Physiological Aesthetics and Philistia

by Grant Allen

THE story of my first book is a good deal mixed, and, like many other stories, cannot be fully understood without some previous allusion to what historians call 'the causes which led to it.' For my first book was not my first novel, and it is the latter, I take it, not the former, that an expectant world, as represented by the readers of this volume, is anxious to hear about. I first blossomed into print with 'Physiological Ăsthetics' in 1877—the title alone will be enough for most people—and it was not till seven years later that I wrote and published my earliest long work of fiction, which I called 'Philistia.' I wasn't born a novelist, I was only made one. Philosophy and science were the first loves of my youth. I dropped into romance as many men drop into drink, or opium-eating, or other bad practices, not of native perversity, but by pure force of circumstances. And this is how fate (or an enterprising publisher) turned me from an innocent and impecunious naturalist into a devotee of the muse of shilling shockers.

When I left Oxford in 1870, with a decent degree and nothing much else in particular to brag about, I took perforce to that refuge of the destitute, the trade of schoolmaster. To teach Latin and Greek verse at Brighton College, Cheltenham College, Reading Grammar School, successively, was the extremely uncongenial task imposed upon me by the chances of the universe. But in 1873, Providence, disguised as the Colonial Office, sent me out in charge of a new Government College at Spanish Town, Jamaica. I had always been psychological, and in the space and leisure of the lazy Tropics I began to excogitate by slow degrees various expansive works on the science of mind, the greater number FICTION FICTION of which still remain unwritten. Returning to England in '76 I found myself out of work, and so committed to paper some of my views on the origin of the higher pleasure we derive from natural or artistic products; and I called my book 'Physiological Ăsthetics.' It was not my very first attempt at literature; already I had produced about a hundred or more magazine articles on various philosophical and scientific subjects, every one of which I sent to the editors of leading reviews, and every one of which was punctually 'Declined with thanks,' or committed without even that polite formality to the editorial waste paper basket. Nothing daunted by failure, however, I wrote on and on, and made up my mind, in my interval of forced idleness, to print a book of my own at all hazards.

I wrote 'Physiological Ăsthetics' in lodgings at Oxford. When it was finished and carefully revised, I offered it to Messrs. Henry S. King & Co., who were then leading publishers of philosophical literature. Mr. Kegan Paul, their reader, reported doubtfully of the work. It was not likely to pay, he said, but it contained good matter, and the firm would print it for me on the usual commission. I was by no means rich—for fear of exaggeration I am stating the case mildly—but I believed somehow in 'Physiological Ăsthetics.' I was young then, and I hope the court of public opinion will extend to me, on that ground, the indulgence usually shown to juvenile offenders. But I happened to possess a little money just at that moment, granted me as compensation for the abolition of my office in Jamaica. Messrs. King reported that the cost of production (that mysterious entity so obnoxious to the soul of the Society of Authors) would amount to about a hundred guineas. A hundred guineas was a lot of money then; but, being young, I risked it. It was better than if I had taken it to Monte Carlo, anyway. So I wrote to Mr. Paul with heedless haste to publish away right off, and he published away right off accordingly. When the bill came in, it was, if I recollect aright, somewhere about 120l. I paid it without a murmur; I got my money's worth. The book appeared in a stately green cover, with my name in front, and looked very philosophical, and learned, and psychological.


Poor 'Physiological Ăsthetics' had a very hard fate. When I come to look back upon the circumstances calmly and dispassionately now, I'm not entirely surprised at its unhappy end. It was a good book in its way, to be sure, though it's me that says it as oughtn't to say it, and it pleased the few who cared to read it; but it wasn't the sort of literature the public wanted. The public, you know, doesn't hanker after philosophy. Darwin, and Herbert Spencer, and the Editor of Mind, and people of that sort, tried my work and liked it; in point of fact, my poor little venture gained me at once, an unknown man, the friendship of not a few whose friendship was worth having. But financially, 'Physiological Ăsthetics' was a dead failure; it wasn't the sort of work to sell briskly at the bookstalls. Mr. Smith would have none of it. The reviews, indeed, were, almost without exception, favourable; the volume went off well for a treatise of its kind—that is to say, we got rid of nearly 300 copies; but even so, it left a deficit of some forty or fifty pounds to the bad against me. Finally, the remaining stock fell a victim to the flames in Mr. Kegan Paul's historical fire, when many another stout volume perished: and that was the end of my magnum opus. Peace to its ashes! Mr. Paul gave me 15l. as compensation for loss sustained, and I believe I came out some 30l. a loser by this, my first serious literary venture. In all these matters, however, I speak from memory alone, and it is possible I may be slightly wrong in my figures.

