The Fraternity to Come: Henry Salt Humanitarian Reformer and Man of Letters

The Fraternity to Come: Henry Salt Humanitarian Reformer and Man of Letters

When Henry Salt died on April 30[sic], 1939, at the age of eighty-seven an obituary in The Daily Telegraph described him as “one of the greatest characters of his time”. He had been a prolific writer in prose and verse; a socialist, Shelleyan and De Quinceyite; and a resourceful campaigner against flesh-eating, bloodsports, corporal punishment, and the death penalty, vivisection and the commercial vulgarization of the countryside. Yet he was little known by the public he sought to educate and his life provides as good an example as anyone could want of the political futility of literary propaganda.

Though not wholly orthodox, Salt’s beginnings were socially respectable and gave little sign of what was to come.  He had been born in India, the song of a colonel of artillery. At the age of one he was brought back to England and passed a contented childhood in Shrewsbury with his mother. Colonel Salt remained on duty in India and there were few reunions between him and his wife. Their son grew up disliking his farther who, he believed, had ill-treated his mother.

To be sent to Eton was a matter of course with the Salt family. Henry Salt’s time there as a King’s Scholar was the happiest period of his life, for he found what until then he had lacked: a sense of family among friends of his own choosing. But he was critical of an education system that venerated athletics above everything intellectual and gave no encouragement to the gaining of knowledge. In one of his essays he later attacked the spirit picked up from the school’s poet laureate, making his criticism in specific socialist terms: “Not I think, till rich men’s sons become less idle. Till then the lordship of brawn over brain will continue at Eton . . . and boys will still feel that ‘where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise’ ”.

From Eton, Salt moved inevitably to King’s College, Cambridge, but the “ancient pettiness” of the place displeased him: tedious lectures, trying sermons and the cultivation of academic learning “which would strengthen the intellect only, and does not feed the heart [and] is in the main but barren and unprofitable, a culture of the literae inhumaniores”. By submitting to this course of day cramming he won a first class in Classical Tripos of 1875 and, at the age of twenty-four, was invited back to Eton as an assistant master. His prospects were excellent. But as a master he enjoyed the school far less, “New ideas were under a ban at Eton,” he wrote,

not withstanding the specious invitation given to some distinguished men to lecture before the school. Gladstone, Arnold, Ruskin, Morris and Lowell were among those who addressed the boys in the School Library; and it was instructive to note the reception which they severally obtained. Lowell was the most popular; his cheery contention that this would of ours is, after all, “not a bad world to live in”, being delightedly received by an audience which had good personal reasons for concurring in such a sentiment: William Morris, on the other hand, having ventured on the then dangerous ground of Socialism, was hissed. Gladstone discreetly kept to the unimpeachable subject of Homer: and Matthew Arnold’s staid appearance, with his mutton-chop whiskers and mechanical bowing of the head in accord with the slow rhythm of his sentences, was sufficient to lull to sleep any insidious doubts of his respectability. As a speaker, Ruskin was by far superior to the rest; his lucid train of thought: and clear, musical voice cold hold enchanted an audience even of Eton boys, for the full space of an hour.

Salt himself was particularly enchanted by Ruskin, whose opinions — especially his poor opinion of Tennyson—“sapped the faith of an Eton master”, he wrote. His re-education had begun. From thousands of hours in chapel he emerged an unswerving rationalist; while the company of his colleagues led him to a conviction that Eton masters “were but cannibals in cap and gown.” He reacted too against what he saw as the Etonian creed of Respectability, and joined the more active social reformers of his day, including Bernard Shaw and the Reverend J. L. Joynes [sic], another Eton master, who wore long curls down his back and wrote spirited translations of the revolutionary poems of Freiligrath.

In 1879 Salt married Joynes’s sister Kate, a dark raven-haired girl “with large eyes and sensitive somewhat sad, Dante-like profile”. But the marriage was never consummated, for Kate Salt was lesbian. In a letter to Edward Carpenter, whose gospel of potato-digging was to become a feature of the Salt’s creed of Simplification, Kate wrote:

We two poor things dwelling here together like friendly strangers—no touch possible (oh! the pity of it!) and no understanding. But 20 years brings deep deep chains that could never be cut through, and I’m really thankful and content. . . . It is something not to have added a deeper wrong to the first deep wrong that I did him. But it is dreadful to feel that one has never brought Peace to anyone.

