Filson Young

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

Table of contents

20. The end of partnership

For a while the Titanic drama had distracted Filson and Richards from the book Filson had been unwillingly struggling with since the previous summer – Opera Stories. This repeated the successful formula of The Wagner Stories (1907) by re-telling the story of each opera in the ‘proper narrative or past tense’ to avoid the effect of a disjointed synopsis, rather telling a story which the reader would then see coming to life before his or her eyes in the opera house. Opera Stories came out in July 1912 but was not a success. Whereas the first book had been a pretty comprehensive guide to Wagner’s work, dealing with all the major operas, the second wasn’t a comprehensive guide to anything, containing as it did the stories of two operas each by Mozart and Puccini and one each by six other composers.

Relations between Filson and Richards were becoming increasingly strained. In February 1912 Richards had as many as eleven of Filson’s books on his List, with Titanic and Opera Stories about to be added. This was far more than any other author. But Filson’s books were no longer selling well. He blamed Richards for not promoting and advertising them properly and there can be no doubt that, for whatever reason, Richards’ advertising had deteriorated. Like Filson, he was always short of money. Filson himself had raised some cash by selling the rights in some of his books to their mutual friend Eric Maclagan, and by getting Richards to agree in writing to pay him outstanding royalties at £5 a week for at least thirty weeks. Later in 1912 Filson put together a volume of his Saturday Review essays under the title Letters from Solitude and, having lost confidence in Richards’ ability to sell his books, gave it to another publisher, Chapman and Hall. Richards took this calmly, even with humour; he felt there were still things he and Filson could usefully do together, and little more than a week after the publication of Letters from Solitude he persuaded Filson to sign an agreement for a short book about the Navy. Letters from Solitude made no impression on the critics and created no sensation in the bookshops. Half of it consists of Filson’s

descriptions of his travels in Connemara, Trinidad and France between 1909 and 1911. ‘He gives us perfectly sane and good-humoured criticism of early-twentieth-century life as it is lived by a man who is part of it,’ commented Cecil S.Kent somewht tautologically in the Saturday Review. (75) As for the Navy book, With the Fleet, it was merely a paperback reprint of a series of six full-length articles Filson had written for the Pall Mall Gazette after a visit to the fleet in the summer of 1912; public interest in the fleet was growing as the arms race with Germany intensified and war began to threaten. Still wary of Richards, Filson insisted on a good many extra clauses being added to the agreement for the book: for instance, that the author should be given forty-eight hours’ notice of any action by the publisher affecting his interests, and that he should be committed to the firm of Grant Richards only so long as Richards himself was running it. He also, for the first time, engaged a literary agent to look after his financial interests and negotiate with Richards; this was C.F.Cazenove of the Literary Agency of London. Richards accepted this calmly, though he pointed out that there was little Mr Cazenove could do about their old account since even after examining it he would know very much about less about the whole matter than Filson himself. Meanwhile, Richards took a good deal of trouble over With the Fleet. The book might be slight, but the Navy was a popular topic, and the way things were going the country might soon be depending on it for survival. The cover was completely taken up by an eye-catching union jack; ‘these half dozen short studies shrouded in an awesome envelope’ as the Saturday Review critic described it. (76)

With the Fleet came out at the end of May 1913 and Richards tried to pinpoint the reason why it didn’t sell: it was short, there were lots of cheap books on the Navy about, it should have had a heavyweight introduction by an important person, and no doubt the professional Naval critics were jealous of Filson ‘trespassing on their preserves’ – though surely this would not have been likely to deter the man-in-the-street at the bookstall. The two men still had other schemes. Richards agreed to help Filson find a publisher for a translation from the French of Romain Rolland’s Musiciens d’Aujourd-hui by Mary Blaiklock, whom Filson now described as ‘friend’ rather than ‘secretary’. Then Richards had another idea for a new book:

Would you care to write from 40 to 60 thousand words about Paris – text to accompany some rather good pictures that I have here and could show you if you came in? I don’t press it on you; as you know, I take rather strongly the view that it is not a good thing for you to bring out more books than you can help except on very definite lines; but it is just possible that you would like to do this. The pictures do not deal with light side of Paris. On second thoughts I send them with this letter. (77)

A much more gingerly approach than four years earlier when Richards wrongly assumed he could get Filson to do the text for Norman Wilkinson’s sea pictures, and this time it nearly worked. Filson was willing, but in the end the scheme fell through for the usual reason: no one would offer a big enough advance. Meanwhile he tried to get Richards to bring out a new edition of Carlyle, at the same time appealing in the Saturday Review for money to save Carlyle’s birthplace at Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire.

