispensable resources of story and situation to display themselves fairly on the stage. The comedies themselves, examined with reference to their success in representation, as well as to their intrinsic merits, help to support this view. "Time Works Wonders" was the most prosperous of all, and it is that comedy precisely which has the most story and the most situation in it. The idea and the management of the charming love-tale out of which the events of this play spring, show what Jerrold might have achieved in the construction of other plots, if his own superabundant wit had not dazzled him and led him astray. As it is, the readers of these comedies, who can appreciate the rich fancy, the delicate subtleties of thought, the masterly terseness of expression, and the exquisite play and sparkle of wit scattered over every page, may rest assured that they rather gain than lose--especially in the present condition of theatrical companies--by not seeing the last dramatic works of Douglas Jerrold represented on the stage.
The next, and, sad to say, the final achievement of his life, connected him most honorably and profitably with the newspaper press. Many readers will remember the starting of Douglas Jerrold's Weekly Newspaper--its great temporary success--and then its sudden decline, through defects in management, to which it is not now necessary to refer at length. The signal ability with which the editorial articles in the paper were written, the remarkable aptitude which they displayed in striking straight at the sympathies of large masses of readers, did not escape the notice of men who were well fitted to judge of the more solid qualifications which go to the production of a popular journalist. In the spring of the year eighteen hundred and fifty-two, the proprietor of Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper proposed the editorship to Jerrold, on terms of such wise liberality as to insure the ready acceptance of his offer. From the spring of eighteen hundred and fifty-two, to the spring of eighteen hundred and fifty-seven--the last he was ever to see--Jerrold conducted the paper, with such extraordinary success as is rare in the history of journalism. Under his supervision, and with the regular assistance of his pen, Lloyd's Newspaper rose, by thousands and thousands a week, to the great circulation which it now enjoys. Of the many successful labors of Jerrold's life, none had been so substantially prosperous as the labor that was destined to close it.
His health had shown signs of breaking, and his heart was known to be affected, for some little time before his last brief illness; but the unconquerable energy and spirit of the man upheld him through all bodily trials, until the first day of June, eighteen hundred and fifty-seven. Even his medical attendant did not abandon all hope when his strength first gave way. But he sank rapidly--so rapidly, that in one short week the struggle was over. On the eighth day of June, surrounded by his family and his friends, preserving all his faculties to the last, passing away calmly, resignedly, affectionately, Douglas Jerrold closed his eyes on the world which it had been the long and noble purpose of his life to inform and to improve.
It is too early yet to attempt any estimate of the place which his writings will ultimately occupy in English literature. So long as honesty, energy, and variety are held to be the prominent qualities which should distinguish a genuine writer, there can be no doubt of the vitality of Douglas Jerrold's reputation. The one objection urged against the works, which, feeble and ignorant though it was, often went to the heart of the writer, was the objection of bitterness. Calling to mind many of the passages in his books in which this bitterness most sharply appears, and seeing plainly in those passages what the cause was that provoked it, we venture to speak out our own opinion boldly, and to acknowledge at once that we admire this so-called bitterness as one of the great and valuable qualities of Douglas Jerrold's writings; because we can see for ourselves that it springs from the uncompromising earnestness and honesty of the author. In an age when it is becoming unfashionable to have a positive opinion about anything; when the detestable burlesque element scatters its profanation with impunity on all beautiful and all serious things; when much, far too much, of the current literature of the day vibrates contemptibly between unbelieving banter and unblushing claptrap, that element of bitterness in Jerrold's writings--which never stands alone in them; which is never disassociated from the kind word that goes before, or the generous thought that comes after--is in our opinion an essentially wholesome element, breathing that admiration of truth, and that hatred of falsehood, which is the chiefest and brightest jewel in the crown of any writer, living or dead.
This same cry of bitterness, which assailed him in his literary character, assailed him in his social character also. Absurd as the bare idea of bitterness must appear in connection with such a nature as his, to those who really knew him, the reason why strangers so often and so ridiculously misunderstood him, is not difficult to discover. That marvelous brightness and quickness of perception which has distinguished him far and wide as the sayer of some of the wittiest, and often some of the wisest things also, in the English language, expressed itself almost with the suddenness of lightning. This absence of all appearance of artifice or preparation, this flash and readiness which made the great charm of his wit, rendered him, at the same time, quite incapable of suppressing a good thing from prudential considerations. It sparkled off his tongue before he was aware of it. It was always a bright surprise to himself; and it never occurred to him that it could be anything but a bright surprise to others. All his so-called bitter things were said with a burst of hearty school-boy laughter, which showed how far he was himself from attaching a serious importance to them. Strangers apparently failed to draw this inference, plain as it was; and often mistook him accordingly. If they had seen him in the society of children; if they had surprised him in the house of any one of his literary brethren who was in difficulty and distress; if they had met him by the bedside of a sick friend, how simply and how irresistibly the gentle, generous, affectionate nature of the man would then have disclosed itself to the most careless chance acquaintance who ever misunderstood him! Very few men have won the loving regard of so many friends so rapidly, and have kept that regard so enduringly to the last day of their lives, as Douglas Jerrold.