One of the great lights in the literary world said to me once: "The greatest misfortune that can happen to any writer is an outstanding success early in his career. That outstanding success will always be his enemy, because all his subsequent work will be measured by that one standard and in the opinion of the unintellectual will always be thought to fall short of it." Of course, there is a good deal of truth in that pronouncement. It goes back to what I said just now on the subject of early, youthful success. But the great man's general condemnation of an early success was mitigated by his qualification, 'in the opinion of the unintellectual'. There is no doubt that the general public, having taken one particular work to its heart, will measure the author's further creations by that one standard. Well! if that standard be a high one, there is nothing to grumble at. And I, for one, refuse to look on The Scarlet Pimpernel as my literary enemy, and I am certain that Conan Doyle never looked on Sherlock Holmes as anything but his dearest and most valued friend.
Anyway, here I am ready to come to grips with the inner history of that creation of mine, The Scarlet Pimpernel, remembering all the success that came to him and to me through him during close on fifty years since his original conception. I have so often been asked how I came to think of him, how did his personality first present itself to my mind. It was during our stay in Paris that the background and the nucleus of the story were first conceived, but what I wanted--and I knew that I wanted it more than anything to make my story worth while--was a real live, outstanding personality. I remember Arnold Bennett saying once to me: "A book will live by the characters that people its story, characters that make the story real; it will never live by the story alone, however well-constructed or interesting it may be." And he in his dry, sarcastic way: "Do not be afraid about the future of your Scarlet Pimpernel. It will live because of its character long after far finer books have gone the way of oblivion." He did not mean this either ironically or carpingly.
We went on talking about Dickens' immortality as against Thackeray, in many ways by far the finer writer of the two, certainly the more literary: however contemptuously modern youth may refer to Dickens (whom for the most part they have never read), there is no getting away from the fact that Mr. Micawber, Mr. Mantalini, Pecksniff, Squeers, and all the rest, are as alive to-day as they were when enthusiastic readers fought for the privilege of being the first to read the installments of Pickwick Papers or The Old Curiosity Shop as they appeared week by week in Household Words.
Does Esmond or Barry Lindon, fine as they are, ever mean the same to millions of thoughtful readers as does Mr. Pickwick or Mr. Pecksniff and so many others? And even in the case of that greatest writer of all time, does not one's mind dwell on Hamlet and Othello, Lady Macbeth and King Lear rather than on the story of Two Gentlemen of Verona or Love's Labour's Lost. But this, perhaps, is beside the point. The conversation with Arnold Bennett occurred long after my book had overstepped its umpteenth edition. For the moment I was intent on the personality which would make my story live.
Strangely enough that personality of the Scarlet Pimpernel came to me in a very curious way. I first saw him standing before me--don't gasp, please--on the platform of an underground station, The Temple. I had been to see someone on the Daily Express, à propos of some minor work, and was waiting for my Inner Circle train for Kensington. Now, of all the dull, prosy places in the world, can you beat an Underground Railway Station? It was foggy too, and smelly and cold. But I give you my word that as I was sitting there, I saw--yes, I saw--Sir Percy Blakeney just as you know him now.
I saw him in his exquisite clothes, his slender hands holding up his spy-glass: I heard his lazy drawling speech, his quaint laugh. I can't tell you in detail everything I saw and heard--it was a mental vision, of course, and lasted but a few seconds--but it was the whole life-story of the Scarlet Pimpernel that was there and then revealed to me. The rest of the day has remained a blur in my mind, but my thoughts were clear enough for me to tell my beloved husband about the wonder that had occurred; the birth of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Everything else was easy. I set to work the very next day and wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel, as it now stands, in five weeks. I wrote it as a book; I thought of it as a possible play. Scenes, pictures, love-scenes, adventures both comic and tragic, thrilling moments, dramatic scenes, and above all character--always character--after running riot in my brain all settled themselves down into a simple and complete whole.
I think that I may look on those five weeks as some of the happiest in my life. To feel my creation become more and more real, to feel it growing into something that would live, into something vivid that would not fail to stir the imagination of all those who, on reading about that imaginary personage, would in their turn feel that he was absolutely real, that he had indeed lived and laughed and loved, that was my happiness and my joy. And I know that Sir Percy Blakeney has become such a real living personality to so many millions of readers that books of biography and history have been consulted by the studious to discover his prototype somehow, somewhere; that for over forty years now I have been bombarded with letters from all over the world demanding a pronouncement from me, 'Who was the original of your Scarlet Pimpernel?'
The literary critic of an important colonial paper paid me, I think, the most subtle compliment I ever received (not meaning to, of course) when he said that the author had not quite grasped the real character of the original (sic) Sir Percy Blakeney. Subtle, wasn't it? For Sir Percy Blakeney is mine, and mine only , just as I have given him to the world, to the French, to the Italians, to Poland and Denmark and Norway; it has been translated into sixteen foreign languages, including Japanese, and in several Eastern dialects, notably Urdu. Its crowning laurel was when, in the early days of the Russian Revolution, it was translated into Russian. But, above all, I gave him with my whole heart to the English-speaking world: the world that best understood him. "I love your character so," said Joynson Hicks (afterwards Lord Brentford) to me one day, "because he is so very English. You have put your finger on what is best and truest in English character." And another great politician said with a sigh: "I like your Blakeney so much; he is such a gentleman."
