His Reader's Friend

IF the unresponsive gods, so often invoked, so seldom complaisant, would grant me one sweet boon, I should ask of them that I might join that little band of authors, who, unknown to the wide careless world, remain from generation to generation the friend of a few fortunate readers. Such authors have no conspicuous foot-hold among those opulent, symmetrical volumes that stand on drill in rich men’s libraries, as well uniformed and as untried as a smart militia regiment. They have been seldom seen in the lists of the hundred best books. The committees who select reading matter for their native towns are often unacquainted with their titles. The great department stores of our great cities never offer them to the great public in twenty-five cent editions. Yet they live for centuries a tranquil life of dignified seclusion. When they are lifted down from their remote corners on the book shelves, it is with a friendly touch. The hands that hold them caress them. The eyes that glance over them smile at the familiar pages. Their readers feel for them a personal sentiment, approaching them with mental ease, and with a sweet and certain intimacy of companionship. These authors grow very shabby as the years roll by, and sometimes — though rarely — a sympathetic publisher turns his attention from the whirling vortex of new books, and gives them a fresh outfit; presents them — if he has a generous soul — with the clearest of type, the finest of paper, the richest and most appropriate of bindings. So embellished, they enjoy little dignified triumphs of their own, and become the cherished property of that ever diminishing minority who, by some happy turn of fate, are fitted to enjoy the pleasure which literary art can give.

Such a writer — half forgotten, yet wholly beloved—is James Howell, “clerk of the Council in Extraordinary,” under Charles I, “Historiographer Royal,” under Charles II, author of three score works now laid to rest, and of the Familiar Letters, which can never be laid to rest until accurate observation, a lively narrative, and a genius for seizing the one right word have lost their power to please. A student of the world was James Howell, a man of wide experience and of fluctuating fortunes. The descendant of an old and honorable Welsh family, with titled relatives of whom he felt reasonably proud, he was yet poor in estate, as befitted one of a country clergyman’s fifteen children; so that while his elder brother was the august Bishop of Bristol, his younger ones were apprenticed to trade, like lads of ignoble birth. Being, happily, but the second son, his own tuition was of the best. Sent to a “choice methodical school” at Hereford, he was early beaten into a love of learning; and at Oxford he acquired — or so at least he says — “the patrimony of a liberal education.” Thus equipped, it behooved him to carve his own career; and the congenial fashion in which he set about accomplishing this difficult task was by traveling for three years as the agent of a London glass factory, the owners of which sought to obtain workmen, materials, and inspiration from the great artistic centres of Europe.

Never was a happier chance thrown in a young man’s way. Never was there a more cheerful and observant voyager. Byron’s sensible axiom, “Comfort must not be expected by folks that go a pleasuring,” expressed to perfection young Howell’s point of view. “Rocked and shaken” at sea, beset by countless difficulties on land, he ever stoutly maintained “ that though these frequent removes and tumblings under climes of differing temper were not without some danger, yet the delight which accompany’d them was far greater; and it is impossible for any man to conceive the true pleasure of peregrination, but he who actually enjoys, and puts it into practice.” Before quitting England, he obtained a warrant from the Council, authorizing him to remain for three years on the Continent, and to visit any spot he chose, with the exception of Rome, and St. Omer, where stood the great Jesuit college. Such was the parental care which Protestant England in King James’s day took of her children’s faith, —an astute precaution for the most part, but needless in this particular case. Howell possessed all his life that tolerance, almost amounting to sympathy, for other people’s creeds which can be trusted to leave a man serenely rooted in his own. He never offered friction enough to light a fresh fire. His admiration for the famous shrine at Monserrat was as untroubled by pious scruples as was his admiration for the Arsenal of Venice, or the wine of Valentia. When he found himself without funds in Turin, he philosophically joined a band of pilgrims, and “with gentle pace and easy journeys,” proceeded on foot to Lyons. It is true that in a letter written years later to Sir Edward Knight, a letter in which he confesses ample tolerance for Turk and infidel, as bearing “the same stamp that I do, though the inscription differ,” he adds somewhat unexpectedly that he “could be content to see an Anabaptist go to Hell on a Brownist’s back;” but this was the expression of a civic rather than of a religious animosity. Turks stayed in Turkey, out of sight and hearing; and infidels went their regrettable way in silence. But for “those schismatics that puzzle the sweet peace of the church,” as well as for all who were “ pendulous and brangling in religion,” he had a strong instinctive dislike. The passion for controversy which flamed high in his day left him wholly and happily unconcerned.

