Filson Young

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

Table of contents

16. In search of inspiration

Filson had started a new life in London early in 1909. His days at Ruan, his affair with Elisina and his marriage to Minnie were all over. So was his career as a novelist, though he didn’t yet know this. He had a new home and a new job – writing music criticism and, later, general essays for the London Saturday Review. His smart writing paper snobbishly gave his address as ’53 Upper Brook Street Park Lane W’.

As we have seen, this new life was not easy. Away from the peace and solitude of Ruan, he found the sustained effort of concentration necessary for writing at any length beyond him. London soon became oppressive, and he began to look to travel to refresh his exhausted imagination. In April 1909 he sailed to New York in the Lucania and spent two months in the United States, his first visit. His base was the Hotel Gotham on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street, and he made trips to Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and Virginia. It was not a holiday. He spent his days seeing publishers and editors for Richards, and trying to recover his own books from their various American publishers, none of whom seemed as committed to his work as he thought they should be. The idea was to bring them all together with a single American firm. He dined out nearly every evening, having been liberally supplied with letters of introduction. He soon tired of this social round, though for one so short of money free meals were welcome. He exchanged long letters with Richards on business matters.

Uniting his books under one imprint proved difficult, and the society of publishers, editors and fashionable hostesses bored him. After three weeks he reported:

I have no news, except that I think New York the grimmest and cruellest and loneliest place I ever imagined. I exhausted the ‘social’ possibilities in one week, and can’t endure any more. (19)

It was to be another two years before he set down his impressions of America in a long article, and then only by way of escaping from the book he was supposed to be writing at the time, Opera Stories. (20) ‘American Characteristics’ is a typically thoughtful piece of work, though it would have been livelier if he’d reported more personal experiences and devoted less space to generalisations. In short, he admired the courage and spirit of enterprise he found in the United States, and thought the particular charm and particular failings of the Americans he met as characteristics of immaturity, two sides of the same coin. He found them a great nation of readers and prophesied that in time this would lead to outstanding writing, and he was impressed by the high quality of their family life. Reviewing his article, the New York Times picked on his attitude to American women: ‘SAYS OUR SOCIETY WOMEN ARE DOLLS’ went its headline, ‘Filson Young Declares They Are as Pampered as Favorites of Harems’. (21) Whatever his feelings, based as they were on intensive experience of a very small section of American society, his time in the United States did little to refresh him and he never went there again.

Two months later he tried a very different sort of cure in western Ireland in the wilds of Connemara. Later he reported to his Saturday Review readers that he had travelled via Passing through Dublin, he called on an old acquaintance, the Anglo-Irish novelist George Moore. They discussed the later novels of Henry James and Moore said reading them was like eating cork – you chewed and chewed and chewed but they were tasteless and no nourishment came from them. (22) Pressing on, Filson established himself in a small inn on the Connemara coast, where his only companions, apart from the sparse local population, were trout fishermen. He wanted to learn again how to be alone, something he had enjoyed at Ruan but had lost in the bustle of London and New York, and without which he could not think or write properly. (23) He was ‘a lonely person who in his secret soul hates being alone,’ he said; he was like a gramophone record ‘always ready to experience something, and then to tell the world about it.’

To begin with he had expressed himself in music, but he gave this up in favour of writing because the music he wrote was seldom published or performed. Now, in Connemara, he could spend his time reading, fishing, sailing, talking to the few people he met, or simply lying in the heather letting the silence of the empty land sink deeper and deeper into his spirit. To Richards, whose crisis with Elisina and Tyler he cannot yet have known about, he wrote in his usual manner, demanding money and warning him against entering into shadowy negotiations for an unwritten novel as ‘my present attempts at writing are unsuccessful’.

