A Victorian Rebel
by Frederic Whyte
MR. H. S. SALT LOOKS BACK — LIFE AMONG THE FREETHINKERS.
It is now nearly fourteen years since Mr. H. S. Salt, the Etonian who, like Shelley, was to become notorious as a Socialist, a Freethinker, and a Vegetarian, set all England talking and laughing with his good-humoured castigation of his compatriots in a book entitled “Seventy Years Among Savages.” To an OBSERVER critic who dealt with the volume very appreciatively in January, 1921, the most astonishing thing in it was a postscript saying that much of its substance had previously appeared in such periodicals as “The Humane Review” and “The Vegetarian Messenger,” propagandist organs not usually associated in the mind with wit. Was it possible, the reviewer asked himself, that literary epicures were allowing a feast of good thinks to go past them every week or month? He felt he must really enquire what it would cost to take in “The Vegetarian Messenger.”
It was in a recent issue of “The Vegetarian Messenger,” which by a curious chance I came upon last week, that I found a letter from Mr. Salt welcoming delightedly from some antagonist of his that designation “Compendium of Cranks.” As I had just been reading with renewed interest two of his biographies—his Shelley and his James Thomson—and as I happened to be within easy reach of Brighton, the idea came to me of seeking him out for a talk about books in his present home, a small house in Cleveland-road, in the Preston Park region, named “The Shaw.”
A RADICAL OCTOGENARIAN.
The twinkling-eyed, grey-bearded owner of “The Shaw” proved to be as cheerful and as exuberant as the old friend, the world-famous G. B. S., to whom he owes this house, and to whom the house owes its name. When Mr. Salt forsook the conventional world, he put aside all possibilities of wealth. A few years ago he occupied a dwelling so devoid of comfort that it was a cause of anxiety to his friends in general, and to Mr. Bernard Shaw in particular. That was about the time when Mr. Gabriel Wells, the well-known American dealer in valuable MSS, and first editions, was beginning to buy up all Mr. Shaw’s correspondence. One of Mr. Well’s biggest hauls was to be the long series of letters written to Mr. Salt—they extended back nearly half a century. G. B. S. himself was the instigator of the deal and acted as middleman, and a sum of several hundreds of pounds found its way into Mr. Salt’s pockets. Hence “The Shaw,” this now cosy home in Brighton. Hence also, “George,” a handsome cat who shares it very happily with Mr. and Mrs. Salt.
The mention of James Thomson’s tragic poem led to discussion of the recent tributes to the poet’s memory called forth by the centenary of his birth, and we got talking about the degrees of renown attained by writers of all kinds. Mr. Salt likes to think that he himself has never been much concerned with the question of posthumous fame, but a dream which he had not long ago seemed, he said, to suggest that perhaps he was not really so free from this vanity as he had imagined. He dreamt that he had just died and that in the other world—some sort of heaven, presumably—he was greeted by an old acquaintance with the question: “What kind of obituary notice did you get in ‘The Times’?” To which he had replied by indicating about half an inch of space between his forefinger and thumb, and saying: “Only about that much!”
E. V.’s JEST.
Presently the conversation turned to some of the other celebrated men and women who Mr. Salt knew intimately in the years when he controlled the Humanitarian League, side by side with all his other philanthropic ventures. Notable among these were Meredith, Hardy, Edward Carpenter (who used to get on G.B.S.’s nerves), W. H. Hudson, Professor F. W. Newman, H. W. Massingham, and Olive Schreiner: and, among the still living, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, Mr. H. W. Nevinson, and Mr. E. V. Lucas. From “E. V. L.” He has a treasured heap of letters. From among them he drew out one with a chuckle. It contained two type-written slips, which were supposed to be items from the printed catalogue of the already-mentioned Mr. Gabriel Wells, and which ran thus:—
LUCAS, E. V. (essayist), To H. S. Salt, wishing him
happiness in his new home. A.L.S. 2d.
SALT, H. S. (famous vegetarian, Dean-baiter, and friend of George Bernard Shaw), to E. V. Lucas, announcing change of address. A.L.S. £5.
The Dean whom Mr. Salt is here twitted with baiting is, of course, the ex-Dean of St. Paul’s with whom he has had many a controversy.
“MADAM, FEEL MY CALVES!”
Most of the people above-named were in warm accord with one or other of Mr. Salt’s fads or enthusiasms—he doesn’t mind which word you use. Professor F. W. Newman was with him chiefly on vegetarianism. It was the professor who, when asked solicitously by a lady whether the diet was not very weakening made the classic answer: “Madam, feel my calves!” Mr. Salt himself remained, as H. W. Massingham once said of him, a whole-hogger, “Flogging (in schools, the Navy, and gaols) and vivisection were two planks in the Humanitarian League platform.” Massingham wrote, “and Mr. Salt was never running to and fro between the people who wanted the floggers vivisected and the people who wanted the vivisectors flogged. He stood four-square.”
Now in his eighty-fourth year Mr. Salt is engaged in a new book, to be entitled “The Great Understanding,” in which he is treating of all the humanitarian movements together. “Surely,” he urges, “it is on the single sense of Kinship that they are all based—pacifism, socialism, penal reform, vegetarianism, anti-vivisection, the protest against cruel sports, and the general assertion of animals’ rights. Not until they have attained in combination to what may be called a Creed of Kinship will they be fully successful.”
The Humanitarian League had already ceased to exist when, fourteen years ago, Mr. Salt published that lively onslaught of his on us British Barbarians; and he does not claim to have done much in the way of our reformation: but he has lived a splendid life and been a thrilling example.
Published: Observer, 2 December, 1934