Filson Young

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

Table of contents

12. Christopher Columbus

Richards had committed himself to having Columbus on his autumn List, and also on Lippincott’s autumn List in America, so he began getting worried when by the beginning of May the promised first chapters of what was to be a two-volume work had not reached him. He pestered Filson with letters; Filson wrote back angrily:

If I were you I should not allow my ease or dreams or mind to be affected by the movements of my typewriter. As you ought to know by this time I have my own way of going about my work, and no amount of fussing and fretting on your part can bring Columbus a day nearer, although it might, if it was excessive, put him a day behind. I don’t think it necessary to report to you from day to day how my work is progressing – it ought to be enough for you to know that I am not ignorant of the importance of getting the thing done to time and that I have my own ways of working. You say that “although it may be convenient to my scheme of working, all the same you are extremely anxious, &c.” Unfortunately, as it is I who have to do the work, it is my scheme of working that has to be followed, and I don’t propose to send you driblets of MSS this year as I did last. It leads to disquieting mathematical calculations on your part – by one of which last year, you may remember, you proved to me by figures that I could not possible get The Sands of Pleasure written! That sort of thing is no good to either of us. I will get the thing done if I can, and you must be content with that, and leave me to arrange my methods myself. (146)

Even so, within a week of Filson writing this letter, the first four chapters were with the printer and the Earl of Dunraven (147) had agreed to contribute a chapter on the navigation of Columbus’s first voyage to America.

In the box of MSS that arrived at Ruan that week for Filson to read was a collection of stories titled Dubliners by an unknown Irishman called James Joyce. Richards had liked it and when Filson said he liked it too Richards signed a contract with Joyce to publish. A little later Joyce sent Richards an additional story (‘Two Gallants’), which Richards forwarded to the printers unread. The printers, of course, couldn’t help reading it, and told Richards they couldn’t print it unless certain objectionable passages were removed. Worse still, they took a closer look at the other stories and found objectionable passages in them too. They didn’t like the swear-word ‘bloody’, and references to ‘a man with two establishments to keep up’, to a man ‘having’ a girl, and to a woman frequently changing the position of her legs and brushing against a man’s chair. Richards, alarmed, appealed to Filson, who agreed Joyce would have to make changes if the printers were to be pacified:

the man who cannot convey his meaning by more than one set of words and sentences has not yet realized the possibilities of the English language … You cannot possibly print the passages marked; but the man will be a thorough fool if he lets that stand in the way of the publication of his book. (148)

Sound advice in the climate of the times, however ridiculous it may seem today. But perhaps it was a weakness in Filson as a creative writer to believe that you should always be able to say what you wanted just as well with one set of words as with another. More to the immediate point, the literary views of the printers had to be taken into account because under English law they were as liable to prosecution as the author and publisher if the book was judged immoral. In any case, Richards had not yet officially discharged his bankruptcy of 1905 and could scarcely afford to pay fines. Joyce protested in vain: ‘I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at

themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass’.149 But why were the printers so much more sensitive to Dubliners than they had been to The Sands of Pleasure,

which they continued to print without demur and which outraged people of delicate moral sensibility all over the country? In his second novel When the Tide Turns (1908), Filson himself seems to answer this question when he writes: ‘The English … like impropriety, provided you wrap it up in a blanket of sentiment’. (150) Filson offered his readers elegant literary periphrasis; Joyce preferred the spoken language of ordinary people. It was this bluntness which gave offence, but it also why Dubliners is still in print long after The Sands of Pleasure has been forgotten. Eight years later Richards finally published Dubliners, asking Filson to write an introduction. Filson didn’t think it worth his while to do so. Joyce was disappointed: ‘I am sorry you have not been able to arrange the introduction by Mr Young,’ he wrote, (151) but time has proved Filson rather than Joyce to be the loser.

During the spring of 1906 Elisina returned to Ruan. At the end of May Richards spent a week there; the visit was a great success. The 5th of June was Filson’s thirtieth birthday, and the next day he reported that the first book (152) of Columbus was finished, at the same time giving a glimpse of local domesticity:

Many thanks for the pipe, which represents a most kind thought and is very welcome also for its own sake. We all miss you very much and you are the chief item of conversation in Caerleon. I hope that you will come back soon and that we shall spend another such pleasant week. I haven’t had time yet to bathe the Babies, but I will do so and report to you on the ceremony. (153)

Filson and Minnie’s trial year of separation was now over and the tenants of their house at 36 Roland Gardens were due to leave. Since there was no prospect of Filson and Minnie getting together again, Richards undertook to find a new tenant to double as caretaker.

