A Life's Atonement

by David Christie Murray

I BEGAN my first book more years ago than I care to count, and, naturally enough, it took poetic form, if not poetic substance. In its original shape it was called 'Marsh Hall,' and ran into four cantos. On the eve of my twenty-first birthday I sent the MS. to Messrs. Macmillan, who, very wisely, as I have since come to believe, counselled me not to publish it. I say this in full sincerity, though I remember some of the youthful bombast not altogether without affection. Here and there I can recall a passage which still seems respectable. I wrote reams of verse in those days, but when I came into the rough and tumble of journalistic life I was too occupied to court the Muses any longer, and found myself condemned to a life of prose. I was acting as special correspondent for the Birmingham Morning News in the year '73—I think it was '73, though it might have been a year later—and at that time Mr. Edmund Yates was lecturing in America, and a novel of his, the last he ever wrote, was running through our columns. Whether the genial 'Atlas,' who at that time had not taken the burden of The World upon his shoulders, found his associations too numerous and heavy, I can only guess, but he closed the story with an unexpected suddenness, and the editor, who had supposed himself to have a month or two in hand in which to make arrangements for his next serial, was confronted with the finis of Mr. Yates's work, and was compelled to start a new novel at a week's notice. In this extremity he turned to me. 'I think, young 'un,' he said, 'that you ought to be able to write a novel.' I shared his faith, and had, indeed, already begun a story which I had christened 'Grace Forbeach.' I handed him two chapters, which he read at once, and, in high feather, sent to the printer. It never bade fair to be a mighty work, but at least it fulfilled the meaning of the original edition of Pope's famous line, for it was certainly 'all without


a plan.' I had appropriate scenery in my mind, no end of typical people to draw, and one or two moving actualities to work from. But I had forgotten the plot. To attempt a novel without a definite scheme of some sort is very like trying to make a Christmas pudding without a cloth. Ruth Pinch was uncertain as to whether her first venture at a pudding might not turn out a soup. My novelistic effort, I am sorry to confess, had no cohesion in it. Its parts got loose in the cooking, and I have reason to think that most people who tried it found the dish repellent. The cashier assured me that I had sent down the circulation of the SENT ALL MY PEOPLE INTO A COAL-MINE SENT ALL MY
Saturday issue by sixteen thousand. I had excellent reasons for disbelieving this circumstantial statement in the fact that the Saturday issue had never reached that number, but I have no doubt I did a deal of damage. There had been an idea in 'Marsh Hall,' and what with interpolated ballads and poetic excursions and alarums of all sorts, I had found in it matter enough to fill out my four cantos. I set out with the intent to work that same idea through the pages of 'Grace Forbeach,' but it was too scanty for the uses of a three-volume novel, at least in the hands of a tiro. I know one or two accomplished gentlemen who could make it serve the purpose admirably, and, perhaps, I myself might do something with it at a pinch at this time of day. Anyhow, as it was, the cloth was too small to hold the pudding, and, in the process of cooking, I was driven to the most desperate expedients. To drop the simile and to come to the plain facts of the case, I sent all my wicked and superfluous people into a coal-mine, and there put an end to them by an inrush of water. I forget what became of the hero, but I know that some of the most promising characters dropped out of that story, and were no more heard of. The sub-editor used occasionally, for my encouragement, to show me letters he received, denouncing the work, and asking wrathfully when it would end.

Whilst I am about 'Grace Forbeach,' it may be worth while to tell the story of the champion printer's error of my experience. I wrote at the close of the story:

'Are there no troubles now?' the lover asks.
'Not one, dear Frank. Not one.'
And then, in brackets, thus [] I set the words:
[White line.]

This was a technical instruction to the printer, and meant that one line of space should be left clear. The genius who had the copy in hand put the lover's speech in type correctly, and then, setting it out as if it were a line of verse, he gave me—

'Not one, dear Frank, not one white line!'

It was a custom in the printing office to suspend a leather medal by a leather bootlace round the neck of the man who had achieved the prize bêtise of the year. It was somewhere about midsummer at this time, but it was instantly and unanimously resolved that nothing better than this would or could be done by anybody. The compositors performed what they called a 'jerry' in the blunderer's honour, and invested him, after an animated fight, with the medal.

'Grace Forbeach' has been dead and buried for very nearly a score of years. It never saw book form, and I was never anxious that it should do so, but as it had grown out of 'Marsh Hall,' so my first book grew out of it, and, oddly enough, not only my first, but my second and my third. 'Joseph's Coat,' which made my fortune, and gave me such literary standing as I have, was built on one episode of that abortive story, and 'Val Strange' was constructed and written to lead up to the episode of the attempted suicide on Welbeck Head, which had formed the culminating point in the poem.

