Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XX.: BEGIN JOURNALISM. 1848—50. Æt. 28—30. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XX.: BEGIN JOURNALISM. 1848—50. Æt. 28—30. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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The above title is a somewhat misleading one. A journalist is usually understood to be one among whose functions is that of influencing public opinion by articles and comments. I had no such function. Replying early in 1849 to a letter from my uncle Thomas, I said—
“You inquire respecting the particular department of the paper with which I have to do. I cannot better answer than by saying—with all parts except the Leading Articles, Agriculture, Literature, and the summaries that appear under the heads of “Bank returns and Money Market” and “Commercial Epitome.” All other matters I have to superintend. I have the offer to write leading articles if I wish to do so; but I refrain from this from the desire to devote all my spare time to my own private writing, which I consider of more importance than the extra remuneration I should obtain by writing for the paper.”
This mode of describing my duties makes them appear more onerous than they really were. Their comparative lightness will be seen from the following paragraph contained in a letter to Lott, written at the end of April.
“I am happy to say that I can answer your inquiries as to my position with tolerable satisfaction. The place suits me on the whole remarkably well, and now that I have got pretty completely acclimatized I have nothing important to complain of and much to approve. In the first place I am almost wholly my own master; scarcely coming in contact with Mr. Wilson more than once a month, and this, with my rebellious tendencies, is a great blessing. Then again my work is decidedly light. Even I, with my invincible idleness, am obliged to admit this. On Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday, I have nothing to do but to read through the Times and Daily News [and less attentively the Morning Chronicle, then in its old age], extract what may be needful, and put it aside for subsequent use. On Wednesday and Thursday my work occupies me from ten until four. Friday is my only hard day, when I have to continue at it until 12½ or 1 at night. This, however, is a very small payment to make for having so much time at my own disposal; permitting me as it does to go where I please, and when I please, during the early part of the week.”
The last advantage I from time to time utilized by making excursions out of town, and at longer intervals paying visits.
Of course under the conditions above described, I was able to adjust my daily routine very much as my own convenience dictated. After breakfast at half-past eight, came a walk in St. James’s Park or the Green Park. On my return I did such work as had to be done in the way of reading and abstracting materials, joined with such administrative duties as devolved on me. Then at 1 o’clock there was an adjournment to dinner; for I adhered to the older usage, both on grounds of convenience and on grounds of health.
A few years earlier had been established the Whittington Club, occupying the premises previously known as the Crown and Anchor Hotel—a place famed, in days of active agitation, for political meetings held in its great room. Being but five minutes off, it served as a convenient place for dining; and I joined it chiefly for that reason. It had, however, further advantages. When writing home I said of it:—“there is access to all the British and Foreign literature of the day”; and this, or the contents of the library, often detained me for an hour in the afternoon. So far as I can remember, the afternoon was otherwise usually spent in some miscellaneous way.
My private work was done in the evenings, and, as it would seem, by necessity; though I do not now understand the origin of the necessity. A letter to my mother in February says—“I expect that if I am to make anything worth calling progress with my book, I shall have to do it by writing at night. In fact what I have done has been done at that time.” Probably a part cause was that earlier in the day I could not insure the requisite quietude.
Though The Economist rarely gave any space to accounts of entertainments or criticisms on exhibitions, yet there were given to it, not however in full measure, the usual free admissions; and of these I made considerable use. Press “orders” are always for two persons; and of course the ability to take a friend added to the temptation held out by anything to be seen or heard. The letter above quoted, after describing the lightness of my duties, goes on to say:—
“To these advantages may be added the facility of access to sundry amusements in the shape of exhibitions and theatres. I do not profit much by this, however, having been, as far as I can recollect, only twice to the Opera, twice to Drury Lane, and some four times to the Haymarket, since I have been here [nearly five months]. The fact is that I am rather chary of my evenings; seeing that what writing I do (and it is, I am sorry to say, very little) I generally do between 7 and 12 at night. However, though I make little use of the theatre orders myself, I have the privilege of giving a few away to my friends, which is worth something.”
