Edith Helen Sichel.

The life and letters of Alfred Ainger online

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and ragged poverty of the dramatic presentment. When " Time
as Chorus " suggested the enquiry :

' " If ever you have spent time worse ere now," he remarked
soito voce, " Hardly ever, I think."

^ ' Madame Joachim's singing of Schumann's " Sonntags am Rhein " was one
of the most touching incidents of the Festival,' was Ainger's own note appended
to these lines,


'Neither could the best acting reconcile him to a badly con-
structed or improbable play. In such a case he would be restless
aud uncomfortable — not to say cross — even if his favourite Robson
were on the stage.'

Ainger's dramatic sympathy was creative — the most creative
quality he had ; it became, as we have said, a kind of self-
identification, and reproduced itself under many forms. His
imitations of Kean, Robson, Wigan, were inimitable — no
parodies, but the men to the life. And as some musicians can
evoke a whole orchestra on a piano, so could he recreate a
whole comedy in its various scenes and characters. There was
no need to go to the play for those who could hear him read
' Still Waters,' or ' The Wandering Minstrel,' or ' To Parents
and Guardians,' in which the part of the shabby, high-souled
Fi'ench master gave scope to his powers of pathos. It was
about now that he first learned to know Lady Martin, the
Helen Faucit of the stage. To her Rosalind, her Beatrice,
her Juliet, he soon became Touchstone and Benedick, Romeo
and the Nurse; for there were, during several years, frequent
readings between them at her house, heard only by a little
group of friends.

Lady Martin was one of the few actresses about whom he
was enthusiastic ; later. Miss Rehan was another, and he went
almost every night to the plays of the Daly Company — his
Daly service, as he called them. ' No, I cannot possibly go
to-night,' he once firmly responded to a friend who had
pressed him to come with him to see As Vmi Like It for the
third or fourth time. But a few hours afterwards, when the
same friend entered the theatre, the first person he beheld was
Ainger. 'When I got home I found a seat waiting for me,
and I had not the heart to refuse it,' he said. This was, how-
ever, in after times and an exception. His usual theatrical
experiences then were not so happy as in old days ; the
problem-play bored or disgusted him ; smartness of speech
stung his taste. To performances of Shakespeare he always
went, because no one, he said, should lose an opportunity of
hearing Shakespeare's language spoken, however bad the actors
might be. But modern stage realism, like all effectiveness,


jarred upon him, and he often came away oppressed. From
its earliest manifestations, refined when compared to what
followed, he lifted up his wit against it, and he protested
in rhyme against ' The first appearance of the real hansom cab
at Drury Lane Theatre'' (in The Streets of London).

' Ho for Art and Education —
Ho ! for Progress (a la Crab) —
Have you heard the new Sensation ?
Have you seen the Hansom Cab ?

Never, Drury, was thy stage meant
For this " most unkindest " stab —
They have offered an engagement
To a Cabman — and his Cab.

Where we've wept with Juliet's sadness —
Heard Mercutio or Queen Mab —
Where we've marked Ophelia's madness —
There to-day 's a Hansom Cab.

Here we've seen the Hags appalling
Make the gruel "thick and slab" —
Here we've heard King Richard calling.
For a horse — but not a cab.

Gone — Sir Toby, Slender, Shallow,
Launce with " stony-hearted " Crab,
Shakespeare's touch e'en curs could hallow ;
Not e'en his — a Hansom Cab.

Touchstone, Trinculo, all vanished —
Hushed the jester's fluent gab —
" For oh, the hobby-horse " is vanished —
Modern taste demands — the Cab.

Close the idle Panorama,

All is gone — and on a slab

Let us write " Here lies the Drama.

Knocked down by a Hansom Cab." '

He also protested in prose.

'So long,' he writes, 'as we care to see tinsel and fine clothes,
we shall see our noblest writers presented to us in garbled
extracts, as vehicles for scenery and costume. The evil was
beginning to show itself in Rome when she was on the eve of
her decline. It is impossible for Englishmen not to think with



delight of those rude times when the strolling players acted
Hamlet in the country barn. It must have been with much the
same feelings that the educated Roman of the Augustan age
thought of the time when the Athenians thronged beneath the
blue sky to listen to the words of Sophocles and Aeschylus. Let
us only be thankful that the great poets are ours to-day and
for ever, and that no stage, however degraded, can take them
from us.'

His conception of the function of the drama was serious,
though not overstrained.

' The place,' he said, ' that the minor theatre occupies in the
education of the people, seems to be that it rescues them from
pleasures that are merely sensual. Such a place is perhaps not a
high one ; but it is a fact, which is too often forgotten, that until
there is awakened in the people a love for something besides
mere sensuality, the teacher will seek to approach them in vain.
The world of fiction is not a barren one. Having reached it now,
the man will more readily listen to invitations from other worlds,
new and unsuspected.'

The deterioration of the stage Ainger largely ascribed to
the false position of the actor. And here his conclusions were
unexpected. Far from laying down, as one might suppose,
that the actor should live for his art, away from the tempta-
tions of society, he believed that the best dramatic artist was
also the best man of the world.