This mental calm permitted Howell to enjoy the ripe fruits of that great Latin civilization which was then ebbing slowly from its marvelous heights of fulfilment. The beauty and the glory of Italy held him spell-bound. What generous epithets he lavishes upon those superb cities whose very names set the world’s heart a beating. “ Venice the rich, Padua the learned, Bologna the fat, Rome the holy, Naples the gentle, Genoa the proud, Florence the fair, and Milan the great.” The first beautiful woman, he tells us, was made of Venice glass, lovely, and brittle withal; and “ Eve spake Italian when Adam was seduced,” for in what other tongue could she have been so irresistible ? Notwithstanding the injunction of the Council, he made his way to Rome, and, with a swift and sure intuition,— rare in the island-born, — pronounces it “ Communis Patria.” “For every one that is within the compass of the Latin Church finds himself here, as it were, at home, and in his mother’s house, in regard of interest in religion, which is the cause that for one native, there be five strangers that sojourn in this city.”

For Spain, too, Howell has his meed of praise, extolling alike the manners of the great, who never gave an alms save with courtesy, and the self-respect of the poor, whom he found to be sturdy and rational, with none of the servility of the downtrodden French peasant. He warms into eloquence over the free Biscayan shore, virgin of Moors for seven hundred years, and tells us that the King of Spain always pulled off one shoe before treading on that honored soil, which he is proud to compare to unconquered Wales. His characteristic closeness of observation is everywhere apparent, whether it be in a brief and careless statement, as “ ’T is no new thing for the French to be always a-doing; they have a stirring genius; ” or, in the epitomized history of the Netherlands which he “huddled up ” a few years later at Antwerp, and which is concise, graphic, tolerant, entertaining, everything — save perhaps accurate — that history ought to be.

On his return to England, Howell was engaged as a traveling tutor for the two young sons of Lord Savage; but unable or unwilling to fill so responsible a post for Roman Catholic pupils, he reluctantly abandoned this “dainty race of children,” and accepted a somewhat similar position with Richard Altham, son of Baron Altham, and “one of the hopefullest young men of this kingdom.” In 1622, he had the rare good fortune to be appointed a royal agent, and sent to Spain in the interests of the Turkey Company, which claimed compensation from the Spanish government for the seizure of one of its ships by the Viceroy of Sardinia. Full of hope, and proud of the importance of his mission, Howell flung himself with ardor into a business which might reasonably have discouraged an older man. He read all the papers pertaining to the suit, “and I find they are higher than I in bulk, tho’ closely press’d together;” he pushed his claim whenever and wherever he could find a hearing; he made perceptible progress, and was confident of success, when suddenly on the evening of March 7, there appeared in Madrid two English travelers, Mr. John Smith, and Mr. Thomas Smith, who within a few hours were discovered to be Charles, Prince of Wales, and the Marquis of Buckingham.

