William Black

THIRTY years ago — or, to be exact, in May, 1871 — a novel was published in England, which within a few weeks was being read and praised everywhere. In those days the Saturday Review could well-nigh make or break a literary reputation ; and the Saturday Review praised A Daughter of Heth warmly and generously. The chorus was taken up quickly by other journals, and when the anonymous author was ready to avow himself he stepped at once into the full light of fame. For at least a decade everything that William Black wrote was read with avidity by an ever increasing public; and although Trollope, Reade, Collins, Blackmore, and Mrs. Oliphant were then at the height of their powers, he was perhaps the most popular of living novelists — at least among cultivated readers — both in England and America. The turn of Mr. Hardy came a little later; but when Macleod of Dare and The Return of the Native were in course of serial publication together, it was a common subject of debate among such persons as believe that questions of the kind can be settled by weight of numbers whether Black or Hardy were better entitled, George Eliot being barred, to take the supreme place among the writers of fiction of the time.

There was certain to be a reaction from such praise as this. Macleod of Dare was the zenith of Black’s fame no less than of his power. Shandon Bells was a later book ; so was Sunrise; so was In Far Lochaber; and each has its particular claim to admiration. Even in his last novel. Wild Eelin, written when the hand of death was visibly upon him, there are potent flashes of his old tragic fire. But it must be admitted that his yearly volume was not always quite worthy of him. Perhaps he could hardly have escaped some decline in vogue in any case. Popularity is a fickle goddess ; new candidates for favor come in to crowd out the old. It is no exaggeration, however, to say that Black’s work is a real contribution to literature, and that the best of it deserves to survive. Curious illustrations might be cited of the ebb and flow of opinion regarding every author whose place is not indisputably among the gods. We have seen in our own day revivals of half-forgotten celebrities. Among those very contemporaries of Black named above the operation of this principle may be noted. If it be Trollope to-day who is enjoying renewed reputation, it may be Reade to-morrow. Sir Wemyss Reid, in the interesting biography 1 recently published, says that at the last Black had more readers in this country than in his own ; and certainly there must be many Americans who hold him in affectionate regard, and who will welcome a closer acquaintance with his character and career.

William Black was born in Glasgow on the 15th of November, 1841. But although he was thus geographically a Lowlander, he was temperamentally a Highlander; his family had come originally from the North, and the distinct Celtic strain in his blood manifested itself all his life through. “ He had,” says his biographer, “ the romanticism of his race ; its vivid imagination ; its reticence (the necessary weapon of defense in the troublous times when a chance word might so easily have brought a household to ruin ) ; its brooding contemplation of things unseen by the natural eye; and its proneness to rare outbursts of high spirits.” It is not surprising to learn that he was a shy, silent boy, or that he early showed characteristics which led his father to predict that he would be a great man. That father died when Black was only fourteen ; and as the household was in narrow circumstances it became at once desirable that he should make his way in the world. There was a time when he wished to be an artist. “ I labored away for a year or two at the Government School of Art,” he says, “ and presented my friends with the most horrible abominations in water color and oil.” But at sixteen he was writing sketches for the Glasgow Weekly Citizen, and at twenty he had written his first novel, — a remarkable book, we are told, for so young a man, although, naturally enough, it met with no success, and was regarded by its author with contempt in after years. London was the obvious Mecca for Black, however, and at twenty-two he went thither, taking first a commercial position, but soon drifting into journalism. “ Black wrote some sketches for the Star,” says Mr. Justin McCarthy, who was then its editor, “in which we all saw, and could not fail to see, remarkable merit; and he received a regular engagement in one of the editorial departments.” Thus he was able to make his living from the first, and had no special hardships to endure ; but eight years were to pass before he won his great success with A Daughter of Heth, despite the touch of genius plainly evident in Kilmeny, and In Silk Attire. They were years of sorrow as well as of growth. Black married a young German girl in 1865, and lost her a year afterwards; and the son born to them died, too, at the age of five. Such episodes give a new and deeper note to life. Coquette’s death could hardly have moved readers as it did had not the author experienced himself a poignant anguish. But of these things he never spoke, even to his intimates. Sir Wemyss Reid first met Black in 1866. What struck him then, he tells us, was Black’s air of abstraction. “ He seemed to have his thoughts absorbed by quite other things than those which were passing around him. His very eyes seemed to be fixed upon the future ; and while he talked pleasantly enough on such small topics as our surroundings suggested, his mind was clearly occupied elsewhere. From some one or other — I know not from whom — I had heard that he either had written or was about to write a novel. I was at the time when one is most susceptible to the illusions and enthusiasms of youth ; and I remember trying to weigh up my companion and forecast his chances as a novelist. It struck me, as it struck most persons when they first met him, that he was too hard, inelastic, and reticent to be successful as a writer of romance. I was no more able than other people were to penetrate through that mask of reserve which he wore so constantly, or to see the fires of sensitive emotion which burned within.”

