Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

13. Bits and pieces

Filson’s journalistic activities over the next two years were sporadic. In June 1906 Northcliffe’s Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine (also known by the grander name of The London Magazine) had published a short story by Filson, perhaps a consequence of his meeting with Northcliffe at Monte Carlo in April. This was ‘The Lady in Black’, in which the magnificent stage persona of a famous actress is contrasted with the banality of her conversation and manners in private life; in the illustrations (by Adolf Thiede) the narrator looks suspiciously like Filson himself. Another Monte Carlo contact, Lord Montagu, was persuaded to accept the series of motor stories Filson had written a year earlier aimed at his glossy illustrated weekly The Car. (162) He also wrote a pretentious essay on his impressions of  Velasquez’ famous painting the ‘Rokeby Venus’, recently saved for the nation amid much publicity after a desperate fund-raising campaign. Richards published this in August 1906, a monochrome photogravure reproduction of the painting plus barely 1500 words spread over 12 quarto pages of hand-made paper, with another twelve completely blank, in a limited edition of which 350 copies were available for sale in the UK at 12s 6d (compare 6s for The Sands of Pleasure and 5s (even leather-bound) for most of Filson’s other books), plus eleven copies bound in white Japanese vellum with green tape ties at £2 2s (compare £1 5s for the two-volume Christopher Columbus). The vellum copies, at least, were signed by Filson and Elisina, the latter as official publisher during her husband’s bankruptcy. Neither edition sold out quickly, if at all. 

 At the end of September Filson took a much needed break on the Isle of Man, where his brother Tom was reporting the first-ever Tourist Trophy race for the Manchester Guardian. He took the 40 hp Crossley in which he and Jarrott had made their record run from London to Monte Carlo earlier in the year, and in the hours between dawn and breakfast the two brothers would speed round the circuit of the island in it while the Tourist Trophy cars were practising. [see illustration of FY and car]

For his autumn 1907 List, Richards wanted a new novel from Filson to follow up the success of The Sands of Pleasure before that book, which was still selling well, should have receded too far into the past. Filson promised to do his best, but warned Richards that he was exhausted and that for the moment his brain ‘wouldn’t work’. By November 1906 he had managed to sketch a synopsis and by April 1907 was able to let Richards have a provisional title and scenario for the new novel, which was to have a principal character based to some extent on Northcliffe. In June he had the first chapter ready despite exasperation with Richards, who as usual wanted to know all about the book before it was written. In July he stalled again, and gave up. This time there would be nothing for Richards’ autumn List. It was not until December that he had a new first chapter ready and a new title, When the Tide Turns.

In fact, in the year after Columbus Filson was more concerned with publishing than writing; he didn’t even have any regular journalistic work. Waiting for inspiration to return, he did his best to help Richards with day-to-day business. In October 1906 the London literary world was hit by a convulsion known as the ‘Book War’. This started when the Times Book Club began offering new books cut-price to its readers. the publishers wanted a fixed price for all books under six months old, and retaliated by refusing to advertise in the Times and charging the Times higher prices for their books than they charged other purchasers. Authors and publishers hurled themselves into the fray on one side or the other, doing battle on the letters page of the Times, which for several weeks published hardly any letters on other subjects. Filson sided with the publishers and, taking the opportunity to say nice things about Richards in print, strongly attacked George Bernard Shaw (himself a former Richards author) for sneering at publishers as the ‘natural enemies’ of writers. This brought Filson a private letter of support from Kipling.

