1901 “At the Sign of the Ship”

January 1901

Opening lines: “Let me welcome back Mr. W. D. Howells to ‘the old frank’ Harper’s Magazine, wherein so long he flew the flag of Count Tolstoï, and rebuked the adherents of King Romance.


  • Lang mocks Howells for his “attributing to inanimate objects a human personality” and says this is typical of Dickens, savages, and children*: ‘The Easy Chair seemed dazed,’ we all feel dazed, as if the clock had been put back by fifty years” (280).
  • Lang mocks Howells for believing Ibsen, Hardy, Zola, and James are “forgotten” while ‘the cry is now for historical romances. . . . upon a simple formula of bloodshed and arch-heroism in either sex, and history Bottomwise translated out of all likeness to human events.’ Lang does not recognize the description from recent American historical novels which “seem rather staid works, and Washington occasionally appears” (281). Lang does not recognize the description in English historical novels such as Sophia, by Stanley Weyman. When Howells says he will not cheapen Brander Matthews’s The Action and the Word by comparing it to recent historical novels, Lang quips: “I could not cheapen it, I could not even ask for a discount, if it were in the local bookseller’s shop” (281).
  • Thinks it wrong of Howells to so condemn all recent historical novels and asks what would have happened if we applied the same rule to Shakespeare, Scott, and Greek Epics and Dramas, which are full of bloodshed and questionable history (281).
  • “The truth is, that no literary genre is bad in itself, ‘if its intentions be virtuous.’ . . . [Shakespeare] and all other authors of fiction deal with men and women as they have known them. Only the costume, and accidents of manners, and opportunities for a certain class of adventures, make the difference between an historical novel and a novel of to-day” (282).
  • Nonfiction historical writing is also apt to be inaccurate. In fiction, “the details, though better when right, are unessential. It is the men and women who must be real men and women, like Macbeth, Hamlet, Louis XI., St. John, and so on.” (282)
  • “Mr. Howell’s real objection, I conceive, is moral. He wishes us to live in ‘the living present,’ the fleeting hour. But we do that ‘all the time,’ except in the rare hours which we give to history or to historical fiction” (283)
  • Argues that the historical novel is the only historical genre that most people will read; notes his own fascination with “Queen Mary’s guilt or innocence. You get into the past, you find ‘clues,’ you piece your case together, like Mr. Sherlock Holmes. But, Lord, the labour, the scores of great quartos, the dusty manuscripts that you have to tackle! And your results, after all, do not read ‘like a novel;’ no tired people will take pleasure in your results” (283)
  • Lang thinks readers need a “holiday”: “The novels may be imbecile, as Mr. Howells says, but the mere desire to see a little of the past, in however dim or distorted a mirror, is a desire honourable in itself, and full of promise of better things” (284). Lang pleased to hear that bootblacks and newsboys are “reading about Washington and Napoleon in novels” (284).
  • Lang says “Printing has become most slovenly” and includes examples of errors by authors and proof-readers from The British Monthly, the Academy (284–86).
  • Lang discusses book plate collectors, who are in two camps, one praise beauty, the other rarity. Lang strongly dislikes their taking the plates out of the books: “A book-plate is of next to no interest, except on the book where the owner placed it. If he was an interesting person, he lends interest to that book by his plate” (286)
  • Professor Barrett’s “second volume, nearly 400 pages long, on the ‘so-called Divining Rod” and Lang’s commentary (286–88): “where water-finding is concerned, only hydrologists and geologists have any locus standi as critics” (288)

*”I rather suspect (and so, I think, does Mr. Herbert Spencer) that children are put on this line of fancy by nursery tradition” (280).

February 1901

Opening lines:

“It is not very often that I feel impelled to attempt the art of fiction. A vision of the innumerable argosies of romance–love-making, disquisition, description, history, theology, æstetics, and ethics, all sailing under the flag of the modern Novel—rises before the mind. What chance has any one vessel in this oceanic competition?”


