W. Clark Russell at home

(This interview was made by some James Barr for the Detroit Free Press. It is here cited from The Tioga County Recourd July 22. 1887 (Courtesy of New York State Archives). This edition is probably abridged from the original.)


How he Became a Sailor - Funny Incident when his Play was Produced - His Views on Sailors and Authors

Right in front, just stirred into choppy sunlit waves by a mild June breeze, lay that stretch of water, famous in sea literature, “The Downs”. Away to the right, in the haze of distance, stood out the bold point of the south foreland, and under its shadow the quaint little town of Deal. To the left is the North Sea, covered with shipping of all description and from every part of the world, heading for or sailing from the mouth of the river Thames. Across “The Downs”, but giving no signs of their existence, are the Goodwin sands, forming a sort of chamber of horrors of the deep. Luggers and full-rigged ships, steam yachts and great ocean liners, rowboats and men-of-war, all pass, as if in review, from morning till night, and when darkness comes down the lights of a hundred vessels are seen, with now and then the fierce glare of a lighthouse og lightship. Such is the sight from the garden of W. Clark Russell, most famous of modern sea novelists, on the island of Thanet, Kent, England. To the left of you as you look seaward is Broadstairs, and to the right Ramsgate.

W. Clark Russell - portrait from Tioga County Record “I consider this a very beautiful view,” said Mr. Russell as he sat down on a garden chair.

A well-kept lawn sloped down to the edge of the cliff, at the foot of which the waves rippled and splashed.

“During the day there is always a grand view out on the water, and it is no rare occurrence for us to hear the boom of the distress gun telling that some unfortunate ship is caught on the Goodwin Sands. It's an awful place out there in bad weather. The lifeboat that rides under the protection of that stone pier to the right has very little rest in bad weather, I tell you. This is one of my favourite spots — this lawn. I can sit and watch the procession of ships us they go out or come in, and by i stretch of imagination almost believe there is some romance in a sailor's life after all. Then the sun and the sea air are good for my rheumatism. I have suffered very much from rheumatism, and still suffer, although I am now rapidly recovering.”

The author of “The Wreck of the Grosvenor”, “The Sailor's Sweetheart” and the number og other exquisite sea stories, as he sat looking over the sea, appeared to be a man slightly under medium height. His closely cropped moustache and well trimmed hair were tinged with grey, although the wearer had just reached his forty-third year. His face looked younger than his years, and his eyes were particularly bright and clear.

“I suppose I took to the sea as most boys do — in order to see the world and meet adventures. I had an idea that a sailor's life was very romantic. Any one who reads my books will find that that idea has long since faded from my mind. I began sailing early, being only thirteen and a-half years old when I shipped as midshipman on the Duncan Dunbar, sailing from London to Sidney. My father paid the usual price to the ship's owners — 90 guineas for the first trip, 80 guineas for the second, and 70 guineas for the third. There were 10 middies aboard, so you see even before the ship left the docks in London the owners had made quite a sum of money out of her. After leaving the Duncan Dunbar, I shipped on the Hougumont, and had rather a varied experience. The first trip on her we sailed from London to Madras with troops, intending then to go Calcutta for cargo, and home again. But while lying at Calcutta the war with China broke out and we were again turned into a troop-ship, and first taking a lot of soldiers to Hong Kong we then proceeded further north. After landing the remainder of our troops, we lay for 10 months wallowing in the Bay of Petcheli, off the mouth of the Peiho River, doing nothing. Now, I cannot imagine anything so dreadfully monotonous and dreary, and generally unbearable, as living on board a ship for 10 months, and that ship lying at anchor. I got saturated with the sea, I tell you. Salt pork and sea biscuits are all very well to read about, but actually living on such a diet is quite a different thing and not so romantic. During the following seven years I made a great many trips to different parts of the world, but when I reached my twentieth year I gave up sailing. What made me give it up? Well, to tell the truth, sheer disgust. It was a dog's life with no future before it, and I resolved to leave the sea. During the time I sailed I worked up to be fourth and then third mate, and took out my papers for second mate, but there I stopped, and resolved to try my luck on shore. I was completely tired of the sea.

“Well, when I arrived home I didn't know what to turn to, and my father didn't know what to put me to either. I knew no profession. My education had not been particularly brilliant, and I wast not much in the ways of the land. First I tried a bank. That lasted three months. I spent most of my time and money in riding around in hansom cabs and making blunders in business. That was a failure. Then my father thought me suited for the Stock Exchange. That lasted four months, but I flatter myself that, limited as my opportunities were, I gave the other members some few wrinkles in quotations. I could not for the life of me remember fractions. Didn't much know the difference between three-sixteenths and four twenty-firsts, and didn't much care if there were a difference. So I retired from the service of an eminent member of that body, much to his satisfaction I am sure. After this failure my father gave me £150 a year, and told me to go ahead and do what I thought myself suited for.