Next month Richards set off on one of his regular business trips to the United States, leaving Filson in charge of the London office. Filson attached great importance to effective advertising, and one of the first books he had to deal with in Richards’ absence was his friend Charles Jarrott’s Ten Years of Motors and Motor-racing, which has since become a classic in its field. November 1906 marked the tenth anniversary of the change in the law that first allowed cars to travel at reasonable speeds on British roads, and the anniversary was to be celebrated by a run from London to Brighton in which Jarrott was to play an important part. Filson had emphasized to Richards that it was essential to have Jarrott’s new and very relevant book on sale at Brighton when the drivers arrived, but the book came out a week late and the chance was missed. He had further trouble with Jarrott himself, who thought an advertisement Filson had designed and placed in the Sporting Times lacked dignity (see illustration on p xx). In fact Filson had sensibly suited the advertisement without undue vulgarity to the tone of the paper, which was popularly known as the ‘Pink ‘un’ and proclaimed as its motto ‘High Toryism, High Churchism, High Farming and Old Port for ever’. Filson also used sandwich men to advertise the book, no doubt adding further to Jarrott’s annoyance, but he succeeded in mollifying the over-modest racing driver over lunch. At the same time the problem of how to increase  the sales of Columbus was exercising his mind. Why not get the steamship lines to place copies of the story of the first man to sail the Atlantic and discover America in the libraries of their transatlantic liners? Sir Horace Plunkett had written a preface for Columbus, and Filson persuaded him to put the idea to the chairman of the White Star Line (163) in the hope of landing a big order. Better still, Plunkett was about to sail to the United States where he would be a guest of President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. Filson hatched an elaborate plot to involve the President, and Plunkett agreed to carry it out: first, a copy of the book would be sent to Roosevelt followed up by a letter from Plunkett; then Plunkett would arrive at the White House and discuss the book with the President. (164) Meanwhile Richards reported from America that, having rejected The Sands of Pleasure in such a way as to suggest they were insulted to have been offered anything so immoral, the publishers Dodd Mead had printed a long review praising it in a literary journal they owned, now that another American publisher (Dana Estes) had found the courage to publish it. (165) ‘People like that are geese,’ Richards remarked to Filson later.

Filson’s three-month stint minding the shop ended when Richards returned from America in February 1907. He went back to Ruan and tried to write. The novel was not progressing, so he turned his attention to other matters. Methuen wanted a ‘rewritten and revised’ seventh edition of The Complete Motorist, and while attending to this he concocted another motoring book for them, The Joy of the Road. At first sight this looks like something new, but close inspection shows it to be a combination of the last and most personal chapter of The Complete Motorist (‘The Open Road’) with articles written for the Outlook in April 1906; the only original page of this short book is the last one. A new idea for earning a bit of money was to try to do for Wagner what Charles Lamb had done for Shakespeare a century earlier, and write a non-technical guide to Wagner’s operas for the uninitiated in the form of a readable retelling of their stories. This book, which remained in print for many years, should have been ready at the end of April 1907 so as to go on sale at the first Wagner opera cycle of the Covent Garden season. (166) But to Filson’s annoyance, publication was delayed by a crucial few days, and although the book was advertised in the progamme under the cast-list, the authorities refused to have it on sale in the opera house. As an added inducement to prospective buyers, Filson designed a postcard with a colour portrait of Wagner and an inscription by himself to be given away free with each copy of the book. Over the next few years The Wagner Stories proved a useful source of income to both publisher and author, which is more than can be said for yet another work of Filson’s brought out by Grant Richards the same year: The Lover’s Hours, an extremely slim volume of rather pretentious poems of no distinction dedicated to a real or imaginary mistress (‘laus dominæ meæ’), though one reviewer professed to detect a touch of vigour in the couplet:

 Life’s but once, and for a wink,

Death is longer than you think.

 The Lover’s Hours fell flat and Filson never tried to publish a book of poems again.

 The boxes of manuscripts by aspiring authors continued to arrive at Ruan, but Filson was getting slower and slower at reading them and sending them back. He had at least 24 MSS to cope with in July and August. Richards had plenty more waiting, but told Filson he would hang on to them until he returned those he had already been sent. By October Filson had had enough, and gave up his job as paid reader to the firm after doing it for two years. This meant a further cut in his income; and that summer a new pattern, soon to be increasingly familiar, began to develop in the relationship between the two men: Filson would be short of money and constantly pester Richards, who owed him royalties, for small sums, but Richards would be slow in paying up because he would be short of money too. So Filson would beg for cash as urgently as was consistent with politeness while Richards would be full of apologies and promises to send some as soon as possible. His bankruptcy, incidentally, had been discharged in July and he had accordingly dropped Elisina’s initial from the name of the firm. Elisina herself moved to London with her children in October 1907 and took up residence with Grant at Filson and Minnie’s old address, 36 Roland Gardens. The children travelled from Cornwall alone, presumably by train; Filson saw them off at one end and Richards met them at the other.  His reunion with his wife was brief, as within little more than a week he was off on a two-month business trip to America. Filson called at Roland Gardens while he was away, but seems not to have stayed there.

