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George Saintsbury: the ultimate man of letters.

PASSING along Bath's Royal Crescent in the first decades of the last century, one could, just within living memory, have caught a glimpse of a quaint old figure, straggling white-bearded, wearing small, oval, wire spectacles and a black skull-cap, plainly visible behind the ground-floor front window of the small house (No. 1A) attached to the side of Number One Royal Crescent. He was the 87-year-old--born 23rd October, 1845--George Edward Bateman Saintsbury, the celebrated literary critic, historian, and man of letters, reputedly the last to have read the entire corpus of English literature.

Saintsbury, whose literary output was massive--estimated at close on fifty books and more than 800 essays, introductions and reviews--was notoriously frugal in his dissemination of detail regarding his private life, and, like his admired Thackeray, anxious that no biography of him should ever be written--an embargo frequently associated with, and perhaps indicative of, the existence of, some secret domestic tragedy. He does, however, reveal that he was born in Southampton, 'in one of those houses, not infrequently encountered in the earlier nineteenth century, which had the name "Lottery Hall", because they had been built out of winnings under the system of public lotteries which our more intelligent and less canting forefathers permitted and utilised', fronting Queen's Park.

His father, also George, born in the City of London c. 1797, married Elizabeth Wright, born in Winchester c. 1808. She bore him six children: George, an elder brother, and four sisters. He was the secretary and superintendent of Southampton docks, but five years after his second son's birth the family moved to London, settling into 42 Pembridge Villas, Notting Hill, and moving later to No. 31. According to his entry in the 1851 Census, he appears to have retired and to be living on stockholder's interest, but The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that in 1850, ten years before his death in 1860, he became secretary of the East India and China Association.

After attending a dame-school in Norfolk Terrace, at one end of Westbourne Grove, and a small preparatory school at the other, young George entered King's College School in the Strand, in 1858.

In the spring of 1862, he failed a scholarship examination for Christ Church, Oxford, but, in 1863, was elected to a Classical Postmastership, as the scholarships at Merton College, Oxford, were called.

He made firm friends at Oxford, one of whom was William Minto, subsequently Professor of Logic and English at Aberdeen. Another, and his closest, was Mandell Creighton, who was to become the Bishop of London as well as a distinguished ecclesiastical historian. Saintsbury and his circle of intimates, their minds full of Carlyle, Tennyson, Browning, Morris and Swinburne, were nicknamed the 'Merton Popes', because of their meticulous observance of the fast days.

What manner of young man was he? Of mathematical turn, and shy and ungregarious temper, he was, as so many inward-turning people are, the conscientious keeper of a diary. Physically, he was extremely fit. He spoke in a rather high-pitched, southern-accented voice. He stood five feet eleven inches in his stockinged feet, and was known as a great walker. He thought nothing of covering 25 to 30 miles a day, and is recorded as having clocked up 43 miles in a single day, and a mile in twelve-and-a-half minutes. However, when he was in his forties, a slip on wet asphalt, a broken ankle bone, and its medical mistreatment, left him capable thereafter of only restricted walking. While still sound of wind and limb, he was powerfully addicted to waltzing.

In more sedentary mode, he enjoyed whist, He was also fond of piquet, loo and ecarte. He played a fair game of chess, but, like his father, from whom he inherited a quick temper, he was apt to lose it if things started to go against him. He was also fond of wine and horse-racing. He suffered from poor vision, which meant that he was an indifferent billiards player, and a malformation of his right hand made his calligraphy 'a curse to all mankind'. It was, indeed, notorious for its legendary indecipherability. Scholars, who were delighted to receive prompt replies from him to their requests for information, found that his letters of reply usually took two days to decipher, and at both newspaper and printing houses they kept special compositors for him. One recipient of a holograph letter wryly observed that, although some of the handwriting was unreadable, 'the grouping of the words had a certain charm like that of old lace or the delicate tracery of vine leaves'.

