Edward Carpenter's Autobiography
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson

Chapter 12 - PERSONALITIES | Comment and Feedback

Forward to Chapter 13 - Personalities II

IT is curious that, with my somewhat antinomian tendencies, I should have gone to Trinity Hall - which was, and is, before all a Law College - and should thus have been thrown into close touch with the legal element in life. As an undergraduate, whose days were consumed in boating and mathematics, this was not noticeable; but it was not entirely after my heart when I became a Fellow, to find myself in a society which was almost wholly composed of barristers; and in after life to discover that my friends of early days had nearly all become eminent K.C.'s and Judges!

Just before my entering Trinity Hall, an undergraduate of that College, Robert Romer, had become Senior Wrangler - and I really believe this had something to do with my selecting the College for myself. The 'Hall' men were hugely delighted as this distinction in the Tripos had never come to the College before - the more so, because Romer was a boating man and rowed in the First Boat; and a myth grew up (possibly encouraged by the subject himself, and in order to show how easily a real boating man can do anything he turns himself to!) that he passed his examinations by the light of nature, and never needed to swot like an ordinary mortal. Others however said - and this was a more likely explanation - that he used to sit at his study table with a pot of beer and a sporting journal before him, while in the open drawer of the table lay his mathematical books and papers. When a knock came at the door it was the simplest thing in the world to close the drawer, and be found consuming his ale! After his degree he remained at Cambridge for a time as mathematical coach, but was by no means a success in that line. He could not sympathize with a learner's difficulties; and when a pupil came to him with a problem: which he could not understand, Romer would say "What? You can't understand that? You can't understand that? - then God help you, I can't!" Naturally he soon gave up teaching and took to the Bar. After my degree - when we were Fellows of the College together - I saw quite a little of him: a rough, muscular-brained, "damn-your-eyes" type of man, and as may be imagined quite ignorant of art and literature, but good-natured and healthy. Later however the sheer physical force of his mentality took him to the highest reaches of the legal profession (Lord Justice of Appeal) and he passed out of my sphere.

Another Senior Wrangler whom I knew fairly well, as he headed the Tripos in my own year (1868), and who afterwards became Lord Justice (in the Court of Patents) was J. Fletcher Moulton. He was one of those people who without any great depth of intellect or even of character possessed an extraordinary rapidity of mind. His information was encyclopaedic, and in examinations he threw off his papers with the airy ease of a tree throwing off its dead leaves in autumn; to the wonderment indeed both of examiners and fellow-students. Yet I am not aware that he ever contributed anything very original in the study of mathematics or law - or in any other department of human thought.

Great success in examinations does naturally not as a rule go with originality of thought. W. K. Clifford who had undoubtedly one of the finest mathematical, scientific, and philosophical minds of the period of which I am speaking; was only Second Wrangler; and my friend Robert F. Muirhead who, as Smith's Prizeman and later, has contributed important papers on mathematical subjects, was nowhere to speak of in his Tripos. One could hardly of course expect that originality and the pigeon-hole mind should go together.

To return to our Judges. That men like Romer and Moulton should attain the highest Places in their profession is natural; but I confess I have been surprised (having known them well in boating days) at the kind of men who are commonly made High Court or County Court Judges. I will not mention names (!) - but here is one, for instance, who was Captain of the boat-club in my time - a physically powerful, but mentally quite muddle-headed person; here is another, whose forte was boxing (no harm in that, but one might have wished that he had other interests besides) - a rather brutish and decidedly illiterate type; a third, whose constitution, both physical and mental, as feeble, but who had powerful relatives in the legal profession. All these were of the kind that have considerable difficulty in passing their elementary examinations. And there were many more of the same kind. Nevertheless, having once got their feet on the ladder, they have slowly and gradually - by family influence or sheer physical health (an important thing) - climbed nearly to the top. No blame to them, certainly; but one cannot help asking - and I put the question especially to Labour M. P.'s: Are these the sort of men we really require for such posts? Let alone their want of bookish culture - which perhaps does not so much matter - we cannot but ask: What do men of this class - who have been brought up at a public school, who have worked hard at boating or cricket at the University, who afterwards have buried themselves in law-chambers and the purlieus of the Courts - and whose acquaintance with manual workers is pretty well confined to 'scouts' and 'gyps' and an occasional gamekeeper in the country - what do they know about the great mass-people on whom they have to sit in judgment, about the habits and temperament and customs of life of the latter? and how on earth are they qualified to bring order and good sense and real sympathy and understanding into that most important branch of public life - the administration of the law? These are indeed questions to which serious answers will have to be given ere long.