Reticence, indeed, was what few of his readers would have attributed to Black ; judging him simply by his books his nature seemed expansive. And it was into them that he put his true self. His methods of composition show how intense was the life which he lived with the creatures of his brain. Who does not remember the postscript that he addressed to the characters in Madcap Violet, — the favorite, we are told, of all his literary offspring ? “ To me you are more real than most I know ; what wonder then if I were to meet you on the threshold of the great unknown, you all shining with a new light on your face ? Trembling I stretch out my hands to you, for your silence is awful, and there is sadness in your eyes ; but the day may come when you will speak, and I shall hear — and understand.” This passage, says Sir Wemyss Reid, was “ no clever touch of art,” but the real expression of the author’s passionate mood, “ written, as it were, in his heart’s blood.” It is not surprising that the man capable of such an attitude to the shadows of his imagination never talked much about his work and required absolute isolation when he wrote. It is not surprising, either, that this work cost him dear, or that it made him prematurely old. The Highland nature fed too fierce a flame. Macleod of Dare, that wonderful romance which has in it something of the pity and the terror of a Greek drama, shook his own soul to its very foundations ; the tragedy on the wild shores of Mull was as real to him as to his hero ; he came through these experiences prostrated in mind and body.

But Black’s novels are not all tragic, nor was his life without its sunny side. It will not be necessary here to give a catalogue of his books. Perhaps one that is not tragic, A Princess of Thule, has the greatest charm for the largest number of readers. This appeared two years after A Daughter of Heth, and won immediate popularity throughout the English-speaking world. Sheila is indeed one of the permanent additions to the still restricted gallery of really lovable heroines ; but the impression she made might have been less but for the background to the picture. In taking us to the Hebrides Black introduces us to a world which when he first explored it was quite unknown. His sensitive appreciation of nature — a quality which drew praise from the critical Ruskin — fitted him peculiarly to convey the charm of those remote solitudes, and impose upon others something of that spell of the North which so possessed him. And yet, despite the glamour which he throws around her, Sheila is a very real and human person ; while in old Mackenzie, in Frank Lavender, in Ingram, and the rest, his exact and luminous delineation of character might satisfy the sternest realist. Indeed, nothing is more noteworthy in Black’s work than his power to combine romantic fervor with absolute fidelity to the common details of life. His portrait of George Miller in Madcap Violet is a case in point. The modern young man, who is a good fellow, and perfectly honorable according to his lights, but who is utterly incapable of comprehending the finer ethics of renunciation, could not be more vividly presented. As to the minor persons in all Black’s novels, they are remarkably clear and distinct. This is the case in an especial degree with his Highlanders. No previous writer had dealt at length with the Scottish Highlands. Scott ventured thither more than once, but in the main he preferred a scene nearer the Border. It was left for Black to become prose laureate of the land which binds to itself more closely than any other the hearts of those who know it. He wrote of Ireland in Shandon Bells, of Cornwall in Three Feathers, of London in other novels; but still, to paraphrase the exquisite quatrain, his heart was true, his heart was Highland, and he in dreams beheld the Hebrides.

In writing of the man and his inner life Sir Wemyss Reid has shown great discretion and good taste. Black married a second time in 1874, and his home life was happy thereafter. He had two daughters and a son, and some pleasant glimpses are given of his affection for them. Until 1878, when he went to Brighton, he lived at Camberwell Grove — much in the company at one time, as his biographer tells us, of Mr. James Drummond and Miss Violet North and other friends whom his readers know. At Brighton he had a most attractive house ; and he left it only for his summer trips to Scotland or to the Mediterranean, and for his brief visits to London, where he had the rooms in Buckingham Street described in Sunrise. And here an extract from Sir Wemyss Reid’s pages may well be quoted : —

“ I think that Black was never seen by his friends to greater advantage than on those nights in Buckingham Street. Certainly I never heard him talk better than in that familiar room, when the veil of reticence in which he was so commonly shrouded was rent, and he bared his heart to his friends. Under no other conditions could one so fully realize all that he was, — the poet, the thinker, the artist, the man of lofty ideals, the eager and untiring student of life, with its manifold unspeakable mysteries, its awful tragedies, and its glorious possibilities. Listening to him then, that which at other times seemed to be an insoluble puzzle was explained, and men knew how it was that he had created and endowed with life the rare and beautiful characters of many of his novels. No jarring note was ever struck in those long talks beneath the stars and above the river; no ungenerous word fell from his lips, no mean or sordid thought. And yet his mood would change with startling suddenness, passing from grave to gay, from deep speculations on those questions upon which human hopes and happiness depend, to the lightest and brightest of the topics which attracted him, the beauties of some spot seen once far away, or the glorious uncertainties of salmon-fishing on the Oykel, or the delights of yachting in the western seas. But whatever the theme, no one who was privileged to listen to him in these moments of complete unreserve could resist the spell that was cast over him, or fail to realize the fact that he was in the presence of a master. To all who took part in those midnight gatherings in Buckingham Street the memory of them will remain among the most cherished possessions of their lives.”