On the acting of serious drama I am critical, and easily repelled by defects, of which there are usually many. But being then, as now, ever ready to laugh, comedies and farces, if tolerable, habitually proved attractive. Provided they were not characterized by mere buffoonery, I was content to ignore their faults, numerous though these might be. Still, I was less easily pleased than the majority. Often I was made melancholy on witnessing the applause given by well-dressed audiences to “breakdown” dances which aimed at drollery and missed it, and to so-called comic songs containing neither wit nor humour.
To the Opera in the Haymarket I had but occasional access; but to the Royal Italian Opera in Covent Garden, I had access whenever the orders were not appropriated by Mrs. Wilson, who, as wife of the proprietor and editor, had of course the first claim. Most of the performances did not greatly attract me. I cared but little for operatic representations of personal passion only, however graceful the music. Even Don Giovanni failed to please me much. A string of pretty airs and duets, even when supported by fine orchestration, did not fulfil my conception of an Opera. It seemed to me that there is required in all cases a basis of popular passion. The feelings excited during revolutions and religious enthusiasms, spontaneously vent themselves in songs, alike of individuals and of crowds. Hence something like dramatic propriety is given to an Opera which has for its leading theme the incidents of a social convulsion; and, while under the excitement produced by adequate musical rendering of popular passions, one can overlook minor incongruities. The following passage in a letter to Lott, expressed the conception I then had, and still have.
“Above all other operatic composers Meyerbeer is dramatic. He really knows what an opera ought be. He subordinates everything to the characters, the emotion, and the sentiment, and does not intersperse his music with pretty little songs and duets that have no relation to the action. Massiveness, too, is one of his great characteristics. An opera of his does not give you the idea of a good thing drawn out thin, as most of them do—and then he is highly original. Altogether I may say that I never was satisfied with an opera till I heard The Huguenots.”
Friends with whom I have been constantly at issue on this point, have insisted upon judging of operatic composers by the standard of their music, considered simply as music; but I have always contended that the first thing to be achieved is dramatic truth, and that the promptings of melodic inspiration must be subordinated to it. This, I believe, is the doctrine of Wagner. But so far as I have heard, his practice does not conform to his theory: he sacrifices the melodic without achieving the dramatic.
At Midsummer 1849, a new element was added to my life by the migration of my uncle Thomas to London. After some two years in Bath, he decided that his labours for public welfare would be more effective here than elsewhere, and he eventually took a house in St. James’s Square, Notting Hill.
His was one of those natures which are improved by misfortune. The loss of a large part of his property in the way already described, had beneficially changed some of his opinions and feelings. Throughout life, up to the time of this great disaster, he had been a successful man; and had owed his success to his own efforts and to his prudence. The result was an almost unqualified belief that energy and rectitude will insure prosperity to everyone. He was now undeceived. Clear proof was given to him that there are other causes for good or ill fortune than good or ill conduct. A marked change of attitude was the consequence—a great increase of fellow-feeling; and a striking effect was produced on his preaching. In earlier days his sermons might have been well characterized by the words which the old Scotchwoman applied to ethical sermons in general—they were distinguished by “cauld morality.” But though in these later days his sermons, I doubt not (for I never then heard him), continued to be moral rather than theological, their morality was warmed by sympathy. The consequence was that he became a very effective preacher. While at Hinton, he rarely drew any auditors from adjacent parishes; but now when, as frequently happened, he supplied for a time the places of absent provincial clergymen, his preaching quickly gathered immense congregations from many miles around.