I have already mentioned Henry Fawcett (afterwards Postmaster-General) who was a Fellow of Trinity Hall at the time of which I am speaking. The story of his blindness is well known. It was only just after his degree that he was out pheasant-shooting with his father. In a rather thick covert the father fired at a bird, unknowing that his son was standing in the line of fire. Two small shot struck the latter - one entering into each eye - a strange and fatal chance. It was the father, I think, who to1d me that as soon as Henry knew that he was permanently blinded he said "Well, it shan't make any difference in my plans of life!" And certainly it made very little. As may be guessed from that, Fawcett was a man of astounding pluck and vitality - a vitality which would have been almost overbearing if it had not been tempered by extreme good nature - and his force of character, combined with very democratic sympathies, enabled him despite his blindness to do valuable work in Parliament and in connection with the Post Office. The adoring gratitude of the father at the public success of the son whom he had so badly crippled was most touching, and he would follow his son about the country and attend his public meetings for the mere pleasure of witnessing his success. As Fawcett was member for Brighton - and my father lent his support to his candidature - he, and Mrs. Fawcett, used frequently to dine with us at Brunswick Square, and I saw a good deal of them both at Brighton and at Cambridge. Fawcett's pluck and vitality were however sometimes a trial to his friends. I have a rather too vivid recollection of riding with him, over the Brighton Downs or along the green lanes of Cambridgeshire. "Carpenter," he would say, "this is a nice piece of grass, isn't it? Let's have a canter." Then he would set off at an amazing rate, and I would have to keep close alongside of him, with a sharp look-out and warning for unexpected ditches and stoneheaps, and in momentary fear of a headlong fall - which for a man of his weight would have been a terrible thing! Or he would insist on my coming to skate with him, in winter, on the Cam. We would go five or six miles down the river, and back - he holding one end of a stick and I the other. That was all very well if the ice was sound, but every one knows what river ice is; and I have often skated with him when I, being a light weight, passed over easily, while he, holding on to the stick and a pace or two behind, was cracking through at every other step. The prospect of having to fish a public man, weighty in every sense, out of a flowing river was certainly not pleasant. However I am happy to say that I was not present with him at any disaster. Except once. That was at a public meeting when he was speaking, at Brighton. I was on the platform. A stone was thrown by some one at the back of the hall, which struck him on the forehead, causing blood to flow. Great sensation ensued. For the moment he felt a little faint and relapsed into a chair. Ladies rushed up on all sides with smelling salts. However in a few minutes he was all right, and resumed his speech. Afterwards he said to me "I didn't mind the stone; but those scent-bottles made me sick!" So it will be seen that he and I had points in common! Since his death Mrs. Fawcett and I have still met not unfrequently - generally perhaps as joint speakers on some Women's Suffrage platform.

Charles Wentworth Dilke was a 'Hall' man. He had just taken his degree when I arrived as a 'freshman'; but he stayed up in College for a year or so more on account of some law-examination or other. He never became a Fellow, but was an enthusiastic lover of his College; and was always very good to us undergraduates. I remember breakfasting with him at his rooms, and his showing me, pencilled on his door-jamb, the record of his hours of work, day by day, for the last year or so - seventy hours per week, as regular as clockwork! He was, then and afterwards, always an amazing worker - his room even in those youthful days pigeon-holed all over with notes and documents. He was also a man with a high sense of chivalry and honour, and I have no doubt that the contretemps which threw him for a time out of public life - and which his chivalry forbade him to explain - weighed pretty heavily on him. His love of facts and statistics, so conspicuous throughout his political life, was shared by his brother Assheton; and it used to be said that the two brothers never enjoyed themselves more thoroughly than when sitting knee to knee they spent an hour or so in 'imparting facts to each other'!

