The Premier and the Painter
by I. Zangwill
AS it is scarcely two years since my name (which, I hear,
is a nom de plume) appeared in print on the cover of a
book, I may be suspected of professional humour when I say
I do not really know which was my first book. Yet such is
the fact. My literary career has been so queer that I find it
not easy to write my autobibliography.
'What is a pound?' asked Sir Robert Peel in an interrogative
mood futile as Pilate's. 'What is a book?' I ask, and
the dictionary answers with its usual dogmatic air, 'A collection
of sheets of paper, or similar material, blank, written, or
printed, bound together.' At this rate my first book would
be that romance of school life in two volumes, which, written
in a couple of exercise books, circulated gratuitously in the
schoolroom, and pleased our youthful imaginations with
teacher-baiting tricks we had not the pluck to carry out in
the actual. I shall always remember this story because, after
making the tour of the class, it was returned to me with thanks
and a new first page from which all my graces of style had
evaporated. Indignant inquiry discovered the criminal—he
admitted he had lost the page, and had rewritten it from
memory. He pleaded that it was better written (which in
one sense was true), and that none of the facts had been omitted.
This ill-treated tale was 'published' when I was ten, but
an old schoolfellow recently wrote to me reminding me of an
earlier novel written in an old account-book. Of this I have
no recollection, but, as he says he wrote it day by day at my
dictation, I suppose he ought to know. I am glad to find
I had so early achieved the distinction of keeping an
The dignity of print I achieved not much later, contributing
verses and virtuous essays to various juvenile organs. But
it was not till I was eighteen that I achieved a printed first
book. The story of this first book is peculiar; and, to tell it
in approved story form, I must request the reader to come
back two years with
One fine day,
when I was sixteen,
I was wandering
about the Ramsgate
sands looking for
Toole. I did not really
expect to see him, and I
had no reason to believe
he was in Ramsgate, but I
thought if Providence
to him it might
throw him in my
way. I wanted to
do him a good
turn. I had written
a three-act farcical
comedy at the request of an amateur dramatic club. I had
written out all the parts, and I think there were rehearsals.
But the play was never produced. In the light of after
knowledge I suspect some of those actors must have been of
quite professional calibre. You understand, therefore, why
my thoughts turned to Toole. But I could not find Toole.
Instead, I found on the sands a page of a paper called
Society. It is still running merrily at a penny, but at that
time it had also a Saturday edition at threepence. On this
page was a great prize-competition scheme, as well as
details of a regular weekly competition. The competitions
in those days were always literary and intellectual,
but then popular education had not made such strides as
I sat down on the spot, and wrote something which took
a prize in the weekly competition. This emboldened me to
enter for the great stakes.
I SAT DOWN AND WROTE
There were various events. I
resolved to enter for two. One
was a short novel, and the other a
comedietta. The '5l. humorous
story' competition I did not go
in for; but when the last day of
sending in MSS. for that had
passed, I reproached myself with
not having despatched one of my
manuscripts. Modesty had prevented
me sending in old work,
as I felt assured it would stand
no chance, but when it was too
late I was annoyed with myself
for having thrown away a possibility.
After all I could have lost
nothing. Then I discovered that
I had mistaken the last date, and that there was still
a day. In the joyful reaction I selected a story called
'Professor Grimmer,' and sent it in. Judge of my amazement
when this got the prize (5l.), and was published in
serial form running through three numbers of Society. Last
year, at a Press dinner, I found myself next to Mr. Arthur
Goddard, who told me he had acted as Competition Editor,
and that quite a number of now well-known people had taken
part in these admirable competitions. My painfully laboured
novel only got honourable mention, and my comedietta was
lost in the post.
But I was now at the height of literary fame, and success
stimulated me to fresh work. I still marvel when I think of
the amount of rubbish I turned out in my seventeenth and
eighteenth years, in the scanty leisure of a harassed pupil-teacher
at an elementary school, working hard in the evenings
for a degree at the London University to boot. There was a
fellow pupil-teacher (let
us call him Y.) who believed
in me, and who
had a little money with
which to back his belief.
I was for starting a comic
paper. The name was to
be Grimaldi, and I was
to write it all every
'But don't you think
your invention would give
way ultimately?' asked
Y. It was the only time
he ever doubted me.
'By that time I shall
be able to afford a staff,'
I replied triumphantly.
Y. was convinced. But before the comic paper was born,
Y. had another happy thought. He suggested that if I wrote
a Jewish story, we might make enough to finance the comic
paper. I was quite willing. If he had suggested an epic, I
should have written it.