She was often to fall in love with women but it was not until after twenty years of marriage that she understood the pain she had inflicted on her husband. She had gone with her lover to Windermere where they were joined by Henry.

Mary went across the road to sleep as there was not room for all, [and] I had the most awful moment of awakening that I’ve ever known in my life. I had never realized before what I had done in letting myself get married. At the same time, such profound Pity took hold of me, seeing as for the first time what I had done to him by marrying him, that I believe he was safe from that moment—I mean I could never have thought again of deserting him—poor lonely thing.

Salt had remained at Eton nine years before his conversion was complete and he fell from Respectability. His brother-in-law J. L. Joynes had also resigned following what was considered a disgraceful escapade in Ireland with the notorious American economist Henry George. Lecturing in favour of land nationalization, he was arrested and obliged to plead his Eton credentials to gain an apologetic release from prison. But when he subsequently announced the publication of a book, The Adventures of a Tourist in Ireland, his headmaster, Dr. Warre, gave him the choice of his mastership or the book, Joynes published and was damned. Warre attributed Salt’s resignation two years later to the dizzying effects of vegetarianism. But on learning that, like Joynes, Salt was a socialist, he cried out: “Socialism! Then blow us up, blow us up. There’s nothing left for it but that!” He was unprepared for Salt’s main assault, which centred on the Eton Beagles.

Having found Eton to be unethical, the Salts put on their sandals and ascended to the moral superiority of the country: in short, Surrey. Salt had calculated that they could live the simple semi-servantless life on his pension and from his pen. In 1891 he became one of the founders of the Humanitarian League and for almost twenty-five years he edited its journals. “No one else”, he explained, “has the time or inclination to do the continuous secretarial and organizing work which is quite indispensable to the society’s existence.”

The aims of the League were many and Salt embodied them all. He led the campaigns for legislation action against the cruellest blood sports, for the reform of the slaughterhouses and for the introduction of new laws to protect wild animals and birds exploited by the fur and feather trade. He also worked for an end to capital and corporal punishment, an extension of the principle of international arbitration and the gradual (Salt had once been a Fabian) reduction in armaments.

Though Shaw described Salt as a born revolutionist, he was not naturally a combative man. He believed in what he called the Creed of Kinship which he defined as “a belief that in years to come there will be a recognition of the brotherhood between man and man, nation and nation, human and sub-human, which will transform a state of semi-savagery, as we have it, into one of civilization, when there will be no such barbarity as warfare, or the robbery of the poor by the rich, or the ill-usage of the lower animals by mankind.”

He had an engaging style and often wrote with humour. His best books are those in which he treats writers who shared his humanitarian opinions and countryman’s tastes: Shelley and Thoreau; and to some extent Richard Jefferies and De Quincey. Besides biographies and critical studies, he published jeux d’esprit in verse (at Cambridge he had won Sir William Browne’s medal for a Greek epigram), translations of Virgil and Lucretius, books of natural history and several volumes of autobiography. Only with one book, the charming Seventy Years Among Savages, did he come close to scoring a literary and popular success.

Salt attributed his lack of success to the literary establishment’s distaste for his humanitarian work. But he was only secondarily a literary man and only philosophically political (he withdrew from the Fabian Society at the time of the Boer War and belonged more naturally to the Fellowship of the New Life). On any reckoning he was far more the born naturalist than a born revolutionary, and his scholarship belonged to the fields. “In summer I am working all day at my profession”, he wrote to Shaw, “which is looking for, and at, wildflowers.”

This was admirable: but is there a book here? There have been two about Salt since his death. The first, Salt and his Circle (1951), was written by Stephen Winsten and boasted a preface by Shaw that had been cobbled together from Shaw’s letters to Winsten. George Hendrick, author of the present study, accuses Winsten of being “anecdotal” and of filling his book with “reconstructed conversations which were often more fictional than historical”.  This is true. Worse still, Winsten’s biography, though unreliable, is of value. It infuriates because it cannot be discounted.

Winsten is a curious literary bird. He was once likened by Brian Inglis to “a man who comes out one morning to find a meteorite in his back garden, and who turns out to be good at organizing coach trips to see it”. The meteorite was his neighbour at Ayot St Lawrence, Bernard Shaw, about whom he produced an authology, a symposium and three biographical studies illustrated with some devastating portraits by his wife (who gave a similar leg-up to Gandhi and W. H. Auden). It was in these latter works that Winsten, on his way to becoming what his publishers called Shaw’s Boswell, perfected the device of reconstructed conversations.