Another politician of my time, though a little younger than myself, was Augustine Birrell. Even in those days he was chiefly known for his quaint humours and jokes - though the term 'birrelling' had not then been adopted. But being, as an undergraduate, somewhat interested in politics and not at all interested in rowing, he did not bulk largely in the eyes of his contemporaries, and I fear was a little neglected. In a late letter to me he chaffs me in his own native style on my academic and clerical past, saying "I have the most vivid recollection of you as Junior Tutor. The marvellous neatness of your now discarded white tie lives especially in my untidy mind!"

Socialism and Millthorpe, I need hardly say, swept me out of these academic and semi-political surroundings into a different world - the world of a new society which was arising and forming within the structure of the old. William Morris represented this new society more effectively and vitally than anyone else of that period; because away and beyond the scientific forecast he gave expression to the emotional presentment and ideal of a sensible free human brotherhood - as in John Ball, or News from Nowhere. His sturdy, brusque, sea-captain-like figure, with his fine-outlined face and tossing hair, his forcible unpolished speech, yet all so direct, sincere, enthusiastic - brought inspiration and confidence wherever he went; and for a time, as I have already said, there was a widespread belief that the Socialist League was going to knit up all the United Kingdom in one bond of new life. [Footnote 1] Having set the "Sheffield Socialists" going in '86, he came one day not long after to speak at Chesterfield, and stayed at Millthorpe a night or two. I remember his arriving from the train with Jefferies' book After London in his hands - which had just come out. The book delighted him with its prophecy of an utterly ruined and deserted London, gone down in swamps and malaria, with brambles and weeds spreading through slum streets and fashionable squares, and pet dogs reverting to wolfish and carrion-hunting lives. And he read page after page of it to us with glee that evening as we sat round the fire. He hated modem civilization, and London as its representative, with a fierce hatred - its shams, its hypocrisies, its stuffy indoor life, its cheapjack style, its mean and mongrel ideals; with a hatred indeed which, I cannot but think, thousands and hundreds of thousands following him will one day share. Once he said to me, talking about his own life: "I have spent, I know, a vast amount of time designing furniture and wall-papers, carpets and curtains; but after all I am inclined to think that sort of thing is mostly rubbish, and I would prefer for my part to live with the plainest whitewashed walls and wooden chairs and tables." He certainly was no drawing-room sort of man. His immense energy did not run to small talk. As a rule in conversation, seized by his subject, and oblivious of the arguments of others, he would jump from his chair and stride up and down the room in ardent monologue - condemning the present or picturing the future or the past. I once asked his daughter, May, what he did in the way of recreation. "My father never takes any recreation," she said, "he merely changes his work." And so it was. When he had been toiling at Merton Abbey all day, and preaching Socialism at a street comer all the evening, then at night - sick of the ugly life around him - he would come home and dream himself away into the fourteenth century, and for his recreation produce a masterpiece like John Ball. Be it said, nevertheless, that he did sometimes relax, and that when in the humour, no one enjoyed a pipe and a glass and the jovial company of friends and the telling of good stories, more than William Morris.

My friend Henry Salt tells me that he heard more than once Morris recite the following stanza - apparently delighting in its quaint grace - but whether Morris composed it himself or had found it elsewhere he does not know:-

See o'er the sea Flamingos flaming go,
The Lark hies high, the Swallow follows low,
The Bees are busy on their threshold old,
And Lambs lament within their threefold fold.