Intellectually, he liked Aristotle's Politics, but disliked his Ethics. He exhibited a strong fancy for scholasticism. He got a First in classical moderations, but a Second in literce humaniores. It has been hazarded that the reason for his failure to get a First in Greats may well have been his partiality for Aristotelian Politics and distaste for his Ethics. Contributory, too, perhaps, was his wide-rangingly discursive, out-of-academic-set-bounds, reading. Neither would he have been helped by his outright rejection of John Stuart Mill, whose refined revision of Benthamite Utilitarianism--which in its original projection had been atheistic and materialist, and, while advocating 'the greatest good for the greatest number', had sponsored the notion of a fierce democracy, which would have dispensed with the monarchy--was at that time a dominant influence in Oxford.

It is patent that even Millian modified Utilitarianism would harbour scant appeal for a thoroughly traditionalist High Anglican extreme Tory such as Saintsbury, who loved his Tennyson and Browning, his Queen and his English countryside. Challenged, he defined a Tory as 'a person who would, at the respective times and in the respective circumstances, have opposed Catholic Emancipation, Reform, the Repeal of the Corn Laws, and the whole Irish legislation of Mr Gladstone'.

He lived his university years under somewhat straitened circumstances. His income was less than [pounds sterling]200 per annum. He did make a little money from tutoring in logic. Even so, he ran up quite serious debts. It is on record that 'among his extravagances' he bought handmade white kid gloves, ornamented with a quincunx of blue silk crosses, for a young lady, and indulged himself in the purchase of a pair of handsome duelling pistols for five guineas, which he was subsequently forced to sell for thirty shillings.

In 1868, he emerged from his finals a B.A.--but thoroughly disgruntled at having achieved only a Second in Greats. This upset remained a life-long rankle, having to the end of his days recurrent dreams about it. Further disgruntlement was occasioned by his rejection by Wadham, Lincoln, Corpus, and Merton (twice), when he stood for a Fellowship.

Throughout the next decade or so he had recourse to that familiar crutch of the cast-adrift arts graduate, school-teaching. He went first, and very briefly, to Manchester Grammar School as an assistant master.

On 2nd June, 1868, he married Emily Fenn King, the daughter of Henry William King, a Southampton surgeon. In the autumn, the couple moved to Guernsey, where young Saintsbury had obtained a position as senior classical master at Elizabeth College.

It was in Guernsey that, in the succeeding winter, their first son, Lewis, was born. Also living there at the time was Victor Hugo, a neighbour, just as Thackeray had been in Kensington; but Saintsbury never managed to meet either of them. He was, however, inspired to turn to French literature and made it his practice to read an entire French novel before breakfast every morning.

The third and final phase of his life as a dominie began in 1874, when, having resigned from Elizabeth College, he moved to Morayshire. He had taken the headmastership of the privately funded Elgin Educational Institute, Ltd. Of grammar school status, the establishment did not prosper, and Saintsbury is said to have lost a third of his patrimony investing in it. Disappointed, with deflated hopes and purse, the Saintsburys returned, in 1876, to London, but not before a second son, Christopher, had been born to them in 1875 in Elgin.

Most surprisingly, Saintsbury failed to educate his sons. Both grew up positively illiterate. It was not entirely his fault. Emily, fearing loneliness, insisted upon having her boys at home with her, would not hear of their being sent away to boarding school, and the local vicar whom Saintsbury entrusted with their education proved a total failure. Saints-bury admitted that he did not like boys and cherished a life-long desire for a daughter. Neither was he, within the accepted formula, an ideal husband. He displayed no warmth. Emily was lonely. He spent so much of his time isolated, reading. She, for her part, freely admitted, 'I have never read my husband's books.'

The time had now come to capitalise on the immense amount of reading that he had been determinedly doing, particularly in French literature, and to ply his pen in earnest.

