W.T. Stead by Grant Richards

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W.T. Stead by Grant Richards

Quoted in Now & Then (August, 1925) pp. 18-19

I confess that when I first set eyes on these volumes [Frederick Whyte, The Life of W. T. Stead] I wondered whether Mr. Whyte had not allowed himself too wide a canvas. The career and interests of W. T. Stead were far-flung, but he died considerably more than a decade ago, and it seemed to me, as a publisher, likely that Mr. Whyte was providing the public with more than it could happily assimilate.

I do not think so now. He has made wonderful use of his material. I do not see that he could have written at less length or quoted less than he has done. Indeed, there are a dozen episodes that I should have liked to see treated more generously. ‘ W.T.S.’ touched life at so many points. There is no doubt that the man himself does emerge from Mr. Whyte’s pages. In effect, I saw ‘W.T.S.’ every day for seven years, and there is very little in the characterization with which I do not find myself in agreement, although, personally, I should have liked Mr. Whyte to have made up his mind more definitely about the ‘spook’ business- should have liked him, in fact, to have seen in the beginning of that unfortunate entanglement the first hint of his subject’s decline. I was working for ‘W.T.S.’ in these days, and my desk was behind a screen in the room next to his own. A seance had been arranged, and I had gone in to tell him that two of his spiritualist friends had arrived, and also to tell him that, unconscious of my presence, they had been laughing together at the ease with which they had been able to impose on him. ‘But don’t tell them,’ I begged; ‘just take care.’ My warning might have remained ungiven for all the attention he paid to it; he knew that in my youthful arrogance I would have nothing to do with his spooks or their sponsors. That day was the eve of my carrying out instructions to go into the country and nurse my lungs, which had frightened my doctor a little. I was just off home when ‘W.T.S.’ rushed out and hauled me into the ‘Sanctum’; it was already full of earnest inquirers- rogues and dupes – but apparently one more person was needed to complete the circle. I suspected at once that ‘W.T.S.’ had told his two visitors, the first to arrive, of my warning. One of them, the medium of the afternoon, looked at me in sinister fashion before simulating the loss of consciousness. Then, after a certain amount of hanky-panky, she turned her face in my direction. The spook that controlled her should enable her to get even with me! ‘That young man,’ she muttered, ‘that young man is imposing both on himself and his employer. He believes he is going into a decline, but overeating is all that is the matter with him.’

It is not, however, of that ‘W.T.S.’ I think, or like to think, but rather of the ‘W.T.S’ of those fiery months and years after the early summer of 1890, when, freed from the interferences and fears of Yates Thompson and Sir George Newnes, he flung himself into the conduct of the Review of Reviews; of the ‘W.T.S.[‘] who would take his coat off and work in his shirt sleeves at the midnight manipulation of the bales of his magazine (we did our own publishing in those early days); of the ‘W.T.S.’ who would help with the wrapping of the subscribers’ copies; of the ‘W.T.S.’ who would stride to and fro in his ‘Sanctum’ beneath the portrait of Oliver Cromwell and expound his schemes, flourishing an old musket the while (he had a magnificent conception of ends, had ‘W.T.S.’, but very little idea of means); of the ‘W.T.S.’ who assured me…that he had never had a dress suit in his life, and for whom I had to arrange that my own rather shocked tailor (‘ – and the coat is to button, sir!’) should make one in twelve hours that he might be fitly clothed in America; of the ‘W.T.S.’ who combined indiscretion and kindliness of heart and sympathetic understanding in degrees that I have never seen approached – and these are the aspects of ‘W.T.S.’ that, with others, Mr. Frederic Whyte brings out. I tell you it was something of a job to be a combination of doorkeeper and secretary, errand boy and sub-editor to a man like that. About such vexed subjects as the ‘Maiden Tribute’ Mr. Whyte is sufficiently frank. Mr. Havelock Ellis’s note in an appendix, ‘Stead’s Obsession with Sex,’ is, I am sure, substantially correct. It reminds me of, and agrees with, an epigram of Mrs. Lynn-Linton’s which, although she was an old lady when she uttered it, an old Victorian lady, I cannot quote here with propriety. Oh, and I should like to add a special line of appreciation of Mr. Robertson Scott’s contribution.