Edith Helen Sichel.

The life and letters of Alfred Ainger online

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abroad, as he did about now, it was to ' Schubert's country,'
the Salzkammergut, and the only news he sends thence, is that
the places he was seeing inspired the Ave Maria. ' My hostess
is a charming pianist,' he writes later from a house in England,
' and the sound of the Beethoven and Schubert is always in
the land.'

From the Crystal Palace concerts Alfred used often to go
home with Sir George Grove, whose house near the Crystal
Palace became his constant haunt, the ' wooden-faced cottage


in Lower Sydenham, which we used to call the G,G. Block,
after one division of the seats at the Handel Festival,' ' Often,'
he continues, (in his own reminiscences of Grove ^), ' have I
stayed with him and Mrs. Grove, from the Friday till the
Sunday morning, and written my Sunday sermon on the Satur-
day morning in his little (rather damp and underground) study,
in a chaos of books, music, prints, and photographs.'

Through ' G.' Alfred also learned to know his new friend's
neighbours, the von Glehns, who made their roomy house. Peak
Hill, at Sydenham, the centre of a delightful society. Mr.
von Glehn, the father, was a Russian from the Baltic provinces ;
his wife was a Scotswoman, and both of them were gifted
people of warm sympathies.

Music seemed to be a family inheritance ; so were all gener-
ous traditions, whether of art or hospitality, and the atmo-
sphere of their home seemed made for Ainger, who speedily
took root there. Once more he found himself part of a large
family of sons and daughters, prominent figures in the social
life of the day, and quick to welcome talent while it was still
obscure. Emanuel Deutsch, Hans von Blilow, Stockhausen,
Sullivan, were their guests ; and here, before they were known,
came Hubert Parry, J. K. Green, and Mandell Creighton, who
soon after became engaged to the youngest daughter of the
house. Of the other two, Olga and Mimi, both full of gifts and
charm, Alfred was the constant companion. At all times of
his life he was dependent upon feminine influence — we use the
word in its old astrological sense. His sensibilities demanded
a soothing and benignant power, a listening ear and a helping
hand ; and perhaps no man since Richardson has been a
greater adept in the art of friendship with womankind. As
time went on, Mimi von Glehn, the refined musician, the
harmonious, hospitable-hearted woman, became one of his
closest friends ; they made music, she playing to him, he
singing. The air was full of fun. He evoked it together
with the atmosphere in which it could live. Like all real
humorists, he made other people feel creative. In the acting,
in the fooling to purpose, to which he treated his audience,
' Life of Sir George Grove, by C. L. Graves, p. 464.


he paid them a subtle compliment; conveyed to them with
delicate courtesy that they were essential to his inspiration.
He was not only at home at the von Glehns', he also grew
intimate with their circle. He liked to dwell on those days :
on the gay nights he spent at Sydenham, on his impromptu
rushes thence to St. James's Hall in company with Grove and
J. R. Green ; on the winter reading of Shakespeare, which
made his friends sure of his weekly visit. It is to the mother
of the family that he writes of these : —

' Kind friend, beneath whose genial roof
The wintry hours have sped so fast,
This lonely evening adds its proof
That joys may be too bright to last.

For fifteen weeks a friendly train
Around the social board have met
To smile at Slender's childish vein,
Or weep with love-lorn Juliet.

No winter gale has power to touch
The sweetness of Verona's spring ;
Our private griefs seemed small to such
As that which wrecked Sicilia's king.

And as we read our Shakespeare's page
Each wound of time found healing balm —
The blood of youth ran new in age —
The young were touched with age's calm.

But ah ! to-night the wind is chill

And all the cares of life return ;

O memory, linger with us still,

And Hope, bring forth thy lamp and burn.'

Meanwhile his busy professional life went on. He had by
now moved from the Fullartons', and that lonely evening when
he felt the wind was chill, he spent in the lodgings which
often witnessed his depressions. Good company beguiled
him, but directly he was alone the sense of homelessness came
back to him. He went to chambers, first in Tanfield Court,
the Temple, and then in Spring Street, Paddington, where
he took up his abode over a china-shop, in little rooms brim-
ming over with books. In this limited space he contrived to
harbour his nephews and nieces when they sometimes paid


him visits in their holidays, and thev well remember his
minute arrangements — the bliss of their Crusoe discomfort —
the long expeditions with him to all the sights of London,
his figure walking quickly before tliem threading crowded
streets and crossings.