Shaw enjoyed Winsten’s writing, in particular its inventiveness and freedom from scholarly pretensions: and it was he who, by sending a letter of introduction to the second Mrs Salt, helped Winsten to embark on his book. In this note he recommends Winsten as a biographer who is inaccurate as to facts, wrong in his judgements, self-complacent and without humour: but a vegetarian and pacifist. He was also, Shaw added, well-intentioned.

So is Professor Hendrick. It is the only positive quality they share. The aim of this new study has been to complement Winsten’s book by going “beyond basic biographical facts” to concentrate on Salt’s “intellectual development”. The professor from Illnois approaches his task like someone landing on the moon. He uses his scholarly instruments, not his eyes, for seeing things. He falters at the apparition of G.B.S., checks with is special assistant John F. Pontin, consults his microfilms, utters a truism. He weighs the probable sources of Winsten’s statements and comes to no conclusion—why did he not write to ask him? The answer seems to be that he is not certain whether the world he has landed on is still inhabited. It is a remote place. People there were never told anything, they had “first-hand evidence for believing it”. Confirmations of statements are more vital than the statements themselves. The information is processed, carefully set out and (since this is a subsidized expedition) dispatched back to mission control—in this case the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois which owns the copyright.

The book does help us to register what Salt thought, but never what he felt. This is not Professor Hendrick’s fault. As he explains, Salt “deliberately suppressed his own inner life”. The autobiographical books “are vague about Salt the man”, and so is the correspondence. But Kate Salt was not vague. She was an intensely emotional woman.

Of the two men for whom she felt some love, Edward Carpenter and Shaw, one was homosexual and the other, in his vocation as platonic philanderer, asexual. Shaw’s relationship with her, as with Annie Besant, was largely a matter of careering piano duets. But it was to Carpenter, whose scriptural literature was immensely influential, that, she wrote her most revealing letters. After her death, Salt and Carpenter destroyed these letters—all except one. Most of this letter, the professor discloses, “is too painful to quote”. But he makes up for his by quoting one painful passage twice. Since Kate Salt died almost sixty years ago, since she had no children, and since the letter is in a public collection, one can only marvel at the delicacy of his conscience. He can confidently assure himself that the dead have been thoroughly protected: only the book may have suffered.

But Salt was a difficult subject for anyone. Shaw, who counted him among his most intimate and valued friends, never put him in play, believing that he could not be dramatized. Salt’s ideas were not original. What was unique about him was the way in which he translated certain ideas into his own life. “My pastime”, Shaw once wrote, “has been writing sermons in plays, sermons preaching what Salt practiced.” The biography of the man cannot, without loss, be separated from his philosophy. But the material for re-creating his life does not appear to exist.

Professor Hendrick’s purpose has been an amiable one: but it could have been better accomplished by an anthology of Salt’s writings taken from the wide variety of his books, his contributions to the journals of the Humanitarian League, and his letters. No one could be better qualified than Professor Hendrick to edit such a volume. In a sense he has already begun it. “Salt”, he writes in his introduction, “will be allowed to speak again for himself . . . .” Of the 228 pages of his book at least half have been written by the professor, the rest are taken up by notes, quotes and a couple of appendixes that, by making available Salt’s two sub-Shavian plays, reassure us that, in this respect at least, the literary world is guilty of no injustice.

Professor Hendrick has the virtues that Shaw denied Winsten. He is accurate and his judgments are sensible if unexceptionable. But on the evidence of this book, he has little active literary imagination. He is at home with the check-list and the dictionary, and has given us a classroom primer rather than a work of literary criticism. It is rich in sub-headings, but lacks craft. Whenever life and literature meet he flung into a confusion of rhetorical questions; and his analysis of Kate Salt’s connection with You Never Can Tell is a perfect example of the culture of the literae inhumaniores against which Salt objected.

But none of this is to question Professor Hendrick’s knowledge of and respect for Salt’s work. It is the very warmth of his admiration that seems to have persuaded him to attempt something not quite in his line—just as Salt was tempted to try out dramatic works on vivisection and imprisonment. But Salt returned to cultivate his real talent: and it is to be hoped that Professor Hendrick will go on to exercise his editorial skills and give us The Best of Salt.

Michael Holroyd

Times Literary Supplement, 24 February 1978, p. 224