Our relation had for many years been cordial, and now became still more cordial; as did also my relation with my aunt. Having had so much to do with my education, and having no children of his own, my uncle had, I think, acquired a semi-paternal feeling for me; and my liking for him had gradually increased during years in which my relative position had been one of independence and not one of subordination. His migration to London consequently led to constant intercourse. It became an established habit for me to spend Sunday evenings with them—at first every other Sunday, and afterwards every Sunday; and the meetings were looked forward to with pleaure on both sides.
The topics we discussed were not numerous. The arts and most of the sciences had no attractions for my uncle; but on subjects interesting to both—ethics, politics, education, and social affairs generally—there was a general agreement between us. The Spencer character came out in prompting kindred views. Even where we different, our differences were amicable. Never having been narrow, he became in his later life increasingly broad-minded and tolerant. This was strikingly shown when, on three successive Sunday evenings, we continued a debate concerning the validity of the belief in a personal God. The position I took is well expressed in a letter to my father written shortly afterwards, an extract from which runs as follows:—
“Mr. Mason states correctly the substance of our conversation. And I still hold that the question is one about which no positive conclusion can be come to. I hold that we are as utterly incompetent to understand the ultimate nature of things, or origin of them, as the deaf man is to understand sounds or the blind man light. My position is simply that I know nothing about it, and never can know anything about it, and must be content in my ignorance. I deny nothing and I affirm nothing, and to any one who says that the current theory is not true I say just as I say to those who assert its truth—you have no evidence. Either alternative leaves us in inextricable difficulties. An uncaused Deity is just as inconceivable as an uncaused Universe. If the existence of matter from all eternity is incomprehensible, the creation of matter out of nothing is equally incomprehensible. Thus finding that either attempt to conceive the origin of things is futile, I am content to leave the question unsettled as the insoluble mystery . . . I have lately had several conversations on this matter with my uncle, and have been pleased with his liberality of treatment.”
As I had not seen Mr. Mason (a dissenting minister of Derby) since 1848, it follows that at the age of 28 I had reached a quite definite form of that conviction set forth twelve years later in First Principles.
My enjoyment of these Sunday evenings at Notting Hill, was in part due to the circumstance that my social circle still continued to be small. It naturally did so; for I took no steps to extend it. I dare say my pride would have stood in the way had it occurred to me to take any such steps; and even had I taken them, there would, I suspect, have been but small success. Being critical, and having but little reticence, my natural tendency is towards the expression of disagreement rather than towards the expression of agreement. And of course the habitual display of this tendency is apt to leave an unfavourable impression.
Save when with old engineering friends, and on evenings now and then spent with my coadjutor Mr. Hodgskin, who wrote the reviews and a good part of the leading articles for The Economist, my only opportunities of meeting strangers occurred at the house of Mr. Chapman (afterwards Dr. Chapman) to whose evening parties I had already been once or twice while he lived at Clapton; and who had now transferred his publishing business from Newgate Street to a large establishment in the Strand, nearly opposite The Economist office. Here he gave weekly soirées, which I from time to time attended. Among many not known to fame, there were some who had made reputations which proved but temporary and some who have made more permanent reputations. Of ladies may be named Miss Anna Swanwick, Miss Bessie Parkes, then known as the author of a volume of poems, Miss Eliza Lynn, now Mrs. Lynn-Linton, and I think occasionally Madame Bodichon, at that time Miss Leigh Smith. Then among the gentlemen was Mr. John Oxenford, well known in those days as theatrical critic to the Times, writer or adapter of light dramas, and reader of German philosophy. It was at one of these gatherings I first met Mr. Froude, who had recently published with Chapman his Nemesis of Faith, and then bore on his melancholy face the impress of that book. Another notability was Mr. Francis W. Newman, who a little later published his Phases of Faith. His very gentle manner suggested an angelic sweetness of nature; but if conversation passed into discussion, it soon appeared that he could become peppery enough. Beyond these and others I do not recall, there were not unfrequently Americans of mark; for Chapman had to utilize his vast house by taking in boarders, and had formed an American connexion. Emerson took up his abode there during one of his visits to England, but I did not then see him. There came, too, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, at that time a man of much influence.