Well, anyway, there he was, quite ready now at last to make his bow before the reading public. His triumphs of course came a bit later, for let me tell you at once that things did not go quite so easily for me as I had so confidently anticipated. The book was ready for publication: the most important thing now was to find a publisher. My husband and I had put the play together in collaboration, and it was ready for production. The thing was to find a theatrical manager who would produce it. But the book first. In my ignorance I thought that the choice of a publisher for my book rested with me. And so it started on its weary way. Yes! weary way indeed, for my beloved book on which I had built such hopes was refused by a round dozen of publishers in London. Starting at the top of the publishing world, I sent it to Macmillan and to Heinemann, to Murray, and so on, and always with monotonous recurrence came that fatal rejection slip. However, I was not discouraged. I thought and thought. I tried this, that, and the other. Personal introduction, personal interviews.
In the offices of the powers that be people were always very kind and sympathetic. I spoke about having dramatized the book and this aroused a glimmer of interest, for I remember Mr. Heinemann, to who I had a personal introduction, saying to me: "Well! if your play is produced and is successful, you bring me back your book, and I'll see what I can do."
The reader at Cassell's liked it too and recommended it for publication. It was kept three weeks in the office pending final decision. And 'final decision' was again the rejection slip. One firm offered me publication and a certain amount of publicity if I paid all expenses connected with the printing and general advertising of the book. That I never would agree to; and never throughout my whole life did I ever spend one penny for the pushing of any of my works. I don't believe it ever does any good, though I have heard of several young authors who have been lured into this trap by promises that never materialized. A publisher's business is to publish, and if he does not consider it worth his while to spend the few pounds necessary for the publishing and advertising of any particular book, then it certainly is not worth the author's while either to risk his money in an undertaking which is not his and the success of which he cannot control.
Another firm, a more important one this time, offered to buy outright all rights in my book for the sum of £30 down. Now though I won't admit for a moment that I was getting discouraged by then, nevertheless I will own that the offer was tempting. Why? I cannot say. We were not in need of £30. We had enough to live on and have a bit of fun into the bargain, but my spirits were rather droopy under the weight of those abominable rejection slips. The future looked somehow foggy and grey, nothing very rosy about it in the literary way.
Was I wrong in my estimate of what a reading public would care for when it wanted to be not only entertained, but taken out of itself? Out of the drabness of its surroundings, of its daily duties or even of its amusements, out of the daily round in 'buses or trains, or swagger Rolls-Royces, of lunches at Claridge's or the A.B.C. tea-shops? Rich or poor, life was all the same: so often drab and monotonous and I had thought I would give them romance, stories of the past that would bring back to their minds happy days of youth and carefree adolescence, love, laughter, adventure, gaiety.
Was I wrong? Were those business men right who kept their fingers on the pulse of the reading public and said to me with a shrug: "Yes! I rather like your book, but the public does not care for that sort of thing. The days of old Dumas and The Three Musketeers are as extinct as the Dodo. Give them something modern, true to the life of to-day, not the romantic imaginings of a past they care nothing about." "So unreal!" most of these gentlemen would add, sometimes with a sigh which I was at a loss to interpret.
Well! I was gradually being forced into thinking that perhaps they were right. After all they ought to know. It was their business to know, and anyway as not one of them was willing to put their opinion to the test by publishing my book, there was no way of knowing whether they were right and I was wrong. The long and the short of it all was that I suddenly made up my mind to accept that miserable £30 and part with every right in my Scarlet Pimpernel and, pending publication, to see whether I could get in touch with a theatrical manager who might be willing to put up the play.
As a matter of fact I had no difficulty in this. I had at one time made the casual acquaintance of an actor, who during periods of inactivity in his stage career, busied himself with theatrical agency. He was a very poor actor and his appearance rather told against him, but he was a magnificent reader, with a beautifully modulated voice, and knew how to get the best out of every line written by an inexperienced dramatist. His advice, too, was always sound. He seemed to know by instinct what would 'get across the footlights' and what would not. Anyway, I submitted the play to him. My darling and I had spent a great deal of time in trying to get it as good as we possibly could make it; "as good in its way as the book", my dear collaborator would say. The actor-agent thought it good. "A charming play," he called it, and added that he happened to know that the Terry management (Fred Terry and his wife Julia Neilson), who were now running a highly successful romantic drama, Sweet Nell of Old Drury were on the look-out for something equally romantic to follow.
Our friend submitted our play to them and on Friday the 13th of May, 1903, it was definitely accepted for production at some future date. Friday the 13th. The conjunction of day and date had always been lucky for us. That of 1903 certainly was so. And there we were now full of happy anticipation. We had seen Sweet Nell, and felt quite satisfied that production and caste would all be everything that even an established dramatist could desire. Our contract with the management didn't seem any too bad. It had been drawn up by our old family solicitor, who, experienced as he was in such legal matters as wills, or conveyancing, knew nothing whatever about theatrical contracts, or the value of any kind of work of art. He didn't foresee any of those eventualities which gathered fast and furious as the play continued in its successful career.