Black’s capacity for friendship and his devotion to those whom he loved were manifested in many ways, — never more strikingly, perhaps, than in his relations with William Barry, a young Irish journalist, an intimate of his early days in London. When Sir Wemyss Reid asked Black to become the London correspondent of the Leeds Mercury, he at first accepted eagerly an offer greatly to his advantage; but a moment later he thought of Barry, then in failing health, and proposed that he should take the place, promising his own help when it was needed. “ Barry’s illness increased, and soon the bright young Irishman . . . was stretched upon his death-bed. Then the chivalrous kindness of Black’s nature asserted itself. He was then in the fullness of his career as the most popular novelist of the day, and was able to command his own terms from the publishers, but he voluntarily undertook to do Barry’s work as correspondent on condition that the latter continued to receive his salary. . . . Very touching it was during that time to visit the dying man, and to see the wistful tenderness of his gaze when his eyes rested upon Black. No one in the outer world would have believed that the silent, self-centred man, whose genius men admired, but whose real spirit was a mystery to them, — a mystery hidden behind a mask of stolid, unbroken reserve, — could inspire the love and gratitude which in those last sad days shone upon Barry’s face.” On another occasion, when Black found Charles Gibbon ill and in distress because he could not finish in time a novel upon which he was engaged, he got from his friend an outline of what he had intended to do, and postponed his own work until he had finished Gibbon’s book. Barry, we are told, was the original of Willie Fitzgerald in that delightful novel, Shandon Bells, which Black wrote as a tribute to one whom he never forgot, and whose portrait always hung above his desk. Here is in truth the man whose real heart was revealed in his writings, and who could draw with supreme fidelity the most exquisite emotions of which our humanity is capable. No wonder that his heroines were loved, and that letters came from all over the world to their creator thanking him for the consolation he had bestowed in many a weary hour.

Black visited America in 1877, and afterwards he had many American friends; indeed, in his later years they were in the majority. There are agreeable glimpses in these pages of Mr. Edwin A. Abbey and Mr. Parsons, of Miss Mary Anderson, of Bret Harte, and of James R. Osgood, who was an especially congenial spirit. Miss Anderson was very intimate with the family during her stay in England ; she was the Beautiful Wretch, — a name taken from one of Black’s stories, — and he was the D. D. B. V., otherwise the Double-Dyed Black Villain. It is not difficult to see the shadow of Miss Anderson in the Peggy of the House-Boat party. There have been, it may be added, some absurd efforts to identify Black’s characters with living persons. Like all artists he drew on experience as on imagination, and there were perforce in his portraits some characteristics of those he knew; but he was no copyist, and he was naturally annoyed when foolish persons tried to fit caps too closely. One of the most absurd legends was that which identified Sheila with the daughter of the innkeeper at Garra-na-hina. Gossip of this kind, as publicity of every kind, was particularly distasteful to Black ; and it is not strange that except among his closest friends he was often misunderstood. Yet the picture which Sir Wemyss Reid gives of him is in every sense attractive. There have been authors who have suffered in the esteem of their readers by the indiscreet revelations of their biographers ; but in this case there is no indiscretion, nor anything to conceal. Black’s last years were clouded by physical pain, but he worked on bravely to the end, and bore his suffering with a cheerful face. He was only fifty-seven when he died.

Black’s place may not be among the gods of literature ; but surely when the last account of the century just ended is made up his name will not be forgotten. As in all such cases the world will select something to survive oblivion. Readers to-day will differ with regard to that choice. It seems as if Macleod of Dare and A Princess of Thule, at least, must be included in any list ; next to these, if the dangerous experiment of making predictions may be ventured upon, one might place A Daughter of Heth and Madcap Violet and In Far Lochaber ; while Shandon Bells and Sunrise certainly stand high among the successful novels. Let who will, however, pick and choose among so much that is admirable. Black’s appeal to some of us is so strong that we can hardly exclude anything he wrote. In any case we must be grateful for an account of the man so interesting as Sir Wemyss Reid’s, and so well calculated to enhance the affection we feel for him.

Edward Fuller.

  1. William Black, Novelist. A Biography. By WEMYSS REID. $2.25. New York and London : Harper & Bros.