A more disastrous episode for Howell, or a more fortunate one for his readers, it would be hard to imagine. Nothing can be livelier than his account of this strange adventure, which set the world agape. How Mr. Thomas Smith (Buckingham), “with a portmantle under his arm,” knocked at Lord Bristol’s gates, while Mr. John Smith (the Prince) waited in the dark on the other side of the street. How Lord Bristol, “in a kind of astonishment,” conducted his strange visitors into his bed-chamber, and sent off a post that night to England, to acquaint the King of their arrival. How the Spanish court was thrown into confusion, and the Infanta — for whose sake the Prince had hazarded this voyage — began, like fair Katharine of France, the ardent study of English. How the Prince leaped the wall of the Casa de Campo to have a speech with his lady, and she fled shrieking from so bold a wooer. How the common people of Spain were mightily pleased with the Englishman’s gallantry, and swore that he and their Infanta should have been wedded the night he reached Madrid. How Lord Bristol, in anticipation of the marriage ceremony, caused thirty new liveries of watchet velvet and silver lace to be made for his household, “the best sort whereof were valued at eighty pounds a livery; ” — and we prate now about the ruinous expenses which our ambassadors are forced to meet! How, after months of excitement, the bubble collapsed, the great match came to naught, and the affronted Spaniards were left in no mood to conciliate England, or reimburse the Turkey Company; — all these things are described in the Familiar Letters with a wealth of picturesque detail which only an eye-witness can supply.

The failure of his negotiations left young Howell rich in nothing but experience, and we find him next acting as secretary to Lord Scroop, “ a stable home employment,” with which he was marvelously well content. By this time King James was dead, the Scottish doctors had ceased muttering dark doubts concerning the plaster which the Countess of Buckingham had applied to His Majesty’s stomach, and Charles the First had begun, under melancholy auspices,—which the letters do not fail to note, — his unhappy and disastrous reign. In 1628, Howell was sent to Parliament, as member for Richmond; and in 1632, the Earl of Leicester, then quitting England as Ambassador Extraordinary to the court of Denmark, offered him the post of secretary, — an offer immediately accepted. The purpose of the embassy was to condole with the Danish king on the death of the Queen Dowager, grandmother of Charles the First, — a lady of great thrift and enterprise, who was reputed to have been the richest queen in Christendom. A merry condolence it was, as befitted the mourning of an heir. To Howell, as orator, was consigned the congenial task of making three long Latin orations, — one to the King of Denmark, one to his eldest son, Prince Christian, and a third to Prince Frederick, Archbishop of Bremen. After these preliminaries were over, the real business of mourning began, and Howell betrays a justifiable pride at the ability of an English nobleman to cope with the mighty drinkers of the north.

“The King feasted my Lord once, and it lasted from eleven of the clock till towards the evening, during which time the King began thirty-five healths, — the first to the Emperor, the second to his Nephew of England, and so went over all the Kings and Queens of Christendom ; but he never remembered the Prince Palsgrave’s health, nor his niece’s, all the while. The King was taken away at last in his chair, but my Lord of Leicester bore up stoutly all the while; so that when there came two of the King’s Guard to take him by the arms, as he was going down the stairs, my Lord shook them off, and went alone.

“The next morning I went to Court for some despatches, but the King was gone a-hunting at break of day; but going to some other of his officers, their servants told me without any appearance of shame that their masters were drunk over night, and so it would be late before they would rise.”

It was after his return from this diplomatic mission that Howell, disappointed in his hopes of office, settled in London, and “commenced author” with the publication of Dodona’s Grove, or the Vocall Concert, and of a poem, The Vote, dedicated as a New Year’s gift to the king. There is little doubt that he was at this time a royalist “intelligencer,” and that his ingrained habit of collecting news made him a useful servant of the crown. It was a difficult and somewhat dangerous game to play, — rewards and penalties following in quick succession. In August, 1642, he was appointed Clerk of the Council in Extraordinary, and four months later he was arrested by order of the Long Parliament, and summarily committed to the Fleet, then used as a prison for political offenders as well as for less fortunate debtors.