When I got to London I determined to try my hand anew, and, having learned by failure something more than success could ever have taught me, I built up my scheme before I started on my book. Having come to utter grief for want of a scheme to work on, I ran, in my eagerness to avoid that fault, into the opposite extreme, and built an iron-bound


plot, which afterwards cost me very many weeks of unnecessary and unvalued labour. I am quite sure that no reader of 'A Life's Atonement' ever guessed that the author took one tithe, or even one-twentieth part, of the trouble it actually cost to weave the two strands of its narrative together. I divided my story into thirty-six chapters. Twelve of these were autobiographical, in the sense that they were supposed to be written by the hero in person. The remaining twenty-four were historical, purporting to be written, that is, by an impersonal author. The autobiographical portions necessarily began in the childhood of the narrator, and between them and the 'History' there was a considerable gulf of time. Little by little this gulf had to be bridged over until the action in both portions of the story became synchronous. I really do not suppose that the most pitiless critic ever felt it worth his while to question the accuracy of my dates, and I dare say that all the trouble I took was quite useless, but I fixed in my own mind the actual years over which the story extended, and spent scores of hours in the consultation of old almanacs. I have never verified the work since it was done, but I believe that in this one respect, at least, it is beyond cavil. The two central figures of the book were lifted straight from the story of 'Marsh Hall,' and 'Grace Forbeach' gave her quota to the narrative.