“During these business attempts I had made very good use of my odd time by studying Latin and reading up. So when I left the Stock Exchange I took apartments at Red Hill, and there wrote my first novel, 'Life's Masquerade'.”

“What first turned your mind to writing?”

“The idea first struck me off Cape Horn. I had a little difference with the captain, and consequently was living down below on bread and water. Of course there was nothing to do down there but pass the time as best I could, and I managed to get a copy of 'Lalla Rookh', and began reading it. As I read I thought there was nothing to keep me from writing poetry if I tried. So right there I began and wrote what I called poetry, but which happily if now lost. ' Lalla Rookh' is hardly the sort of book one would expect to turn a person's mind to story writing, but it started me.”

“At the time I wrote 'Life's Masquerade' Chas. H. Wood, son of Mrs. Wood, the novelist, had a little publishing office in Lavingstock street, Covent Garden. He offered me £50 for the work, got it, and I am very sure much regretted his deal. After that I went to Deal and there wrote a five act tragedy in blank verse entitled 'Fra Angelo'. This I sent to Walter Montgomery, the actor, to see if he would bring it out at some London theatre. He thought it splendid, took the Haymarket Theatre in the very height of the dog days, when all London was out of town, produced it, and not very long afterwards shot himself while insane. It fell very flat, as flat as a five act blank verse tragedy in hot weather can fall.”

W. Clark Russell's wife -portrait from the Tioga County Record The first night the play was produced a rather funny thing happened. I, of course, had one of the best boxes in the house, so that I could watch the effect of the play on the audience. The next box to mine was occupied by an elderly gentleman and two young ladies. When the play was going on these folks kept up a constant chatter, varied now and then with a titter, that particularly annoyed me. I wanted them to admire the play. At length I reached the limit of my patience, and, rising in my box, I first riveted the old gent with my gaze and then said sternly: 'Order, sir, order. I want to hear the play, sir.' The old gentleman was immensely surprised and very shortly afterwards I was too. When the curtain went down there were cries for the author, and I arose, proudly and bowed my very best. I managed to steal a glance at the old gent as much as to say: 'Now, sir, you see whom you have been disturbing.' Well, you can imagine my surprise whe a few minutes afterwards I was told that the old man was none other than John Holdsworth, the famous dramatic critic of the Times.”

“That five act tragedy in blank verse completed my professional connection with the stage.

I next turned to newspaper writing. The London Review was the first paper I became associated with. It died. Then I purchased a paper called the Leader - a sixpenny weekly after the style of the Saturday Review, very heavy and deep. It got into deep water and died also. While connected with these papers I did a great deal of sea story writing under various noms de plume. No, I don't much care to give you the noms de plume. I wouldn't like to have the stories resurrected and republished as has been done in a number of cases with other author's writings. I prefer them to remain buried.”

“By this time I was married, and I began to write the books that I am glad to know have been very successful. Mr Joseph Cowan, of the Newcastle Chronicle, offered me a situation on his paper, and I took that, and after some time became connected with the Daily Telegraph, which connection still exists.”

W. Clark Russell, when writing miscellaneous articles for the Telegraph, does not use his real name, but signs himself “A Seafarer.” His short articles under this name are exceedingly readable, and through the columns of the Telegraph command a very wide circulation. A number of this sort of sketches have been republished in book form.

“How long does it usually take you to write a story?”

“That entirely depends on my health. 'The Wreck of the Grosvenor' was completed in three months. 'The Sailor's Sweetheart' occupied me four months. Of course my health was good. In ill-health the 'Golden Hope' took me a year to write. I rather think the 'Golden Hope' has the best plot of any of my novels. You know I do not depend very much on plots. My books are more like and elaborate log book than anything else.”

“What part of your writing do you consider the best?”

“Well, that's a very curious question to ask me of my own books. Let me see. I rather think that the description of the collision in 'Jack's Courtship' is about as good as anything I have written, and the 'Voyage to St. Paul's' I also like, but it may not occur to the readers that way.”

“Your books has a very large sale in America, I suppose you know, mr. Russell.”