In the Fleet Howell remained (I will not say languished for he was not the type of captive to languish) for eight long years. He always stoutly maintained that he was imprisoned for loyalty to his king; but Anthony à Wood asserts with some churlishness that he was arrested for debt, “being prodigally inclined.” The truth seems to be that his debts afforded a reasonable excuse for his imprisonment; and that Parliament had no mind to set him free while there was still a field for his activities. Perhaps the Fleet saved him from greater perils. It certainly afforded him both an opportunity and an incentive to write. We owe a great deal in letters to those long leisurely captivities, which gave the prisoner solitude, quiet, time for meditation, an opening for philosophy, and — if he were nobly disposed — a chance to purge his soul, to refine it in the fires of affliction.

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage ;
Minds innocent and quiet take
These for a hermitage.

Howell, it is true, petitioned resolutely for his release, — how could a man do less ? — but he wrote many more profitable things than petitions during the eight years that he remained in the Fleet. Among a score of books and pamphlets dating from this period are his Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland, — a work which Scotchmen were never known to love; and Instructions for Forreine Travel (the earliest forerunner of Murray), with a dedication in verse to the young Prince of Wales, in which that promising youth is likened — on the score of swarthiness, there being no other points of resemblance, — to the Black Prince. In 1645 appeared the first volume of letters under the comprehensive title, Epistolw Ho-Elianæ: Familiar Letters, Domestick and Foreign, divided into Sundry Sections, partly Historical, Political and Philosophical, — a title which conscientiously told all it had to tell. The book was dedicated to the King in a few simple and sensible words, its author venturing to remind His Majesty that many of its pages recalled his own royal deeds. “And ’t is well known that letters can treasure up and transmit matters of State to posterity with as much faith, and be as authentic registers, and safe repositories of truth as any story whatsoever.”

The success of the venture induced Howell, who sorely needed money, to publish a second volume of letters while he was still in the Fleet, and a third and fourth after his release in 1651. By this date, England, for the first time in all her glorious history, had no longer a king to accept panegyrics; and Howell, nothing daunted, turned his attention to the Lord Protector, to whom in 1655 he dedicated a pamphlet entitled Some Sober Inspections made into the Carriage and Consults of the late Long Parliament. Exulting, not unnaturally, in the overthrow of his old enemies, he compared Cromwell’s drastic measures with those of that somewhat arbitrary ruler, Charles Martel, which commendation, though much censured by royalists, seems to have been tolerably sincere. Howell loved and revered the monarchy. It was his reasonable hope that Charles the Second would at some distant day succeed to his father’s throne; but in the mean time Cromwell was a strong, man armed keeping his court, and those things were in peace which he possessed. Like Carlyle, Howell had a natural taste for “one man power,” and profoundly distrusted that “wavering, windy thing,” that “humoursome and crossgrained animal,” the common Englishman, or, indeed, the common citizen of any land. The tolerant king understood, and probably sympathized with this mental attitude, for, a year after the Restoration he granted the author two hundred pounds from his privy purse; and subsequently appointed him to the office of Historiographer General, with a salary of one hundred pounds a year, which— like most salaries of the period — was seldom or never paid.

To the end of his life Howell wrote with the unabated industry of a needy man. That he felt himself ill-used is proved by his sarcastic Cordial for Cavaliers, in which he essays to console his fellow sufferers for the supposed neglect of their monarch by proffering them a wealth of bitter and unsustaining philosophy. A fusillade of broadsheets followed its publication; for Howell had his enemies, and some of them were of the opinion that the man who had so enthusiastically compared Cromwell to Charles Martel should have been more modest in demanding rewards from Charles Stuart, who, indeed, would have needed a world as wide as Alexander’s to have satisfied all petitioners. It is pleasant to know, however, that when Howell died, at the ripe age of seventy-one, he was able to leave a number of small legacies, among them two to his sisters, Gwin and Roberta-apRice, — names that thrill the ordinary reader with delight. He was buried by his own desire, in the Temple Church, and his monument, for which he bequeathed the sum of thirty pounds, is still in excellent preservation, though few there are who pause to read its modest Latin inscription.