On one occasion he went with the hotel keeper (who was also the local magistrate) and police to to a remote cabin in the mountains where an old woman gave evidence about an attempt by her daughter-in-law to murder her by striking her on the head with a pair oftongs; sometimes he sailed out alone to explore uninhabited islands as he had done as a boy in Strangford Lough on the other side of Ireland. One of these islands, Inishmuskerry, became for him an image of peace, as the lake isle of ‘Innisfree’ in Sligo had done for the poet W.B.Yeats. By the middle of September he had been away two months and was enjoying his solitude; he knew then that the cure had worked, and that he was ready to face the busy world of London again. (24)

Or so it seemed – but he still couldn’t manage anything more ambitious than articles for the press. At the beginning of 1910 he left London again. A leisurely cruise on the Royal Mail Steam Packet Clyde took him at the end of January via Barbados to Trinidad. One of his fellow travellers was Lord Gorell, a recently retired judge who had been President of the Divorce Division of the High Court at the time when Filson’s own divorce case had come before it. They had long talks about divorce and Filson found the experienced judge’s views ‘enlightened and profoundly interesting’. The weather was perfect and the only thing wrong was that there was no copy of Columbus on board, and, according to Filson, everyone wanted to read it.

He spent two months in Trinidad, staying at Farm House, Port of Spain, home of his cousin Archibald Graeme Bell, whose sister Edie had encouraged his musical and literary aspirations when he was adolescent. Archibald Bell, a civil engineer, was Director of Public Works in Trinidad, at this time a British Colony.(25) Filson moved in local society, looked at cocoa plantations and the forest, and described what he saw of the black and Asian population (with whom, as was customary for whites at the time, he did not mix socially) in a series of eight articles for the Saturday Review. (26) He saw Trinidad as an example of happy colonialism in which every section of the population was satisfied. Like most whites at the time, he believed in a fixed hierarchy in which superior class, breeding and race automatically implied superior understanding.

Just as in Ireland a few months earlier he had regarded the middle classes as superior in every respect to the Connemara peasants, so in Trinidad he saw the East Indians as superior to the blacks, and the whites as superior to both. It was not that poorer and racially ‘inferior’ people should not be respected; rather it was the duty and privilege of superior beings (Filson definitely counted himself among these) to look after their interests. Incidentally, this assumption that people of high rank and social class were superior no doubt explains Filson’s own attempts to climb socially and distract attention from his relatively humble family background. After reading Filson’s eight pieces on Trinidad, the novelist V.S.Naipaul made the point that Filson’s work mirrors the attitudes of the world he lived in more accurately than the work of a greater writer like Joseph Conrad, because Filson’s writings ‘are so completely of their period, so much the work of someone steeped in the assumptions of imperialist history (a diluted history, with the horrors elided, forgotten)’ whereas Conrad, in his African and East Indian stories, has the perception to be able to stand back from the assumptions of the age.

Imperialism corrupts the humanities, you see; corrupts everything, even writing; the price has to be paid later. Incidentally, how well [he] wrote; but writing is more than a matter of words: it is a matter of perceptions. (27)

One aspect of Filson’s life in Trinidad didn’t reach the Saturday Review. Full of his own importance as a ‘Famous Writer’, he exasperated his hostess Mrs (Katie) Bell by demanding scintillating conversation from her in the heat of the day. Luckily other Port of Spain society wives were more ready to be impressed, and when they flocked to pay him court Mrs Bell was able to escape and go and rest. One of these ladies, Mary Fitt, is said to have had a ‘fling’ with him, while another, Edie Arnott, left with him when he sailed back to England and never returned either to Trinidad or to her husband. Scathing reports filtered back from Mrs Bell’s spies in London that Mrs Arnott was behaving as if still ‘in the first flush of youth’ as Filson plied her with champagne and red roses in the candlelit private rooms of smart restaurants. (28) No wonder he was always short of money.

A couple of months later he was off again, this time for ten days’ motoring in France with Gervase Beckett, ?proprietor of the Saturday Review.(29) Less than two months after this he escaped to France again to sail and swim and get away from Richards, who as usual was pressing him to write when he could not write. Then from July to December 1911 he made yet another trip to France in search of the peace and spiritual refreshment he could not find in London, this time to the forest of Fontainebleau, scene of the first flowering of love between Richard and Toni in The Sands of Pleasure. He lodged at the Hotel du Coq in the village of Les Sablons some two miles from Moret. But real life is never as idyllic as our dreams. He reported to his Saturday Review readers:

On the morning after my arrival I was awakened from sound sleep by a great concussion, which was repeated several times, so that the room and the bed were shaken by it. I was not fully awake; and I had for a second or two that sense of great disaster which is produced by loud and inexplicable sounds in the night.