But there were many tribulations before that happy event came about. Nearly two years went by before anticipation became realization. In the meanwhile the enterprising publisher who had made me the generous (sic) offer of £30 for all rights in my book, thought better of it and entrenched himself behind a condition that the offer would only hold good if the play was produced and was a success. This gave me the chance of refusing the offer then and there. The publisher didn't mind; at any rate he expressed no regret, and I was left to thank my stars that I had not fallen into the temptation of 'selling my birthright for a mess of pottage'.
Armed with the certainty of the production of the play on a grand scale by an important management, I had another try or two at getting the book published. My idea was that production of the play should occur simultaneously with the publication of the book. You see I had more belief in the book than in the play, and I thought that even an unsuccessful play would be publicity for the book. But, as before, publishers thought otherwise.
Anyway, no one wanted to publish The Scarlet Pimpernel until--almost in desperation--I bethought myself of a small firm who brought out a weekly publication, The Play Pictorial. I argued to myself that the powers that be in that particular firm were especially interested in theatrical matters. I obtained a personal interview and offered my book, explaining about the play and its future production. Mr. Greening was very kind, though a little doubtful, as all of them were. I left the book with him and when I saw him he was good enough to say that personally he liked the book but was not inclined to back his opinion; "but," he added, "I'll tell you what I can do. When I am doubtful about a book I submit it to my dear old mother, who lives down in Cornwall. She is, quite unsophisticated but knows what she likes. If she likes the book I publish it, because I take her to be a criterion of the taste of the great reading public for whom I wish to cater." That was in substance what he said and what he did. Evidently the unsophisticated old lady from Cornwall liked the Scarlet Pimpernel, for the firm of Greening & Co. accepted the book for publication (publication to be co-incident with the production of the play) and gave me quite a good contract for it, considering that I was then an unknown writer.
The play, on the other hand, which, by the way, had its 2,000th performance in London alone, went through certain vicissitudes which it is amusing to recall. Definitely accepted for production in May, 1903, it had its tentative production at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, in the autumn of that same year. We went down to see it. In the theatrical jargon such a production is called 'trying it on the dog'. It usually goes to show how the great theatre-going public in London would take to a play. The Nottingham public was theatrical-minded. It knew what it liked and gave its approval or disapproval ungrudgingly. In the case of the Scarlet Pimpernel, lavishly produced and cast to perfection with Fred Terry as Sir Percy Blakeney, a rôle which fitted him like the proverbial glove, and Julia Neilson, beautiful and emotional as Marguerite, approval was not only ungrudging but enthusiastic. So much so that a large portion of the audience who had come some little distance to the show and did not possess a motor-car stayed in the house applauding and acclaiming author and performers, regardless of time, and missed their last 'bus or train to the suburbs. "I have never known anything like that to happen," the stage-door keeper said to me as I tried to make my way out of the theatre. "Missed their last train, they did. Wouldn't go till the last fall of the curtain. That shows it's got 'em." And it certainly had. The local Press was enthusiastic in its praise; the few kind friends with whom we had become acquainted during our short stay in Nottingham talked freely of an outstanding success. We went to bed as happy as the proverbial 'b-- in a rug'.
The next day, however, there came a snag. The Terry-Neilson management, faced with an unusually heavy and expensive production had asked the late Frank Curzon to come down and see the show with a view to partnership. Frank Curzon was one of the most experienced and most progressive managers of the day. He came and saw, but was not conquered. "I hope you've got something else for London, my dear fellow," was his verdict. "This is all right for the provinces, but it won't do for London. The Press for one will never stand it." But Fred Terry stuck to his guns: "I bet you five pounds," he retorted, "that it will do for London"; and Curzon also stuck to his guns: "I bet you fifty pounds it won't." Whether the bet was taken or not I don't know. Frank Curzon was all wrong, of course.
Years afterwards I met him at the 999th performance of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and he said quite frankly: "Well! I was wrong. I admit it; but then if we none of us ever made a mistake, we would all die millionaires." He did hedge a little, however, by adding: "As a matter of fact I couldn't stick that fourth act. It was enough to damn the whole play." That act followed the end of the book quite closely, as indeed did the whole play. But there is no doubt that the outdoor scene, the sea, the rocks, the soldiers, the general atmosphere in fact might easily bring the level of the play down to melodrama and handsome, debonair Fred Terry did not like the idea of making his final bow to the public in the unattractive disguise of an old Jew. This last was the determining factor.
I was only too ready to fall in with his views, and before the next trial production--fixed for Newcastle--a new fourth act had to be constructed. I was down with an awful attack of the Spanish 'flu--then very prevalent in London--so my dear collaborator set to work one morning, and by the late afternoon he was by my bedside flourishing a few sheets of MS. Paper covered with his neat calligraphy. "I have got the fourth act," he said, with his infectious laugh; "no sea, no rocks, no soldiers, and Terry bowing his last as handsome as ever before."