It is useless at this late date to ask captious questions anent the integrity of the Familiar Letters. Of the three-score works, ranging from broadsheets to folios, which Howell left behind him, they alone have survived the wear and tear of centuries. They have been read for nearly three hundred years, and are likely to be read with unshaken delight for at least three hundred more. That he wrote them all is certain. That some of them are the original texts, we have every reason to believe. People who received letters in those appreciative days treasured them sacredly, and our best friend, the wastepaper basket, seems to have been then unknown. Howell would have had no great difficulty in securing the return of part of his correspondence. Moreover, it is likely that so prudent and methodical a gentleman kept copies or rough draughts of his more important letters, — a reprehensible custom which it is not for us, who in this instance profit by it, to criticise. We know, too, that it was his habit, especially while abroad, to jot down the “notablest occurrences” of each day in a “fair alphabetique paper book;” and it was from such a valuable reserve that he drew his epistolary supplies. To pronounce the letters mere fabrications on the traducing evidence of Anthony à Wood would be to fly far of the mark. They are too full of intimate detail, of local color, of little tell-tale accuracies, for any such undermining theory. But if some of them were, indeed, fresh minted in the Fleet, composed in that dim solitude, when memories of the wide sunlit world he had traversed so merrily thronged through the prisoner’s mind, we, at least, have no reason to complain. It would have been hard to turn captivity to better purpose.

In the Familiar Letters, as in many another old and seldom acknowledged book, we find a store of curious anecdotes which have been retold ever since, to the enrichment of more modern authors. Howell listened with equal interest — and equal credulity—to the gossip of foreign courts, to the “severe jests” which passed from mouth to mouth, and to the marvelous stories of the common people. He tells us the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, prefacing it with the grave assurance that he would not relate it, “were there not some ground of truth in it.” He tells us of the bird with a white breast which presaged the death of all the Oxenham family; and the pleasant story of the Duke of Ossuna and the galley slaves; and about that devout Earl of Hapsburg who, by a single act of piety, laid the foundation of his family’s greatness. He tells us the pitiful tale of the Sire de Coucy, who, dying in battle with the Turk, bade his servant carry back his heart to the Dame de Fayel, whom he had long and ardently loved. This gift the lady’s husband intercepted, and had it made into a “wellrelished dish,” which he compelled his wife to eat, assuring her it was a cordial for her weakness. When she had eaten it all, he revealed to her the truth; whereupon “in a sudden exaltation of joy, she with a far-fetch’d sigh said, ‘This is a precious cordial indeed;’ and so lick’d the dish, saying, ‘It is so precious that ’t is pity to put ever any meat upon ’t.’ So she went to bed, and in the morning she was found stone-dead.”

Howell’s style is eminently well adapted for the news-letter, for a form of composition which requires vividness and lucidity rather than grace and distinction. He writes in sentences of easy length and simple construction, discarding for the most part those sonorous and labyrinthine masses of words in which the scholarly writers of his day wrapped up their serious thoughts. A letter, he tells us, should be “short-coated and closely couch’d,” and he has scant patience with those who “preach when they should epistolize.” No one has ever surpassed him in the narrator’s art of snatching the right word, of remembering and recording those precise details which can be trusted to give value and vraisemblance, of telling a lively and unembarrassed tale. His account of the Duke of Buckingham’s murder, of the visit of the Prince of Wales to Madrid, of the hideous execution of Ravaillac, are so vigorous and sympathetic, so full of intimate and significant touches, that it is hard to realize he was not always an eye-witness of the events so graphically described. He gathered his information from every available source, and often with astonishing speed. The post-master of Stilton came to his bedside to tell him that the Duke of Buckingham had been killed; and the Earl of Rutland, riding in all haste to London, alighted from his horse to confirm the news, and to add picturesque particulars, which Howell in his turn sent off without an hour’s delay to the Countess of Sunderland. It sounds like the inspired methods of the reporter.