Gradually he realised that a butcher was chopping meat in his shop next door,

… a form of torture which I have found quite unique. In the spell of terribly hot weather that lasted in this place for more than a month it resolved itself into the following procedure. At about half-past two, or sometimes earlier, I would be awakened by a thud on the other side of the wall – that was the butcher getting out of bed. Two minutes afterwards (so brief was his toilet) I would hear the opening of the shop doors downstairs; then voices would sound, not in low tones and whispers such as most people use who have to be astir when everything else is asleep, but loud and unashamed. On the other side of the road is a stable containing a horse and an ass; at a quarter to three someone would go over and harness the horse and put it into a cart. This was always the signal for the ass to break into a lamentable and incredibly loud manifestation of that insanity with which the animal creation seems at times to be stricken. Then, or somewhere about this time, the first blow would fall – a sickening crash with a kind of softness in it, suggestive of the heavy steel tearing its way through flesh and sinew to the bone. Things in the room would tremble, and the loud voice of the butcher, rejoicing like a horse saying Ha! Ha! among the trumpets, would rise to a shout, as though in a transport of joy. The horse and cart would then drive away, and there would be half an hour of chopping; a kind of epicurean chopping, done, one would say, more for pleasure than for necessity – a chop here and there, when the butcher’s eye lighted on a more than usually provocative-looking joint – but not serious work.

At about this time, too, the butcher began to make other noises, loud noises in his throat which I will not further particularise, except that they added in a quite dreadful way to the picture which my tortured imagination was conjuring up. Then there would follow a noise of sweeping, and of buckets of water being poured on the floor. What was it that he was sweeping? Why should buckets of water be poured on the floor? What stains were they that had to be thus washed away? And then the cart would come back, it being now a quarter to four, and the horse would take his stand just under my window. He was fitted with a large collar containing a number of bells that shook whenever he moved; the flies would begin to annoy him, and he would shake himself about once every ten seconds; and once every thirty seconds he would strike his iron shoe on the cobble-stones; this until six o’clock. And on the return of the cart the activity in the shop would become quite dreadful. There were evidently more people than one chopping, but the deep note of the first chopper could always be distinguished in the grisly orchestra. Sometimes, when one was tired of chopping, he would take up a saw, and the whining note would be heard; but I pictured to myself the chief butcher being rather impatient of this finicking method, because when the sawing had continued for a little while there would suddenly come a mighty and sickening crash, as though the butcher could not restrain himself any longer; and the crash would be followed by a pause, as though for a moment even his gloomy passion had been satiated. But the pause would only be for a moment, and then serious chopping would begin again, accompanied by loud talk and laughter (and by those other sounds), until seven or eight o’clock, when I would rise, trembling and twittering, like a drunkard from a debauch. (30)

Rather meanly, considering what splendid copy the butcher had given him, Filson had him summoned before a magistrate, who ordered him not to chop before half-past five in the morning.

By day – history does not relate whether the butcher laid his chopper aside at eight a.m. – Filson struggled on with rewriting librettos for Opera Stories until he could stand it no longer. Then, pushing the librettos aside, he turned his thoughts back to his unhappy trip to America two years before and worked on his 10,000 words on ‘American Characteristics’ for the English Review. There was also his ill-starred biography of Columbus to edit into a new one-volume edition. He went walking every day, and there was English-speaking company in the vicinity. Among the first people he called on were the novelist Arnold Bennett and his French wife at Fontainebleau.

When Bennett’s novel Clayhanger had come out the previous September, Tom Young, an ardent admirer of Bennett’s work, reviewed it for the Manchester Guardian. Bennett grumbled that the Guardian had given the book to the wrong man, some unappreciative nonentity (31). Meeting the Bennetts for the first time, Filson told Richards he liked them very much, and found Arnold ‘interesting and curious’. Richards had published one of Bennett’s earliest books without making any money out of it, and he told Filson that while he admired Bennett he didn’t quite trust him – perhaps because the column in the New Age Bennett wrote and signed ‘Jacob Tonson’ was so ‘ubiquitous’. Filson was alarmed; he hadn’t realised who ‘Tonson’ was and had told Bennett he thought Tonson both ignorant and impertinent even if he did sometimes say good things. Bennett had kept quiet, apart from agreeing warmly with the second part of Filson’s statement. Filson’s final verdict to Richards was that Bennett was ‘certainly intelligent and admirable, but as you say that kind of very rapid growth is not always to be trusted’. Just what others might well have said of Filson, and perhaps did. (32)

