Grant Richards on Stead as Employer &c

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Grant Richards on Stead as Employer &c

Grant Richards, Memories of a Misspent Youth, 1872-1896 (1932) pp. 263, 306-308, 332-333

Lots of madmen wrote to Stead. And they would go on writing to him week after week, year after year. Every sort of madman, but the sexual maniac was the most common. There were the men who had committed the Whitechapel murders and gave in full their reasons for the crimes; there were men who would tell you of their nympho-maniacal symptoms; there were women in the same boat; there was one man who told in detail how he had seen nothing for it but to get rid of temptation once and for all, and then proceeded to narrate how he had done so with a shilling penknife…

The thing that operated most strongly in lessening Stead’s hold on the general public was his absorption in spiritualism. It became after the middle of the ‘nineties even more dominant as a motive power than had been his preoccupation with questions arising out of sex. Sexually, I am convinced, Stead was as straight as a die. Mrs. Lynn Linton, discussing the matter one day, allowed him absolute probity in that respect, but, she added, “he exudes semen through the skin.” I am convinced that he was straight, too, in his spiritualistic beliefs, but oh! how easy he must have been to deceive, how credulous. Like Conan Doyle, he had in such matters no sense of the value of evidence. In the Review office my desk was behind a screen which backed the couch on which callers sat and waited for their turn with “W. T. S.,” and if they were indiscreet and chattered I often heard more than I was supposed to hear. On one occasion I overheard two spiritualists, and what they had to say to one another made it necessary that I should warn my employer… He would not have been himself if he had not given me away in the course of the next interview, and whenever I received them thereafter they would seek to kill me with their looks. It made no difference to me, however, as Stead knew I did not even begin to take an interest in his mediums or in their séances.

There came a day when I was dragged in. It had happened that I had been coughing and had been generally run down, and my doctor had said it would be well if I went to the sea and the West Country for a change. I was in the act of clearing up before departure when Stead came out of the “Sanctum” and told me that he wanted me to make up the necessary number for a séance at which the particular scoundrels—they were male and female—whom I had fallen foul of were to function. “I know you don’t like it, Grantie, but we must have another, and there’s no one else available “

I went in and took my place at the table. The medium was the lady I had overheard: she looked at me with hatred, and so did her manipulator. In due course she went off into a trance in what I understand is the correct manner, and after a little by-play it was declared that she was possessed by an old white-haired man who had recently “passed over” (as had my grandfather) and that he had come back to warn me that I should soon lose my sister as the result of a particularly distressing accident…Disquieting, very. Nevertheless I suppose I continued to show my unbelief on my countenance, for, after a while, I became again the centre of attention. Another spirit—”Dewdrop” or “Indian Squaw”—had taken possession of the medium, and, looking towards me, she declared that it had been indicated to her that the truth must be told about me, that I believed myself to be a romantic invalid, that I was not ill but that I was suffering from gluttony and a disinclination to work. Whether it was my adverse influence, my lack of belief, my refusal to be interested, I cannot say, but nothing more important came of that séance and it broke up shortly afterwards. Stead was more than a little mortified…

Had that revered chief of mine, W. T. Stead been a man of business rather than a crusader, a visionary, he would have made a fortune. He had a magnificent conception of ends but very inadequate ideas as to how those ends were to be achieved. Not that he was possessed of any artistic sense which might have handicapped him in the race for success. Style meant very little to him, neither style in literature nor in drawing or painting or architecture. Look, for instance, at the way in which he took as one of his frontispieces a famous old Italian painting of the Child Jesus and, cutting out the head, substituted that of one of his own children. And, although the experiment has since been repeated more than once and with commercial success, his idea of boiling down the great novels of the world so that they might fit into, say, sixty-four pages instead of six hundred and so become in a sense easily available to the penny public, is not one that did credit to any one of us at Mowbray House. Stead’s Penny Novels I think they were called. I myself treated Jane Eyre for the series. The five pounds or less that I received for the work tempted me! A series that did justify itself was Stead’s Penny Poets; and so did his penny Books for the Bairns. But the money he made in these ways might have been doubled again and again had he kept his eye on the ball. As a matter of fact, anything he did make was expended on other of his projects or activities which were in their turn entirely quixotic or altruistic in their nature. His manager, Edwin H. Stout, had continually to pull him up sharp—or had to try to do so!

No, Stead took very little interest in art, and had he paused to note that there had sprung up a school of thought which preached the doctrine of Art for Art’s Sake, he would have shrugged his shoulders and passed on. But, all the same, he made fit obeisance to the established conventions. Thus, he gave up his frontispiece to a portrait of Poynter on his election to the Presidentship of the Academy! And when Tennyson died he had enough interest in the matter to print a page of portraits of possible future Laureates. I find a letter from him in which, discussing who should go on the page, he says that even if Swinburne had already appeared in the magazine “it will do no harm to have him again”; and he approved of the inclusion of William Morris, Sir Edwin Arnold, Alfred Austin and Watson, “with another,” he went on, “who must not be either Dobson or Kipling.” I cannot remember the reason for his objection to these two very diverse poets. What could Kipling, poet of Empire, have done to offend the journalist to whom Empire was almost everything? I made up the page and put Swinburne in the middle, and added two others on my own account, Patmore and Lewis Morris.