The play with its new fourth act (as you, dear reader, have no doubt seen it) was tried out at Newcastle and later on in Dublin; after which it was ready for its London production. We hoped that this would be some time in 1904, but once again we were disappointed. Soon we heard from outsiders that the Terry management, unable to secure the theatre they wanted for the Scarlet Pimpernel--namely, the New--were putting up an altogether smaller production, Sunday, at the Comedy. It was already in rehearsal and the Scarlet Pimpernel was shelved for the time being until a larger theatre could be secured. Our play was put into rehearsal the following autumn. The rehearsals took place in the Shaftesbury Theatre. We attended only a very few of them. We felt that we were not wanted, and did not indeed feel inclined to submit to the inferior position allotted to the creators of a work that was destined to bring fame and fortune to all those who had a hand in its production.
One felt that the remarks or criticisms of the merest scene-shifter were of more importance to the theatrical mind than those of the author of the play. I remember on the occasion of the first rehearsal--before we had learned our lesson of self-effacement--we turned up at the stage-door and after we were allowed to pass through we found our way to the stage. Only one or two members of the company had arrived as yet and were pacing up and down looking over their lines. Oh! it was cold! We were too early. Some of the stage hands were placing tables and other furniture about for the Inn Scene in Act I.
A diminutive, but seemingly very important call-boy approached us and in a patronizing way asked us if we were members of the company. We informed him modestly that we were not exactly members of the company but just happened to be the authors of the play, whereupon he indicated a quiet corner up O.P. and remarked: "You'd better sit here. You'll be out of everybody's way. " I think that small boy had already some experience of theatrical affairs. Neither our opinion nor our advice were wanted, so we never offered any. I remember some time afterwards speaking about this to an eminent playwright who was also a friend, a man who had learned by experience all there was to know about these matters; his comment was very pertinent. "You see, you were not anybody of importance, yet. And," he added with a twinkle of his shrewd eyes, "you were not paying for the production, were you?"
I only recollect one or two trifling incidents which helped to break the monotony of those dreary rehearsals. All artists, in every branch of the arts, are notoriously temperamental. Musicians terribly so, and actors too, but actor-managers most of all, so I have found. I suppose they have more at stake than minor members of their company. Money and prestige in addition to artistic success. Fred Terry was the most temperamental man I ever met. His nerves always seemed to be on edge. Sometimes he would let himself go, giving his ebullient temper free rein, as when, on one occasions, a minor member of the company was called and did not happen to respond on the very second, he was called to account for wasting time and delaying rehearsal. For over ten minutes did the unfortunate man have to stand by and listen to abuse and a string of swear words that made the lights turn blue. Everyone was upset and the rehearsal was delayed, and time of course was wasted.
Nevertheless, there never was a more kind and patient teacher than Fred Terry when the mood was upon him. I watched him one day for twenty minutes teaching the Prince of Wales in Act II how to manage his sword, and how to sit down gracefully without getting his legs entangled in it. Twenty minutes--and never once losing patience! In his beautifully modulated voice he would go over and over certain lines with his wife until she spoke them in the way that pleased him. But I would not have liked his many admirers to have heard him when we--oh! so modestly--objected to his singing the verse of a song one minute before the final ending of the play. I ask you, would any man sing a song after the vicissitudes he had just gone through in the last act and with his adored wife just waiting to clasp him in her arms.
All the same I have often, even to this day, been asked who came nearest in the flesh to my ideal of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and unhesitatingly I always name Fred Terry.
Well! everything does come in time doesn't it? And the day did come when, sitting in a tea-shop in Oxford Street rather anxiously discussing our prospects, on an omnibus which came to a halt opposite the shop we saw a big advertisement in flaring-letters: 'New Theatre: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Julia Neilson and Fred Terry', and in much smaller type our two names. We had by now sufficient theatrical experience to know better than to expect being 'starred' in any way. The limelight was for those who were paying for it, not for a mere pair of unknown authors. Still! it was our play that was being advertised and we were such a pair of young ninnies that to see The Scarlet Pimpernel in large flaring letters all along the side of the 'bus thrilled us to the very marrow. The fact seemed to us so wonderful! Wonderful, from the very fact that our theatrical experiences of the last two years had not given us the chance of getting spoilt or given us 'a swollen head'. Our feelings were like those of a child when first beholding a Christmas tree. We hastily called the waitress, paid our bill, and rushed out of the shop only to see the 'bus disappearing down the street.
We swallowed our disappointment and walked down to Oxford Circus and, lo! and behold, there we saw another 'bus bearing the same advertisement in flaring red letters. It was heading for the city and we were making our way to the Marble Arch, but the desire was irresistible. We climbed up to the top of that 'bus and sat happily enthroned behind the magic placard all the way to Tottenham Court Road. Weren't we fools? But oh, such happy fools. Of course we reckoned to see heads turned and eyes fixed excitedly on those wonderful lines. But no! the crowd on the pavements just hurried along, seemingly unaware that the title of a great work was being freely displayed for everyone to see. Not one person looked up at the advertisement, not one gleam of intelligence flashed from the eyes of that indifferent crowd, so we quietly paid our pennies, descended from Parnassus, and boarded a 'bus going the other way. I noticed that its side bore the advertisement of Quaker Oats.