Among those who came from time to time to speak for our Socialist group in Sheffield or to stay at our "Commonwealth" Cafe were, besides William Morris, two notable personalities - Peter Kropotkin and Annie Besant. Their work and influence, both worldwide - the one in the Anarchist, and the other in the Theosophist field - have been really important. Though never myself strictly identified with either of these movements I have been in touch with them, and consequently in more or less friendly relation with their two leading spirits during a long period - now nearly thirty years. Both characters are certainly remarkable for their vigour, their sincerity, their ability and devotion. Kropotkin at the age of seventy and after fifty years of passionate conflict with 'government' and 'authority' still retains his sunny and almost child-like temperament and still believes in the speedy oncoming of an age of perfectly voluntary and harmonious co-operation in the human race. Indeed it is mainly due to him that this magnificent dream has spread so far and wide over the world, and has done so much as it has towards its own realization. The dramatic circumstances too of Kropotkin's own life have greatly helped - his early escapes from prison and from death, his abandonment of a princely inheritance to become the companion and fellow - Prisoner of criminals and outcasts, his later life spent in poverty and among obscure circles of enthusiasts - these things combined with encyclopaedic knowledge and a high scientific reputation have compelled attention and respect. As in the case of many ardent social reformers, and certainly in the case of most notorious Anarchists, there is a charming naivete about Kropotkin. It is so easy - if you believe that all human evil is summed up in the one fatal word 'government' (or it may be that the word is 'white-slave-traffic,' or 'war,' or 'drink,' or anything else) - to order your life and your theories accordingly. Everything is explained by its relation to one thing. It is easy, but it is misleading. And Kropotkin's writings, despite their erudition, suffer from this naivete. Whether it be History (his French Revolution), or Natural History (his Mutual Aid) or economic theory (his Paroles d'un Revolte) the reader finds one solution for everything, and the countervailing facts and principles consistently - though certainly not intentionally - ignored. This detracts from the value of the writings; though in justice it should be said that the principles on which Kropotkin so vigorously insists - i.e. individual liberty and free association - are of foundational importance. In a country like Russia - obsessed by authority and officialism - it is not unnatural that its reformers, such as Tolstoy and Kropotkin, should be almost over-conscious of the governmental evil; and this fact rather encourages the hope that Russia may one day after all be the leader in the great European reaction towards a freer and more voluntary state of society.

The naivete of the social reformer explains too the common fact that the Anarchist who is in theory "thirsting for the blood of kings" and occasionally perhaps capable of perpetrating a deed of violence himself, is generally (like Kropotkin) the gentlest and mildest of men, who "would not hurt a fly." It is only such men - having the love of humanity in their hearts - who are able to believe in the speedy realization of an era of universal goodwill; and again it is only such men - being innocent enough to believe that the only impediment to the realization of this era is a certain wicked person in 'authority' - who can spur themselves on to the bloody dispatch of such person.

If the career of Kropotkin has been romantically varied in one way, that of Mrs. Besant has been equally so in another. To begin as a curate's wife, with a vivid strain of religious devotion; to break away into Broad Churchism and then into boundless disbelief; to become an ardent Secularist, companion of Bradlaugh and propagandist of anti-population doctrines; to suffer imprisonment, persecution, and embitterment of spirit; to espouse the cause of Socialism and do battle in the ranks of Labour; to float into the haven of Theosophy and be made the mouthpiece of invisible Mahatmas and of the by no means invisible Mme. Blavatsky; and finally to complete this quaint circle by becoming the high-priestess of a religious movement and the guardian of the herald of the coming Christ - such a career ought to satisfy the most picturesque ambition. Yet it would be unfair to doubt Annie Besant's sincerity. Having known her so long as I have I feel sure that she has been urged onward from point to point by a perfectly genuine mental evolution, largely directed no doubt at each turn of the road by some dominant mind whom she has met, and largely coloured by that naivete of which we have already spoken - a naivete indeed which has made it possible for her to take herself very seriously and to fulfil her adopted role always with a strong sense of duty and a comparatively weak perception of the humour of the situation.