So I wrote the story in four evenings (I always write in
spurts), and within ten days from the inception of the idea
the booklet was on sale in a coverless pamphlet form. The
printing cost ten pounds. I paid five (the five I had won),
Y. paid five, and we divided the profits. He has since not
become a publisher.
IT WAS HAWKED ABOUT THE STREETS
My first book (price one penny nett) went well. It was
loudly denounced by those it described, and widely bought
by them; it was hawked about the streets. One little shop
in Whitechapel sold 400 copies. It was even on Smith's
bookstalls. There was great curiosity among Jews to know
the name of the writer. Owing to my anonymity, I was
enabled to see those enjoying its perusal, who were afterwards
to explain to me their horror and disgust at its illiteracy and
vulgarity. By vulgarity vulgar Jews mean the reproduction
of the Hebrew words with which the poor and the old-fashioned
interlard their conversation. It is as if English-speaking
Scotchmen and Irishmen should object to 'dialect' novels
reproducing the idiom of their 'uncultured' countrymen. I
do not possess a copy of my first book, but somehow or other
I discovered the MS. when writing 'Children of the Ghetto.'
The description of market-day in Jewry was transferred bodily
from the MS. of my first book, and is now generally admired.
What the profits were I never knew, for they were invested
in the second of our publications. Still jealously keeping the
authorship secret, we published a long comic ballad which I
had written on the model of 'Bab.' With this we determined
to launch out in style, and so we had gorgeous advertisement
A POLICEMAN TOLD HIM TO GET
posters printed in three
colours, which were to be
stuck about London to
beautify that great dreary
city. Y. saw the black-hair
of Fortune almost within
One morning our headmaster
walked into my
room with a portentously
solemn air. I felt instinctively
that the murder was
out. But he only said,
'Where is Y.?' though the
mere coupling of our names
was ominous, for our publishing
partnership was unknown.
I replied, 'How
should I know? In his
room, I suppose.'
He gave me a peculiar
'When did you last see
Y.?' he said.
'Yesterday afternoon,' I replied wonderingly.
'And you don't know where he is now?'
'Haven't an idea—isn't he in school?'
'No,' he replied in low, awful tones.
'Where then?' I murmured.
'In prison!' I gasped.
'In prison; I have just been to help bail him out.'
It transpired that Y. had suddenly been taken with a
further happy thought. Contemplation of those gorgeous
tricoloured posters had turned his brain, and, armed with an
amateur paste-pot and a ladder, he had sallied forth at midnight
to stick them about the silent streets, so as to cut down
the publishing expenses. A policeman, observing him at
work, had told him to get down, and Y., being legal-minded,
had argued it out with the policeman de haut en bas from the
top of his ladder. The outraged majesty of the law thereupon
haled Y. off to the cells.
Naturally the cat was now out of the bag, and the fat in
To explain away the poster was beyond the ingenuity of
even a professed fiction-monger.
Straightway the committee of the school was summoned
in hot haste, and held debate upon the scandal of a pupil-teacher
being guilty of originality. And one dread afternoon,
when all Nature seemed to hold its breath, I was called down
to interview a member of the committee. In his hand were
copies of the obnoxious publications.
I approached the great person with beating heart. He
had been kind to me in the past, singling me out, on account
of some scholastic successes, for an annual vacation at the
seaside. It has only just struck me, after all these years, that,
if he had not done so, I should not have found the page of
Society, and so not have perpetrated the deplorable compositions.
In the course of a bad quarter of an hour, he told me
that the ballad was tolerable, though not to be endured; he
admitted the metre was perfect, and there wasn't a single
false rhyme. But the prose novelette was disgusting. 'It is
such stuff,' said he, 'as little boys scribble upon walls.'
I said I could not see anything objectionable in it.
'Come now, confess you are ashamed of it,' he urged.
'You only wrote it to make money.'
'If you mean that I deliberately wrote low stuff to make
money,' I replied calmly, 'it is untrue. There is nothing I
am ashamed of. What you object to is simply realism.' I
pointed out that Bret Harte had been as realistic; but they
did not understand literature on that committee.
SUCH STUFF AS LITTLE BOYS SCRIBBLE
'Confess you are
ashamed of yourself,'
he reiterated, 'and we
will look over it.'
'I am not,' I persisted,
though I foresaw
only too clearly that my
summer's vacation was
doomed if I told the
truth. 'What is the use
of saying I am?'
The headmaster uplifted
his hands in
horror. 'How, after
all your kindness to
him, he can contradict
you—!' he cried.