Then came the first night of The Scarlet Pimpernel at the New Theatre in London. We two in a stage box, very nervous, hid ourselves as much out of sight as possible. We had no wish to satisfy the curiosity of Press or public; but we need not have worried, for not a soul took the slightest interest in us. We had asked for a few free tickets and about half a dozen of our friends were in the house. Once or twice a smile of encouragement was directed towards us, and at the end of Act I one or two friends came to our box and said kind things to us. It was going to be a big success, so they all declared. This bucked me up a bit until--when the curtain went up once more--I looked down into the stalls and saw row upon row of sleepy-looking, obviously bored, men grinning at one another and shrugging their shoulders before composing themselves to another snooze . . . the critics!
Up in the gallery a controversy was going on which we knew nothing about at the time, but heard of afterwards from a friend who had gone up there on purpose to hear the opinion of 'the gods'. This was the era when a small number of young hooligans (I can't call them anything else) had banded themselves together for the express purpose of attending first nights and 'booing' any and every new play save those that came from the pen of an established dramatist. It was a cruel and entirely unwarranted action on their part, because they did succeed more than once in turning a likely success by an unknown author into an admitted failure.
The critics who are not usually kind to unknown authors, were ready to comment upon this 'booing', which they termed 'the expression of disapproval on the part of the general public'--which it often was not--and the new play would be put down as a failure, when it might have been worked by timely publicity into a success. And the management lost its money and the poor actors their jobs. And that was the controversy that went on in the gallery and was overheard by a friend, unbeknown to us on the first night of The Scarlet Pimpernel. 'To boo or not to boo?' that was the question. What the answer was I know not, for I was too dazed and too excited to hear anything but the rapturous applause which greeted the final fall of the curtain.
It was indeed rapturous, no other words will describe the ovation to which the Terry's responded with smiles, repeated bowings and the usual speech: "On behalf of Miss Neilson and myself . . . and so on." Then a number of voices from every part of the house called: "Author! Author!" and Fred Terry glanced up at our box. I suppose that it was dark and he didn't see us; he thought perhaps we had already run away, anyway he stepped forward and said: "I regret to say that the authors are not in the house." And that was that. But we didn't care. Nothing, we thought, could hurt us now. Our play was a success. A triumphant success, and there was no room in our minds for anything but thankfulness and joy.
Our half-dozen friends who had been in the house drove round with us to the flat for a picnic supper. Of course they all praised the play and predicted a lasting success. Most of them though were sorry that 'the English damn'--which in the book comes from the Scarlet Pimpernel after the terrible ordeal he has gone through, and which is to my thinking really the best line in the book--had been omitted from the play. But the exigencies of the fourth act as it stood did not permit its retention and, after all, success was there, hot and strong, and the reading public which does not necessarily comprise the theatre-goers could still enjoy the 'English damn'.
The next morning we sent out for the papers.
We did want to know what those somnolent, flaccid gentlemen of the Press would have to say after this overwhelming success. Well! we had the surprise of our lives: and such a surprise! Hardly a good word from any of the critics. A. B. Walkley in The Times was mildly sarcastic; a few of the others gave us an encouraging little pat on the back, telling us to try and do better next time. Our names--Baroness Orczy, Montagu Barstow--had been condensed to 'Orczy-Barstow', and this gave one or two pleasantly-minded gentlemen the opportunity to say something facetious about that. But it was the Daily Mail that, to put it mildly, did the management and us almost in. I don't know who the pleasant gentleman was who wrote the paragraph concerning "the new play at the New". He started his notice by saying that "the only good thing about this play is its name" --I am quoting verbatim--"the Scarlet Pimpernel is a little flower that blossoms and dies in one day, which is the obvious fate of this play," and the gentleman went on to say: "Fred Terry was laboriously light and Miss Julia Neilson gave a rather poor imitation of Mrs. Patrick Campbell."
I have said before that Fred Terry was temperamental and hinted that his command of language was both forcible and varied. I was not present when he read the above paragraph in the Daily Mail, imagination recoils before the picture it presents to the mind. I believe it was many years before Fred Terry allowed a representative of the offending paper to be present at one of his 'first nights'. I wonder if the writer of the paragraph felt at all cheap when on the hundredth night of the play he saw the box-office besieged and notices 'House Full' outside the theatre night after night. But at the time it was a real hammer-blow.
Arthur Garret, Terry's manager, came rushing round to us with something like despair in his face. "Something has got to be done," he said, all a quiver with consternation. "The Daily Mail, with its huge circulation, will turn the show into a flop." And it very nearly did. The following night there was not £50 in the house, and the night after that barely £60. The first matinée was a shade better, but the receipts still fell far short of three figures. Free seats were showered upon us for our friends (they had become valuable assets). "You must help to dress the house," Garrett went on to say. "We are doing our best. We can't have rows of empty seats. . . . Mr. Terry won't give in to those blighters. . . ." And so on.
Well! everyone, including ourselves, made a great effort to 'dress the house', and on the Saturday night there was a slight rise in the barometer of the box office and the house did not look so desolate as it had done the night before. Hope springs eternal, etc., etc. And it did . . . until the following morning when the Sunday Press came down upon the play with hammer and tongs of abuse.
