On the Stage and Off by Jerome K. Jerome

THE story of one's 'first book' I take to be the last chapter of one's literary romance. The long wooing is over. The ardent young author has at last won his coy public. The good publisher has joined their hands. The merry critics, invited to the feast of reason, have blessed the union, and thrown the rice and slippers—occasionally other things. The bridegroom sits alone with his bride, none between them, and ponders.

The fierce struggle, with its wild hopes and fears, its heart-leapings and heart-achings, its rose-pink dawns of endless promise, its grey twilights of despair, its passion and its pain, lies behind. Before him stretches the long, level road of daily doing. Will he please her to all time? Will she always be sweet and gracious to him? Will she never tire of him? The echo of the wedding-bells floats faintly through the darkening room. The fair forms of half-forgotten dreams rise up around him. He springs to his feet with a slight shiver, and rings for the lamps to be lighted.

Ah! that 'first book' we meant to write! How it pressed forward an oriflamme of joy, through all ranks and peoples; how the world rang with the wonder of it! How men and women laughed and cried over it! From every page there leaped to light a new idea. Its every paragraph scintillated with fresh wit, deep thought, and new humour. And, ye gods! how the critics praised it! How they rejoiced over the discovery of the new genius! How ably they pointed out to the reading public its manifold merits, its marvellous charm! Aye, it was a great work, that book we wrote as we strode laughing through the silent streets, beneath the little stars.

And, heigho! what a poor little thing it was, the book that we did write! I draw him from his shelf (he is of a faint pink colour, as though blushing all over for his sins), and stand him up before me on the desk. 'Jerome K. Jerome'—the K very big, followed by a small J, so that in MY FIRST-BORN MY FIRST-BORN many quarters the author is spoken of as 'Jerome Kjerome,' a name that in certain smoke-laden circles still clings to me—'On the Stage—and Off: The Brief Career of a would-be Actor. One Shilling.'

I suppose I ought to be ashamed of him, but how can I be? Is he not my first-born? Did he not come to me in the days of weariness, making my heart glad and proud? Do I not love him the more for his shortcomings?

Somehow, as I stare at him in this dim candlelight, he seems to take odd shape. Slowly he grows into a little pink imp, sitting cross-legged among the litter of my books and papers, squinting at me (I think the squint is caused by the big 'K'), and I find myself chatting with him.

It is an interesting conversation to me, for it is entirely about myself, and I do nearly all the talking, he merely throwing in an occasional necessary reply, or recalling to my memory a forgotten name or face.

Drawing with signature:
Yours Sincerely,
Jerome K. Jermome

We chat of the little room in Whitfield Street, off the Tottenham Court Road, where he was born; of our depressing, meek-eyed old landlady, and of how, one day, during the course of chance talk, it came out that she, in the far back days of her youth, had been an actress, winning stage love and breaking stage hearts with the best of them; of how the faded face would light up as, standing with the tea-tray in her hands, she would tell us of her triumphs, and repeat to us her 'Press Notices,' which she had learned by heart; and of how from her we heard not a few facts and stories useful to us. We talk of the footsteps that of evenings would climb the creaking stairs and enter at our door; of George, who always believed in us (God bless him!), though he could never explain why; of practical Charley, who thought we should do better if we left literature alone and stuck to work. Ah! well, he meant kindly, and there be many who would that he had prevailed. We remember the difficulties we had to contend with; the couple in the room below, who would come in and go to bed at twelve, and lie there, quarrelling loudly, until sleep overcame them about two, driving our tender and philosophical sentences entirely out of our head; of the asthmatical old law-writer, whose never-ceasing cough troubled us greatly (maybe, it troubled him also, but I fear we did not consider that); of the rickety table that wobbled as we wrote, and that, whenever in a forgetful moment we leant upon it, gently but firmly collapsed.

'Yes,' I said to the little pink imp; 'as a study the room had its drawbacks, but we lived some grand hours there, didn't we? We laughed and sang there, and the songs we chose breathed ever of hope and victory, and so loudly we sang them we might have been modern Joshuas, thinking to capture a city with our breath.

'And then that wonderful view we used to see from its dingy window panes—that golden country that lay stretched before us, beyond the thousand chimney pots, above the drifting smoke, above the creeping fog—do you remember that?'