After about September 1913 the two men drifted further apart, though they continued to correspond, mainly on business matters, till at least 1922. In February 1914 Filson brought out a new book, but not for Richards; this was an edition, with an introduction, of the transcript of the 1912 Seddon trial, for the ‘Notable Trials’ series published by William Hodge of Glasgow (78). In December 1915, after offering Richards rather perfunctory good wishes on the occasion of his second marriage, Filson asked for his help in printing one of William Young’s sermons, as a booklet for private circulation in memory of his father, who had died in his sleep earlier that month at Bromley in Kent, a few hours after officiating at the wedding of the daughter of his coachbuilder brother James. Richards made every effort to get the little book produced attractively and quickly. About this time Filson and Richards also discussed the film rights for The Sands of Pleasure, but though the novel was reprinted once more (1919) it was probably never filmed. In the mid 1920s another bankruptcy restricted Richards’ publishing activities. In 1934 he paid his final tribute to Filson on almost the last page of a loose-knit memoir of his publishing days, Author Hunting:

When in 1905 I had to … attempt to restore my shattered fortunes at 7 Carlton St … I had a Manchester man, Filson Young, as my first reader. He had the Guardian in his blood … Filson Young not only read for me but he wrote books for my list, and as they were good books they helped those early Carlton Street lists of mine greatly. (79)

In the summer of 1914 the world changed for Filson as it did for many people. In July he had to leave the Mayfair house he rented (53 Upper Brook Street) which was about to be demolished. He moved to 124 Ebury Street, Pimlico, practically opposite the London residence of his old acquaintance the novelist George Moore, though the two men had no significant contact. On August 4 Britain declared war on Germany, and Filson’s first thought was to get actively involved. By the end of the month he was in France, though not at the front. Just before he left England he was shaken by a letter from Richards informing him that (Richards was almost sorry to say), the firm no longer owed Filson money but Filson now owed the firm £104, while royalties for the first half of 1914 on his thirteen or so books had amounted to no more than £31 17s. Filson wrote back angrily if vaguely that the £104 was neither morally nor legally due (80). Whether he ever paid it or not is uncertain, but the two men quarrelled, and we may conveniently regard this moment as the end of their partnership.

In May 1914 a new source of income appeared for Filson when an old motoring acquaintance, the 2nd Lord Montagu (81), invited him to contribute a weekly column of miscellaneous chat to his glossy weekly The Car, in which Filson’s motoring stories had appeared in 1906-7. Now, Under the title ‘By the Roadside’, Filson attacked such nuisances as hooting cars, dirty cars, and caravans; and perhaps more constructively upheld the right of children to play in the road, insisting that cars must be kept out of their way and not vice versa, and suggested a ‘League of Travellers’ as a good-food guide to force up the quality of food offered at roadside inns. With the outbreak of war ‘By the Roadside’ was dropped, but Filson must have been very hard up (or beginning to recover his interest in cars) to have taken it on at all. His early enthusiasm had evaporated long before, as cars became increasingly a mass means of transport rather than the privilege of the adventurous few, and for many years now he had not owned a car himself. In 1913 he had even resigned from the Automobile Club, and in February that year, addressing a meeting of the Ladies’ Automobile Club at Claridge’s Hotel, had grumbled that the motor car had robbed life of much that was beautiful and attractive, annihilating distance so that the beauty of the countryside was lost to the motorist, who saw nothing in imagination but the end of the journey. Worse still, car passengers not only suffered the same strain as the driver but were deprived of the sense of safety and control the driver enjoyed; anyone forced to sit in a car as a passenger eight hours a day would eventually go mad.

But two ‘accolades’ around this time must have reassured him that he was still a public figure to be reckoned with. Max Beerbohm caricatured him in 1913, then in June 1914 Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound listed him next to Edward Elgar, Marie Corelli, Codliver Oil and many others to be ‘blasted’ in the first number of their iconoclastic periodical ‘Blast’, mouthpiece of the vorticist movement in the arts. (82) [see reproduction of this page].


75 23 Nov 1912.

76 Saturday Review 23 Aug 1913.

77 Grant Richards to FY, 7 July 1913.

78 The founder (1905) and general editor of the enduringly successful ‘Notable British Trials’ series was Harry Hodge, managing director of William Hodge & Co. Harry Hodge (1872-1947) should not be confused with Harold Hodge (1862-1937), editor of the Saturday Review, though of course the two may have been related.

79 Grant Richards Author Hunting (1934), p 225 in the 1960 edition.

80 Grant Richards to FY, 13 Aug and 15 Aug 1914; the second of these letters quotes Filson’s comment about the money being ‘neither morally nor legally due’, and wonders if by this Filson means that he does not feel obliged to write more books for Richards to help pay off his debt.

81 (1866-1929).

82 Vorticism was influenced by Cubism and Futurism and favoured machine-like forms.

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