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 amanuensis.

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 LOOKING FOR
back two years with me.

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 were kind 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

Drawing with signature below:
I. Zangwill

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 to-day.

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.


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 ARTHUR GODDARD ARTHUR GODDARD 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 week.

'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.


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 our grasp.

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 sceptical glance.

'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!'

'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 the fire.

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.


'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 latter.

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 book!

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' '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 the land).

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.)


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 born to.