It was worth living in that cramped room, worth sleeping on that knobbly bed, to gain an occasional glimpse of that shining land, with its marble palaces, where one day we should enter, an honoured guest; its wide market-places, where the people thronged to listen to our words. I have climbed many stairs, peered through many windows in this London town since then, but never have I seen that view again. Yet, from somewhere in our midst, it must be visible for friends of mine, as we have sat alone, and the talk has sunk into low tones, broken by long silences, have told me that they, too, have looked upon those same glittering towers and streets. But the odd thing is that none of us has seen them since he was a very young man. So, maybe, it is only that the country is a long way off, and that our eyes have grown dimmer as we have grown older.

'And who was that old fellow that helped us so much?' I ask of my little pink friend; 'you remember him surely—a very ancient fellow, the oldest actor on the boards he always boasted himself—had played with Edmund Kean and Macready. I used to put you in my pocket of a night and meet him outside the stage door of the Princess's; and we would adjourn to a little tavern in old Oxford Market to talk you over, and he would tell me anecdotes and stories to put in you.'

'You mean Johnson,' says the pink imp; 'J. B. Johnson. He was with you in your first engagement at Astley's, under Murray Wood and Virginia Blackwood. He and you were the High Priests in "Mazeppa," if you remember, and had to carry Lisa Weber across the stage, you taking her head and he her heels. Do you recollect what he said to her, on the first night, as you were both staggering towards the couch?—"Well, I've played with Fanny Kemble, Cushman, Glyn, and all of them, but hang me, my dear, if you ain't the heaviest lead I've ever supported."'


'That's the old fellow,' I reply; 'I owe a good deal to him, and so do you. I used to read bits of you to him in a whisper as we stood in the bar; and he always had one formula of praise for you: "It's damned clever, young 'un; damned clever. I shouldn't have thought it of you."

'And that reminds me,' I continue—I hesitate a little here, for I fear what I am about to say may offend him—'what have you done to yourself since I wrote you? I was looking you over the other day, and really I could scarcely recognise you. You were full of brilliancy and originality when you were in manuscript. What have you done with it all?'

By some mysterious process he contrives to introduce an extra twist into the squint with which he is regarding me, but makes no reply, and I continue:

'Take, for example, that gem I lighted upon one drizzly THAT BRILLIANT IDEA THAT BRILLIANT IDEA night in Portland Place. I remember the circumstance distinctly. I had been walking the deserted streets, working at you; my note-book in one hand and a pencil in the other. I was coming home through Portland Place, when suddenly, just beyond the third lamp-post from the Crescent, there flashed into my brain a thought so original, so deep, so true, that involuntarily I exclaimed: "My God, what a grand idea!" and a coffee-stall keeper, passing with his barrow just at that moment, sang out: "Tell it us, guv'nor. There ain't many knocking about."

'I took no notice of the man, but hurried on to the next lamp-post to jot down that brilliant idea before I should forget it; and the moment I reached home I pulled you out of your drawer and copied it out on to your pages, and sat long staring at it, wondering what the world would say when it came to read it. Altogether I must have put into you nearly a dozen startlingly original thoughts. What have you done with them? They are certainly not there now.'

Still he keeps silence, and I wax indignant at the evident amusement with which he regards my accusation.

'And the bright wit, the rollicking humour with which I made your pages sparkle, where are they?' I ask him, reproachfully; 'those epigrammatic flashes that, when struck, illumined the little room with a blaze of sudden light, showing each cobweb in its dusty corner, and dying out, leaving my dazzled eyes groping for the lamp; those grand jokes at which I myself, as I made them, laughed till the rickety iron bedstead beneath me shook in sympathy with harsh metallic laughter; where are they, my friend? I have read you through, page by page, and the thoughts in you are thoughts that the world has grown tired of thinking; at your wit one smiles, thinking that anyone could think it wit; and your humour your severest critic could hardly accuse of being very new. What has happened to you? What wicked fairy has bewitched you? I poured gold into your lap, and you yield me back only crumpled leaves.'

With a jerk of his quaint legs he assumes a more upright posture.

