Filson Young

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

Table of contents

14. “When the Tide Turns”

Filson struggled with his second novel through much of 1908. It was bad enough that the book was proving difficult to write, but he also had to deal with Richards who was anxious to start advertising it before it was finished. This involved not only a paragraph stating what the book would be about, but a picture of the hero (eventually to be used as frontispiece) to be reproduced in Richards’ List. Richards used a commercial traveller called Ernest Dracott to sell his books to booksellers throughout Britain outside London, and Dracott was adamant that a frontispiece was essential, especially in dealing with booksellers. Dracott also had firm opinions on other matters, too, such as the ideal colour for a book’s cover. Richards liked to humour him as far as possible on the grounds that Dracott crossed would be Dracott discouraged, and the sales of his books would suffer. Thus when yet another reprint of Mastersingers came out later in 1908, Richards arranged that orders for London bookshops should be delivered in a light blue cover, while out of town orders should be bound in the ‘purple-blue, which in combination with gold is ecclesiastical and funereal’ this was what Dracott demanded though both Richards and Filson thought it awful. (168) The best thing, said Richards, was to let Dracott make mistakes and learn from them. And if Dracott was to have a frontispiece portrait of the hero for the new novel, When the Tide Turns, then Filson must give Richards a detailed description of this character to help the artist. Filson objected that asking for this, and for paragraphs describing the book as a whole, was too much when he could not yet be sure which direction the story would take, or even if the present main character might not turn out in the end to be only a minor character. (169) In April Filson got stuck again, and even what he had already written conveyed nothing to him. Nevertheless, he determined to struggle on and try to get the book ready by August for Richards’ autumn List. By June it was half written and at last going better.


Meanwhile he was short of money, as usual. Luckily The Wagner Stories and The Sands of Pleasure were both still selling well, and more than 80,000 copies of the Sands had now been printed. In August, the novel still unfinished, Filson set off with Eric Maclagan for the Wagner festivals at Munich and Bayreuth. He had decided to dedicate the novel to Maclagan, who had done verse translations of some fifty lyrics from Wagner’s librettos for The Wagner Stories which – Filson noted with disquiet and reported to Richards – was ‘invisible and unknown’ in the Munich bookshops although the place was full of British and American Wagner enthusiasts.


Later in August Filson went to Ireland for six weeks on a tour of the Irish aristocracy. He started with three weeks at the home of the Duke of Abercorn, Baron’s Court in County Tyrone, where he wrote the final pages of When the Tide Turns (a part of the book set in Ulster, appropriately enough) thus enabling him to write ‘Baron’s Court, Ireland’ at the end of the manuscript. Next he spent a week at Shelton Abbey, Arklow, home of the Duke of Abercorn’s son-in-law, the Earl of Wicklow. From Arklow he went on to Adare Manor, Limerick to stay with the Earl of Dunraven, who had written a chapter on navigation for Columbus. (170) Here he had a mystical experience, seeing the ghost of one of Dunraven’s ancestors – or so he claimed. (171)


When the Tide Turns was published on 6 November and reviewed in due course in most of the leading papers. On publication day Filson wrote to Richards with foreboding. He had been convinced from the first that the reviewers would not like the book, and he wanted more extensive advertising. It was all very different from when he had finished The Sands of Pleasure three years before and told Richards ‘I think the book is a ripping good one I’ve not read such a good novel for a long time!’, a view which many critics and ordinary readers would share. Superficially, the two novels are similar. In both a young man creates with hands and brain something that makes a mark in the world, and reaches emotional maturity through a relationship with a woman. Each is in three sections. The Sands of Pleasure begins by the sea in Cornwall, moves to Paris, and then back to Cornwall again; When the Tide Turns begins by the sea in Ulster, moves to London, and then back to Ulster. But the second book is less well integrated than the first. The Ulster passages contain some of Filson’s finest writing, shot through with feeling for the district round Portaferry where he spent such happy childhood summers. Portaferry itself is easily recognisable in the fictional town of ‘Rathshene’, and there are affectionate sketches of local characters that carry conviction. But just over half the book deals with the artistic, social and amatory life of the hero in London. This hero, Rupert Savage, develops from a gauche Ulster boy into one of the leaders of artistic fashion in the England of his time. The time is the 1890s, and Rupert specializes in drawings in the style of Aubrey Beardsley. The fashionable world turns against him when he illustrates a book of poems by one of his colleagues without reading the poems carefully first. The whole idea of this ‘mannerist’ movement in the arts, which Rupert wholeheartedly supports, is to free art from morality and create ‘art for art’s sake’, but these particular poems, ‘perverse, corrupt, inexcusably disagreeable’ go too far in their ‘veiled erotic allusiveness’. From oblique hints we gather that the one remaining sin in this proudly amoral world is homosexuality, and that the poet in question has offended unforgiveably by practising it in private and hinting at it in his verse – but of course nothing so outrageous can be stated plainly and clearly either by the author of the novel or any of his characters. Some four years after When the Tide Turns was published, the well-known critic Edmund Gosse, always a good friend to Filson, wrote an interesting analysis of the novel in a private letter. He liked the Ulster sections but had this to say of the London part:


You seem here and there to get away from reality, that is, to me, from interest. There are certain things which, while not impossible, are so removed from experience as to be unfitted for fiction. You might find a giraffe, with a lace bonnet on its head, browsing in Kensington Gardens. You might find a young artist, quite untrained, without education, living, at the age of 27, in the position and at the expense and in the surroundings in which you reveal Rupert at the beginning of Book II. You might find one: but as a matter of fact you never do and you never have. I have known something of most of the artists and men of letters of the last forty years, and there never was one of them who at the age of 27 could give the dinner party [at which Rupert entertains in style the other members of the ‘Twelve', the movement that dictates artistic taste in England].


In Rupert I see some reflection of two men whom I knew well in their early youth,Rudyard Kipling and Aubrey Beardsley, and a stern vivid study of either of these artists, or of both together, done as Balzac would have done it, would be probable. But this career of ‘red roses and red wine’, oh! dear, it is just books about the wealthy written for the wealthy. The Lord says to an artist, ‘Come out of all this and be separate.’ …


I think you were very youthful when you wrote all the middle part of this book. You had heard about the Yellow Book scandal, and thought it would make a good tale. So it would: but it didn’t happen like that, with all that money and scent and roses. I ought to know, for I was in the middle of it – I was even part of it. Some day I may tell the real truth, when some sleek withers will wince.


Don’t be angry with me. You write beautifully. When you are looking back at the Lough you are inspired. But do leave the silly lustful wealthy alone. They are not worthy of your least attention. (172)


In fact one can also see traces of other famous figures in the characters that surround Rupert Savage – George Moore, Bernard Shaw, Max Beerbohm, all acquaintances of Filson’s. Gosse’s criticisms are justified, yet there is a sort of truth in the novel’s lack of coherence, and that is truth to Filson’s own personality. It’s a novel of wish-fulfilment: he himself tried to be simultaneously great artist and great socialite; he too felt a compulsion to reconcile his need for the simple life of Portaferry with his need for the sophisticated life of London. We can learn to know him better from this book. It was the same with Grant Richards, who ran his publishing business in the manner of an incurable gambler who loved good books and gambled with what he loved. When he too turned to writing novels a few years later, he chose as his subject gambling and winning – only the medium varied: the Stock Exchange in one book, horse-racing in another, the tables at Monte Carlo in a third. And he gambled further by publishing his novels himself.


The women in When the Tide Turns are as important as the women in The Sands of Pleasure. The veiled allusions to the unspeakable sin of homosexuality may take added resonance from our knowledge that, in later life at least, Filson was a practising bisexual. The most memorable female portrait in When the Tide Turns is that of Mildred Lane, who like Toni in the earlier novel is one of life’s losers, moving and pathetic. She is a young widow with whom Rupert has a casual affair on a cruise. Five years later they meet again by chance, and it becomes clear that she loves him. She asks him to make love to her again in her flat, which is unexpectedly luxurious.


