W.T. Stead by E.T. Raymond

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W.T. Stead by E.T. Raymond

Quoted in E.T. Raymond, Portraits of the Nineties (London: T. Fisher Unwin, Ltd, 1922), pp. 174-181

It was in the late Nineties that I first met the most talked-of journalist of his day. Though still on the sunny side of fifty, W. T. Stead gave the impression of age. His face, where the grizzling beard did not hide it, was deeply lined, and his movements had that kind of conscious alertness which, in its contrast with the self-possessed and even lazy confidence of youth in its physical competence, is a sure indication of advancing years. He was given to loose home-spuns, which made his figure appear rather more clumsy than it really was. Nothing in his negligence of dress, however, suggested the Bohemian; he might easily have passed, at first glance, for a country tradesman of the less pompous kind, say, a corn-and-seed merchant in a substantial way.

The eyes, however, at once attracted attention. They were neither full nor beautiful, and one might have known the man all his life without remembering their precise colour; doubtless they were of some kind of faded blue or undistinguished grey, like the eyes of millions of other people in northern Europe. The remarkable thing about them was negative. They struck one as the eyes of a man who used them for the special purpose of not seeing. They at once explained what Shakespeare meant when he likened the poet’s eye to the lunatic’s, and described it as “in a fine frenzy rolling.” Stead’s eyes did not roll; they were curiously and brightly still. But they did give the idea of “frenzy” as Shakespeare used the word – that is to say, of a subjective and not an objective vision, of a mental excitement, an irritation of the brain, which prevented the owner seeing things as they were. Stead looked not at but through one, just as Mrs. Jellyby looked through her visitors at the coast of Africa five thousand miles away. Whether Stead had at this time any actual malady of vision I know not; I seem to remember to have read somewhere that he went in his youth in fear of blindness. But he gave instantaneously the impression of a man who either cannot see justly or does not want to – of one, in other words, who is much more interested in his “view” of a thing than in the thing itself. “Views” belong, in fact, largely to the province of myopia. That delicate stylist, Lafcadio Hearn, had to invent a Japan of his own because he never saw the real Japan in which he spent so many years of his life; and probably much of the astonishing “viewiness” of modern Germany is simply due to the ravages of the German printed character on the German professorial eyesight. Stead was a man of views from the first; his disaster was that, while he began by possessing views, the views ended by possessing him.

Stead was born in the middle of the nineteenth century at Embleton Manse, Northumberland, “under the shadow,” as he put it, “of the grey northern hills.” His father was a Congregational minister; his mother came of a substantial farming stock. It was the case of a large family and small means, and, like his brothers and sisters, Stead was chiefly educated at home; all his formal schooling was gained in two years at Silcoates, near Wakefield, an establishment for the sons of ministers. He thus grew up without mental discipline of the more severe kind, and his natural disposition inclined him to the desultory. An insatiable curiosity ensured a wide range of reading; a quick brain enabled him to grasp as much as he wanted to know; but he did not form the habit, and there was nobody to form it for him, of systematic and thorough study; always picking and choosing, he got much knowledge, but little sense of the relation of things. At the same time he was steeped in Nonconformist mysticism. It has often been observed that beliefs in their old age tend to become the extreme opposite of what they started to be, and nineteenth-century Nonconformity, in its loose sentimentality, often contrasted strangely enough with the hard rationalism of an earlier date. Here, as in secular things. Stead picked and chose, followed his own fancies, and used his eyes to see only what he wanted to see. The germ of that spiritual wildness which distinguished him in his later years is to be found in his precocious interest in “revivals” and “conversions.” At twelve he felt himself competent to be a guide to his schoolfellows, and he has himself expressed his indebtedness to Silcoates for teaching him “three important things – Christianity, cricket, and democracy.” Democracy he then associated partly with Gladstonian Liberalism, and partly with Oliver Cromwell, on whom he composed, while still at school, a warm panegyric which won him a prize of a guinea. Christianity was best illustrated, in his opinion, by the seventeenth-century Puritans, who would assuredly have put him in the pillory for his earliest views, and burned or hanged him for his later addiction to the occult. This early enthusiasm for Cromwell is interesting as an indication of the curious fashion in which ideas developed in the almost unhealthily fertile soil of Stead’s brain. He began by worshipping Cromwell as the great Puritan in religion and the great democrat (it is extraordinary how men deceive themselves when they want to) in politics. Then, since everything in Cromwell must be admirable, he began to admire Cromwell as a great Imperialist, and so insensibly developed, to the horror of his early Quaker employers at Darlington, into an Imperialist himself. It is doubtful whether thought, in the strict sense, had any part in bringing Stead to this or any other conviction. When he had got an idea into his head he could, of course, bring a very active and ingenious brain to the task of developing it. But the idea itself had its source in his taste or his emotions, if it did not arrive by sheer chance. In some respects he might be described as a gamin Carlyle. He had much of Carlyle’s faculty of smelling men and things, so to speak, across long distances of space and time; Carlyle was all nose and tongue: his nose enabled him to scent his heroes, and his tongue persuaded incautious people that they were demigods. To be just, they were generally great men. But even Carlyle sometimes went wrong, as the best hound will do; and Stead, less gifted, went wrong much more often. Lord Morley, while paying high tribute to his “invaluable” qualities as a colleague, hints at “passing embarrassments.” Such a man was, in truth, ill adapted to run in harness with people more normally gifted. He had all sorts of superstitions, and it might almost be said that an article of his would depend on his opening his Bible at one page and his Bluebook at another.