From the hour when, alone in the pulpit of her husband's church, Annie Besant discovered her own great oratorical gift, her future career, one may say, was decided. With an excellent capacity for logical and clear statement she became the exponent in succession of large and important blocks of modern thought. She helped to batter down the ruins and remains of the stupefied old Anglican Church; she gave the general mind a wholesome shock on the Malthusian question; she dotted out clearly the main lines of the Socialist movement; she formed a new channel for religious thought by making the words 'Karma' and 're-incarnation' familiar; and she sought to bring the Western public into touch with the great age long ideas and inspirations of the old Indian sages. In all these ways she has done splendid work, and helped vastly in the construction of that great twentieth century bridge which will in its due time lead us into another world. Only in the last item - her touch upon the ideas and inspirations of the ancient East - does she seem to me, curiously enough, to have failed. With all her enthusiasm for the subject, Mrs. Besant does not appear to have the intuitive perception, the mystic quality of mind, which should enable her to reach the very heart of the old Vedantic teaching. Her intellect, clear and systematic in its structure, has little of the poetic or original or inspirational in its composition, and it may be doubted whether it has ever quite fathomed the religious writings with which it has been so much occupied. Anyhow Mrs. Besant's own writings on these subjects are - unlike her general lectures - dull to a degree. She analyses the composition of the human personality, or the order of general creation, or the various life-rounds of our mortal race; but in all she seems to be repeating or corroborating some pre-established formula, never to be describing something which she has herself perceived; system and formula prevail, unseen 'authorities' are hinted at, the pages bristle with sanskrit jargon, but no living or creative idea moves among them, and the reader rises from their perusal void of inspiration or of any really vital impulse toward new fields of thought and life. Nevertheless, taking it all in all, and especially in her expositions of Socialism and Theosophy, Mrs. Besant has done, as I have said, a great work; and one cannot sufficiently admire the courage with which she has carried it through, as well as her kindliness and helpfulness towards others, and - in later years - her own inner mental calm, contrasting with the somewhat restless bitterness of an earlier time.

In 1884 or so the founding of the New Fellowship in London (from which afterwards the Fabian Society sprang) brought me into touch with Havelock Ellis and Olive Schreiner. As I think I have already said, Ellis discovered in the proverbial penny box of a second-hand publisher, and soon after its publication, the little first edition of my Toward's Democracy; and rescuing it wrote to me. Thus began my friendship with him, and afterwards with the authoress of The Story of An African Farm. A prophet is seldom acclaimed in his own country; and the work which Ellis has done in that most important field of Sexual Psychology is even yet by no means recognized in England as it ought to be - even though the subject is becoming extremely 'actual' here in the present day, and though elsewhere over the world his pioneer work is most honorably received and respected. The six massive volumes of his Studies in the Psychology of Sex form a masterpiece of large-minded and yet extremely detailed observation and generalization, and provide a survey of the most impartial character over this vast realm, and such as can be obtained nowhere else. For though the Germans have written extensively in this field their books - more Teutonico - are generally over-laden with detail, huge jungles through which it is difficult to find one's way. Ellis combines with the Englishman's perspicacity and love of order a remarkable erudition and command of particulars. And at the present juncture when the world is waking up to the absolute necessity of a reasonable understanding and frank recognition of sex-things, the appearance of his book may almost be characterized as 'providential.' This quality may indeed be suspected in the fact that the author began making notes for his magnum opus at a very early age, driven thereto by some sort of instinct, nor finished his work till he was nearly sixty. I know of few things in literature more touching than the postscript to his last volume - the Nunc Dimittis after some forty years of toil:

"It was perhaps fortunate for my peace that I failed at the outset to foresee all the perils that beset my path. I knew indeed that those who investigate sincerely and intimately any subject which men are accustomed to pass by on the other side lay themselves open to misunderstanding and even obloquy. But I supposed that a secluded student who approached vital social problems with precaution, making no direct appeal to the general public, but only to the public's teachers, and who wrapped up the results of his inquiries in technically written volumes open to few - I supposed that such a student was at all events secure from any gross form of attack on the part of the police or the government under whose protection he imagined that he lived. That proved to be a mistake. When only one volume of these Studies had been written and published in England, a prosecution instigated by the Government put an end to the sale of that volume in England, and led me to resolve that the subsequent volumes should not be published in my own country. [Footnote 2] I do not complain. I am grateful for the early and generous sympathy with which my work was received in Germany and the United States, and I recognize that it has had a wider circulation, both in English and the other chief languages of the world, than would have been possible by the modest method of issue which the government of my own country induced me to abandon. Nor has the effort to crush my work resulted in any change in that work by so much as a single word. With help, or without it, I have followed my own path to the end. He who follows in the steps of Nature after a law that was not made by man, and is above and beyond man, has time as well as eternity on his side, and can afford to be both patient and fearless. Men die, but the ideas they seek to kill live. Our books may be thrown to the flames, but in the next generation those flames become human souls."