'When I come to
be your age,' I conceded
to the member of the
committee, 'it is possible I may look back on it with shame.
At present I feel none.'
In the end I was given the alternative of expulsion or of
publishing nothing which had not passed the censorship of
the committee. After considerable hesitation I chose the
This was a blessing in disguise; for, as I have never been
able to endure the slightest arbitrary interference with my
work, I simply abstained from publishing. Thus, although
I still wrote—mainly sentimental verses—my nocturnal
studies were less interrupted. Not till I had graduated, and
was of age, did I return to my inky vomit. Then came my
next first book—a real book at last.
In this also I had the collaboration of a fellow-teacher,
Louis Cowen by name. This time my colleague was part-author.
It was only gradually that I had been admitted to
the privilege of communion with him, for he was my senior
by five or six years, and a man of brilliant parts who had
already won his spurs in journalism, and who enjoyed
deservedly the reputation of an Admirable Crichton. What
drew me to him was his mordant wit (to-day, alas! wasted
on anonymous journalism! If he would only reconsider his
indetermination, the reading public would be the richer!)
Together we planned plays, novels, treatises on political
economy, and contributions to philosophy. Those were the
days of dreams.
One afternoon he came to me with quivering sides, and
told me that an idea for a little shilling book had occurred to
him. It was that a Radical Prime Minister and a Conservative
working man should change into each other by supernatural
means, and the working man be confronted with the
problem of governing, while the Prime Minister should be as
comically out of place in the East End environment. He
thought it would make a funny 'Arabian Nights' sort of
burlesque. And so it would have done; but, unfortunately,
I saw subtler possibilities of political satire in it, nothing less
than a reductio ad absurdum of the whole system of Party
Government. I insisted the story must be real, not supernatural,
the Prime Minister must be a Tory, weary of office,
and it must be an ultra-Radical atheistic artisan bearing a
marvellous resemblance to him who directs (and with complete
success) the Conservative Administration. To add to
the mischief, owing to my collaborator's evenings being
largely taken up by other work, seven-eighths of the book
came to be written by me, though the leading ideas were, of
course, threshed out and the whole revised in common, and
thus it became a vent-hole for all the ferment of a youth of
twenty-one, whose literary faculty had furthermore been pent
up for years by the potential censorship of a committee.
The book, instead of being a shilling skit, grew to a ten-and-sixpenny
(for that was the unfortunate price of publication)
political treatise of over sixty long chapters and 500 closely
printed pages. I drew all the characters as seriously and
complexly as if the fundamental conception were a matter of
history; the outgoing Premier became an elaborate study
of a nineteenth-century Hamlet; the Bethnal Green life
amid which he came to live was presented with photographic
fulness and my old trick of realism; the governmental
manœuvres were described with infinite detail; numerous
real personages were introduced under nominal disguises;
and subsequent history was curiously anticipated in some of
the Female Franchise and Home Rule episodes. Worst of
all, so super-subtle was the satire, that it was never actually
stated straight out that the Premier had changed places with
the Radical working man, so that the door might be left
open for satirically suggested alternative explanations of the
metamorphosis in their characters; and as, moreover, the two
men re-assumed their original r˘les for one night only with
infinitely complex effects, many readers, otherwise unimpeachable,
reached the end without any suspicion of the
actual plot—and yet (on their own confession) enjoyed the
In contrast to all this elephantine waggery the half-dozen
chapters near the commencement, in which my collaborator
sketched the first adventures of the Radical working man in
Downing Street, were light and sparkling, and I feel sure the
shilling skit he originally meditated would have been a great
success. We christened the book. 'The Premier and the
Painter,' ourselves J. Freeman Bell, had it type-written, and
sent it round to the publishers in two enormous quarto volumes.
I had been working at it for more than a year every evening
after the hellish torture of the day's teaching, and all day every
holiday, but now I had a good rest while it was playing its
boomerang prank of returning to me once a month. The only
gleam of hope came from Bentleys, who wrote to say that they
could not make up their minds to reject it; but they prevailed
upon themselves to part with it at last, though not without
asking to see Mr. Bell's next book. At last it was accepted
by Spencer Blackett, and, though it had been refused by all
the best houses, it failed. Failed in a material sense, that is;
for there was plenty of praise in the papers, though at too
'WE SENT IT ROUND'
long intervals to do us any good.
The AthenŠum has never spoken so
well of anything I have done since.
The late James Runciman (I learnt
after his death that it was he) raved
about it in various uninfluential
organs. It even called forth a
leader in the Family Herald(!), and
there are odd people here and there,
who know the secret of J. Freeman
Bell, who declare that I. Zangwill
will never do anything so good.