'My dear Parent,' he begins in a tone that at once reverses our positions, so that he becomes the monitor and I the wriggling admonished; 'don't, I pray you, turn prig in your old age; don't sink into the "superior person" who mistakes carping for criticism, and jeering for judgment. Any fool can see faults, they lie on the surface. The merit of a thing is hidden within it, and is visible only to insight. And there is merit in me, in spite of your cheap sneers, sir. Maybe I do not contain an original idea. Show me the book published since the days of Caxton that does! Are our young men, as are the youth of China, to be forbidden to think, because Confucius thought years ago? The wit you appreciate now needs to be more pungent than the wit that satisfied you at twenty; are you sure it is as wholesome? You cannot smile at humour you would once have laughed at; is it you or the humour that has grown old and stale? I am the work of a very young man, who, writing of that which he knew and had felt, put down all things truthfully as they appeared to him, in such way as seemed most natural to him, having no thought of popular taste, standing in no fear of what critics might say. Be sure that all your future books are as free from unworthy aims.'

'Besides,' he adds, after a short pause, during which I have started to reply, but have turned back to think again, 'is not this talk idle between you and me? This apologetic attitude, is it not the cant of the literary profession? At the bottom of your heart you are proud of me, as every author is of every book he has written. Some of them he thinks better than others; but, as the Irishman said of whiskies, they are all good. He sees their shortcomings. He dreams he could have done better; but he is positive no one else could.'

His little twinkling eyes look sternly at me, and, feeling that the discussion is drifting into awkward channels, I hasten to divert it, and we return to the chat about our early experiences.

I ask him if he remembers those dreary days when, written neatly in round hand on sermon paper, he journeyed a ceaseless round from newspaper to newspaper, from magazine to magazine, returning always soiled and limp to Whitfield Street, still further darkening the ill-lit room as he entered. Some would keep him for a month, making me indignant at the waste of precious time. Others would send him back by the next post, insulting me by their indecent haste. Many, in returning him, would thank me for having given them the privilege and pleasure of reading him, and I would curse them for hypocrites. Others would reject him with no pretence at regret whatever, and I would marvel at their rudeness.

I hated the dismal little 'slavey' who, twice a week, on an average, would bring him up to me. If she smiled as she handed me the packet, I fancied she was jeering at me. If she looked sad, as she more often did, poor little over-worked slut, I thought she was pitying me. I shunned the postman if I saw him in the street, sure that he guessed my shame.

'Did anyone ever read you out of all those I sent you to?' I ask him.

'Do editors read manuscript by unknown authors?' he asks me in return.


'I fear not more than they can help,' I confess; 'they would have little else to do.'

'Oh,' he remarks demurely, 'I thought I had read that they did.'

'Very likely,' I reply; 'I have also read that theatrical managers read all the plays sent to them, eager to discover new talent. One obtains much curious information by reading.'

'But somebody did read me eventually,' he reminds me; 'and liked me. Give credit where credit is due.'

'Ah, yes,' I admit; 'my good friend Aylmer Gowing—the "Walter Gordon" of the old Haymarket in Buckstone's time, "Gentleman Gordon" as Charles Matthews nicknamed him—kindliest and most genial of men. Shall I ever forget the brief note that came to me four days after I had posted you to "The Editor—Play":—"Dear Sir, I like your articles very much. Can you call on me to-morrow morning before twelve?—Yours truly, W. Aylmer Gowing."'

So success had come at last—not the glorious goddess I had pictured, but a quiet, pleasant-faced lady. I had imagined the editor of Cornhill, or the Nineteenth Century, or The Illustrated London News writing me that my manuscript was the most brilliant, witty, and powerful story he had ever read, and enclosing me a cheque for two hundred guineas. The Play was an almost unknown little penny weekly, 'run' by Mr. Gowing—who, though retired, could not bear to be altogether unconnected with his beloved stage—at a no inconsiderable yearly loss. It could give me little fame and less wealth. But a crust is a feast to a man who has grown weary of dreaming dinners, and as I sat with that letter in my hand a mist rose before my eyes, and I—acted in a way that would read foolish if written down.

(From a photograph by Fradelle & Young) THE STUDY
(From a photograph by Fradelle & Young)