Rupert discovers that this is because she is allowing a rich elderly man to keep her, though on the understanding that she will not have sexual relations with him. This shocks Rupert, but Mildred, convinced after they have made love that Rupert will never love her, has already made up her mind to break with him and marry the old man for whom she does not care but who has been good to her. If Filson had developed his talent for creating in fiction women of this kind, victims of a cruel social and economic system, he might have gone far. But unfortunately he always had one ear open, so to speak, for the opinion of the fashionable world, and the fashionable world didn’t want to read too much about such matters. So it is that he fails to bring to life the woman Rupert does love and who eventually leaves her husband for him, Celia Graeme. Gosse reacted strongly: ‘it renders me unwell to speak of Mrs Graeme: she is a Madame Tartuffe made prioress of a nunnery of prostitutes’. This is perhaps overdoing it but she is certainly dull; her conversation and actions don’t carry conviction, unlike those of Mildred Lane. But then Celia Graeme is a woman of fashion, the wife of a banker and the close friend of a peeress. It is not fanciful, I think, to see reflections of Filson’s affair with Elisina in the relationship between Rupert and Celia. Celia’s husband Charles Graeme has something of Grant Richards’ combination of even temper and (as we shall see later in his relations with his wife Elisina) moral stiffness; there is even a clue in Celia’s name: cELIa GRaeme, ELIsina Grant Richards, though Elisina was a much more open and straightforward person than the priggish and insensitive Celia. In Rupert’s attitude to Charles we can detect Filson’s attitude to Richards: guilt that the deceived husband was such a nice man and something of a friend too. The novel owes its title to the idea that the turning point in an artist’s life is when he stops living in terms of art (art for art’s sake) and begins to see art in terms of life. This is symbolised in the ebb and flow of the tide in the dangerous rapids at what is clearly the narrow mouth of Strangford Lough, powerfully described at the beginning of the book. If – Celia apart – Filson’s touch in creating fictional women is still sure, he also gives hints towards the end of the novel of a talent for comic writing which he sadly never developed further; his portrait of the undertaker Mr Clod, who doesn’t quite manage to hide his efficiency and enthusiasm for his job behind a professionally grief-stricken countenance, is worthy of Dickens in its sharp observation.


As Filson had feared, the critical reception of When the Tide Turns was at best mixed, though many editors considered the appearance of a new novel from Filson in itself a major literary event. The Globe Literary Supplement, for instance, gave it first place among the week’s novels with a review of 112 lines, relegating Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale to seventh place with 21 lines and Somerset Maugham’s The Magician to eighth with 10 lines. (173) But perhaps the most perceptive reviewer was the one writing in the Bookman (house journal of Dodd, Mead who, it will be remembered, were the American house who refused to publish The Sands of Pleasure on moral grounds only to give it a glowing review when someone else published it in the U.S.A.). Comparing Filson’s two novels, the Bookman‘s reviewer (probably Frederic Taber Cooper) wrote:


If this one important fact is once firmly grasped, that where the art of a book is sound the ethics will be sound also, a great deal of confusion is cleared away, concerning the morality of certain current novels. It becomes, for instance, very helpful in measuring the real worth of such an author as Mr Filson Young. Two seasons ago, Mr Young came into sudden notice as the author of The Sands of Pleasure, his first serious attempt in fiction. It is worth while quite briefly to recall the substance of that book. It was a minute and searching analysis of a man’s first tasting of the Tree of Knowledge, – a young man who has grown up in an environment of grey sea, grey sky and cold grey stone, and who suddenly finds himself enthralled by the surface brilliance, the gay laughter of Paris, and the charm of just one woman whose clever alloy he mistakes for pure gold. Of course, his blunder might have wrecked him, but it did not, for Mr Young preached the wholesome doctrine that it rests with ourselves to extract profit out of our experiences whether they be good or bad. That is why it is not an immoral book, in spite of its frank speech; but an even better reason is this: that it was sound on the artistic side, because it told the truth. Consequently, to the critic, if not to the general reader, a second book by Mr Young is an event of distinct interest; and accordingly When the Tide Turns merits somewhat detailed consideration. It may be said at once unhesitatingly that many of the qualities that stamp Mr Young as a writer of promise are manifest in his new book; his admirable gift of scenic description, his equally clever character drawing, that makes you feel that he must have personally known one and all of the people he depicts; and especially his understanding of that widely varied typeof men and women which for lack of a more precise term is currently summed up by the convenient phrase, the Artistic Temperament …