During his dominie days, he had sent to the Academy a number of reviews of French and English literature. The first had been on Theodore de Banville and the Goncourts, and the Academy had sent him batches of novels for reviewing, while he was in Guernsey. At Elgin he had begun what was to prove a ten-year association with the Fortnightly Review, after the editor, John Morley, accepted his essay on Baudelaire, published in October, 1875. Reviewing on a casual basis brought in quite a nice little sum; on average [pounds sterling]3.10s. 6d. for an evening's reading and a morning's writing, he calculated.

But managing to live by the pen was a different matter.

He made a start by going up to Manchester again in 1877, and spending a short time on the staff of the Manchester Guardian. That year his mother died and the small inheritance which he received allowed him to pay off his remaining Oxford debts and settle his family into a small house, No. 12 Edith Road, in Fulham.

Actually, he had, by 1876, begun a twelve-year stint of writing for the St James Gazette, then under the editorship of Frederick Greenwood. He was a frequent contributor, too, to the Pall Mall Gazette.

Constituting, along with Andrew Lang and Robert Louis Stevenson, a trio of the best young writers of the day, Saintsbury was by 1877 contributing also to W.E. Henley's brilliant but briefly lived high Tory sixpenny weekly, London. Henley nicknamed him 'The Saint'; in less felicitous moments, 'The Red-Nosed One'. He wrote political articles for Henley in which he made plain his positive hatred of Gladstone and Irish Home Rule. Founded in 1877, London folded in 1879. After its failure, Saintsbury was obliged to sell his literary wares to the Daily News and the Saturday Review. He was also commissioned in 1879 to write, for the ninth volume of the ninth edition of The Encyclopcedia Britannica, 36 articles on French literature and French authors.

Gradually, the circle of his journalistic acceptances increased--Macmillan's Magazine, Merry England, the National Review, the New Review. He was also finding himself absorbed into the social literary life of London. His inherent shyness retracted. He had been elected to The Savile Club, where he mingled with a literary group which included Andrew Lang, Edmund Gosse, Austin Dobson, Walter Pollock, H.D. Traill, and Herbert Stephen. Kipling, looking back to evenings of hospitality enjoyed at the Savile, remembered Saintsbury as 'a solid rock of learning and geniality whom I revered all my days; profoundly a scholar and versed in the art of good living'.

Then, in 1880, after all the years of freelancing, Saintsbury joined the staff of the Saturday Review. The editor was Philip Harwood, and when he was succeeded by Walter Pollock, Saintsbury was, in 1883, appointed assistant editor. He was at last in a position to put forward his political views as those of 'all right-thinking, port-drinking people'. The year 1880 was also that in which his first book, A Primer of French Literature, was published by the Clarendon Press, of Oxford.

Since 1887, his wife finding metropolitan life too much for her in her continuing poor state of health, Saintsbury and his family had gone to live at Fulbourn, in Cambridgeshire. In 1891, they moved again--to Reading, where they settled at 154 Oxford Road. Following the family's quitting London, Saintsbury, finding daily commuting to the office of the Saturday Review too much, had been spending four days a week in rooms at 34 Great Ormond Street, returning home for the weekend.

For the ensuing seven years life seemed to march along on quiet and even keel. Between 1880 and 1892 he produced ten books--studies of Dryden, Marlborough, and a Tory Prime Minister, the Earl of Derby; histories of French and Elizabethan literature; three books of essays; an examination of English prose style and a book about Manchester. To the first volume of The Yellow Book, April, 1894, he contributed a story, 'A Sentimental Cellar'--being a little chat between two lovers of all things vinous.

He kept up his link with Southampton to the extent of paying regular visits to the town where he would usually stay at the Polygon Hotel.

In 1894, the Saturday Review was bought by Frank Harris, and George Saintsbury was out. That was to spell the end of his Fleet Street life as a journalist. In mid-September, 1895, he was, surpassing, to their chagrin, his rival candidates, Henley and Walter Raleigh, appointed to the Regius Chair of English Literature at Edinburgh University, succeeding David Masson as Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature, and now had a welcome fixed benefice.