“So I have been told repeatedly. But other than from heresay I don't know very much about that. When it is known that I do not get at penny from the sale of my books in America it can be believed that I take very little interest in the sale over there. I was rather amused the other day on receiving a copy of 'Lady Maud' from America marked 'sixth edition'. Now, that, I suppose, means that the book has been quite a success over there. Well, I did not know it was published in America, although I supposed it very likely would be, as the others had been before. The copyright law that is such a bane to all authors on both sides of the Atlantic affects me very severely, if I may believe the reports of the sale of my books in America.”

”'The Frozen Pirate', which my agent is soon to publish, is an exception. I always got paid for the advance sheets sent to newspapers. When I speak of not receiving anything for my stories from America I refer to the book form of the stories, not to the newspapers that buy advanced rights. You have not read 'The Frozen Pirate' yet I suppose? Well, I think it rather good.“

“Have you many stories in hand ?”

“The only stories unpublished are 'The Frozen Pirate', soon to be brought out, and “The Death Ship', which will be published next February. I took at trip to the Cape to get material for the 'Death Ship'. It is to be my version of the phantom ship, and I think I have a rather original rendering of the old story but it is not yet open for public examination.”

“What I have tried to teach in my works is that there are no more unromantic fellows in the world than sailors. Sailors are the most unnautical men in the world. They don't sing sea songs and hitch their trousers, and talk with an 'aye, aye'. When at sea Jack sings 'The Last Rose of Summer', and 'Wait Till the Clouds Roll By', and 'Two Lovely Black Eyes', and all sorts of land songs they can. They leave the rollicking sea songs to the fellows on the concert hall platforms. Give him a sea song and he'll smell it, and drop it. He wants none of it. I will never forget being accosted by a gentleman who had quite a reputation in his district for singing sea songs. He said, 'Mr. Russell, you've been at see, haven't you?' I said I had. 'Well now, mr. Russell,' said he, 'I've been requested to sing Tom Tough at a concert to-morrow evening, and I'd like to know what I am to do when I come to the part where they work the capstan. Do the sailors when they are singing Tom Tough push or pull the capstan bar?' I had a very great notion to tell him that sailors always pull; but as he asked me in good faith, I told him right.”

“Now the majority of sailors do not either push or pull on anything but a drinking bar, unless there is a great big mate with a belaying pin standing near to stimulate them. When on shore they do everything to keep away from the sea and its association. They talk knowingly of lawn tennis - that is, the better class of them - and cricket, and try to make out that they never saw salt water. In fact, it is only the monkey that eats its own tail. Literary men, of course, are an exception. They always like to talk of literature.”

“Do you expect to visit America soon?”

“I would very much like to visit America, but have no idea when I will be able to do so. I have received a great many kind invitations from Americans. I believe the American people think more of my writings than the English do. Did you know I was born in America? Well, I was. I was born in New York and spent the first eighteen months of my existence there. Strange to say, although I have been in nearly every portion of the globe, I have never since seen New York. But I hope some day to take a long trip through America.”

“The best sea story, if not the best ever written, is Dana's 'Two Years Before the Mast'. I hold Dana in veneration for having written that book. He was the first man to leave the quarter deck, with its gilt lace and buttons, and dive into the forecastle and write of poor Jack and his lump of salt pork in his pan and oil-skin suit on his back as never man wrote before or since. It is a great book and a book that was needed.”

“When my books were first produced I found there was no field for them. Sea stories up to that time had been confined to boy's books. Reading men and women never for an instant thought of getting a book with a salt water name. I simply had to create my own readers. For instance, a lady would drop into a circulating library depot and ask, 'Is there anything new out that is good?' 'Yes. Here's a story by W. Clark Russell just published.' 'W. Clark Russell? Oh, he's a sea story writer - for boys mostly, I suppose. Haven't you anything else?' That's the sort of thing I had to work against, but I have overcome it.”

The house of the great writer is a handsome and roomy one, built of red brick and most pleasantly situated in every way. Mrs. Russell is a most amiable and handsome lady, and a great help to her husband in his literary work. The house over which she rules is kept particularly bright and cheerful, and the walls of the rooms are adorned in many places with models and drawings of ships, well becoming the home of such an eminent sea writer. The family consists of five children - two boys and three girls. The eldest, a son, has now reached his eighteenth year, and is being fitted for a literary career. The second is a young lady of 14 years, very tall for her age, and handsome. The two youngest are bright little girls with rosy cheeks and fair hair, and are about seven and nine years old. A more cheerful, pleasant, and comfortable home, and amiable and hearty family could not be found in all England than the home and family of W. Clark Russell, on the island of Thanet, near Broadstairs.

[Detroit Free Press]

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