Unlike The Sands of Pleasure this new volume is ethically unsound; and the reason is, that it is not true to life. Or, at least, while the separate episodes may be true, they are not so co-ordinated as to carry conviction with them. One is tempted repeatedly to interrupt the story to say, ‘No, that is not so. He would not have done quite that!’ There is nothing to prepare you in advance for the artist’s first success any more than for any of the vital moments of the book, – most notably of all the final action of the woman he loves, in leaving her husband. In fact, one cherishes a private suspicion that as an actual fact she did nothing of the kind, and that Mr Young knew he was indulging in wild romanticism when he said she did. All of which does not alter the fact that When the Tide Turns has its moments and that its author is still a man of promise. (174)


There was the usual trouble with the private circulating libraries. Boots refused to touch When the Tide Turns, and Williams’ Library in Tunbridge Wells returned their copy to Richards with a note to say they found one page particularly objectionable – the page on which Rupert tells how he first had sex with Mildred on a cruise:


‘I’d been neglecting her, ashamed of myself in a way, and in a way wanting her – you will understand; and then one night, when we were at Madeira – she was leaving the boat there – she came into my cabin. She cried, and said I was being cruel to her, and she didn’t care for anything, and she knew we would never see each other again, and she made me feel thrilled and unhappy, and she kissed me over and over again, and – well, do you see, I happened never to have been in that situation before. I was terribly ashamed of my innocence, and so to hide it I met her half-way. I needn’t go into details. It was a clear case of seduction; but when she had gone I believed honestly that it was I who was the seducer, who had taken advantage of a helpless girl. I was miserable – hated her and myself – wondered if I ought to marry her, and a lot more wild nonsense. Fortunately I never saw her again. Have some more whisky.’  (175)


Whether he was aware of it or not, the tide was turning in Filson’s life too. He would publish no more novels and make no more sustained attempts to establish himself as a literary artist. Yet some of his best work still lay ahead. Meanwhile, throughout 1908 he had been looking for some regular journalism to supplement the royalties from his books. In January he had approached Garvin, newly installed by Northcliffe as editor of the Observer:


I don’t know anyone else into whose hands I can put myself so confidently as I can into yours. I know you have very little space, and many to choose from; but not many, as you know, of my

quality. (176)


Garvin couldn’t help. When he had finished his novel Filson appealed to Garvin again, and again Garvin had to say no. Filson replied:


I fully understand, and had indeed anticipated, the limitations of your opportunity on the Observer – never mind, except that I would have liked to work better for you than for anyone – and after all that has come and gone I think the fact that I feel that is a fact in which we may both take some pride. (177)


A few years later they would indeed work together again, but Filson was now invited to join the prestigious weekly The Saturday Review as music critic. This meant being available to go regularly to London concerts. Many of his things were stored at 36 Roland Gardens but the Richards family was living there so he needed a new home. At the beginning of December he

moved into 53 Upper Brook Street, Mayfair at a rent of £150 a year. It was a smart address, though not the present house at that number (Filson’s home was pulled down in about 1914).


He was still only 32 and would continue to work closely with Richards for some years to come, but the first fine impulse of their partnership was spent and his Ruan Minor period was all but over. His books were still selling but he had lost the touch that had once turned everything he turned his hand to to gold. On the other hand he had a smart London house and a job on the weekly he most admired. As he began going regularly to concerts again his thoughts turned to music more than for many years past.




168 FY to Grant Richards, 3 July 1908


169 Fy to Grant Richards, 27 Jan 1908


170 James Hamilton, 2nd Duke of Abercorn (1838-1913). Former Conservative M.P. for Donegal and (simultaneously) Lord of the Bedchamber to King Edward VII when Prince of Wales; owner of 26,000 acres.

Ralph Francis Howard, 7th Earl of Wicklow (1877-1946). Served in the Boer War and married a daughter of the 2nd Duke of Abercorn. From 1922-28 a Protestant Senator of the Irish Free State.

See Chapter 9 for a footnote on Dunraven.


171 See note 147 above.


172 Edmund Gosse to FY, 23 Dec 1912


173 The Globe Literary Supplement, 18 Nov 1908


174 The Bookman (U.S.A.), Feb 1909


175 When The Tide Turns, 136


176 FY to J.L.Garvin, 14 Jan 1908


177 Fy to J.L.Garvin, 17 Oct 1908

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