Gosse opined that it was not too much to say of him that there was no English author of the least importance flourishing between 1575 and 1875, upon whom he had not expressed a definite judgment. He was, without question, a phenomenon, arrived at Pisgah-height from which he could see all authors and all books spread out around him. From the Homeric era to his own time, he had read everything, and mostly in their native languages. Such breadth of vision was, says Gosse, possessed by Sainte-Beuve. It was absent in Arnold and Hazlitt, nor was it possessed by Lamb or Lang. 'Very much of criticism nowadays', Gosse continues, 'is engaged in rubbing the sides of the stable-lantern till they gleam, while neglecting to light the wick. Mr Saintsbury ... concentrates his attention on illuminating the horse in his stall ... May he long be preserved to preside in our court of literary appeal!'

J.B. Priestley, writing of Saintsbury in his Figures in Modern Literature (1924), says: 'Note, first, the sheer bulk of his work: several volumes of essays on individual writers, periods, styles, and what not; anthologies and various editing work; biographies, histories of English, French and European literatures; histories of criticism, English prosody, English prose rhythm; the novel, English and French.' Saintsbury's own style, while generally informal, was at times distractingly parenthetical.

Honours were showered upon him; honorary degrees and doctorates, and he was elected a fellow of the British Academy. But the one which undoubtedly meant the most to him was the award in 1911, forty-three years on, of an honorary fellowship of Merton College. It was with a gay heart that, on 29th June of that year, he attended the Merton Gaudy in company with Andrew Lang and Walter Raleigh.

Considerably less convivial an occasion was the July day in 1912, when the mortal remains of his friend Andrew Lang were being committed to the burying-ground of St Andrews, and he took down his copy of Old Friends, Essays in Epistolary Parody (1890), being a volume of parodic essayings by Lang in the form of a series of letters written between characters from various fictive works and read the letter of Piscator to Christian.

Sir George Chrystal, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, recalled seeing Saintsbury 'breasting the east wind' through Edinburgh mists, a 'burly figure' with 'a truly Socratic homeliness', striding 'sturdily and rather stiffly ... with a suggestion of closed fists and pugnacity about his hands, one of which always grasped an umbrella very firmly'.

At last, in June, 1915, having reached the mandatory retirement age of seventy, he duly retired. Sadly, he who had always been a lover of books, was forced to sell much of his library of some 15,000 volumes, as well as the judiciously selected contents of his wine cellar.

One late October's day in 1915, two of his Edinburgh colleagues, J.L. Geddie and George Kitchin, standing outside Waverley Railway Station, glimpsed a tall, muffled figure, wearing an old-fashioned square bowler hat, going into the station. 'That's the last you'll see of old George Saintsbury', said Geddie. It was. He betook himself off to his well-beloved Southampton for a twelve-month stay, before moving to Bath, where he was to spend the remaining sixteen years of his life.

Always declining invitations to sit on committees or accept the presidency of this or that august body, he was never a public figure in the city, but, until confined by infirmity to the house, he was a familiar sight, out on his morning walk, making his way down to the Grand Parade, carrying his string-bag crammed with books, or he might be encountered, a tall, spare, distinguished-looking man, walking in the Royal Victoria Park.

Although by this time well advanced in years, Saintsbury had still within him books that demanded to be written. He was a great gourmet and lover of wine, and in 1920 he brought out Notes on a Cellar-Book, which was the substitute for what he had originally intended to be a full-blown history of wine, and has been well described as 'an allusive causerie on wine'. In its wake there was founded in 1931 in his honour, a dining society, the Saintsbury Club.

In rather lighter vein than the generality of his publications, he issued, in 1922, 1923 and 1924, respectively, those products of a vigorous old age, A Scrap Book, A Second Scrap Book, and A Last Scrap Book, entertaining collections of reminiscences, observations, thoughts and opinions. He had reached the age of the sage.