Thev had other and more bewilderins memories : of him
crouching upon the hearthrug, of his impenetrable silences
as he sat there in a fit of suffering, bodily more than mental,
for his health which was always delicate had felt the recent
strain upon it. The children meant much to him in these
years that were both full and solitary — when the presence of
grief was still with him, but calmed and mellowed by time.
There is but one poem on his sorrow, and that was written
by his sister s grave four years after he had lost her.

' The hills are white with snow,
And the sun is bright o'erhead^
As I stand with heart bowed low
In homage to the dead.

And a pain my spirit chills,
But a hope is burning high,
For the snow will leave the hills
And the tun is in the sky.'




Alfred Aixgek's luck in friendship followed him to the
Temple. In 1869, Dean Vaughan became Master, and a
strong sympathy quickly grew up between him and his Reader.
Ainger admired his chief both as a man and as a preacher.
His feeling was returned, and the two saw a good deal of
each other. Every Sunday was spent with the Vaughans at
the Master's House, which became a home to him twenty-five
years before he himself went to live there. By that time it
already held for him many memories of bygone intercourse,
and so did the Vaughans'' house at LlandafF where he often
spent summer holidays. For the Dean loved good talk and
good literature, and any one who promoted them. A third
friend still keeps the impression of the two men standing
absorbed in conversation, their lighted bed-candles in their
hands, on the drawing-room landing at the Temple. Some
grease fell on the carpet from the Dean's slanting candle.
' How neat he spreads his wax,' was Ainger's immediate
comment — to the great pleasure of Dean Vaughan, who was
not above remembering Dr. Watts and ' the little busy bee.'

Nor did any one more fully than he appreciate Ainger's
services to the Temple ; his gifts both as Reader and as
preacher. Of his reading of the service and of the lessons
those who have heard it need no reminder, and it is impossible
to convey an idea of it to those who have not. The low,
clear, vibrating tones, swift to change and to thrill, yet kept
within due limits, seemed, as he read, to be one with his
presence — fraught with spiritual dignity. And his voice lent
eloquence to his sermons apart from the beautiful English,



sober and significant, in which he clothed them ; apart, too,
from the exquisite sense of quotation which became their
special distinction. Every Sunday afternoon and on other
occasions also, when Dr. Vaughan required it, he preached to
a large congregation and never left it unimpressed. Delicacy
rather than force of thought, practical rather than intellectual
truth, were the characteristics of these sermons, as they were
of those belonging to later times. The personality of Christ —
the relation to Him of the individual soul — these were, then as
ever, his central themes, and his attitude to modern criticism
was one, not exactly of hostility, but of shrinking distaste.
He himself has summed up his deepest feeUngs on these
points in three verses that he wrote about now, ' On reading
a Volume of Modern Sermons.''

* With eager knife that oft has sliced
At Gentile gloss or Jewish fable.
Before the crowd you lay the Christ
Upon the Lecture Table.

From bondage to the old beliefs
You say our rescue must begin —
But / — want refuge from my griefs,
And saving from my sin.

The strong, the easy, and the glad
Hang, blandly listening, on thy word —
But I am sick and I am sad.
And I need Thee, O Lord.'

' Sick and sad ' he often was.

' Believe it, dear child, that there is no happiness to compare
with loving and trusting God,' he wrote, rather later, to a little
girl upon her confirmation. ' It is very, very hard to achieve ;
and the very effort to do it will only throw into greater pro-
minence the evil and sin and weakness in you that tries to shut
God out. But, oh — it is best to feel and hiow our sin and our
weakness, because we may be certain it is He who is showing it
to us. ... I have known you all your life, my child, and you will
not mind my writing thus to you. And do not be hard upon me
because I myself so sorely need my own good advice. With all
the sin and evil that I know against myself, I have never known
any real happmess that did not come to me through remembering
the things I am now urging upon you. God bless you.'