  • Lang notes that he will include a work of fiction at the close of this number, with dialect words interpreted for those who detest it. (375)
  • On Frazer’s The Golden Bough: “The conclusion is that men began with magic, thinking they could run the universe, as it were, and control the weather, by means of certain fantastic tricks. Finding that idea a failure, they tried religion. . . Next man took to science. . . . But Mr. Frazer entertains a gloomy doubt as to whether even science will avail ‘to kindle the dying fire of the sun.’ As it goes out, I think religion is likely to come in again, also magic; for when we are but a small tribe of savages, shivering along the Equator, no doubt our mental condition will be much like that of the Eskimo; who, after all, are a happy, peaceful, but extremely dirty people. Man will adapt himself to his environment and rub along somehow; moreover, science may be forced to recognise some facts on which, like Nelson, she at present turns her blind eye. ‘A reaction’ may ‘set in which may arrest progress’ in the irreligious direction” (375–76)
  • Lang gets highly annoyed at Frazer’s elaborate conjectures, in particular one claim:  “‘Tradition ran that the fate of the family of Hay was bound up with the mistletoe of a certain oak.’ The authority is a newspaper cutting, name and date of newspaper unknown. Mr. Frazer conjectures ‘the older view probably was that the lives of all the Hays were in this particular mistletoe.’ . . . Now is this probable?” (376). Lang points out that the poem Frazer is basing his claim on is clearly from the nineteenth century. Lang makes a guess at who wrote the poem: “But I hasten to add that this suggestion is not history, nor science; it is more or less ingenious guessing as to the authorship of a poem which appears to have been found in a country newspaper unknown. In science I feel sure that the less we conjecture, the better . . .” (377).
  • Lang hopes “that golfers and others will purchase Mr. John Low’s Life of the late Lieutenant F. G. Tait (Nisbet). The profits of the book are to be given to the wives and children of Mr. Tait’s regiment, the famous old Black Watch, first recruited among the Highlanders before 1745” (377). While discussing the book, Lang recommends better methods of teaching Greek.
  • The Casket Letters of Mary Stuart, “of disputed authenticity” and the phrase “a body without a heart” which appears in Letter II and in Mary Queen of Scots’s poetry.
  • Lang discusses the disqualification of certain bowlers in cricket, maintains that no one “throws on purpose,” and his own mortification upon being told that he did. Lang recommends disqualifying “batsman who notoriously defend their wickets with their legs” (379).
  • “The Minister of Spot. 1570.” A tale. Lang gives his historical sources: Froude, Robert Lekprevik, Richard Bannatyne (379–84). At the end, Lang states what is untrue in the story.
  • At the end of this number, after the notice to correspondents, there is a note on the Donna, for which the editor received a contribution. “He begs that any further contributions may be sent to the Sister-in-Charge, 42A Dock Street, E., as the Donna Fund has been long closed.

March 1901

Opening lines: “Even in notes which avoid public affairs it is impossible not to touch, however briefly, on the great national misfortune and deep personal sorrow with which the century opens for British subjects. It is not too much to say that the grief is personal to each of us, and by all most acutely felt” (472).