On 7 June 1907, when they had been apart exactly two years, Minnie wrote Filson a letter:

Dear Filson,

I have come to London in the hope of seeing you and making one more effort to bring about a reconciliation between us, but I hear you are back again in Cornwall, and so I must write to you instead. It is now two years since we met, although our separation was only to have been for one year. Many waters have passed under the bridge since then, and time no doubt has changed us both and brought us that common sense and patience and humanity that might make us more fit life companions to each other than we were then. Will you, therefore, let me come back to you, and let us try to begin again on another and surer footing?

I have been made only too conscious in the last two years of the difficulties of this separate existence, and I beg you to let me have at least the shelter and protection of your home and presence, if nothing else. Surely that is not asking too much; it is what I sorely need.

Yours always affectionately,


Next day Filson replied:

My dear Minnie,

I think it much better that we should spare ourselves and each other the pain of meeting and talking over a situation that cannot be mended by talking. Your proposal that we should ‘begin again’ would, if I acceded to it, bring neither of us happiness … You know that I do not pretend to hold conventional views or accept the conventional standards of marriage. I think it right for people who can add to each other’s happiness and usefulness and who have common interests, to lead a common life, and I think it wrong for those who make one another unhappy and useless …

If wishes and regrets could make the world over again no doubt we might be happy together, but as we have to deal with facts I cannot make it too plain that I will not consent to any resumption of our associated existence.

Ever yours affectionately,

Filson Young. (168)

Minnie did not give up easily, or at least wanted a messy situation cleared up. In November 1907 she brought an action against Filson for the restitution of conjugal rights. Evidence was given in court that they had lived together from their marriage in February 1902 until the summer of 1905 when, at Filson’s suggestion and much against Minnie’s will, they had separated for a trial period of a year. During this period, she claims, she wrote to him constantly and, either then or later (or both) repeatedly asked him to take her back, but he refused. The judge granted Minnie a decree for the restitution of conjugal rights and ordered Filson to comply within fourteen days. He did not do so, and in June 1908 Minnie was awarded a decree nisi on the grounds of his adultery (no co-respondent named) coupled with desertion; the decree became absolute on December 7 the same year, and Filson airbrushed Minnie’s name from his Who’s Who entry as though she had never existed. To have been divorced by your wife was bad for your image.


162  The best and last-written of these rather long-winded stories, ‘Shellcraft’, doubtless owes something to Filson’s admiration for R.L.Stevenson; it tells of a man whose car gradually possesses him like a demon to drive faster and faster until both are destroyed. When Richards was in New York at the end of 1906 he tried to get Theodore Dreiser to place it with an American magazine and also, at one time, had plans to bring out Filson’s collected motor stories in book form.

163  J.Bruce Ismay, who six years later would survive the Titanic disaster and play a leading part in the subsequent inquiry.

164  FY to Grant Richards, 23 Nov 1906.

165 Grant Richards to FY, 2 Jan 1907. The review in question was by Frederic Taber Cooper and appeared in Dodd, Mead’s journal The Bookman, Dec 1906.

166 The Wagner Stories was the last of Filson’s books to be published under the ‘E.Grant Richards’ imprint. Richards was duly judged to have discharged his bankruptcy on 14 July 1907, and was thus able to trade under his own name again after that date.

167 These two letters are quoted in a report on the case in the Daily Mail, 6 Nov 1907, and seem to be the only surviving exchage between Filson and Minnie. In later years Minnie divided her time between Florence, where her parents lived in their retirement, and Egypt, where she settled with her second husband Harry Burton, official photographer at the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1923. Minnie died in Florence in 1957. She had little contact with Filson’s family during her brief first marriage, and according to the Burton family, few of Harry’s relatives ever met her either, though she remembered them generously in her will.

Be Sociable, Share!