On 25 June the first volume of Columbus was finished – 84,000 words or more written at a rate of nearly 1500 a day. A few days later Filson learned that The Sands of Pleasure was still selling well; nearly 6000 copies in the first six months of 1906, while in its first four months even The Happy Motorist had sold 2000. Mastersingers, finally extracted from Reeves and reissued in a revised edition in January, had not done so well, selling less than 500 copies, most of them in America. Filson kept his nose to the grindstone, allowing himself a couple of hours off for ‘social relaxation’ in the middle of the day when he would go over to Caerleon Cottage to see the Richards children – presumably being looked after by a nanny, since Elisina was now temporarily in London. Busy though he was with Columbus, the Tribune, reading MSS, correspondence and a certain amount of travelling to and from London, Filson managed to keep up his contributions to the Outlook, and Garvin was satisfied with them. His method was to use almost anything as a peg on which to hang his thoughts, developing his talent as an essayist which was to reach a high point a few years later on the Saturday Review. Sometimes his piece was based on a book review or theatre notice, and sometimes he was inspired by some everyday experience such as

travelling by train or car, meeting some interesting character or listening to the night and morning sounds of London from ‘a bedroom high over Piccadilly’ – clearly the Automobile Club, 119 Piccadilly, where he now had the very useful privilege of being able to stay free whenever he came to London. Occasionally his piece would be political – the provocative ‘Petticoat Politics’, for example, in which in those days before women got the vote he claimed ‘I find it very hard to discover a class of sane women who really and seriously want votes’; this not surprisingly caused a flurry of readers’ letters. But his richest source of inspiration was the world round him in Cornwall: its changing seasons and village activities, and his own solitary life as a hard-working writer. One of these pieces gives us some idea of his methods of work at Ruan. It was written when he had just finished the first volume of Columbus and was about to speed up so as to get the 116,000 words of volume two down on paper in just over a month – over 3500 words a day on top of his other commitments. Early one morning he goes to sit on the cliffs and plan a piece for the Outlook about a village fair, but finds he can’t concentrate for the paradoxical reason that there’s nothing to distract him, so he forgets the village fair and instead writes a piece about why he can’t think out of doors on a fine morning. Often that summer it was fine enough for him to take out his bed and sleep under the stars.

Richards reported that business was flourishing at Carlton Street; all kinds of books were selling well. ‘I believe you sell books by witchcraft and not on account of their merits at all,’ Filson told him. When Richards sent cuttings that he thought might suggest ideas for his ‘Man and Motorman’ column in the Tribune, Filson, thanking him, admitted the weekly search for subjects was a ‘dreadful grind’. But when Richards asked for an autobiographical note for the publisher Lippincott, who was advertising Columbus in America, adding ‘Will you let me have this as soon as you

can?’ Filson exploded:

I simply have not time at present to start writing biographies of myself; in fact I think you hardly realise the impossibility of mixing up this kind of industry with any attempt to write a book seriously. If it cannot be done without my help I’ll do it of course; but it really is not laziness or lack of desire to do my share that makes me say what I do. (154)

By 27 July Filson was within a thousand words of the end of Columbus, and he wrote the very last word on 1 August. The 84,000 words of volume one had been written at a rate of nearly 1500 words a day, and the 116,000 words of volume two at more than 3500 words a day (including weekends), so that the whole book of some 200,000 words had been written in little over three months, at a time when he was also producing two columns a week for the press, reading and reporting on MSS, and writing a large number of letters. It is no wonder if Columbus lacks sparkle, and that Filson suffered from exhaustion for the next few years. Some of the blame must rest with Richards, who could have announced a later publication date in the first place for this very large book. Certainly Filson always wrote fast once a book was clear in his head, but in this case he’d been allowed no time for the book to ripen in his mind before having to begin writing it, and no chance to revise or rewrite since the printers were setting it chapter by chapter as he wrote. He also had no editorial help at all, as Richards couldn’t even find time to read it until after it was published.