In his letters he constantly reiterates his need and his
belief. During these last years he had seen much sorrow
among his friends, had more than once watched the death of
young people — the kind of grief which is most apt to create
doubt and despondency in those who witness it. But in him
it produced, as it were, an elation of faith, and two letters
that he wrote about now to those who were in trouble so
much express the same kind of thought that it seems of
interest to place them side by side.

To Mrs. Bowles on the death of her brother.

' Dear Friend, — What can I say, but God bless you, under this
heavy sorrow ? By a blessed law of His Kingdom, we love those
most for whom we do most ; and you and Robert have been
everything to him whom you have lost, and made all the differ-
ence to his young life ; and you feel towards him as to a son.

*I was so hopeful for him when I left his bedside for the last
time a week ago, and so looked forward to seeing him again, and
helping to relieve the monotony of the sick-room, but God has
willed it otherwise, and we know that He is Love.

'What a mystery it is that a life should be taken just when it
has been receiving, and was about to begin bearing fruit. What a
waste it would seem, did we not believe that no preparation is
wasted and that there is work to be done, if not in this world
then in the next.

' It was impossible to be with the boy and not love him. I felt
that he would win me very soon to a strong affection were I with

To Miss Flora Stevenson, whose niece had died.

'There is surely nothing so mysterious, nothing so pathetic,
nothing so stimulating to one's own faith and love, as the death
of the young. I have quite lately watched, day by day, a young
life fade away, and have felt awe-struck at times, as one who had
been admitted into the presence of deity. " Why this waste ? "
we ask. And we know in our calmer moments that nothing is
wasted — and that the life, a fragment only, has yet been lived to
blessed purpose, if only in the lessons it has taught. ... I was
indeed glad to see you again the other day. It is one of the
curses of an imperfect state that friends are continually separated.
We shall amend that, with other things, some day.'


There are not many long letters of this period. His pen
was busy with other tasks. Between 1870 and 1895, he
became a constant contributor to Macmillans Magazine ; for
though his first article, The Uses of Books, appeared as
early as 1859, it was not till now when Grove was editor
that he wrote regularly in its pages. Most of his articles
had been lectures, such as he began to give at schools
and various public places, and nearly all of them were on
purely literary subjects. Some were biographical, some
critical. His own conceptions of a critic's function he has
summed up himself in that first paper of 1859.

' Of those who do think — and the practice has rather gone out
of late — there are a few who think for themselves, and a great
many who think for the benefit of others. These last are some-
times called, for convenience, critics. All works must first pass
through their furnace before they are fit for the general reader,
who pays his fivepence cheerfully for the Weekly Rasper, and gets
a vast variety of opinions for his money. In a spare ten minutes
he has the opportunity of reading what another has written in
ten days concerning a work which has occupied a third party
perhaps as much as ten years. How admirably is labour shortened
nowadays! As we pay an architect to build, so we pay a critic
to think for us ; and so considerate it is of the critics always to
extract the faults of a book, and leave the general reader to find
the beauties. Sometimes there is a notice in the shop-windows
— "A few improvers wanted." It must certainly come from an
author who is wanting critics. . . . Ah me ! who would be a critic
by choice, if he had but the chance of being only a common
reader. . . . Amid so much deprivation, it is consoling to think
that the critic usually contrives to retain his spirits. It has even
been noticed that, by some beautiful provision, the more faults he
has to find, the merrier he is. Like Ophelia —

" Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,
He turns to favour and to prettiness."

Thus is there compensation in everything.

' My friend W., with whom I was the other day looking over a
review of a friend's book which the reviewer was mangling with
the highest enjoyment, said he was in hopes now that we were


returning to the good old Aristophanic school of criticism. He
said he would see all reviews abolished and have farces substituted
instead ; and how excellent it would be to see Carlyle held up
between heaven and earth in a clothes-basket, and Bulwer Lytton
and Sheridan Knowles weighed against each other in scales. W.
went on to say that criticism was not nearly so successful as
witticism, and that if Shakespeare had lived in our time he would
have seen that levity, not brevity, was the soul of wit. He is a
sad wag, W., and always will have his joke.