Mr. J. T. Grein, en tête in the Sunday Times: "As I sat for three mortal hours," he wrote, "trying in vain to find something to praise," and so on in the same strain, which seemed really to have an element of spite in it so virulent was it. 'Something to praise'? surely there must be something to praise even by the most inveterate highbrow in a play that has since held the theatre-going public enthralled half over the world for over thirty years. Anyway, with but very few exceptions such as the Referee and one or two others, the Sunday Press came into line with the dailies. Another slump in the box office. Was the play which had been acclaimed to the skies by all those who had seen it (except the critics, of course) really going to fail lamentably? really going to be like its namesake, the little flower that blooms and dies in one day? Ne'er a bit of it. It slumped against a bit on the Monday, revived a little on the Tuesday . . . and on Wednesday the illustrated weeklies came out with criticisms as damning as the daily and Sunday Press.
Another slump. More dressing of the house. Then a slight rise in the barometer in the middle of the week and a decided rise for Saturday both matinée and evening. Three figures for the Saturday matinée! We met Arthur Garrett in the foyer of the theatre, mopping his streaming brow: "We are saved," he declared.
Yes! we were saved. Failure had turned into success. From that moment there was no retrograde movement in the barometer. But how near we were to failure, we and the management who must have felt anxiety and disappointment just as keenly as we did. Honestly , I was as grieved for them during the past anxious week as I was for ourselves; and quite apart from the happiness success brought to us, we both in our hearts gave an ungrudging admiration to Fred Terry and his beautiful wife for the pluck and tenacity with which they stuck to their guns, and were genuinely thankful that they reaped their rich reward.
And that is how The Scarlet Pimpernel, one of the most popular plays ever staged in an English theatre, was on the brink of failure.
But not so the book, which was published early in 1905. Its first appearance on the bookstalls coincided with the production of the play. Unlike the play, however, it was an immediate success. Praise from every section of the Press was whole-hearted. It takes longer than young authors imagine to get really known. Messrs. Greening always warned me of that. "You have got to get known. You must not rest on your laurels. You must go on pegging away as hard as you can. Follow up your success. We'll do all we can for you, but you must back us up with the very best work you can do. The play is all very well, that shrewd business man went on to say, "but you must remember that there are thousands--not to say millions--of men and women in this country who never dream of going to the theatre. As a nation we are not theatre-goers, not like the French, who go to the play as a matter of habit." He was quite right there, and many years went by before those same men and women who used to avoid the theatre (an old Puritanical strain in them so I always thought) took to going in their millions to the cinema.
But in the meanwhile they took my books to their hearts. Bless 'em!
And I was thankful to put all thoughts of plays and theatres behind me and to think only of my books. The books I was going to write: the books, the scenes and stories of which were seething in my brain. A regular whirlwind of scenes and adventures they were. My Scarlet Pimpernel! Well! he was not going to rest in idleness in London and in Bath, no! Not even in the arms of his beloved Marguerite while men, women, and children were being tracked down, tortured, and killed the other side of the Channel. Of course he would continue his life of devotion and self-sacrifice in their cause. He and his brave, loyal henchmen. There were at least half a dozen adventures into which I knew that he must plunge whilst I had the power to put his glorious deeds into words. So I began by setting to work and writing I will Repay, the first of a whole series I intended to write on my favourite subject. Oh! there were no rebuffs, no disappointments in my career now.
How many times have young authors said to me, "Oh! if only I could write a play! A play is so much more exciting than a book. The production must be such a wonderful thrill! To see the scenes which you have conceived and hear the words which you have put in the mouth of your characters! It must be too wonderful!!" Well! I dare say it is, but I don't want any of that excitement. I can quite well do without that thrill. Give me the thrill of creating a character, a scene, a situation, of putting it all into words of my own imagining and then placing it before the public without the aid of actors and producers and scene painters and what-nots. Give me the unalloyed joy all the time of writing a book for a public which has learned to understand you and who loves you and there is no greater thrill to be had in all the world.
I remember on one occasion, during a performance of a play of mine, Beau Brocade, at the Queen's Theatre under Frank Curzon's management, he and I were having a talk over that same subject: play versus book writing, and he was much amused by my declaring that I would far rather be the writer of successful books than of successful plays. "To begin with," was my argument, "there is no dramatist living, however great a success he might have had with a play who can be sure that his next venture will not be a failure. He depends on so many outside factors. Think of the actors who have to interpret his work and so often misinterpret it. Then there is the question of fashion, of the temper of the critics, of outside circumstances such as the weather or a death in the royal family and down goes the barometer of the box office and the play is a failure." "But what about a book?" he argued with a good-natured laugh. "Aren't you equally dependent on outside factors? What about the critics?" "No," I said, "a novelist once he has established himself in the heart of his readers, has nothing to fear from the Press. One book may be less successful than another, he may be attacked by some of the reviewers, but at all times good or bad, fair weather or foul, people must and will read, and they will always turn to their favourite authors. And that is where we novelists get the pull. There are no actors between us and the public. What we have written is there for the public to read and to judge for itself."