On the evening of the very day Filson wrote the final words of this story of the first man to cross the Atlantic in modern times, the full-rigged French barque Socoa, bound from Stettin for San Francisco with a cargo of cement to help rebuilding after the recent earthquake, ran onto rocks near Ruan at Cadgwith (155). After the crew had been taken off, the local population reverted to the ancient tradition of the Cornish wreckers. Filson joined in and reported to Richards:

I was painting Mrs Dening’s door handles at 10 o’clock when the Cadgwith lifeboat rockets went off, and I dropped everything and rushed down in time to see the lifeboat launched though just too late to go as a volunteer … The crew were taken off during the night and the vessel abandoned … I was out on her this morning, and have never witnessed such a scene of wild excitement and lust of destruction. The so-called salvage operations consisted of childish and ruinous destruction of everything – casks and cases smashed open, doors wrenched off their hinges, lockers broken into, stores broached; a live pig that was on board was even slaughtered; and the decks ran with blood and wine and butter. We had a time of the most delirious excitement, everybody looting what was possible; I have got a few interesting things; but my great object, which I hope to achieve, was to get one of the top-gallant masts as a flagstaff at Caerleon.

… Columbus is finished, the last word of him. I am sorry that I was a day late. I promised him for the 31 July and only finished on the 1st August … (156)

To his Outlook readers he revealed a little more:

We are all the same; the preventive officers, who went to prevent, remained to assist; everyone was rushing about looking for something useful or interesting for himself. I have so far been moderate; I have only got an oak bucket, some brass hooks and earrings, a brass lock, a curiously fashioned French wooden water-scoop, a part of a captain’s rough log-book, a letter from a French cook asking for an engagement on board, a cork jacket, a half-drowned kitten, a paint scraper, an earthenware pot, a brass lamp-shade, a ball of tarred cord, two knives, a shark hook, and perhaps one or two other things. (157)

One can’t help wondering whether any of this stolen property was ever returned.

For Filson, three jobs ended that August. Columbus was finished, and his six-month contracts with the Tribune and the Outlook expired and were not renewed. Filson’s work on the Outlook had been appreciated (at least by Garvin), but cost too much. (158) A change in the ownership of the paper caused Garvin himself to resign as editor (or be eased out) later the same month (159). Not long afterwards, backed by Northcliffe, he began his long and brilliant editorship of the Observer. In one of the last pieces he sent to the Outlook, Filson restated his belief that British schemes for the future of Ireland were useless simply because they were British, and that the only people who could effectively plan the future of Ireland were the Irish themselves. The imperialist owners of the paper refused to publish such heresy, but the article found a home on the front page of a Liberal evening daily, the Westminster Gazette.

Christopher Columbus and the New World of his Discovery appeared before the public on 24 October 1906; it was widely but not altogether favourably reviewed and public response was disappointing. Reading it for the first time twelve days after publication, Richards told Filson that he found it fascinating, and tried to comfort him with the thought that it was the sort of book that would take some time to catch on, since it could not be read rapidly and lightly. Filson was depressed by its poor sales, not least because, as usual, he was short of money. Following the success of The Sands of Pleasure, no book of his had been so eagerly awaited as Columbus or so widely reviewed. Several reviewers noticed the influence of Carlyle on Filson’s view of Columbus as a flawed but heroic figure who had battled doggedly in the face of opposition and ridicule to prove the theory that dominated his life – his belief that there was land beyond the Atlantic. James Douglas wrote in the Star:

He paints the bore as hero. Carlyle never thought of that. Every other kind of man has been canonised and glorified and hailed and saluted as a saint and a hero. … happily Columbus was a man who always outstayed his welcome, and never knew when he was not wanted.

Many enjoyed Filson’s high-flown style: ‘One of the most brilliant and fluent of modern impressionists’ (Morning Post); ‘Fresh and spirited …written in the vivacious and vivid manner of the realistic novelist’ (Daily Telegraph); ‘Austere, dignified, stately, forms by far the most striking and vivid portrait of the hero in our language’ (Morning Leader). Even John Masefield (in the Tribune) found the book ‘very readable and eloquent … he has many passages which set one longing for the sea’. But the reading public did not flock to buy its two large volumes, and Sir James Thursfield struck a discordant note in the Times Literary Supplement : ‘a versatile writer in many fields of literature to whom some demon must have whispered “Have

a style”,’ – a style too obtrusive and full of purple patches, affectation and embroidery; a pity, Thursfield thought, because Filson was capable of tersely effective narration when he felt like it. (160)