' Almost all criticism is too minute and too partial. Hence it
fails to exhibit any but a most imperfect view of its subject. It
takes a full-blown rose, and after examination presents to the
reader a heap of petals without form or perfume. The critic has
used his eye-glass, and sometimes to the injury of his eyes. For
this reason it were well if we never read the review of a book till
we had read the book itself. Then let us compare our impressions,
if it may be, with the large and reverent judgment of a fuller
knowledge than our own. ... To understand a great writer, as
to understand Nature, we must yield our prepossessions. When
we read we lose much by not standing side by side with the
writer. That in which persons differ essentially, is not in the
amount of knowledge they possess, but in the point of view from
which they look at things. With different centres we have
different circumferences. When the centres of reader and writer
are very far apart, they live in separate worlds. To understand
some writers we must change our planet and wait patiently till
we are acclimatised. . . . There is a class of readers — and a large
one too — who like to find in books rather what they know already
than what they have yet to learn.'

This was certainly never Alfred Ainger's foible, though he
may sometimes have gone near ' liking to find in books rather
what he loved already than what he had no mind to love,''
and thus limited his vision. But he generally avoided this
danger by reading only what he cared for, and was therefore
capable of judging, a fact which limited his range, but gave a
fine flavour to his verdicts. None was a better connoisseur of
the bad reader than he was.

* There are those,' he wrote, ' who read to kill time, as a refuge
— oh, shame ! shame ! — from themselves. There are those who
read because some work is in fashion, and it were bad taste not to


be able to talk of it. There are those who read in order to give
the public the benefit of their judgment — those mysterious men,
the critics. There are those who read indiscriminately with
morbid wideness of taste, as the savage devours earth. Lastly,
there are those who read little, but with discernment ; whose
books are their honoured friends — " the souls who have made
their souls wiser." . . .

' But there still remains a question whether the craving for
books may not be a disease, and whether we may not live too
little in ourselves, and too much in others. The professor, whose
young friend boasted that he read ten hours a day, inquired with
amazement, " Indeed, then when do you think .-' " The old man
was right. The master who sees a pupil with idle hands, and
fears that, being without a book he is losing his time, might not
unreasonably hope that his other pupil, who is never without a
book, is not losing his thoughts. " It is hard," Orlando says, "to
see happiness through another man's eyes." It is also unprofitable
always to see things reflected in another man's mind. . . . '

His conviction that the reader and the critic are necessary
to one another, that only together they can produce the
atmosphere in which literature can grow, was one that he
tried to embody in his own attitude towards books. He had
ample opportunity now for testing his views. He was meeting
writers and scholars of all sorts at many well-known houses,
but more especially at Knapdale, Tooting, the home of
Alexander Macmillan. In its large, leisurely rooms, or in its
spacious, old-world garden, there gathered together informally
the men and women of note and the young promise of the
day — authors, poets, painters, English and French, whether
they came from Oxford or fresh from the ranks of the
Impressionist artists. Of one such gathering, in May 1874,
Malcolm Macmillan, a son of the house, jotted down a record
for the benefit of his absent sister.

' The great A. A.,' it runs, ' was in his most prolific vein. I
could hear Mr. Hughes ringing with laughter as they took the
lawn together. . . . After tea Sara Carmichael played some less-
known nocturnes of Chopin's, one solemn one in particular. Mr.
Ainger was in raptures. It was a most pleasant piano revel. (A
piano revel includes all the gracious suavity of artistic enthusiasm


as well as the playing.) ..." I suppose you can't ' taste Wagner
in sips,' as Dick Swiveller observed to the Marchioness about
beer," said Mr. Ainger,

'"Hutton won't leave vivisection alone. It's 'cut and come
again.' At least the vivisectors go on cutting and he goes on
coming again," he said later on. . . .

'Ainger's taste and humour are stamped with the constant
working of exquisite selection and the interpretative assistance of
a voice and manner suffused with rich enjoyment and a sort of
melodious rumination.'