It has also been argued that play-writing is more lucrative than book-writing, and the question of money naturally looms large in the hopes and ambitions of young writers. But that also is a fallacy. Putting aside the precariousness of a play being an outstanding success, a successful book is worth far far more from a money point of view than any play even if it runs to many thousand nights. Play-writing is a great, a wonderful, art. I am only too ready to admit it. Success in it does come to a few. All I mean is that success in it is more precarious, and is more fraught with disappointments, and even with heartache than is the art of the novelist. As a matter of fact to say that a book is a failure is an anachronism. A first book by an unknown author may fail to attract, the sales may be confined to a few orders from the circulating libraries, but it does not mean that it is a failure, i.e. that it will be relegated to the scrap heap of literary endeavour. If only a few copies have been sold, those copies go on existing, they are bound to pass from one hand to another if only over the counters of the libraries. Nor does it follow that a second book by the same author will not be published and find appreciation and the desire for more work from the same author.
My contention is that there is no such thing as stark failure for a book. Not the stark failure that attends a play which does not happen to please the public and which has no chance of being given a second hearing. It is dead. It is gone. No manager will want to look at it again. And great dramatists, popular dramatists, have known that kind of failure, and not once only. But a novelist has not that disappointment to contend with. Readers may say: "Oh, I don't care for that book of yours," but they will always add: "I don't think it's a patch on your X.Y.Z." But they will have read it and will have discussed it with others. The book will always be there for every thinking reader to judge for himself.
"Young authors, stick to your books," is the advise of an old stager like I am; "don't bother about plays; put all that is best in you in your books; peg away at them till you are well known. Appreciation will come in the end."
As soon as The Scarlet Pimpernel was an established success in the theatre, I was approached by foreign dramatists who desired to translate it for their own stage. Oh! if these clever gentlemen had only been content to translate the play, keeping its original root-idea such as I the author had conceived it, and above all keeping the original characterization, I for one would have been quite happy to hear the words which I had written given out in a foreign tongue.
Unfortunately those same clever gentlemen desired to adapt the play to what they declared were the requirements of their own public, a public which I was naturally not supposed to know anything about. I agreed to this idea of adaptation. As a matter of fact our own dramatists here in England had for years been busy adapting French farces and French dramas for the English stage, and very successfully too. I will only cite The Marriage of Kitty as an example, and adaptation of La Passerelle which, in the rigid translation, would certainly have shocked the prudish British nation, but as a clever adaptation, just a little twist here and there, was perfectly 'chaste' and most amusing.
There were others of course, and I, remembering these readily agreed to the adaptation of my Scarlet Pimpernel for the French, the Italian, the German, and Spanish stage. The play was very successful in Italy; it was performed not only in Rome, but also in Milan and one or two of the other important towns. I didn't see it, nor did I see the script. I have the German script where the play was called Cour As! (Ace of Hearts). The language appears to me ponderous and the dialogue entirely lacking brightness and humour. It was first performed a year or so before the outbreak of the 1914 war. I was not in touch with anyone in Germany then, the agent who drew up the contract and saw that it was properly carried out was certainly not enthusiastic about the production. He told me that in the opinion of the critics the story and characterization were too essentially English, and as the English were very unpopular in Germany already the play was not to the taste of the Anglophobe public. Funnily enough I have since then been approached more than once (both during and after the War) by German musicians for permission to adapt the play for opera or operette.
The one 'adaptation' I did witness, however, was the French one. It was done by Monsieur Jean-Joseph Renaud, who in addition to his literary fame (he was a well-known novelist and journalist) was one of the fencing champions of France. I understand that he has figured more often than any other man as second in affaires d'honneur (otherwise duels). Well! he may have been (certainly was) an expert in the noble art of duelling, but he was apparently not expert in knowledge of the public taste--his own public, mind you. Of course I was supposed to know nothing about the taste of the Parisian play-going public, but M.J.J.R. knew all about it having been mixed up with the theatre since boyhood and being on intimate terms of friendship with every journalist and most theatrical managers of Paris. My dear collaborator and I then gave him permission to adapt the Scarlet Pimpernel for the French stage.
We had promised that we would go to Paris for the first performance and we went. What I suffered that night is indescribable. It was a mixture of agony of mind and--of positive rage. My beloved Scarlet Pimpernel which had so often been spoken of as the perfect presentation of an English gentleman was the perfect presentation of a French bourgeois, rotund, loud of voice, heavy of gait, profuse of gesture. He was for ever clenching his fist. Sir Percy clenching his fist!! But what positively outraged me was that the adapter had introduced an intrigue between--whom do you think--Sir Andrew Ffoulkes and Marguerite!! Sir Andrew in love with his friend's wife! Even the film people didn't do that . . . but more of them anon.
How I sat out the evening I know not. After the first act everything became a blur and I remember nothing more. We were staying at the time with a dear friend, Mademoiselle Cugnier, a charming, cultured French lady, who had certainly read the excellent translation of the book, but she had never been in England and had therefore never seen the play. She knew what my dear collaborator and I were both suffering, and she did and said all she could to soften the blow--for it was a blow. I felt as if that rotund, rubicund gentleman on the stage had knocked me on the head with his clenched fist.