But those thoughts and opinions of his were not to the liking of John Gross, who wrote of him in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: 'he goes purple in the face at the mere mention of trade unions, rails against "conchies", keeps up a sustained and tedious diatribe against virtually every enlightened measure which has been taken since 1832. One wants to be indulgent, to recall that these are the ineffectual rages of an old man of eighty. But it is still rather horrible to see him flaring up because he has just learned that some window-cleaners in an East End workhouse now earn as much as [pounds sterling]4 a week. The most that can be said for him is that he is not afraid to stand by his bloody-mindedness in print. As Orwell remarked of the Scrap-Books, "it takes a lot of guts to be openly such a skunk as that":

The one great literary heresy ascribed to him was his life-long refusal to acknowledge Virgil as a great poet. He would allow him no grander status than that of being 'an elegant writer', and rated him barely equal to Ovid.

Since the academic embrasure of the critical principles set down by I.A. Richards in his Practical Criticism (1929), it has been the accepted academic attitude to reject and denigrate as old-fashioned the criticism of George Saintsbury. Happily, this stance is not universal. The pre-eminent American critic, Edmund Wilson made his opinion clear: 'Besides being a great critic and scholar, [he] was one of the best English writers of his time ... the sole English literary critic of the late-nineteenth early-twentieth centuries, ... who is really of first-rate stature. ... perhaps the only English critic, with the possible exception of Leslie Stephen, whose work is comparable, for comprehensiveness and brilliance, to the great French critics of the nineteenth century. ... [He] asked that no life or biography of him should be written ... and we conclude from certain intimations the reason was the same as in Thackeray's case: some sort of domestic tragedy that had dislocated and shadowed his life. This would explain the peculiar voracity with which he fed himself on books.'

It has been suggested, on the evidence of the series of often tender letters which he wrote to Helen Waddell over the years, that some intimate relationship had blossomed between the 25-year-old girl and the 69-year old Saintsbury. Helen Waddell was to achieve literary fame as expositor of the world of the medieval goliards. Her books, The Wandering Scholars and the novel, Peter Abelard, were well received.

In 1914, Saintsbury went to Liverpool as external examiner in English and then crossed over to Belfast to perform the same function there. On the evening of June 19th, he was invited to the home of Gregory Smith, an old Edinburgh colleague now professor at Queen's University, to dine and meet young Helen Waddell. The effect that they had, each on the other, was electric. All his life he had been a dreamy medievalist, and losing, or perhaps finding, himself round-tabled with the Arthurian knights, and in the sort of dream-fantasy to which he was prone, she was transformed instanter into 'My Lady of Dreams', 'La Princesse Lointaine' . In the course of their eighteen-year imaginary liaison he would write her more than 300 letters, but just how far in matters physical the relationship progressed one can only speculate.

Dorothy Richardson Jones, in her study, King of Craws: George Saintsbury, 1845-1933, Critic, Journalist, Historian, Professor, does precisely that. She has taken stock of his epistolary love affair with Helen Waddell. She writes: 'the romance with Emily had faded; he retreated and then gradually avoided all domestic intimacy and developed a pattern of escape that climaxed in his deep attachment to Helen, disguised as a friendship of student and teacher. ... he never kissed her or held her in his arms.'

It was all fantasy and dreams. He had met her just once--that night at Professor Smith's. He was the great evader and escapist, the Houdini of the literary world. In a letter to Helen, written just after his wife's death, he tells her, a startlingly out-of-character confession, that his violent passion through fifty-six years made him want Emily in her coffin as much as he wanted her at the start. This statement, which frankly seems to verge on Krafft-Ebing territory, certainly does not support the notion that he and Helen were lovers. She met him for a second and final time when she paid him a visit at Royal Crescent in August, 1931.