Considering the circumstances in which Columbus was written, it is hardly surprising that Filson’s unedited text is long-winded and repetitive. Grant Richards’ considered opinion more than twenty-five years later that Columbus never had its due sounds like self-justification (161), and I cannot agree with Filson’s view that the book could not have been cut to advantage. But despite the over-writing something does stay with the reader after he or she has battled through to the end of the story. Like the proverbial thin man imprisoned inside a fat one, a good book is struggling to extricate itself from the verbiage. Filson is emotionally involved in Columbus’s personality and convinces the reader of the stamina, courage, resilience and single-mindedness without which Columbus would never have succeeded in harnessing others to his will and achieving his purpose. He also manages to show how Columbus’s decline after the discovery of America was the other side of the same coin. Inflexibility was a virtue in a visionary adventurer, but a fault in the colonial administrator he subsequently became, leading to vanity, inability to delegate authority, persistent demands for privileges, and over-sensitivity to slights real or imagined. Filson understood this because his own character – imaginative, persistent, vain and quick to take offence – was similar.

It’s a great pity Filson didn’t have more time to research and digest his material before starting to write, or any chance to revise the book or have it edited by someone else after he had written it. Everything had to give way to Richards’ determination to have the book ready for his autumn List. He got his book on time, but by insisting on having his own way he did Filson incalculable harm, alienating his readers and sapping his self-confidence.


146 FY to Grant Richards, 4 May 1906.

147 Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin [spelt sic], 4th Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl (1841-1926) was a war correspondent in Abyssinia 1867 and at the siege of Paris c1870, and after joining the Government as Under-Secretary for the colonies 1885-7, he served in South Africa as a yeomanry captain – it was perhaps in South Africa that Filson met him. He owned nearly 40,000 acres and was an active yachtsman, twice constructing yachts for sailing competitions against the U.S.A., and in 1900 publishing a book on the theory and practice of navigation. On 1 Oct 1908, while staying with Dunraven at his seat at Adare Manor, Co. Limerick, Filson believed he saw the ghost of the Earl’s seventeenth-century ancestor Thady Quin (see ‘A Morning Dream in Ireland’ in Memory Harbour, 161-74)

148 FY to Grant Richards, 9 May 1906.

149 James Joyce to Grant Richards, 23 June 1906.

150 When the Tide Turns, 288.

151 James Joyce to Grant Richards, 16 May 1914.

152 This didn’t mean the first volume, but the first of the four ‘books’ or sections into which the whole would be divided, two ‘books’ to each volume.

153 FY to Grant Richards, 6 June 1906.

154 FY tro Grant Richards, 18 July 1906.

155 The Socoa seemed a total wreck. … However, a month later to everyone’s surprise, [she] was refloated after 60,000 barrels of solidified cement had been thrown overboard. – C.Noall & G.E.Farr, Wreck and Rescue Round the Cornish Coast, vol III (1965), p 73.

156 FY to Grant Richards, 3 Aug 1906.

157 ‘A Wreck in Cornwall’, in The Outlook, 11 Aug 1906, reprinted (slightly toned down) as ‘The Year in Cornwall – Autumn’ in Memory Harbour, 68-73.

158 J.L.Garvin to FY, 7 Aug 1906: You have kept a very high level, and your articles have included some of your very best work. … But you are now the most expensive single contributor upon the paper … the City people who control the finances complain of the cost of your article. … I do not ask you to forgive me, because it is through no fault of mine that this has to be written. Your career will always be followed by a friendly eye wherever I am.

159 Ayerst, Garvin of the Observer (1985), 56-63.

160 Dates of reviews (all 1906): Star 3 Nov, Morning Post 22 Oct, Daily Telegraph 24 Oct, Morning Leader 24 Oct, Tribune [date?], Times Literary Supplement 23 Nov.

161 I did so well with The Sands of Pleasure that I commissioned its author to embark on a serious attempt to rediscover and retell the story of Columbus, a biography whose sea subject particularly fitted it to his pen. There are books that do not get their deserts. Christopher Columbus and the New World of his Discovery is, I think, one of them. And no critic has ever done justice to Filson Young as a writer of English. – Grant Richards Author Hunting (1932), p 226 in the 1960 edition.

Today Filson’s Columbus biography seems to have acquired some sort of cult status in the U.S.A., and may be read in its entirety on the Internet.

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