At the Macmillans"', for nearly twenty years to come, Ainger
was a loved and loving guest, one of the leaders of their
society, yet perhaps most welcome when alone with them. In
the summer he often stayed with them for several weeks on
end, reading plays, generally Shakespeare's, into the small
hours of the morning. And sometimes when his happy hearers
discovered it was late and prepared to go to bed, Ainger,
excited by Shakespeare — and himself — would hold them by
moonshine antics, breaking forth, Puck-like, into a shadowy
dance, swift, graceful, unreal, which seemed part of the
witching hour. After such rare exhibitions of this accom-
plishment — his, it will be remembered, from babyhood — he
would show an added dignity of bearing which forbade any
reference to them, and woe betided those who asked him to
repeat them. Yet he kept his fantastic power of twisting his
limbs into any shape, although, as time went on, he ceased to
exhibit his skill.

His friendship for Alexander Macmillan was extended to
his family : to his little girls, Maggie and Olive, as well as to
his sons, Malcolm and George, then in their early manhood.
The brilliant literary promise of the elder, Malcolm, made
a special bond between him and Ainger, and it was with these
two that, in the early seventies, he made his first trip to Italy.

' My two dear youug ladies, 1 tell you no story
^\^^en I say that, tho' absent, you 're near to us 8till ;
For Maggie is seen in tlie Lake Maggiore,
And Olive is smiling from ev'ry green hill.'

So he wrote to the sisters at Knapdale. But he was no


traveller, and has left no letters about the journey ; the only
thing we know of his stay in Florence is that he was bent
upon finding the house of Walter Savage Landor. He
showed himself here, as elsewhere, the determined votary of
association, for he had not the spirit of adventure which lures
so many abroad, and the upheaval of journeys did not suit
him. The visits that he sometimes paid to Switzerland and
Germany were either for health, or to see his sister Marianne,
who settled first at Heidelberg, then at Stuttgart — but of
these also there remains no written memorial. There was,
however, one expedition to which he always looked back as
among the great pleasures of his life. This was a trip, in
1873, to Bonn, to join Sir George Grove at the Schumann
Festival. In after days he loved to recall every incident of
this summer time : ' G.'s "* welcome — the glories of the music —
the sight of Brahms in a garden by the Rhine — his own
wanderings by the river loved of Beethoven and Schumann —
his visit to Schumann''s grave and the verses that he made

* When the soul with sorrow laden

Hears no answer to its moan
In the jocund voice of Haydn
Or Mozart's pellucid tone.

When our Schubert's magic lyre

Fails to lead us at its will^
And the deeps of our desire

E'en Beethoven cannot still.

When the mists that bound things human

We have sought to pierce in vain —
Then we turn to thee, oh Schumann,

Bid thee sing to us our pain.

For there's rapture in thy sadness

And such joy in thy despond —
And thy drifting clouds of madness

Cannot hide the blue beyond.

Thy revolt can teach endurance :

And the spirit sore oppressed
In thy fears can find assurance,

In thy restlessness its rest.


From thy bitter draw we sweetness.

And a peace from out thy strife,
And a vision of completeness

Broods above thy maimed life.

Then no funeral thoughts be ours.

Take these funeral wreaths away —
Leave the grass to God's own flowers

And the glory of the day.

For, O pilgrim friends who wander

To this lonely artist shrine —
It is Sunday ' — and see yonder

Flows the blue unchanging Rhine.'

One great delight, yet untouched on, Alfred Ainger had in
London : he was an impassioned playgoer, to such plays as
suited his taste. In these earlier days his fancy found food in
plenty, for he often went to judge, even when he did not
greatly enjoy. Charles Kean, Robson, Compton, Alfred
Wigan, Henry Irving, Arthur Cecil, and the wholesome plays
in which they acted, were, each in their turn, not so much a
relaxation as an elemental part of his London life. He
identified himself with the actors as only a born actor can.

' He was ' (says his old friend, R. C. Browne) ' a delightful com-
panion at the theatre. His society gave a keener, more subtle
relish to those pleasures — his attitude was that of quiet expect-
ancy, not anticipating but receiving what might come, thoroughly
ready to enjoy it, but steadily referring all that claimed accept-
ance oj* admiration to that calm, inexorable judgment of his. He
had an alert perception of the absurd. He detected it under
however imposing or brilliant a disguise. On the first night of
the Winter's Tale, when Charles Kean dazzled the town with the
contrasting splendour of Magna Graecia and Bithynia — into which
Shakespeare's Bohemia was for the nonce transformed — he refused
to allow the pomp and pageantry to conceal from him the thin

Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 10 of 32)