Mr. Spender, of the Westminster Gazette, recently declared that no man would have repudiated more hotly than Stead the suggestion that journalism was merely a branch of commerce. And in some sense none could more truly say that he regarded his profession as “a vacation abounding in opportunities, but weighted by solemn responsibilities.” He had a real passion for what he thought was the right; he showed fine courage in taking up unpopular causes; he sacrificed much for great ideals, and still more for small eccentricities. But the man was a most singular combination of the business man and the mystic. Those who worked with him had much the same sort of shock we feel in reading the speeches of seventeenth-century Puritan statesmen, who (to quote Macaulay) talked in Committee of Ways and Means about seeking the Lord. He might be led to consider a technical problem through reading the Book of Proverbs, or going to a spiritualistic seance. But to the problem itself he brought the coldest common sense. He could engineer a “stunt,” as the modern slang goes, as well as the most cynical living professor of that art. Such a “stunt ” was the cry that sent Gordon to Khartoum. And even when, as in the “Modern Babylon” articles, his heart was fully engaged, his method was only distinguishable from that of a later date by the superiority of his intelligence and his firm sense of the importance of whatever he happened to say. His egotism was wonderful and almost touching in its naivete. Lord Morley visited him during his imprisonment in Holloway, and found him in a “strangely exalted mood.” “As I was taking my exercise this morning in the prison yard,” he said, “I asked myself who was the man of most importance now alive? And I could only find one answer – the prisoner in this cell.” Yet ten minutes later he might easily have been criticising the “make-up” of a paper, or discussing the financial possibilities of an abridged edition of the classics, with Gibbon in twenty pages. The Republic in five, and Uncle Remus in fifty.

The beginning of the Nineties saw Stead, with the publication of the Review of Reviews, at the very height of his professional prestige. He had, by his “two keels to one” campaign, established a claim on the regard of political realists. He had, by his efforts to interest European monarchs in schemes for the preservation of peace, won the esteem of those idealists who had perhaps suspected him in his capacity of Imperialist. He enjoyed, on the one hand, the worship of every Nonconformist in England, and, on the other, the friendship of Cecil Rhodes. He exercised, in the sum, an enormous influence on the masses. He could make an author; he could almost unmake a statesman. There seemed to be little limit to the development of one whom Lord Morley has described as “for a season the most powerful journalist in the island.” But just at this period that eccentricity which had always been a large element in his character assumed the proportions of a disease. In 1890 he met a Miss Julia A. Ames, connected with a newspaper in Chicago – “a highly religious woman, a Methodist, very level-headed, and possessing a great amount of common sense.” With Miss Ames Stead was strangely impressed, and after her death in America he essayed communication by “automatic writing” with her spirit. In this, he was convinced, he attained success, and in 1893 he started a paper called Borderland, chiefly for the purpose of giving the world the “letters of Julia.” He devoted much time and money henceforth to spiritualism in its various forms, and “Julia’s Bureau” was established “to enable those who had lost their dead, who were sorrowing over friends and relatives, to get into touch with them again.”

