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November Books 7) A Bachelor's London

7) A Bachelor's London: Memories of the Day before Yesterday, 1889-1914, by Frederic Whyte

This is the autobiography of Frederic Whyte (1867-1941), a distant cousin of mine who was active in the literary world of London in the quarter-century before the first world war. (Indeed, although the sub-title on the cover page of the book is "Memories of the Day before Yesterday", the running title on the right-hand pages is "Memories of Literary London".)

A lot of it is literary name-dropping, often of people I haven't heard of - though there is one amusing moment when Whyte, giving a rare public speech in 1898, is heckled from the audience by both George Bernard Shaw and Bram Stoker, which sounds to me like a truly frightening experience. Thirty years later, Whyte wrote to Shaw to offer his services as editor of Shaw's correspondence; Shaw replied, "I do not think it would be possible to publish much of my correspondence until the year 2028 or thereabouts; but, of course, you would make an excellent editor if you could manage to live so long."

He also writes of Arthur Conan Doyle ("he looked like two stolid policemen rolled into one") as being a fellow-Irishman, which came as a surprise to me but I see on checking that both of Doyle's parents were Irish Catholics. Among the illustrations in the book is this 1919 letter from Doyle, then firmly in his spiritualist phase:




My dear Whyte,

        It was a kindly thought. Many thanks.

        No, this is my swansong - a dying duck's
quack in history.

[Presumably the letter is in response to one from Whyte, congratulating Doyle on some recently published book - which might have been the Sherlock Holmes collection, His Last Bow, published in 1917? Of course, Doyle did publish more Sherlock Holmes stories even after this.]

        The rest of my life will be spent in
endeavouring to show the human race how
blind + deaf they have been in not
understanding the great new spiritual forces
which have come in so strange a fashion
into the world.

                Yours sincerely

                        A Conan Doyle

           Apr 19 [1919]




But Whyte also writes with deep affection of various writers of whom I have never heard: Tighe Hopkins, Arthur Diosy, his one-time flatmate Herbert Compton. Funny how history filters out some people.

The book answers my questions about what Whyte actually did for a living, at least up to the point he moved to Sweden (which seems to have been in about 1914). His education was through a suspiciously numerous list of boarding schools (checking the family genealogy I see that his father had died in 1883 when Frederic was 16); his first job, in 1887-88, was as a Reuters correspondent in Constantinople; he then got hired as an editor at the publisher Cassell's, where he worked from 1889 to 1905; he then decided to go freelance, translating books and doing other bits of writing with a couple of other short-lived regular publishing jobs. When I'm next in a decent English-language reference library I'll check him out in the index of periodicals.

There is a chapter about his holidays in Ireland, interestingly not with the Whyte side of the family, though he writes with great affection of George Ryan of the Ryans of Inch, who was both my great-great-uncle and Frederic's first cousin, and of various other relatives who crop up in the family records. Frederic Whyte was pro-Home Rule, and very much an agnostic; his Irish relatives were all fervent Unionists and devout Catholics (in the days when that was a less unlikely combination than it is now); but they appear to have agreed to get along.

There are a couple of other chapters randomly thrown in on the art of translation, and the claims of phrenology (this one featuring heavily both Alfred Russel Wallace and G.K. Chesterton). He also reflects rather ambiguously on the first world war, rather giving the impression that while he thought it was a bad idea at the time (it may not be insignificant that this was precisely the point that he moved to Sweden), from the viewpoint of 1931 he is no longer so sure.

Anyway, an interesting book which enlightened me on various points.

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