The personality of Havelock Ellis is that of a student, thoughtful, preoccupied, bookish, deliberate; yet unlike most students he has a sort of grand air of Nature about him - a fine free head and figure as of some great god Pan, with distant relations among the Satyrs.

Those early meetings of the New Fellowship were full of hopeful enthusiasms - life simplified, a humane diet and a rational dress, manual labour, democratic ideals, communal institutions. Indeed one or two little practical efforts towards colony groups were at that time made. [Footnote 3] Herbert Rix, W. J. Jupp, Percival Chubb, Edith Lees (afterwards Mrs. Ellis), Mrs. Hinton, widow of James Hinton, Caroline Hadfield, Ernest Rhys were among the early members.

Edith Lees was one of the most active and vigorous of this group. She helped to organize and to carry on for some time a joint dwelling or co-operative boarding-house near Mecklenburgh Square, where eight or ten members of the Fellowship dwelt in a kind of communistic Utopia. Naturally the arrangement gave rise to some rather amusing and some almost tragic episodes, which she has recorded for us in a little story entitled Attainment. After her marriage she took a farm near St. Ives in Cornwall, which became a helpful retreat for her husband as well as herself from the strenuousness of London life. With her extraordinary energy and directness she plunged into and soon mastered all the details of cattle and pig breeding and farming; and I shall never forget the impression she produced on one occasion when staying with me at Millthorpe, when we took her round to the public-house in the evening. The delight and amazement of the farm men at finding some one more or less resembling a lady who really understood and would talk freely about such things, and her at-home-ness among that company were most refreshing. They were fascinated by the directness of her intense blue eyes, her sturdy figure, her vigorous gestures, and the evident equality of her comradeship with them. And to this day they not unfrequently ask us, "When is that little lady coming again, with that curly hair, like a lad's, and them blue eyes, what talked about pigs and cows? I shall never forget her."

Edith Ellis not only became a help to her husband in his literary work, but herself spoke and wrote on subjects of Eugenics and Sex-psychology. Of late years she has made a considerable study of James Hinton, and has done me the honour to associate my name with his and with Nietzsche's in a little book entitled Three Modern Seers.

One evening as we sat round a table (in Rix's rooms at Burlington House) I saw a charming girl-face, of riant Italian type, smiling across to me. It was Olive Schreiner. She had arrived from South Africa only a few months before, had published her African Farm, and though only twenty-one or twenty-two years of age was already famous as its authoress. Juvenile in some ways as that book was, somewhat incoherent and disjointed in structure, written by a mere girl of eighteen or nineteen, and with a title which gave no idea of its real content, yet its intensity was such that it seized almost at once on the public mind. The African sun was in its veins - fire and sweetness, intense love of beauty, fierce rebellion against the things that be, passion and pity and the pride of Lucifer combined. These things too Olive Schreiner's face and figure revealed - a wonderful beauty and vivacity, a lightning-quick mind, fine eyes, a resolute yet mobile mouth, a determined little square-set body. It was right - since alliances are so often knit by contrast - that she and Havelock Ellis should have become friends and maintained a close correspondence with each other for over thirty years; and it was a privilege to me to share in the friendship of them both.

Naturally, with such gifts of body and mind the arrival of the authoress of the African Farm excited almost a furore of interest. Quite a procession of the young literary men of the day arrived in hansom-cabs at the door of her Bloomsbury lodgings to pay their homage to the new genius, and Olive herself often told me with considerable amusement of the dismay and severe disapproval of more than one of her landladies, who certainly were not inclined to believe that mere literary talent could cause so much attraction! Anyhow, at that time of day, before the suffragette had arrived, and when 'ladies' took the greatest care to bridle in their chins and speak in mincing accents, a young and pretty woman of apparently lady-like origin who did not wear a veil and seldom wore gloves, and who talked and laughed even in the streets quite naturally and unaffectedly, was an unclassifiable phenomenon, and laid herself open to the gravest suspicions! We may congratulate ourselves that the pioneer women of to-day have made a return to some of these inhumanities of the Victorian era impossible.