It was here that, in the spring of 1850, I first met Mr. G. H. Lewes. We happened to leave the house at the same time; and, discovering that we were going in the same direction, we walked together, and talked—I doubt not in an animated way enough. One of our topics was the development hypothesis; and I remember surprising Mr. Lewes by rejecting the interpretation set forth in the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation: he having supposed that that was the only interpretation. From this walk dated an acquaintance which a year later was renewed, and presently became an intimacy.
Under the arrangement made with Mr. Wilson, I had the option of occupying rooms at The Economist office, 340 Strand; and during the earlier part of my journalistic life, I did occupy them. Of course the habitat was trying to me—accustomed as I had been to a quiet house and tolerably good air. I see from letters that notwithstanding double sashes to the windows, it took me a week to become so far inured to the eternal rattle of the Strand as to be able to sleep; and I see, too, that for some time I suffered in general health from noise and other causes. Though in the subsequent April I described myself as having become tolerably well acclimatized, yet the insalubrity evidently told upon me. Hence a change in the spring of 1850. A letter to my father dated 18 April says:—
“Since I wrote last I have made a revolution in my domestic arrangements. I have been for some time past finding that I was beginning to suffer considerably in health from living in the close atmosphere of the office; more especially since that atmosphere had become much more offensive than hitherto, in consequence of the drains having got out of order. Having at length caught cold three times within two months, I thought it was time to make some change.”
The change referred to was the taking of rooms near Westbourne Grove—a place that then corresponded to its name: an avenue of trees, on each side of which stood detached cottages in gardens. Clusters of flower-beds before the doors characterized the terrace in which I lodged; and now this has budded-out the ground-floors of its houses into shops. The letter goes on to name a further revolution in habits.
“You will perhaps be surprised to hear that I have at the same time turned vegetarian. Following the example of Loch (who has been a vegetarian for these five months) Jackson has been trying the system for this month past, and finds himself greatly improved in health . . . . I feel quite well with it, and, as I have said, improved. But of course much of the improvement is due to the change of air.” To which cause I should have added the daily walks into town and out again. Describing the effects of the new regimen, a letter to my mother, dated May 6, says:—
“As I have felt no inconvenience during these first few weeks, I do not suppose I shall now do so. I think I have felt the cold more keenly than I should otherwise have done, and I find others who are trying the experiment make the same complaint. I believe, however, that this result is merely temporary. Meantime I am in all respects well and strong.”
From the phrasing of these statements it is clear that I was willing to persist in vegetarianism, had I been encouraged to do so by further results. My scepticism was first aroused, however, by the fact that after six months’ abstinence from animal food, our friend Loch gave evidence of a lowered condition. His voice had become extremely mild and feeble, and he had partially lost power over one of his feet in walking. Writing, as it seems from my father’s dating, towards the close of May (for I had not dated the letter myself), I said—“I have about decided to give up the vegetarianism, at any rate for the present. I think this relaxation under the eyes is due to it.” The clearest evidence, however, that I had been suffering, was disclosed afterwards. I found that I had to re-write what I had written during the time I was a vegetarian, because it was so wanting in vigour.
Here, as I shall not have a fitter opportunity for naming it, I may add, concerning place of residence, that after returning some months later to the Strand, and spending the rest of the year there, I went for a short time to St. George’s Place, Kentish Town, and thence migrated to No. 20 Clifton Road, St. John’s Wood, which continued to be my abode during the remainder of my engagement with The Economist.
What was the tenor of my intellectual life in those days? Did I trust to memory only, I should reply that I read nothing but newspapers and periodicals—not even reading novels, much less any serious books. Reference to correspondence, however, has undeceived me. One letter to Lott names The Caxtons and Strathmore as having been read; and another, commenting on Pendennis, ranks it above Vanity Fair because “there is less satire and more sympathy in it.” A subsequent paragraph praises a novel then recently published by Mrs. Gaskell.
