On the Stage and Off by Jerome K.
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
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.
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
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.
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
'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
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 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."'
'HE AND YOU HAD TO CARRY LISA WEBER ACROSS THE STAGE'
'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
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
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
'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
'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
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
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
'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 HATED THE DISMAL LITTLE 'SLAVEY'
'I fear not more than
they can help,' I confess;
'they would have little else
'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
'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 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
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
Tuer, of 'Ye
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
'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.
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
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