During that Bloomsbury period and afterwards I saw Olive Schreiner fairly frequently - that is when she was in England (or Europe). I saw her in Paris early in '87, and at Todmorden and Whitby later in the same year; also at Alassio where she stayed for two or three months in '88. Those two years' 87 and '88 were a period of considerable suffering for her. In 1893 she was in England again, and spent three months during the summer in a little cottage in my valley. After '93, what with her marriage to S. C. Cronwright, and what with the outbreak of the Boer War and all the tragedies attendant upon that, she did not come to England for a long period, and it was on the last day of 1913 that I saw her again, after a twenty years' absence. Her father was a German Free Church Missionary - of the most tender self-forgetful type - the original doubtless of the German overseer in The African Farm. Olive herself has often told me how he would give away his last coin to anyone he deemed to be in need. His wife would say to him:-
"John, where is that best Sunday coat of yours?" And he would say:-
"Is it not upstairs in the chest, as usual?"
"No, John, I have been looking for it everywhere." How very strange" was the reply.
"Now, John, I believe you have given it away!"
"No, surely, my dear, I could not have given that away - at least I think not."
"John! now tell me true, did you not give it to that tramp that came yesterday?"
"Well, my dear, now you mention it! think I may have done so; it is just possible you are right, but I am sure I hardly remember."
"Oh John! John! you are indeed incorrigible."

That was the picture of the father - soft, pitiful and dreamy. The mother, Rebecca Lyndall by her maiden name, was of English descent, keen, intellectual, fine featured and somewhat self-willed. The two types were combined in their daughter; and she again in writing her novel divided them up. 'Waldo' represented one side of her own character, 'Lyndall' the other.

Perhaps there was a tragic element in the combination of two such different hereditary strains in the one person; perhaps there were other causes. Certain it is that beneath the mobile and almost merry-seeming exterior of Olive Schreiner there ran a vein of intense determination, and that this again was crossed and countered by an ineradicable pessimism. The story of an African Farm, despite its magical and beautiful pictures, is painful to read; and the same may be said of her other books. They realize and force the reader to realize almost too keenly the pain and evil of the world - too keenly I mean for truth and fact. Yet what is fact but what we feel; and if Olive Schreiner feels things so, so far her presentment is true. I have seen her shake her little fist at the Lord in heaven, and curse him down from his throne, with a vibrating force and intensity which surely must have been felt (and surely also with healthy result) in the Highest Circles.

A lady who had spent forty years of her life working in the Mission Schools of South Africa once said to me - and this was quite in her old age, when she was nearing eighty - "Ah!" she said, "the Kaffirs are the finest people on earth. You English think a lot about yourselves, but I tell you, you are not to be compared with the Kaffirs."

Olive Schreiner was born in Basuto Land. She grew up and spent her early life among the natives, and in many ways her verdict was the same as that just quoted. She loved the dark folk and their land, and she has never ceased to love them. It has been one of the tragedies of her life that she has been compelled to stand by and witness the crushing of this free and fine-souled people beneath the sordid heel of Western Commercialism - or let us say "the attempted crushing," for indeed (thank heaven!) the process is not yet complete. It. has been her agony to see them at every moment cajoled and betrayed of their lands, broken with labour in the mines, deceived with drink, and mowed down with machine-guns - and all this by the very Christian race that ought to have lent them a helping hand; and to have been able to do so little (as it would seem to her) for their salvation. But even though it would seem little, the fact that one woman in South Africa has thus prophet-like stood up and (much of the time) singly opposed Rhodes and the shoddy Imperialism of which he was the mouthpiece, has had an influence deep and wide reaching and such as will be felt far down the years.

Another thing that has formed almost a tragedy in Olive Schreiner's life has been her dedication to the Cause of Women. No one can read her Three Dreams in a Desert or her Woman and Labour without feeling how in the consciousness of the sufferings of Woman the iron has entered into her soul. If she had only been content-like some of the wilder spirits of the movement - to unload on men the vials of her wrath, and to saddle on mankind alone the responsibility for these sufferings, her strain in the cause would have had more of the delight of battle in it. But she was too large-minded not to see that if there is to be any blame in such a matter, the blame must be accepted by Woman herself just as much as by Man. The two sexes are joined together, and if Man has been unworthy has it not been because Woman his mother has made him so? If Woman has played the parasite has that not resulted in her injuring Man? Olive Schreiner's perception of the slow inevitable strain and suffering inseparable from Evolution itself in this matter of the emancipation of women, has had a complexion of tragedy in it. She has seen her dearest friends, like Constance Lytton and others, crippled and broken for life by their heroic struggles and undaunted resolution in face of prison-horrors; and yet she has felt that the evil lay deeper than any accusation against men (taken by itself) could explain, or any reform of the suffrage could mend.

