Good Company

Good Company

COMPANY I HAVE KEPT. By Henry S. Salt. (Allen and Unwin)

Mr. Henry S. Salt has already told us something of his life and his crusades on behalf of vegetarianism, humanitarianism and other imperious isms in his whimsically named autobiography “Seventy Years Among Savages.” From that title it will be gathered that he did not give up his sense of humour, and the feeling for proportion that humour will not let a man surrender, when he gave up being an Eton master in order to pursue his own ideals. If he kept good company after his breach with all the orthodoxies, he must also, we surmise, have been very good company. He is at any rate very company on paper, writing with an unaffected grace, bubbling over with mirth, and with a sharp eye for the saliences of character.

A chapter headed “At Millthorpe” serves to mark the cleavage between the author’s old “Cap and Gown” existence and his new adventurous life among the currents of Socialism and Anarchism. Millthorpe was the retreat of Edward Carpenter, himself a fugitive figure from academic routine to “the simple life”; though, if Mr. Salt’s impressions are faithful, it was the theory rather than the practice of rusticity that appealed to him.

I was once staying at Millthorpe at the time when the hay was to be cut, and in company with other guests I volunteered to assist in the work of carrying it. It was our enthusiasm alone that sustained us. We worked hard all the morning, and after the midday meal we asserted our readiness to continue. I thought our host did not look so pleased with us as we were entitled to expect, but out we all went in the blazing afternoon sun, and not a sign escaped us of our real inward inclinations. Suddenly Edward, who was next in the line to me, threw down his hay-fork and said testily; “Well, I can’t go on all day cocking this—stuff, if you can.” So virtue was rewarded, and all the weary had rest.

It evidently does not do to be more than the savage; but Mr. Salt’s understanding of human weakness of his prophet does not impair his respect for his achievements as poet and sage.

“Humanity” may perhaps be taken as the watchword of his doctrines. He regards man as no chance product, but as the crown and consummation of all existence; and from this human standpoint he views everything, recognizing and respecting humanity, not in mankind only, but also, as Thoreau did, in the lower animals and even in the so-called inanimate nature. Love is the one law; equality the one ultimate condition.

Not a bad description of the faith that inspires this volume and that guided Mr. Salt in his search of friendships. It led him to the spiritual companionship of Thoreau and Richard Jefferies and to a warm friendship with W. H. Hudson, from whose lively letters to him makes welcome extracts. It led him also to frequent the society of the “early Socialists,” Henry George and Michael Davitt, John Burns and Tom Mann, and then the Fabians.

Shaw I had known well for many years, from a time in fact (incredible as it may now appear), when he was a neglected author, and once told us, as proof that his reputation was “going up by leaps and bounds,” that some book of his, I forget which, had sold to the extent of a dozen copies, as against half that number in the preceding year. I remember his reading a new play, Candida, to a small party in my rooms, on a winter evening in 1894; it was then, I think, that Edward Carpenter was one of the company, and at the conclusion expressed his opinion, in a forecast which has not exactly found fulfilment: “No, Shaw. It won’t do.”

“The first lion,” once again apparently, “thought the last a bore”; and the word “bore” brings us to another branch of Mr. Salt’s happy discursiveness. The bore, he assures us, lurks not infrequently under the mask of the “Great Talker,” and he ventures to mark down the veteran Socialist champion, H. M. Hyndman, under this head. Like Gilbert’s Sir Macklin, of whom it is written “he argued high, he argued low, he also argued round about him,” he was not to be quenched even in a tunnel. “He talked underground and overground alike.” But Meredith Mr Salt remembers as a great talker in the proper sense. Imprudently telling Mr. Shaw of Meredith’s eloquence and his own reverential silence, he was met by the retort “Disgraceful!” and an offer that if he would take Mr. Shaw to Box Hill he “would not let Meredith get a word in edgeways.” (Mr. Salt dare not think how the battle would have ended.)

But many of Mr. Salt’s friends have been dumb. Such were not only his animal “cousins”—with his views on field-sports it seems rather wrong of him to have consorted with a fox-hound!—but the mountains and the wild flowers and the South Downs where he has found a retreat for his old age. He is never more sympathetic and attractive as a writer than when he just sets down his own contemplations of natural beauties. We remember then that he is impassioned Virgilian.

Times Literary Supplement, August 7, 1930, p. 636