Equally physically innocent seems to have been the imaginary flirtatious relationship which he conducted with Helen's successor, Dorothy Margaret Stuart, a young woman whom he had actually first met in 1926. She used to come by train from London once every two or three months, arriving at Royal Crescent at noon on a Saturday for a 'lady's luncheon' of chicken and champagne, and catching a train back to town at three or four o'clock. He told her he could never kiss her since he had vowed on Emily's death never to kiss another woman.

He had mourned the death of his sister, Sophie, in 1917. In 1922, he mourned the death of his elder son, Lewis. And, on 16th August, 1924, his wife died. She was eighty, She had been an invalid for many years--bronchitis, sciatica, gout, and a very weak heart. Before the end she became much overweight and unable to move about. He had nursed her devotedly despite his own frail condition.

He faced life alone, in the set of rooms in which he and Emily had lodged together for seven years in Bath's Royal Crescent, meals and housekeeping provided by the landlord and his family. There, in a 'large, light, book-encumbered room looking out on the Crescent Fields', he sat at a table beneath the window, reading and writing in seeming perpetuity. Helen Wadell it was who called him 'the solitary scholar who was his own best company'. But, reports The Times, 'Despite his studious habits, Saintsbury was no recluse. He delighted in society, and, until his health forbade, was much given to hospitality.'

In September, 1927, Gosse, writing to Herbert J.C. Grierson, then Professor of Rhetoric and Literature in the University of Edinburgh, confided that Saintsbury 'suffers, he says, from giddiness, which confines him entirely to the house, but his brain and pen are as efficient as ever.'

Sir John Squire, in The Honeysuckle and the Bee, remembers Gosse telling him: 'We were in Bath last week and a polar bear passed me in the street ... when it came quite close I saw it was George Saintsbury.' Squire adds, 'He was white and stooped, and I suppose much bemuffled and begloved; but indoors he was too frail to remind one of bears, and his last years, after he had fallen in the street from vertigo, were spent entirely indoors.'

The dizziness is said to have been caused by Meniere's disease. He endured also the agonies of gout, rheumatism and arthritis, throat and bronchial troubles, weakening eyesight, gastric disorders and high blood pressure.

'Never did I know lonely old age and its ailments more bravely borne', wrote Squire. 'There in his study he would sit, black skullcap, weak spectacled eyes, bulbous veined nose, thinned white beard, gnarled hands--looking, as an American friend whom I took to see him remarked, "a mixture between the Rabelaisian and the Rabbinical". When well over eighty his enthusiasm for literature, great and small, was as ardent as ever ... to see his weak old eyes glitter and hear his high chuckle of glee, was to feel a Laodicean and ashamed.' Although the ci-devant discreet epicurean and discriminating bibulous imbiber was himself now consigned by physician's warrant to a monotony of champagne-sipping and spiceless melanges, he was delighted when the Saintsbury Club was formed in London with the object of its members, among whom were numbered the elite of the men of letters, building up, or, rather, laying down, a cellar of interesting wines for the delectation and instruction of members, who would enjoy them at periodically held club dinners. Its membership was limited to fifty and one could join only by invitation.

Saintsbury's capacity for work remained undiminished, his exceptionally brilliant memory undimmed, right up to the time of his death, on Saturday, 28th January, 1933. The Times did him proud: 'Seldom does so ripe and so full a scholar and man leave the world of good books and companionable wine as the veteran George Saintsbury, who has just died in the Augustan peace of the Royal Crescent at Bath.' His body was taken back to the Southampton which all his life long he loved, where it was laid to final rest beside that of his wife in the family plot in the Old Cemetery. He left estate to the value of [pounds sterling]9,655 10s. 6d.--that is [pounds sterling]340,000 in today's money.

His learned shade lives on, revered as the indomitable scholar, limned in memory by Helen Waddell, 'reading, reading, reading through the small hours in the familiar chair with the two tall candlesticks behind it.

And the light falls not on his face, but on the open book.' And his face is an open book.

Richard Whittington-Egan has written numerous books on literary history. His latest biography is Lionel Johnson: Victorian Dark Angel.
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Author:Whittington-Egan, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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