It is curious how South Africa, to those who know the country well, carries with it a fascination and an attraction which time and again draws them back to its soil. A friend of mine who lived for some years around Lake Nyassa told me that after his return to England he frequently dreamt at night of all that wild region and its primitive animal life. On more than one occasion he dreamed that he was wrecked at sea, and swam desperately to the African coast, if only he might die as it were in the arms of his beloved; or he would make an imaginary pilgrimage from London to the very shores of the Lake, and there in a kind of ecstasy would take the water up in his palms and wash it over his face and head - only to wake up and find his features wet with his own tears.

This was Henry B. Cotterill - a schoolfellow of mine at the Brighton College - where indeed his father was headmaster. About the time (1875 or so) when I was lecturing Astronomy at Leeds, Livingstone's book came out exposing the horrors of the black slave traffic around Lakes Tanganyika and Nyassa - a region at that time entirely, except by Livingstone himself, unexplored by white men. The book bit deeply into Cotterill's heart and soul. It said that the only cure for the Mahomedan or Arabian trade in slaves would be the introduction of a trade by white men in the legitimate articles of commerce; and from that moment Cotterill could not rest, goaded on by the thought that he must undertake this work. At the time he was acting as an assistant master at Harrow School. He started lecturing there and at other places round the country on the subject. He collected a fund; the Harrow boys and masters gave him a steel launch or cutter which could be taken up country in sections and screwed together; he came to Leeds and spoke there, as well as at places like Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool; the fund grew; and I remember going with him to some African warehouse in London City, where he bought bales of cotton cloth, and hundredweights of beads, and quantities of scarlet shell-jackets (especially coveted by African chieftains as their sole garment) for purposes of barter up country. Thus off his own bat, as it were, he got up this strange mission, and leaving Harrow and pedagogy behind, embarked on a career of considerable adventure and danger. The mission succeeded, ordinary traders followed in his footsteps, and within a few years the slave-trade engineered by Moors and Arabs died out in the land. It was followed, it is true, by the almost equal horrors of that commercial civilization which has since been introduced by Europeans; but I suppose one must be thankful in the slow and age-long evolution of human affairs for even one small step towards better things.

At a later time Cotterill returned to England, but unable, like many another traveler and lover of the wild, to endure the smug Philistinism of British life, he ultimately settled on the Continent - or rather led a somewhat roving life there, chiefly in France, Germany and Italy - supporting himself and a small family by the not too lucrative pursuits of literature and the teaching of languages. He has written and edited many books, to which his encyclopaedic knowledge and command of six or seven languages have contributed; but undoubtedly his great and monumental work has been the translation of the Odyssey of Homer complete into English hexameters. [Footnote 4] Daring is the man who ventures on that exceedingly boggy ground of the English hexameter, and many are those who have gone under and been gulfed in the attempt. By lightness and speed of movement only can one keep going; but in those qualities - so characteristic of the Greek - this translation is supremely successful; its verbal fidelity is amazing; its presentation of the old warrior and tribal life (made possible as he himself says by his intimate knowledge of African customs) is such as no armchair scholar could attain to; and the result is a gift to the whole English-speaking world - a rendering of the immortal classic that one may read with unflagging joy and zest from cover to cover.


  1. See Supra, (Ch. VII). {Return to main text above}

  2. They are published now in Philadelphia by the F. A. Davis Company there. {Return to main text}
  3. See Seed-time, a quarterly journal issued by the Fellowship; which however was not started till 1890 and ceased publication in 1898. {Return to main text}
  4. Published by George Harrap, 1912. {Return to main text}

Forward to Chapter 13 | Return to Top of Page