Inevitably this preoccupation with the occult reacted on Stead’s reputation as a thinker on more mundane matters, and the end of the century found a new generation of writers wondering why he still commanded, if not the old homage, at least the interest of a large public. The truth was that, though much that Stead stood for had gone out of fashion, and though the “spook” business was never in fashion in any popular sense, he did to the end represent certain permanent British habits of mind. Thus he was thoroughly British in his irresponsible knight-errantry. I have never been able to understand how Don Quixote came to be written by a Spaniard; the Don is intrinsically as English as Mr. Pickwick, and I am persuaded that it is not a Spaniard, but an Englishman, who best understands him; one may go further and say that the English reader understands him better in the reading than the Spanish author did in the writing. There was a good deal of Quixote in Stead, and that made for his popularity. He wandered from question to question, and from capital to capital, interfering with matters in which he had strictly no concern, and rousing the tumult he loved. Then, when the bright eyes of his lady Dulcinea had been sufficiently honoured, he rode off to other adventures, splendidly unconscious that the affair after all might not have been disposed of, might even have been made more difficult, by his chivalrous intervention. The Englishman of that time was partial to such championship of the afflicted and distressed. Feeling a responsibility for the morals of the rest of the world, he preferred, like a good business man, to discharge it as cheaply as possible, and as leading articles (at the most extravagant valuation) are considerably cheaper than squadrons and army corps, the tendency was to exaggerate a little the thunders of the Press. It was then an article of faith that foreign military ambition was mainly restrained by fear of The Standard, and that foreign striving after liberty was mainly sustained by the Daily News. Thus it was natural that the spectacle of Stead lecturing Kaiser, Czar, and Sultan should in some degree stir the pulses of many Englishmen. It was an assertion of our superiority; no representative of a responsible foreign journal lectured Queen Victoria. Equally natural was it that Stead himself, finding the Czar indomitably polite, should infer that he was a sincere friend of peace, and feel easier about the Finns, or, discovering that the Sultan kept the Review of Reviews on file, should be inclined to believe that he had done a real service to Macedonia. Every journalist has something in him of Mr. Pott, who believed that his articles in the Eatanswill Gazette exercised a decisive influence on national politics. Stead sometimes seemed to think that taking a holiday was equivalent to going on a crusade.

Another point on which Stead was in harmony with average sentiment was his combination of thorough-going Imperialism with thorough-going anti-militarism. All for omelettes, but unalterably opposed to the breaking of eggs, he went only a step further than the many who liked omelettes so long as no eggs were broken except those which might be picked up cheaply at a “Queen’s shilling” apiece. He quarrelled with Rhodes over the Boer War – and so his name was struck out of the famous will – but really Rhodes was not so very far apart from himself; Rhodes, like Stead, lacked the logic of Imperialists like Lord Milner, who not only recognised the price of Empire, but wanted to have it (by conscriptive decree) always ready in the bank. Stead, no doubt, would in any case have opposed the Boer War as a war; why he should have gloried in the Boers as Boers was less obvious. But in Kruger, no doubt, he fancied some resemblance to Cromwell, and the Commandoes, with their Bibles and ” infallible artillery,” reminded him of the New Model. Stead never took much of the Puritan theology, and it had probably all volatilised in the course of his feverish life; but instincts are more stubborn than opinions, and “Brother Boer” was also a brother Puritan. The furious attack on Rhodes, whom he had previously admired highly, also on Cromwellian grounds, was treated with high magnanimity. “I want you to understand,” said Rhodes, meeting him in 1900, “that if in future you should unfortunately feel yourself compelled to attack me personally as vehemently as you have attacked my policy, it will make no difference to our friendship. I am too grateful for all I have learned from you to allow anything that you may write or say to make any change in our relations.” The man who could speak thus was assuredly a great one. The man to whom it was said could not have been small.