George Gissing

The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903)


The name of Henry Ryecroft never became familiar to what is called the reading public. A year ago obituary paragraphs in the literary papers gave such account of him as was thought needful: the date and place of his birth, the names of certain books he had written, an allusion to his work in the periodicals, the manner of his death. At the time it sufficed. Even those few who knew the man, and in a measure understood him, must have felt that his name called for no further celebration; like other mortals, he had lived and laboured; like other mortals, he had entered into his rest. To me, however, fell the duty of examining Ryecroft's papers; and having, in the exercise of my discretion, decided to print this little volume, I feel that it requires a word or two of biographical complement, just so much personal detail as may point the significance of the self-revelation here made.

When first I knew him, Ryecroft had reached his fortieth year; for twenty years he had lived by the pen. He was a struggling man, beset by poverty and other circumstances very unpropitious to mental work. Many forms of literature had he tried; in none had he been conspicuously successful; yet now and then he had managed to earn a little more money than his actual needs demanded, and thus was enabled to see something of foreign countries. Naturally a man of independent and rather scornful outlook, he had suffered much from defeated ambition, from disillusions of many kinds, from subjection to grim necessity; the result of it, at the time of which I am speaking, was certainly not a broken spirit, but a mind and temper so sternly disciplined that in ordinary intercourse with him one did not know but that he led a calm, contented life. Only after several years of friendship was I able to form a just idea of what the man had gone through, or of his actual existence. Little by little Ryecroft had subdued himself to a modestly industrious routine. He did a great deal of mere hack-work; he reviewed, he translated, he wrote articles; at long intervals a volume appeared under his name. There were times, I have no doubt, when bitterness took hold upon him; not seldom he suffered in health, and probably as much from moral as from physical overstrain; but, on the whole, he earned his living very much as other men do, taking the day's toil as a matter of course and rarely grumbling over it.

Time went on; things happened; but Ryecroft was still laborious and poor. In moments of depression he spoke of his declining energies, and evidently suffered under a haunting fear of the future. The thought of dependence had always been intolerable to him; perhaps the only boast I at any time heard from his lips was that he had never incurred debt. It was a bitter thought that after so long and hard a struggle with unkindly circumstance he might end his life as one of the defeated.

A happier lot was in store for him. At the age of fifty, just when his health had begun to fall and his energies to show abatement, Ryecroft had the rare good fortune to find himself suddenly released from toil and to enter upon a period of such tranquillity of mind and condition as he had never dared to hope. On the death of an acquaintance, more his friend than he imagined, the way-worn man of letters learned with astonishment that there was bequeathed to him a life annuity of three hundred pounds. Having only himself to support (he had been a widower for several years, and his daughter, an only child, was married), Ryecroft saw in this income something more than a competency. In a few weeks he quitted the London suburb where of late he had been living, and turning to the part of England which he loved best, he presently established himself in a cottage near Exeter, where, with a rustic housekeeper to look after him, he was soon thoroughly at home. Now and then some friend went down into Devon to see him; those who had that pleasure will not forget the plain little house amid its half-wild garden, the cosy book-room with its fine view across the valley of the Exe to Haldon, the host's cordial, gleeful hospitality, rambles with him in lanes and meadows, long talks amid the stillness of the rural night. We hoped it would all last for many a year; it seemed, indeed, as though Ryecroft had only need of rest and calm to become a hale man. But already, though he did not know it, he was suffering from a disease of the heart, which cut short his life after little more than a lustrum of quiet contentment. It had always been his wish to die suddenly; he dreaded the thought of illness, chiefly because of the trouble it gave to others. On a summer evening, after a long walk in very hot weather, he lay down upon the sofa in his study, and there -- as his calm face declared -- passed from slumber into the great silence.

When he left London, Ryecroft bade farewell to authorship. He told me that he hoped never to write another line for publication. But, among the papers which I looked through after his death, I came upon three manuscript books which at first glance seemed to be a diary; a date on the opening page of one of them showed that it had been begun not very long after the writer's settling in Devon. When I had read a little in these pages, I saw that they were no mere record of day-to-day life; evidently finding himself unable to forego altogether the use of the pen, the veteran had set down, as humour bade him, a thought, a reminiscence, a bit of reverie, a description of his state of mind, and so on, dating such passage merely with the month in which it was written. Sitting in the room where I had often been his companion, I turned page after page, and at moments it was as though my friend's voice sounded to me once more. I saw his worn visage, grave or smiling; recalled his familiar pose or gesture. But in this written gossip he revealed himself more intimately than in our conversation of the days gone by. Ryecroft had never erred by lack of reticence; as was natural in a sensitive man who had suffered much, he inclined to gentle acquiescence, shrank from argument, from self-assertion. Here he spoke to me without restraint, and when I had read it all through, I knew the man better than before.

Assuredly this writing was not intended for the public, and yet in many a passage I seemed to perceive the literary purpose -- something more than the turn of phrase, and so on, which results from long habit of composition. Certain of his reminiscences, in particular, Ryecroft could hardly have troubled to write down had he not, however vaguely, entertained the thought of putting them to some use. I suspect that in his happy leisure there grew upon him a desire to write one more book, a book which should be written merely for his own satisfaction. Plainly, it would have been the best he had it in him to do. But he seems never to have attempted the arrangement of these fragmentary pieces, and probably because he could not decide upon the form they should take. I imagine him shrinking from the thought of a first-person volume; he would feel it too pretentious; he would bid himself wait for the day of riper wisdom. And so the pen fell from his hand.

Conjecturing thus, I wondered whether the irregular diary might not have wider interest than at first appeared. To me its personal appeal was very strong; might it not be possible to cull from it the substance of a small volume which at least for its sincerity's sake would not be without value for those who read, not with the eye alone, but with the mind? I turned the pages again. Here was a man who, having his desire, and that a very modest one, not only felt satisfied, but enjoyed great happiness. He talked of many different things, saying exactly what he thought; he spoke of himself, and told the truth as far as mortal can tell it. It seemed to me that the thing had human interest. I decided to print.

The question of arrangement had to be considered; I did not like to offer a mere incondite miscellany. To supply each of the disconnected passages with a title, or even to group them under subject headings, would have interfered with the spontaneity which above all I wished to preserve. In reading through the matter I had selected, it struck me how often the aspects of nature were referred to, and how suitable many of the reflections were to the month with which they were dated. Ryecroft, I knew, had ever been much influenced by the mood of the sky and by the procession of the year. So I hit upon the thought of dividing the little book into four chapters, named after the seasons. Like all classifications, it is imperfect, but 'twill serve.



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