The next morning, at eleven, I stood beneath the porch of 37 Victoria Road, Kensington, wishing I did not feel so hot and nervous, and that I had not pulled the bell-rope quite so vigorously. But when Mr. Gowing, in smoking-coat and slippers, came forward and shook me by the hand, my shyness left me. In his study, lined with theatrical books, we sat and talked. Mr. Gowing's voice seemed the sweetest I had ever listened to, for, with unprofessional frankness, it sang the praises of my work. He, in his young acting days, had been through the provincial mill, and found my pictures true, and many of my pages seemed to him, so he said, 'as good as Punch.' (He meant it complimentary.) He explained to me the position of his paper, and I agreed (only too gladly) to give him the use of the book for nothing. As I was leaving, however, he called me back and slipped a five-pound note into my hand—a different price from what friend A. P. Watt charms out of proprietors' pockets for me nowadays, yet never since have I felt as rich as on that foggy November morning when I walked across Kensington Gardens with that 'bit of flimsy' held tight in my left hand. I could not bear the idea of spending it on mere mundane things. Now and then, during the long days of apprenticeship, I drew it from its hiding-place and looked at it, sorely tempted. But it always went back, and later, when the luck began to turn, I purchased with it, at a second-hand shop in Goodge Street, an old Dutch bureau that I had long had my eye upon. It is an inconvenient piece of furniture. One cannot stretch one's legs as one sits writing at it, and if one rises suddenly it knocks bad language into one's knees and out of one's mouth. But one must pay for sentiment, as for other things.

In The Play the papers gained a fair amount of notice, and won for me some kindly words; notably, I remember, from John Clayton and Palgrave Simpson. I thought that in the glory of print they would readily find a publisher, but I was mistaken. The same weary work lay before me, only now I had more heart in me, and, having wrestled once with Fate and prevailed, stood less in fear of her.

Sometimes with a letter of introduction, sometimes without, sometimes with a bold face, sometimes with a timid step, I visited nearly every publisher in London. A few received me kindly, others curtly, many not at all. From most of them I gathered that the making of books was a pernicious and unprofitable occupation. Some thought the work would prove highly successful if I paid the expense of publication, but were less impressed with its merits on my explaining to them my financial position. All kept me waiting long before seeing me, but made haste to say 'Good day' to me.

I suppose all young authors have had to go through the same course. I sat one evening, a few months ago, with a literary friend of mine. The talk turned upon early struggles, and, with a laugh, he said: 'Do you know one of the foolish things I love to do? I like to go with a paper parcel under my arm into some big publishing house, and to ask, in a low, nervous voice, if Mr. So-and-so is disengaged. The clerk, with a contemptuous glance towards me, says that he is not sure, and asks if I have an appointment. "No," I reply; "not—not exactly, but I think he will see me. It's a matter of importance. I shall not detain him a minute."

'The clerk goes on with his writing, and I stand waiting. At the end of about five minutes, he, without looking up, says curtly, "What name?" and I hand him my card.

'Up to that point, I have imagined myself a young man again, but there the fancy is dispelled. The man glances at the card, and then takes a sharp look at me. "I beg your pardon, sir," he says, "will you take a seat in here for a moment?" In a few seconds he flies back again with "Will you kindly step this way, sir?" As I follow him upstairs I catch a glimpse of somebody being hurriedly bustled out of the private office, and the great man himself comes to the door, smiling, and as I take his outstretched hand I am remembering other times that he has forgotten.

In the end—to make a long story short, as the saying is—Mr. I AM REMEMBERING I AM REMEMBERING Tuer, of 'Ye Leadenhall Press,' urged thereto by a mutual friend, read the book, and, I presume, found merit in it, for he offered to publish it if I would make him a free gift of the copyright. I thought the terms hard at the time (though in my eagerness to see my name upon the cover of a real book I quickly agreed to them), but with experience, I am inclined to admit that the bargain was a fair one. The English are not a book-buying people. Out of every hundred publications hardly more than one obtains a sale of over a thousand, and, in the case of an unknown writer, with no personal friends upon the Press, it is surprising how few copies sometimes can be sold.

I am happy to think that in this instance, however, nobody suffered. The book was, as the phrase goes, well received by the public, who were possibly attracted to it by its subject, a perennially popular one. Some of the papers praised it, others dismissed it as utter rubbish; and then, fifteen months later, on reviewing my next book, regretted that a young man who had written such a capital first book should have followed it up by so wretched a second.

One writer—the greatest enemy I have ever had, though I exonerate him of all but thoughtlessness—wrote me down a 'humourist,' which term of reproach (as it is considered to be in Merrie England) has clung to me ever since, so that now, if I pen a pathetic story, the reviewer calls it 'depressing humour,' and if I tell a tragic story, he says it is 'false humour,' and, quoting the dying speech of the broken-hearted heroine, indignantly demands to know 'where he is supposed to laugh.' I am firmly persuaded that if I committed a murder half the book reviewers would allude to it as a melancholy example of the extreme lengths to which the 'new humour' had descended.