I had completed the first volume when I received a commission to go out as special correspondent to the Russo-Turkish war. I left the MS. behind me, and for many months the scheme was banished from my mind. I went through those cities of the dead, Kesanlik, Calofar, Carlova, and Sopot. I watched the long-drawn artillery duel at the Shipka Pass, made the dreary month-long march in the rainy season from Orkhanié to Plevna, with the army of reinforcement, under Chefket Pasha and Chakir Pasha, lived in the besieged town until Osman drove away all foreign visitors, and sent out his wounded to sow the whole melancholy road with corpses. I put up on the heights of Tashkesen, and saw the stubborn defence of Mehemet Ali, and there was pounced upon by the Turkish authorities for a too faithful dealing with the story of the horrors of the war, and was deported to Constantinople. I had originally gone out for an American journal at the instance of a gentleman who exceeded his instructions in despatching me, and I was left high and dry in the Turkish capital without a penny and without a friend. But work of the kind I could do was wanted, and I was on the spot. I slid into an engagement with the Scotsman, and then into another with the Times. The late Mr. Macdonald, who was killed by the Pigott forgeries, was then manager of the leading journal, and offered me fresh work. I waited for it, and a year of wild adventure in the face of war had given me such a taste for that sort of existence that I let 'A Life's Atonement' slide, and had no thought of taking it up again. A misunderstanding CONSULTING OLD ALMANACS CONSULTING OLD ALMANACS with the Times authorities—happily cleared up years after—left me in the cold, and I was bound to do something for a living. The first volume of 'A Life's Atonement' had been written in the intervals of labour in the Gallery of the House of Commons, and such work as an active hack journalist can find among the magazines and the weekly society papers. I had been away a whole year, and everywhere my place was filled. It was obviously no use to a man in want of ready money to undertake the completion of a three-volume novel of which only one volume was written, and so I betook myself to the writing of short stories. The very first of these was blessed by a lucky accident. Mr. George Augustus Sala had begun to write for The Gentleman's Magazine a story called, if I remember rightly, 'Dr. Cupid.' Sala was suddenly summoned by the proprietors of the Daily Telegraph to undertake one of his innumerable journeys, and the copy of the second instalment of his story reached the editor too late for publication. Just when the publishers of the Gentleman's were at a loss for suitable copy, my MS. of 'An Old Meerschaum' reached them, and, to my delighted surprise, I received proofs almost by return of post. The story appeared, with an illustration by Arthur Hopkins, and, about a week later, there came to me, through Messrs. Chatto & Windus, a letter from Robert Chambers: 'Sir,—I have read, with unusual pleasure and interest, in this month's Gentleman's Magazine, a story from your pen entitled "An Old Meerschaum." If you have a novel on hand, or in preparation, I should be glad to see it. In the meantime, a short story, not much longer than "An Old Meerschaum," would be gladly considered by—Yours very truly, Robert Chambers. P.S.—We publish no authors' names, but we pay handsomely.' This letter brought back to mind at once the neglected 'Life's Atonement,' but I was uncertain as to the whereabouts of the MS. I searched everywhere amongst my own belongings in vain, but it suddenly occurred to me that I had left it in charge of a passing acquaintance of mine, who had taken up the unexpired lease of my chambers in Gray's Inn at the time of my departure for the seat of war. I jumped into a cab, and drove off in search of my property. The shabby old laundress who had made my bed and served my breakfast was pottering about the rooms. She remembered me perfectly well, of course, but could not remember that I had left anything behind me when I went away. I talked of manuscript, and she recalled doubtfully a quantity of waste paper, of the final destination of which she knew nothing. I began to think it extremely improbable that I should ever recover a line of the missing novel, when she opened a cupboard and drew from it a brown-paper parcel, and, opening it, displayed to me the MS. of which I was in search. I took it home and read it through with infinite misgiving. The enthusiasm with which I had begun the work had long since had time to pall, and the whole thing looked weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable. For one thing, I had adopted the abominable expedient of writing in the present tense so far as the autobiographical portion of the work was concerned, and, in the SHE DREW FROM IT A BROWN-PAPER PARCEL SHE DREW FROM IT A BROWN-PAPER PARCEL interval which had gone by, my taste had, I suppose, undergone an unconscious correction. It was a dull business, but, despondent as I was, I found the heart to rewrite those chapters. Charles Reade describes the task of writing out one's work a second time as 'nauseous,' and I confess that I am with him with all my heart. It is a misery which I have never since, in all my work, imposed upon myself. At that time I counted amongst my friends an eminent novelist, on whose critical faculty and honesty I knew I could place the most absolute reliance. I submitted my revised first volume to his judgment, and was surprised to learn that he thought highly of it. His judgment gave me new courage, and I sent the copy in to Chambers. After a delay of a week or two, I received a letter which gave me, I think, a keener delight IF THERE HAD BEEN NO 'DAVID COPPERFIELD' IF THERE
than has ever touched me at the receipt of any other communication. 'If,' wrote Robert Chambers,'the rest is as good as the first volume, I shall accept the book with pleasure. Our price for the serial use will be 250l., of which we will pay 100l. on receipt of completed MS.; the remaining 150l. will be paid on the publication of the first monthly number.' I had been out of harness for so long a time, and had been, by desultory work, able to earn so little, that this letter seemed to open a sort of Eldorado to my gaze. It was not that alone which made it so agreeable to receive. It opened the way to an honourable ambition which I had long nourished, and I slaved away at the remaining two volumes with an enthusiasm which I have never been able to revive. There are two or three people still extant who know in part the privations I endured whilst the book was being finished. I set everything else on one side for it, incautiously enough, and for two months I did not earn a penny by other means. The most trying accident of all the time was the tobacco famine which set in towards the close of the third volume, but, in spite of all obstacles, the book was finished. I worked all night at the final chapter, and wrote 'Finis' somewhere about five o'clock on a summer morning. I shall never forget the solemn THE STOCK WAS TRANSFERRED THE STOCK WAS TRANSFERRED exultation with which I laid down my pen and looked from the window of the little room in which I had been working over the golden splendour of the gorse-covered common of Ditton Marsh. All my original enthusiasm had revived, and in the course of my lonely labours had grown to a white heat. I solemnly believed at that moment that I had written a great book. I suppose I may make that confession now without proclaiming myself a fool. I really and seriously believed that the work I had just finished was original in conception, style, and character. No reviewer ever taunted me with the fact, but the truth is that 'A Life's Atonement' is a very curious instance of unconscious plagiarism. It is quite evident to my mind now that if there had been no 'David Copperfield' there would have been no 'Life's Atonement.' My Gascoigne is Steerforth, my John Campbell is David, John's aunt is Miss Betsy Trotwood, Sally Troman is Peggotty. The very separation of the friends, though brought about by a different cause, is a reminiscence. I was utterly unconscious of these facts, and, remembering how devotedly and honestly I worked, how resolute I was to put my best of observation and invention into the story, I have ever since felt chary of entertaining a charge of plagiarism against anybody. There are, of course, flagrant and obvious cases, but I believe that in nine instances out of ten the supposed criminal has worked as I did, having so completely absorbed and digested in childhood the work of an admired master that he has come to feel that work as an actual portion of himself. 'A Life's Atonement' ran its course through Chambers's Journal in due time, and was received with favour. Messrs. Griffith & Farran undertook its publication in book form, but one or two accidental circumstances forbade it to prosper in their hands. To begin with, the firm at that time had only newly decided on publishing novels at all, and a work under such a title, and issued by such a house, was naturally supposed to have a theological tendency. Then again, in the very week in which my book saw the light, 'Lothair' appeared, and for the time being swamped everything. All the world read 'Lothair,' all the world talked about it, and all the newspapers and reviews dealt with it, to the exclusion of the products of the smaller fry. Later on, 'A Life's Atonement' was handsomely reviewed, and was indeed, as I am disposed to think, praised a good deal beyond its merits. But it lay a dead weight on the hands of its original publishers, until Messrs. Chatto & Windus expressed a wish to incorporate it in their Piccadilly Series. The negotiations between the two houses were easily completed, the stock was transferred from one establishment to the other, the volumes were stripped of their old binding and dressed anew, and with this novel impetus the story reached a second edition in three-volume form. It brought me almost immediately two commissions, and by the time that they were completed I had grown into a professional novel-writer.