The Vanishing Man of Letters

By Whittington-Egan, Richard | Contemporary Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview

The Vanishing Man of Letters


Whittington-Egan, Richard, Contemporary Review


Part Two

TRADITIONALLY, the image of the Man of Letters is that of a quiet and gentle scholar leading an eminently civilised life isolated behind the stout book barriers of his comfortable study. Perhaps. But sometimes the Man of Letters could also be fierce; none fiercer than John Churton Collins (1848-1908). He could be positively savage. His Ephemera Critica is a breviary of carefully calculated insult. Not that, in the majority of cases, it was unearned outcome! But Collins was an undeniably strange Bookman. Keen as mustard, fearless as well as tactless, he did not hesitate to treat even the great George Saintsbury to a barbed tongue-lashing. Reviewing that critic's A Short History of English Literature, he referred scathingly to 'the mingled coarseness, triviality and dogmatism of his tone, the audacious nonsense of his generalisations, and the offensive vulgarity of his diction and style--a very well of English defiled ... he has imported into his work the worst characteristics of irresponsible journalism'. And, a final damning note, 'he seems to take a boisterous pride in exhibiting his grossness'. It was his persistently negative, not to say paranoid, ferocity as a reviewer that brought Churton Collins the opprobrium of his peers. Tennyson, who is known to have referred to him as a 'Jackass', is further alleged (by Gosse) to have epithetised him as 'A louse on the locks of literature'.

He was a sort of Jack the Ripper of the literary journals--a curiously apt citing, for as it happens Collins was an extremely ardent amateur of crime, always avid for a good wrangle over the riddles of celebrated criminological mysteries, and did actually join in the East End hunt for the veritable Jack. He also contrived to scrape up an acquaintance with the Tichborne Claimant. Railways, psychical research, and the combing of graveyards were other enthusiasms. Indeed, whenever he visited a strange town his first port of call was always the local cemetery. Although hard-working, good-humoured, and exemplarily patient as a teacher, he was subject to violent mood swings and his ebullience could evaporate in a trice, to be replaced by a black suicidal depression which might last for months. He fought a long battle for the recognition of English literature in the university curriculum, and saw victory in 1893 with the establishment of the English honours school at Oxford. Collins died a bizarre death in 1908 under circumstances just as mysterious as those of any of the old murders he so loved to puzzle over. Seized by an acute attack of depression, he decided to spend a month of rest and recuperation at a doctor friend's in Lowestoft. He appeared to have improved greatly, but on the day that he was due to leave he was found drowned in four feet of brackish water in a dyke on the outskirts of the town. In his pocket were sedatives and a sheet of paper scrawled with some disturbingly appropriate lines from Piers Plowman:

   I was wearie of wandering
   And went me to reste
   Under a brod banke
   Bi a bourne side.

   And as I lay and leonede
   And lokede on the waters
   I slumbered in a sleping
   Hit sownede so murie.

Among the victims of Collins' penchant for vituperative style literary evaluation was one who was destined to become the Man of Letters par excellence, the most revered critical panjandrum of his day, Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), faithfully portrayed in his full-flowering incarnation as august Librarian of the House of Lords, as 'an elderly mandarin who prided himself on his coroneted friends'. His father, Philip Henry Gosse, was the celebrated naturalist and 'inventor' of the drawing-room aquarium. Edmund, losing his mother when he was seven, was brought up by his father, as recorded, in somewhat ungrateful, biased, and inaccurate fashion, in his classic Father and Son (1907). Obliged to earn a living, he found a bookish niche, starting work at the age of seventeen as an assistant librarian in the British Museum. …

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