None of the impersonality of the modern news vender, however, can be charged to Howell’s account. His motto,

“ As keys do open chests,
So letters open breasts,”

but faintly indicates the exhaustive nature of his unreserve. At every period of his career we see him with extraordinary distinctness. A man full of the zest of life, of sanguine temperament, of catholic tastes, of restless and indomitable energy. A man who met misfortunes bravely, and who was touched to finer issues by the austere hand of adversity. An outspoken man withal, after the fashion of his day, whose occasional grossness of tongue — or of pen — seems due less to the love of prurient things than to the absence of that guiding principle of taste, which in every age can be trusted to keep finely bred natures uncontaminate. “The priggish little clerk of King Charles’s Council,” Thackeray calls Howell, — perhaps because he enjoyed making Latin orations, and quotes the classics oftener than seems imperative. But of the essence of priggishness, which is measuring big things by small standards, the author of the Familiar Letters is nowhere guilty, A devout churchman who reverenced other men’s creeds; a loyal English subject who loved other lands than his; a cheerful traveler who forgave France her Frenchman, and Spain her Spaniards; a philosopher whose philosophy stood the strain of misfortune, — Howell exhibits some finer qualities than the soul of a prig can sustain. A hundred years before the publication of the Letters, that revered scholar, Roger Ascham, wrote with pious self-content: “I was once in Italy myself; but I thank God my abode there was but nine days.” A hundred years after Howell had been laid to rest, a respected English gentleman, Mr. Edgeworth, prefaced his work on education with this complacency:

“To pretend to teach courage to Britons would be as ridiculous as it is unnecessary; and, except among those who are exposed to the contagion of foreign manners, we may boast of the superior delicacy of our fair countrywomen; a delicacy acquired from domestic example, and confirmed by public approbation.”

Between these triumphant insularities let us read what the “ little clerk of King Charles’s Council ” has to say. He is writing from Naples to one Christopher Jones of Gray’s Inn.

“Believe it, Sir, that a year well employed abroad by one of mature judgment (which you know I want very much) advantageth more in point of useful and solid knowledge than three in any of our universities. You know ‘running waters are the purest,’ so they that traverse the world up and down have the clearest understanding; being faithful eye-witnesses of those things which others receive but in trust, whereunto they must yield an intuitive consent, and a kind of implicit faith.”

It is certainly not Howell’s page that mirrors forth the prig.

The Familiar Letters stand in little need of erudite notes. The incidents they relate, the people they describe, are for the most part well-known, or, at least, easy to know. The fantastic stories had best be taken as they stand. The dim quotations fade from our memories. The characteristic quality of the letters is their readability, and to the reader — as apart from the student — Howell is sufficient for himself. Many of his pages are dated from the Fleet, when the high hopes of youth lie dead, when the keenness of the observant traveler is dimmed, and his grossness purged by fire. He measures levelly his loss and gain, and accepts both with a half whimsical philosophy which is not too lofty to be loved. It is after three years of captivity that he writes thus to Philip Warwick:

“I have been so habituated to this prison, and accustomed to the walls thereof so long, that I might well be brought to think that there is no other world behind them. And in my extravagant imaginations, I often compare this Fleet to Noah’s Ark, surrounded with a vast sea, and huge deluge of calamities which hath overwhelm’d this poor island. Nor, altho’ I have been so long aboard here, was I yet under hatches, for I have a cabin upon the upper deck, whence I breathe the best air the place affords. Add hereunto that the society of Master Hopkins the Warden is an advantage to me, who is one of the knowingest and most civil gentlemen that I have convers’d withal. Moreover, there are here some choice gentlemen who are my co-martyrs; for a prisoner and a martyr are the same thing, save that the one is buried before his death, and the other after.”

Perhaps a sweet reasonableness of character is the quality which, above all others, holds our hearts in keeping; and so the Familiar Letters are sure of their remote corner on the book-shelf, and the gods — not always unresponsive — have given to James Howell the coveted boon of being from generation to generation his reader’s friend.