  • Queen Victoria’s death. Praised for her “true genius” for the “difficult and embarrassing post of a constitutional monarch.” Mentions her public sorrow for the death of Gordon, praises Albert as being the best prince since Alfred, Victoria the most admirable queen since St. Margaret (472).
  • Mourns the Bishop of London’s death (Mandell Creighton): “Of the Churchman I am not able to speak, but may bear a word of witness to the kind and constant friend in whose company, for thirty years, I have had so much pleasure, never touched by an unkind word or look” (472). (472–73)
  • Discusses Frederic Myers’s death and Meyer’s work (473–75): “Another man who assuredly leaves no one like him is Mr. Frederic Myers” (473). Discusses his literary efforts, Classical EssaysSaint Paul, and the fragments of his translation of Virgil (473). [Lang urges a younger, unnamed poet to “finish his translation of the Odyssey” (474).]
  • “It is certainly to be regretted that Mr. Myers did not do more in literature. But he was mastered by his idea of establishing the spiritual nature of man on a scientific basis. . . . His study was, to the last degree, unpopular. Most men of science, all men of popular science, jeered at and disregarded it. The religious thought it profane; the man in the street said ‘Boo!’; critics opposed it on a priori grounds, delivering judgments on what they had not read, and inventing the facts which they criticised. Mr. Myers, Mr. Gurney, and Mr. Henry Sidgwick could not be induced to lose their tempers. They had good humour unshaken, and infinitely more humour than their facetious assailants.” (474)
  • Lang claims that engaging in psychical research is “excellent training–for the historian. He begins to learn the nature of evidence, and the precautions to be taken in establishing or rejecting facts” (474). Notes Meyer’s pointing out non-psychical solutions to predicaments.
  • “If ever the world does accept them, will it make much practical difference? As far as I can see, the ages of faith were times of unscrupulous and rampageous villany, quite unchecked by the belief in a future life” (476).
  • Discusses the past tradition of displaying the body parts of the executed and the house where Darnley was blown up, which is not certainly inside or outside of the town wall. (476). It is difficult to describe houses clearly; see Trollope’s Ullathorne in Barchester Towers (477).
  • “Probably Trollope is not read now; if so, people lose a good deal. The Barchester book is historical. The date is nearly fifty years away, and the manners are remote. In those days you might have seen a Briton walking with a lady on each arm; one would as soon expect to see the severed arms and legs of a traitor” (477).
  • Mr. Clear responded on Lang’s description of his error in the previous month and pointed out an error of Lang’s, an “an” where there should have been a “no.” Lang replied, “I do not blame [the compositor]; my  ‘no’ is very like my ‘an.’ But I never saw a ‘proof’ of my article; whereas I understand that Mr. Clear probably did see, or should have seen, a proof of his remarkable couplet [of Tennyson–“slipped” for “slept’]” (477).
  • The line “Conscia lympha Deum vidit et erubuit” (478)
  • The scarcity of salmon not merely “a modern sorrow.” Lang refers to 1571 letter (478).
  • Professor Brander Matthews “is always ‘spoiling for a fight’ about ‘Americanisms,’ and returns to the charge in the Cosmopolitan. Very well, let us clear the decks for action. There is nothing injurious in the word ‘Americanism.” No Scot or Frenchman is aggrieved if we speak of a ‘Gallicism’ or a ‘Scotticism.’ Still, both Scotticisms and Gallicisms are better kept out of English, where they are not in their proper place. So is an Americanism better kept out of English, though very telling phrases may be borrowed from America, as from Scotland, France, or Ireland. The survival of the fittest will have its way, and a fit idiom may be borrowed from anywhere. Still, a judicious writer or speaker will not be in a hurry to borrow. Again, an idiom popular in America, but not used in England, may be an old English idiom, used by Shakespeare. But if it has acquired a kind of slang currency in America, I would not be the first to adopt it here. . . . However, it is a matter on which every writer must form his own opinion—I trust without vexing the patriotic soul of the learned Professor. Dr. Johnson objected to the word ‘fun’; by this time we do not know why: it has its uses.” (478–79)
  • Lang objects to calling “stray neologisms” “Briticisms” or “Americanisms” based on their being coined by a particular writer on either side of the Atlantic; he wants to see that the word has “struck root in the language. And, even so, I doubt if we should brand a nation with the evanescent eccentricities of careless or ‘precious’ writers” (479).
  • “That Mr. Barrie, or even Mr. William Watson, uses an Americanism (in each case quite serviceable and open to no objection) only proves what I started by saying, that some Americanisms deserve to be acclimatised, while others do not” (480).
  • Lang notes that Æeschylus went to Sicily frequently, and hopes Brander Matthews will read the plays with him the next time Matthews “alights on these shores” in order to point out the Sicilianisms: “my Greek is not delicate enough to detect them, especially as I have no Sicilian literature of the period to compare with Æschylus” (480).
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