“And now whilst I think of it let me ask whether you have read “Mary Barton.” If you have not, do by all means. It affords some very good discipline. I cannot say that it is at all an agreeable book to read. It is on the contrary a very painful one. In fact at one part of it I got quite angry with the authoress (for authoress I hear it is) for torturing my feelings so needlessly. However it is a very instructive book and one that everyone should read.”
As my memory has failed me in respect to light literature, it very possibly, or even probably, has done so in respect to graver literature; and I may have given attention to some serious books in 1849 and 50, though I do not remember it. One only which I looked into, left an impression. This was Coleridge’s Idea of Life; the substance of which he was said to have borrowed from Schelling. The doctrine of individuation struck me; and, as was presently shown, entered as a factor into my thinking.
How it happened that I read so little I scarcely know. It may have been that my leisure was mainly occupied with thinking; for I had a good deal to think about, and thinking was always with me more pleasurable than either reading or doing. Or it may have been in part that few beyond ephemeral books came in my way; for I did not then subscribe to Mudie’s library or any other.
It is true that there came to The Economist, books for review (not many, however, for The Economist had but small space for literary criticisms); and into these I occasionally dipped before they went to Mr. Hodgskin. Of one only have I any remembrance; and that because of the adverse impression it produced. When, some years before, there had appeared Modern Painters by Mr. Ruskin, I was delighted to find in him one who dared express unfavourable opinions about some of Raphael’s works; for I had all my life stood alone in insisting on the various faults of these, as of most other paintings by the old masters. Naturally, therefore, when there came to The Economist his just-issued Stones of Venice, I opened it with raised expectations. On looking at the illustrations, however, and reading the adjacent text, I presently found myself called upon to admire a piece of work which seemed to me sheer barbarism. My faith in Mr. Ruskin’s judgment was at once destroyed; and thereafter I paid no further attention to his writings than was implied by reading portions quoted in reviews or elsewhere. These, joined with current statements about his sayings and doings, sufficiently justified the opinion I had formed. Doubtless he has a fine style, writes passages of great eloquence, and here and there expresses truths; but that one who has written and uttered such multitudinous absurdities should have acquired so great an influence, is to me both surprising and disheartening.
If, as this reference to Mr. Ruskin suggests, the æsthetic should be here joined with the intellectual, I may fitly quote a passage from a letter bearing upon it.
“Mentioning Loch’s name reminds me that we have had several very pleasant botanizing excursions lately. Loch commenced the study in the spring, and during our occasional walks when I called upon him, I found that all my interest in it had died away. By and bye, however, it began to revive; and of late I have enjoyed it as much as he has. We have generally chosen Sundays for our trips into the country, and have returned much better for them in all respects. One fact in connexion with this matter has pleased me much. You may probably have remarked that I have been seemingly deficient in the admiration for flowers which most have; and, indeed, I think I have confessed in your presence that they do not yield to me that amount of pleasure which, considering my perceptions of beauty in colour and form are pretty active, they ought to do. Well, whether it be this botanizing or not I do not know, but I have, within this month or two, remarked a very marked increase in my appreciation of floral beauty; so that to-day as I walked along the flower-walk in Kensington Gardens, I found myself perpetually tempted to linger by the admiration of beauties and graces that had never excited me before to anything like the same extent.”
About the interpretation here suggested I am very doubtful; for, certainly, intellectual analysis is at variance with æsthetic appreciation. This was clearly proved to me in the case of flowers at the time when I was studying them in relation to the laws of organic form.
The several sections of this chapter, though some of them referring to particular times, must be understood as generally referring to the period over which my journalistic life extended. In them I have aimed to represent my daily routine, and the average incidents which the months and years brought me. They must be regarded as constituting the background to more special doings and occurrences.
To such more special doings and occurrences the four chapters which follow are devoted.