To add to our troubles, several friends of Mademoiselle Cugnier came into our box to be introduced to the authors and they spoke such flattering, such obviously insincere, eulogies of the play and of the acting and prophesied a lasting success. In that they were so very charming and so very French. I was never one to suffer from 'nerves', but that night . . .!!!
The only comfort I derived from the whole thing, and it was a funny sort of comfort, was that obviously the play was a failure from the very first. But how a well-known French author could so misunderstand the taste of the highly cultured public of his own country has remained a puzzle to me. Subsequently The Tangled Skein, from my own romance of that name was also adapted for the French stage; I forget who was the adapter at that time. The play was produced at the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt, and that is all I know about it. We didn't go over to see it. Once bitten, twice shy.
But worse was to come a few years later when the film people worked their wicked will on so many of my books.
Since the days of The Scarlet Pimpernel I have written a number of historical romances. History always fascinated me, and as I never really cared for social life I didn't find that modern thought and modern views of life attracted me sufficiently to place my romantic stories in the setting of to-day. I don't mean to suggest by that that there is no romance in the life of to-day. There is plenty and to spare, more perhaps than there was in the olden days. All I mean is, that somehow I am not in tune with it. Never, even in my young days, was I fond of social life. I am something of a hermit and the company of my husband and a few intimate friends was all I ever craved for in the way of society. I always found going to parties a terrible waste of time. How much happier one is in the midst of an intimate circle, where one does not have to contend with well-meaning, garrulous gushers such as I met once, I remember at a 'party', a pleasant enough woman who approached me with a glass of sherry in one hand and a sandwich in the other, and exclaimed in a loud voice somewhat marred by the piece of sandwich she was munching, "Dear Baroness Pimpernel!" (Oh! how I hate that; I meet it so often.) "How I loved your lovely book! I think Chauvelin is one of the most lovely heroes I have ever read about."
What can one say on such occasions?
The book that gave me more pleasure to write than any of the others is By the Gods Beloved, not only because I could allow my imagination to go roaming in hitherto unexplored realms but because I could give it full sway in picturesque descriptions of places that did not really exist, and in people and characters who could have no attributes that were entirely normal and modern. My friendship with Edwin Long in the past was a great incentive for me to embark on such an imaginative subject. He made me feel the reality of it all, and had brought before me pictures of those scenes which I now trained myself to describe and as he had the wonderful talent for achieving pictorial effect, as all his canvases were rich and colourful creations so did I try now to achieve the same effects, the same colourful descriptions, with my pen.
He taught me many artistic truths, and confessed to me the secret of his success, and this was that he never allowed backgrounds to dominate the human figures in his pictures. The central figures always stood out prominently, and throughout my long career I have always tried to emulate him in this: 'Character', has been my watchword all through. As my old friend Arnold Bennett impressed it upon me so vigorously, "By characters your books shall live, not by their story or their back-ground."
Another period of history which has always fascinated me is that of the struggle for independence of the Netherlands and the ultimate overthrow, after heroic struggles, of Spanish domination and tyranny. I just got to love those old Dutch burghers with their obstinate desire for religious and political liberty. To me they were never prosy and always picturesque and wandering as I did sometimes through the cobbled streets of Haarlem, that picturesque and thriving little town, where they lived and plotted and fought like heroes, the hard ground always seemed to me to send forth a memory echo of the firm heavy footsteps of those valiant old fellows; and the old gate of the Spaarne through which they used to pass seemed to me still haunted by the sound of their gruff voices calling out guten mittag or guten abend as they dispersed to go back to their homes after their gossip over their mugs of beer at the 'Lame Cow'.
The two characters that most fascinated me in their picturesque setting were the 'Laughing Cavalier' and 'Leatherface'. No one knows who was the original of the 'Laughing Cavalier', that truly marvellous portrait by Frans Hals, one of the most precious possessions artistic England is lucky enough to boast of. With me that picture is almost an obsession. I admire it with a kind of passionate fervour for which I can never account. That smile, that attitude of his, his swagger, his dress, the twinkle in his eye fascinate me, and nothing would do but I must try and make him live before my readers in the same vivid way in which he always appears before me.
Strangely enough the history of the original of the 'Laughing Cavalier', of the man who sat as model for that sublime picture, had never been written before. And yet countless thousands must, during the past three centuries, have stood before his portrait: we of the present generation who are the proud possessors of that picture now, have looked on him many a time with sheer joy in our hearts, almost forgetting the genius of the artist who portrayed him in the very realism of the personality which seems to laugh at us out of the canvas.
Anyway, I soon ascertained that no biographer had ever attempted to tell us anything of the man's life, nor had anyone attempted to lift the veil of anonymity which hides the identity of the 'Laughing Cavalier'. Am I so very wrong in thinking, as I certainly do--that he was the direct ancestor of another man with the same laughter on his lips and the same twinkle in his eyes, of Sir Percy Blakeney in fact, the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Do go and look at the picture one day. It is a part of the Wallace Collection, and tell me if I am wrong.