Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Fergus Hume interview
An interview with prolific crime, mystery and fantasy author Fergus Hume (1859-1932), best known for the The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), which opens in Melbourne. Hume famously sold the rights of the novel for 50 pounds and the book subsequently became a great bestseller, selling over half a million copies in England.
From The Maitland Mercury & Hunter General Advertiser, 19 January 1893.
A Talk with Mr. Fergus Hume.
Raymond Blathwayt, in the December number of "Great Thoughts," had an interesting interview with the author of "The Mystery of a hansom Cab," from which we quote some passages:
"The only allusion I care to make to the 'Hansom Cab,"' said Mr. Hume, with a shrug of his shoulders, "is this. I wanted to go in for dramatic writing more than for novel writing when I was in Melbourne. Of course, I couldn't get my play accepted because I wasn't known at all. So I thought if I could write a book to attract the attention of managers, even a small book, that I might get a chance of getting a play on. I must add that on this determination I went to several booksellers in Melbourne, and asked whose works were most popular with their customers. The unhesitating reply was Gaboriau's. I had never heard of him myself, but I read his books and I thought 'Well, I can do as good as this at all events' and so I wrote the 'Hansom Cab,' which was pure fiction, not a line of truth in it. It was published and made an instantaneous success."
"I thought," I observed, "that it was published in England by the 'Hansom Cab Co,' and not in Melbourne at all."
"Yes, it was published in Melbourne at my own risk and expense. It was brought home by Mr. Trischler here, who formed himself into what was called 'The Hansom Cab Co.', with which company, however, I had no financial connection whatever. My connection, however, with Mr Trischler himself, was not destined to be a long one, and now my books are in the hands of various well-known publishers in London. The 'Piccadilly Puzzle,' I might mention, which was published by F.V. White and Co., has the distinction of obtaining the highest price ever paid for any 1s book in England.
"To go back to the 'Hansom Cab,' of which I may say I am heartily sick now, I want you to understand that I am doing all I can to get away from it. Everywhere and with everyone it is the same. Zola is known by 'Nana' when he ought to live by 'La Rêve'; Sullivan's 'Golden Legend,' one of the finest pieces of the century, is condemned, at all events, on the continent, because of his 'Mikado.' I utterly object to a man being committed by the public to one line only. Because a man makes a fool of himself once, to put it strongly," cried Mr. Fergus Hume, with great energy, "he is not to go on making a fool of himself all his life. I will not be bound down by the Tradition of the Hansom Cab."
I laughed heartily. "Hear, hear," I said, "you remind me of Mark Twain, who said exactly the same to me last year. Well, now tell me what are your aims and ideas for the future, and how do you propose to get away from your traditions?"
"Well," he replied, "I want to drop the ordinary novel of commerce for what I may term the 'Romance of Fantasy,' of which the 'Island of Fantasy ' is the first."
"Now," said I, "how do you blend the fantastic and the real, the impossible and the possible, so as to make it palatable to the ordinary common sense English reader?"
"I try to manage so as to make the improbable seem possible. I am following up this 'Island of Fantasy' with 'Aladdin in London,' which will be a similar work; and the third of the series upon which I am now engaged is called 'The Harlequin Opal.' In 'The Island of Fantasy' I endeavour to reconstruct the old Greek civilisation and adapt it to the present day."
"Ah," said I, "much as Conan Doyle reconstructed the fourteenth century. He told me he read 150 works bearing on that century before he wrote that work."
"Precisely," replied Mr. Hume. "Reading up again all the old classics, I super-added the Greek poets of Addington Symonds; I recalled all I knew of the Tragedies; the great pathos and fatefulness of Greek life and history. I studied the whole matter almost as a science, and as a result, I feel I have got somehow into the heart of the old Grecian life. I am now going in for the fantastical novel as a speciality, for I really think that people are getting tired of realism. But for my own part I think that my real strength as a writer -- and I have the authority of the 'Spectator' for saying so -- lies in poetry. I am about to publish a book of poems. And as he spoke, Mr. Hume handed me a very dainty little lyric, "Venus Urania," and which ran as follows :
To rose-red sky, from rose-red sea,
At rose-red dawn she came,
A fiery rose of earth to be,
And light thee dark with flame;
Then earth and sky triumphantly
Rang loud with man's acclaim.
A rose art thou, O goddess fair,
To bloom as men aspire,
Red rose to those whom passions move,
White rose to chaste desire;
Yet red rose wanes with pale despair,
And white rose burns as fire.
"In the 'Island of Fantasy,'" continued Mr. Hume, in reply to a suggestion of mine as to the ethical intent of fantastic literature in general, "I endeavour to show how entirely possible it might be for an over-wealthy millionaire to carry out the Utopian project I suggest to a successful conclusion, and to do real and lasting good with his wealth; to show how a life such as that led by the ancient Greeks, and that nurtures the genius under every possible advantage, ought to be encouraged and not discouraged. It is, perhaps, treating genius rather as an exotic, but as my hero Justinian, who conceives and carries out the idea, says, 'Place a plant in the dark, and it grows not; give it plenty of air and sunlight, and first the green leaves appear, then the bud, lastly the flower. These Greek people in their island home, who are descendants of the ancient Hellenes, and in whom the spark of genius has been nearly trampled out by centuries of Turkish misrule, are my green leaves, which by means of my wealth I have placed in the light. I have allowed them to be tended and looked after, and now who knows but that a glorious flower may be produced?'
"There, that is my idea," said Mr. Hume. "I want to show what money can do and ought to do. Think what lies in the power of such a man as that young Mr. Astor, whose father died the other day, and left him £15,000,000. Now there is the ethic intent of the 'Island of Fantasy,' but the critics looked on it, kind as they were to me, too much in the light of a fairy story."
"Ah," said I, "but the critics haven't always been as kind to you, have they?"
"No," he replied, "they have been hostile for many years. They believed no good could come from the writer of 'The Hansom Cab.' But I am bound to say sometimes critics are very irritating. Look at Rider Haggard for instance, how they are always pitching into him for being too 'Bluggy,' as Toddie used to say. But battles can't be fought without blood. If you describe battles you must do it realistically -- the critics seem to expect you to do it in rose-water English.
"Here is an instance in my own case. In one of my books one of the characters improvises some wretched doggerel on the spur of the moment; it was only meant to be doggerel, and the critics with ridiculous unfairness actually quoted the doggrel as 'a specimen of Mr. Fergus Hume's poetry.' And again, they are so fond of asking why such and such a book was written. 'What is the object of it?' say they. Well, as De Quincey said: 'There is no moral, big nor little, in the "Iliad."' I don't know that books are written primarily, as a rule, with any other object but that of getting money for the authors of them. I have noticed, curiously enough, that the most spiteful reviews appear in women's papers."
"You are about to produce a volume of Fairy Tales, are you not, Mr. Hume?"
"Yes," said he; "and I trust the public will like them. Mr. Harold Boulton and myself are hard at work also upon the libretto of a comic opera -- a new departure -- and to which the music is being set by Mr. Charles Willeby, whose songs are already well-known in London."
"Well," I replied, with a laugh, "you are certainly drifting very far away, and in very many directions, from 'The Hansom Cab.'"
"Yes," said he. "That poor book! It was the very first book I ever wrote. It made a tremendous sensation, and I have been judged by it ever since. All my literary education I have had to pursue under the very eyes of the public. Was there ever a man since the world began so 'sair trodden down' -- as the Scotch say -- by his traditions. The 'Hansom Cab' is a regular Frankenstein's monster to me, and I am pursued through life by this monster, which, after all, is but the creation of an immature boy."