'Once a humourist, always a humourist,' is the reviewer's motto.

'And all things allowed for—the unenthusiastic publisher, the insufficiently appreciative public, the wicked critic,' says my little pink friend, breaking his somewhat long silence, 'what do you think of literature as a profession?'

I take some time to reply, for I wish to get down to what I really think, not stopping, as one generally does, at what one thinks one ought to think.

'I think,' I begin, at length, 'that it depends upon the literary man. If a man think to use literature merely as a means to fame and fortune, then he will find it an extremely unsatisfactory profession, and he would have done better to take up politics or company promoting. If he trouble himself about his status and position therein, loving the uppermost tables at feasts, and the chief seats in public places, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Master, Master, then he will find it a profession fuller than most professions of petty jealousy, of little spite, of foolish hating and foolish log-rolling, of feminine narrowness and childish querulousness. If he think too much of his prices per thousand words, he will find it a degrading profession; as the solicitor, thinking only of his bills-of-cost, will find the law degrading; as the doctor, working only for two-guinea fees, will find medicine degrading; as the priest, with his eyes ever fixed on the bishop's mitre, will find Christianity degrading.

'But if he love his work for the work's sake, if he remain child enough to be fascinated with his own fancies, to laugh at his own jests, to grieve at his own pathos, to weep at his own tragedy—then, as, smoking his pipe, he watches the shadows of his brain coming and going before his half-closed eyes, listens to their voices in the air about him, he will thank God for making him a literary man. To such a one, it seems to me, literature must prove ennobling. Of all professions it is the one compelling a man to use whatever brain he has to its fullest and widest. With one or two other callings, it invites him—nay, compels him—to turn from the clamour of the passing day to speak for a while with the voices that are eternal.

'To me it seems that if anything outside oneself can help one, the service of literature must strengthen and purify a man. Thinking of his heroine's failings, of his villain's virtues, may he not grow more tolerant of all things, kinder thinking towards man and woman? From the sorrow that he dreams, may he not learn sympathy with the sorrow that he sees? May not his own brave puppets teach him how a man should live and die?

'To the literary man, all life is a book. The sparrow on the telegraph wire chirps cheeky nonsense to him as he passes by. The urchin's face beneath the gas lamp tells him a story, sometimes merry, sometimes sad. Fog and sunshine have their voices for him.

(From a photograph by Fradelle & Young) MR. JEROME K. JEROME
(From a photograph by Fradelle & Young)

'Nor can I see, even from the most worldly and business-like point of view, that the modern man of letters has cause of complaint. The old Grub Street days when he starved or begged are gone. Thanks to the men who have braved sneers and misrepresentation in unthanked championship of his plain rights, he is now in a position of dignified independence; and if he cannot attain to the twenty thousand a year prizes of the fashionable Q.C. or M.D., he does not have to wait their time for his success, while what he can and does earn is amply sufficient for all that a man of sense need desire. His calling is a password into all ranks. In all circles he is honoured. He enjoys the luxury of a power and influence that many a prime minister might envy.

'There is still a last prize in the gift of literature that needs no sentimentalist to appreciate. In a drawer of my desk lies a pile of letters, of which if I were not very proud I should be something more or less than human. They have come to me from the uttermost parts of the earth, from the streets near at hand. Some are penned in the stiff phraseology taught when old fashions were new, some in the free and easy colloquialism of the rising generation. Some, written on sick beds, are scrawled in pencil. Some, written by hands unfamiliar with the English language, are weirdly constructed. Some are crested, some are smeared. Some are learned, some are ill-spelled. In different ways they tell me that, here and there, I have brought to some one a smile or pleasant thought; that to some one in pain and in sorrow I have given a moment's laugh.'

Pinky yawns (or a shadow thrown by the guttering candle makes it seem so). 'Well,' he says, 'are we finished? Have we talked about ourselves, glorified our profession, and annihilated our enemies to our entire satisfaction? Because, if so, you might put me back. I'm feeling sleepy.'

I reach out my hand, and take him up by his wide, flat waist. As I draw him towards me, his little legs vanish into his squat body, the twinkling eye becomes dull and lifeless. The dawn steals in upon him, for I have sat working long into the night, and I see that he is only a little shilling book bound in pink paper. Wondering whether our talk together has been as good as at the time I thought it, or whether he has led me into making a fool of myself, I replace him in his corner.