Another neighbour was the composer Frederick Delius at Grez-sur-Loing. At this time Filson did not know his music well (though later he came to have a very high opinion of it), but he enjoyed Delius’ company, writing later that he had found him ‘alert, humorous and full of life and the zest of living’. They walked by the banks of the Loing, talking about music and speculating on the Champagne vintage of that very hot summer. Later he wrote, ‘Every drop of that great vintage has, I suppose, long ago been drunk; I am glad to think that we both drank a good deal of it.’ (33)

Richards, who was worried about Filson’s lack of progress with Opera Stories, proposed coming over for the day from London. Filson replied that he would be delighted to see him, but that of he didn’t stay the night it would amount to nothing more than coming for lunch, and London was rather a long way and the lunch not good enough for that. Eventually they met in September in Paris, where Filson introduced Richards to the soprano Maggie Teyte’s husband Eugène Plumon, a potentially useful business contact. Nor was Filson otherwise alone. From the beginning of August he had feminine company at Les Sablons – a secretary called Mary Blaiklock who had already been working for him for two years. (34)


19  FY to Grant Richards, 26 April 1909.

20  This article filled 23 pages of the December 1911 number of the English Review.

21  New York Times, 3 Dec 1911.

22  Saturday Review, probably 4 Sept 1909.

23  Oscar Wilde’s former lover Lord Alfred Douglas wrote some years later to his wife: What you call being “cruel” is my refusing to let you make a public exhibition of yourself with Jack Stirling, Filson Yound (you wanted to go and stay in a hotel with him in the west of Ireland and I was cruel enough to prevent you) and other men. – Douglas to his wife Olive, 19 Sept 1913, quoted by H.Montgomery Hyde, Lord Alfred Douglas (1984), 196. If, as seems likely, this is the period this letter refers to, it seems that, at least to start with, ‘solitude’ was not the only thing Filson had in mind.

24  The five letters from Connemara were first published in the Saturday Review 28 Aug to 25 Sept 1909, and reprinted in Letters from Solitude (1912), pp 3-42.

25  Archibald Gaeme Bell (1868-1948), civil engineer and Director of Public Works, Trinidad [see Who's Who and ?DNB for his career]. Archibald’s father Valentine Graeme Bell (1839-1908) was related to the Youngs and his mother Rebecca, who died when her son was a baby, was a sister of Filson’s mother. Valentine had also been a civil engineer, and Director of Public Works in Jamaica where he planned the railways and many public buildings after a distinguished career in continental Europe during which, among other things, he designed and supervised the building of the Mont Cenis tunnel which linked France and Italy by railway under the Alps.

26  19 March to 14 May 1910; reprinted in Letters from Solitude, 85-145.

27  V.S. [now Sir Vidia?] Naipaul to SM, 16 Sept 1974.

28  Mrs Bell’s granddaughter Katharine Graham in conversation with SM, Feb 1976.

29  Sir[?] Gervase Beckett [dates] was an art collector also fond of music and literature – his obituary in the Times [date in 1937] described him as that long stooping figure with the sardonic mouth and the gentle appreciative eyes. His daughter became the first wife of the politician Anthony Eden.

30  Saturday Review 26 August 1911, reprinted in Letters from Solitude (1912) 48-52.

31  The review … though good, was not as good as I expected … [It] was signed by strange initials ending in Y. … Further, the johnny deprived me almost utterly of the sense of humour and of the sense of beauty … (Flower (ed), Arnold Bennett’s Journal (1932), entry for 22 Sept 1910.) Tom Young, who perhaps never read this, listed among his own Guardian writings that had given him most satisfaction certain book reviews, notably a long one on ‘Clayhanger’ in which Arnold Bennett was for the first time hailed as a great novelist (unsent letter to W.Haslam Mills, 1921)

32  FY to Grant Richards 15 July, Grant Richards to FY 17 July, and FY to Grant Richards 19 July 1911.

33  ‘The World We Listen In’, Radio Times 13 July 1934. To Filson, when he got to know it, Delius’ music was full of life and the zest for life, a fountain of misty, sun-shot loveliness.

34  These letters from France were first published in the Saturday Review between 16 Sept and 7 Oct 1911, and reprinted in  Letters from Solitude (1912).

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