There was a cheaper edition, but
it did not sell much then, though
now it is in its third edition, issued
uniformly with my other books by
Heinemann, and absolutely unrevised.
But not only did 'The Premier
and the Painter fail with the
great public at first, it did not even help either of us one step
up the ladder; never got us a letter of encouragement nor a
stroke of work. I had to begin journalism at the very bottom
and entirely unassisted, narrowly escaping canvassing for
advertisements, for I had by this time thrown up my scholastic
position, and had gone forth into the world penniless and
without even a 'character,' branded as an Atheist (because I
did not worship the Lord who presided over our committee)
and a Revolutionary (because I refused to break the law of
I should stop here if I were certain I had written the
required article. But as 'The Premier and the Painter' was
not entirely my first book, I may perhaps be expected to say
something of my third first book, and the first to which I put
my name—'The Bachelors' Club.' Years of literary apathy
succeeded the failure of 'The Premier and the Painter.' All
I did was to publish a few serious poems (which, I hope, will
survive Time), a couple of pseudonymous stories signed 'The
Baroness Von S.' (!), and a long philosophical essay upon
religion, and to lend a hand in the writing of a few playlets.
Becoming convinced of the irresponsible mendacity of the
dramatic profession, I gave up the stage, too, vowing never
to write except on commission (I kept my vow and yet
was played ultimately), and sank entirely into the slough of
journalism (glad enough to get there), inter alia editing a
comic paper (not Grimaldi, but Ariel) with a heavy heart.
At last the long apathy wore off, and I resolved to cultivate
literature again in my scraps of time. It is a mere accident
that I wrote a pair of 'funny' books, or put serious criticism
of contemporary manners into a shape not understood in a
country where only the dull are profound and only the
ponderous are earnest. 'The Bachelors' Club' was the result
of a whimsical remark made by my dear friend, Eder of
Bartholomew's, with whom I was then sharing rooms in
Bernard Street, and who helped me greatly with it, and its
publication was equally accidental. One spring day, in the
year of grace 1891, having lived unsuccessfully for a score of
years and seven upon this absurd planet, I crossed Fleet
Street and stepped into what is called 'success.' It was like
this. Mr. J. T. Grein, now of the Independent Theatre,
meditated a little monthly called The Playgoers' Review, and
he asked me to do an article for the first number, on the
strength of some speeches I had made at the Playgoers' Club.
When I got the proof it was marked, 'Please return at once
to 6 Bouverie Street.' My office boy being out, and Bouverie
Street being only a few steps away, I took it over myself, and
found myself, somewhat to my surprise, in the office of Henry
& Co., publishers, and in the presence of Mr. J. Hannaford
Bennett, an active partner in the firm. He greeted me by
name, also to my surprise, and told me he had heard me
speak at the Playgoers' Club. A little conversation ensued,
and he mentioned that his firm was going to bring out a
Library of Wit and Humour. I told him I had begun a
book, avowedly humorous, and had written two chapters of it,
and he straightway came over to my office, heard me read
them, and immediately secured the book. (The then editor
ultimately refused to have it in the 'Whitefriars' Library of
Wit and Humour,' and so it was brought out separately.)
EDITING A COMIC PAPER
Within three months, working in odds and ends of time, I
finished it, correcting the proofs of the first chapters while I
was writing the last; indeed, ever since the day I read those
two chapters to Mr. Hannaford Bennett I have never written
a line anywhere that has not been purchased before it was
written. For, to my undying astonishment, two average
editions of my real 'first book' were disposed of on the day
of publication, to say nothing of the sale in New York.
Unless I had acquired a reputation of which I was totally
unconscious, it must have been the title that 'fetched' the
trade. Or, perhaps, it was the illustrations by my friend, Mr.
George Hutchinson, whom I am proud to have discovered as
a cartoonist for Ariel.
So here the story comes to a nice sensational climax.
Re-reading it, I feel dimly that there ought to be a moral in
it somewhere for the benefit of struggling fellow-scribblers.
But the best I can find is this: That if you are blessed with
some talent, a great deal of industry, and an amount of
conceit mighty enough to enable you to disregard superiors,
equals and critics, as well as the fancied demands of the
public, it is possible, without friends, or introductions, or
bothering celebrities to read your manuscripts, or cultivating
the camp of the log-rollers, to attain, by dint of slaving day
and night for years during the flower of your youth, to a fame
infinitely less widespread than a prizefighter's, and a pecuniary
position which you might with far less trouble have been