Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Seventy Years Among Savages

The Times, January 11, 1921

Books of The Week.

“What I write,” says Mr. Henry S. Salt, the scholarly ex-Secretary of the Humanitarian League, “is a friendly account of friendly savages (by one of them),” and so, in a measure, he softens the indictment against his fellow-men conveyed in the title of his latest book, published to-day [SEVENTY YEARS AMONG SAVAGES. Allen. 12s. 6d. net]. For all his uncompromising opposition to many of our time-honoured, but not therefore creditable, institutions he would not be too hard on us—for all our flesh-eating, our blood-sports, our cruel fashions, and our fondness for either protecting places of natural beauty as game preserves, or vulgarizing them after they have been thrown open to the public, he admits that we are not without kindliness and good nature; and he has, moreover, humour and humanity enough, while denouncing us as vandals and cave-men, to style himself frankly as he is, a faddist, and to speak of his life's labours as a forlorn hope. Perhaps he has attempted too many reforms at once.

His book might be called the “Faddist's Progress,” and by that we mean nothing discourteous. But a faddist in one subject, a faddist in all; and we have Mr. Salt’s permission to apply the name. The beginning was vegetarianism; but the first 30 years or so of Mr. Salt’s life were conventional, even exclusive. For he was bred at Eton and King’s, and returned to Eton as a master. A book “of rare merit” effected the awakening.

A vegetarian was, of course, regarded as a sheer lunatic in the Eton of those days. Twenty-five years later Eton had a vegetarian Headmaster in Dr. Edward Lyttelton, who was an assistant there in the eighties. “Little did I think,” he wrote to me, “when we used to chaff you about cabbages that It would come to this!”

He left Eton for Surrey and the simple life: his gown was cut into strips for fastening creepers, his top hat lent shade to a vegetable marrow, and he himself soon began to associate with a larger world and men of opinions and occupations widely different from those of Eton and King’s. All the personalia of his book make good reading, whether he describes the first period of literae inhumaniores or the days of emancipation. Eton, when he went there, was under Hornby; Warre appears later; and Mr. Salt owed his election mainly to his verses, though there were “too many spondees” in them, as his tutor F. W. Cornish, told him forlornly. King’s in the early seventies was in a phase of transition; the “literary element was not strong”; but Henry Bradshaw resided in college, a man of great hospitality, who

having a gift of very pungent speech was well able to keep his “herds” in order when they were assembled; he would at times say a sharp and wholesome word to some conceited or presumptuous visitor. Even his nearest friends could take no liberties with him. It was said that when Mr. G. W. Prothero, then a fellow of King’s, took to omitting the “Esquire” in the address of letters, and wrote plain “Henry Bradshaw,” the librarian retaliated in his reply by addressing laconically to “Prothero” and no more.

Mr. Salt won the medal for the Greek epigram.

One of the surprises of my life was when old Shilleto (the coughing grammarian) walked into my room one evening and told me that the examiners had awarded me the medal for Greek epigram. There being a defect in one of the lines, he sat down and corrected it, there and then, by an emendation which was doubtless better Greek and certainly worse poetry.

In the Tripos of 1875 Dr. Gow of Westminster was third classic ; “the fifth place was shared by Mr. Gerald Balfour and myself.” To return to Eton was like becoming a gamekeeper after poaching. Dr. Hornby's rule was drawing to a close; Socialism was abroad, and bicycles were coming in, but were frowned upon.

Mr. J. D. Bourchier, afterwards a famous correspondent of The Times in south-east Europe, was the first rider of the bicycle at Eton and incurred much obloquy through his persistence in a practice which no Eton master could then countenance with safety.

Gradually the conviction grew that “we Eton masters were but cannibals in cap and gown”; he was living in partibus infidelium; “it’s the vegetarianism,” Dr. Warre gravely remarked when bidding him farewell, and on hearing that Socialism was also a cause, “Socialism!” he cried in his hearty tones, “Then blow us up, blow us up! There's nothing left for it but that!” One loss Mr. Salt regretted on leaving Eton: “to have played fives with such master hands as A. C. Ainger, E. C. Austen-Leigh, Edward Lyttelton, or C. T. Studd was a privilege not to be forgotten or replaced.” But the faddist was now well on his way; he began to have glimpses of civilisation as preached and practised by various late Victorian reformers whom he brings before us in these pages. There is a glimpse of Swinburne at the Pines:—

At the luncheon which followed our walk Mr. Swinburne was present, and one could not help observing that in personal matters, as in his literary views, he seemed to be almost dependent on Mr. Watts-Dunton; he ran to him with a new book like a poetic child with a plaything. His amiability of manner and courtesy were charming; but his delicate face, quaint chanting voice, and restlessly twitching fingers gave an impression of weakness. He talked, I remember, of Meredith’s “Sandra Belloni” and “Diana of the Crossways,” and complained of their obscurity (“Can you construe them?”); then of his reminiscences of Eton, with friendly inquiries about my father-in-law, the Rev. J. L. Joynes, who had been his tutor and house master, also about one of the French masters, Mr. Henry Tarver, with whom he had been on very intimate terms.

At dinner with Meredith, who was not a vegetarian—“if it be possible for some persons, it is not possible for me”—Mr. Salt

was struck by his great kindliness as host; he was in fact over-solicitous for the welfare of his guests. The formality and punctiliousness of Mr. Meredith’s manner, with his somewhat ceremonious gestures and pronunciation, perhaps affected a visitor rather unfavourably at first introduction; but after a few minutes this impression wore off, and one felt only the vivacity and charm of his conversation. It was a continuous flow of epigrams, as incisive in many cases as those in his books; during which I noticed the intense sensitiveness and expressiveness of his mouth, the lips curling with irony, as he flung out his sarcasms about critics, and curates, and sentimentalists of every order. His eyes were remarkably keen and penetrating, and he watched narrowly the effect of his points; so that even to keep up with him as a listener was a considerable mental strain.

Mr. Salt's philosophy—a gentle one—is summed up in the last chapter; he holds poetry to be one of the talismans against the system he condemns, and, like Lord Morley, he reads his Lucretius. The personal part of the book will be enjoyed by many who will bear less patiently with the fads, though even most of these can be swallowed here, for the medicine of principle is agreeably mingled with the sweets of anecdote.