But though 'Physiological Ăsthetics' was a financial failure, it paid me in the end, both scientifically and commercially. Not only did it bring me into immediate contact with several among the leaders of thought in London, but it also made my name known in a very modest way, and induced editors—those arbiters of literary fate—to give a second glance at my unfortunate manuscripts. Almost immediately after its appearance, Leslie Stephen (I omit the Mr., honoris causa) accepted two papers of mine for publication in the Cornhill. 'Carving a Cocoanut' was the first, and it brought me in twelve guineas. That was the very first money I earned in literature. I had been out of work for months, the abolition of my post in Jamaica having thrown me on my beam-ends, and I was overjoyed at so much wealth poured suddenly in upon me. Other magazine articles followed in due course, and before long I was earning a modest—a very modest—and precarious income, yet enough to support myself and my family. Moreover, Sir William Hunter, who was then engaged on his gigantic 'Gazetteer of India,' gave me steady employment in his office at Edinburgh, and I wrote with my own hand the greater part of the articles on the North-West Provinces, the Punjaub, and Sind, in those twelve big volumes.

Meanwhile, I was hard at work in my leisure moments (for I have sometimes some moments which I regard as leisure) on another ambitious scientific work, which I called 'The Colour-Sense.' This book I published on the half-profits system with TrŘbner. Compared with my first unhappy venture, 'The Colour-Sense' might be counted a distinct success. It brought me in, during the course of about ten years, something like 25l. or 30l. As it only took me eighteen months to write, and involved little more than five or six thousand references, this result may be regarded as very fair pay for an educated man's time and labour. I have sometimes been reproached by thoughtless critics for deserting the noble pursuit of science in favour of fiction and filthy lucre. If those critics think twenty pounds a year a sufficient income for a scientific writer to support himself and a growing family upon—well, they are perfectly at liberty to devote their own pens to the instruction of their kind without the slightest remonstrance or interference on my part.

I won't detail in full the history of my various intermediate books, most of which were published first as newspaper articles, and afterwards collected and put forth on a small royalty. Time is short, and art is long, so I'll get on at once to my first novel. I drifted into fiction by the sheerest accident. My friend, Mr. Chatto, most generous of men, was one of my earliest and staunchest literary supporters. From the outset of my journalistic days, he printed my articles in Belgravia and the Gentleman's Magazine with touching fidelity; and I take this opportunity of saying in public that to his kindness and sympathy I owe as much as to anyone in England. Some people will have it there is no such thing as 'generosity' in publishers. I beg leave to differ from them. I know the commercial value of literary work as well as any man, and I venture to say that both from Mr. Chatto and from Mr. Arrowsmith, of Bristol, I have met, time and again, with what I cannot help describing as most generous treatment. One day it happened that I wanted to write a scientific article on the impossibility of knowing one had seen a ghost, even if one saw one. For convenience sake, and to make the moral clearer, I threw the argument into narrative form, but without the slightest intention of writing a story. It was published in Belgravia under the title of 'Our Scientific Observations on a Ghost,' and was reprinted later in my little volume of 'Strange Stories.' A little while after, to my immense surprise, Mr. Chatto wrote to ask me whether I could supply him with another story, like the last I had written, for the Belgravia Annual. I was rather taken aback at this singular request, as I hadn't the slightest idea I could do anything at all in the way of fiction. Still, like a good journalist, I never refuse an order of any sort; so I sat down at once and wrote a tale about a mummy on the ghastliest and most approved Christmas number pattern. Strange to say, Mr. Chatto again printed it, and, what was still more remarkable, asked for more of the same description. From that time forth, I went on producing short stories for Belgravia; but I hardly took them seriously, being immersed at the time in biological study. I looked upon my own pretensions in the way of fiction as an amiable fad of my kind friend Chatto; and not to prejudice any little scientific reputation I might happen to have earned, I published them all under the carefully veiled pseudonym of 'J. Arbuthnot Wilson.'

I would probably never have gone any further on my downward path had it not been for the accidental intervention of another believer in my powers as a story-writer. I had sent to Belgravia a little tale about a Chinaman, entitled 'Mr. Chung,' and written perhaps rather more seriously and carefully than my previous efforts. This happened to attract the attention of Mr. James Payn, who had then just succeeded to the editorship of the Cornhill. I had been a constant contributor to the Cornhill signed photo of Andrew Chatto under Leslie Stephen's management, and by a singular coincidence I received almost at the same time two letters from Mr. Payn, one of them addressed to me in my own name, and regretting that he would probably be unable to insert my scientific papers in his magazine in future; the other, sent through Chatto & Windus to the imaginary J. Arbuthnot Wilson, and asking for a short story somewhat in the style of my 'admirable Mr. Chung.'

Encouraged by the discovery that so good a judge of fiction thought well of my humble efforts at story-writing, I sat down at once and produced two pieces for the Cornhill. One was 'The Reverend John Creedy'—a tale of a black parson who reverted to savagery—which has perhaps attracted more attention than any other of my short stories. The other, which I myself immensely prefer, was 'The Curate of Churnside.' Both were so well noticed that I began to think seriously of fiction as an alternative subject. In the course of the next year I wrote several more sketches of the same sort, which were published, either anonymously or still under the pseudonym, in the Cornhill, Longmans', The Gentleman's, and Belgravia. If I recollect aright, the first suggestion to collect and reprint them all in a single volume came from Mr. Chatto. They were published as 'Strange Stories,' under my own name, and I thus, for the first time, acknowledged my desertion of my earliest loves—science and philosophy—for the less profound but more lucrative pursuit of literature.


'Strange Stories' was well received and well reviewed. Its reception gave me confidence for future ventures. Acting upon James Payn's advice, I set to work seriously upon a three-volume novel. My first idea was to call it 'Born out of Due Time,' as it narrated the struggles of a Socialist thinker a century in front of his generation; but, at Mr. Chatto's suggestion, the title was afterwards changed to 'Philistia.' I desired, if possible, to run it through the Cornhill, and Mr. Payn promised to take it into his most favourable consideration for that purpose. However, when the unfinished manuscript was submitted in due time to his editorial eye, he rightly objected that it was far too socialistic for the tastes of his public. He said it would rather repel than attract readers. I was disappointed at the time. I see now that, as an editor, he was perfectly right; I was giving the public what I felt and thought and believed myself, not what the public felt and thought and wanted. The education of an English novelist consists entirely in learning to subordinate all his own ideas and tastes and opinions to the wishes and beliefs of the inexorable British matron.


Mr. Chatto, however, was prepared to accept the undoubted risk of publishing 'Philistia.' Only, to meet his views, the dÚnoűment was altered. In the original version, the hero came to a bad end, as a hero in real life who is in advance of his age, and consistent and honest, must always do. But the British matron, it seems, likes her novels to 'end well'; so I married him off instead, and made him live happily ever afterward. Mr. Chatto gave me a lump sum down for serial rights and copyright, and ran 'Philistia' through the pages of The Gentleman's. When it finally appeared in book form, it obtained on the whole more praise than blame, and, as it paid a great deal better than scientific journalism, it decided me that my r˘le in life henceforth must be that of a novelist. And a novelist I now am, good, bad, or indifferent.

If anybody gathers, however, from this simple narrative, that my upward path from obscurity to a very modest modicum of popularity and success was a smooth and easy one, he is immensely mistaken. I had a ten years' hard struggle for bread, into the details of which I don't care to enter. It left me broken in health and spirit, with all the vitality and vivacity crushed out of me. I suppose the object of this series of papers is to warn off ingenuous and aspiring youth from the hardest worked and worst paid of the professions. If so, I would say earnestly to the ingenuous and aspiring—'Brain for brain, in no market can you sell your abilities to such poor advantage. Don't take to literature if you've capital enough in hand to buy a good broom, and energy enough to annex a vacant crossing.'