' In the actor's profession,' he wrote, ' what needs toning down
is the personal element. Of too many of them in all time it must
be admitted — we are sure that the best among them will be the
readiest to admit the truth — that their besetting temptation is
that expi'essed in the Laureate's lines —

''It's always ringing iu your ears,
' They call this man as good as me.

' Hitherto there has been some excuse, or at least explanation,
of this in the gulf which has separated the actor from ordinary
society. His personal supremacy became his compensation for
other things that were denied him, and his defence against the
educated world's contempt for his pi-ofession. But as the dignity
of that profession rises, and with it the social position of the


actor, the desire for personal supi-eniacy ought to yield to, or at
least be tempered by, other gains. Pride in the profession and a
sense of its worthiness . . . ought to take the place in some
degree of less ennobling aims. But among other reforms, there
is one which in any case ought to be early introduced. An actor
should not have to play every night ; or, if a continuous "run " of
a certain piece is necessary, it should be followed by a period of
comparative repose, or at least of alternations of leisure evenings.
It is only so that the actor can fill his place in some measure in
ordinary society, and obtain the benefit of taking friendly and
wholesome part in the common interests of the world, among
which, after all, are fostered the best and most healthy develop-
ment of human character, and therefore the conditions which go
to make art also wholesome and fructifying.'

This was a characteristic judgment; Aingcr was always an
advocate of the obvious and the average. He was also an
advocate of the amateur element as essential to the professional
actor. This was, if we may use so solemn a word, his message
to the stage, and nowhere has he better expressed it than in
his earlv criticism of Dickens as a comedian.

It serves as an epitome of so much he felt and believed, so
much he himself practised in his art of interpretation, that it
seems worth quoting at some length.

* To say that his acting was amateurish, is not necessarily to
disparage it. No one who heard the public readings from his
own books which Mr. Dickens subsequently gave with so much
success, needs to be told what rai*e natural qualifications for the
task he possessed. Fine features and a striking presence, with a
voice of great flexibility, were added to a perfect mastery over
the sense of his author, because that author was himself. But it
is certain that many a low comedian would have made the
character of Sam Weller, for instance, more telling than it proved
in the hands of its originator. Many persons will remember what
a hush of expectation used to take possession of the entire
audience, when in the trial-scene from Pickmclc, the crier of the
court said, "Call Samuel Weller," and that immortal worthy
stepped into the box ; and what a palpable feeling of disappoint-
ment succeeded his first words as spoken by Mr. Dickens. . . .
Certain it is that nearly every one of the audience thought that
the reader had in this respect unaccountably failed : and, as we


have saidj many a low comedian without a tithe of Mr. Dickens's
genius or knowledge of human nature would have better satisfied
the general expectation. But we are persuaded, and were per-
suaded at the time, that Mr. Dickens exhibited a fidelity to truth
in this instance more really artistic than in his imitations of
certain familiar types of character such as Serjeant Buzfuz or
Mrs. Cluppins. He presented Samuel Weller as having, in spite
of all his wit and readiness, the characteristics of the class of
society to which he belonged. People had forgotten that Sam
Weller was a boots and a waiter, and that, although a master of
chaff and slang, he was not a professional clown ; and they
expected to hear from the artist and the literary man what they
would have heard in a dramatised version from the low-comedy
actor. In this respect Mr. Dickens, as an actor, was amateurish ;
but it is only another way of saying that he was not of the stage,
stagey. If there was a certain ease and handiness which the
practice of the art as a profession might have brought to him, he
at least escaped the tyranny of those conventionalisms which the
best actors (at least those of our own time) have not been able to

To the end, the dramatic element in fiction was a subject
which fascinated Ainger, and the stage possibilities of great
novelists was a theme that he liked to consider. At present,
however, his criticism on art was mainly expressed in verse
and contributed to Punch, the pages of which were sometimes
now enlivened by his sallies.




A NEW chapter of existence was now to begin for Ainger.
The years had j)assed, his nieces had grown up ; it was time
that they should leave school and have a settled home. He
resolved that the home should be with him, and made what
was for him the momentous resolution of taking a house of his

At the beginning of 1876, he moved to his old haunt
Hampstead, to look about him ; there he found what he
wanted in No. 2 Upper Terrace — a furnished house lying
high, with a view of the still unspoilt heath. It was the first
time in his life that he had had a house of his own, and he
felt a child's joy in every part of it. He liked to show off its
Morris papers and Chippendale furniture, and he took delight
in the thought that he was making a home for his 'girls.'
Their rooms were filled with ' surprises,' always a favourite
invention of his. ' Well, do you notice anything ? ' was his
question in later days when they returned home after an
absence; and the anything was perhaps a new curtain, or a
carpet, the laying down of which he had superintended him-
self, for he had his own ideas about 'selvage' and hangings,
and the trimming of lamps, an art in which he solemnly
initiated them in the first days after their arrival. His
particularity about household details and his proud sense of
proprietorship were prominent qualities in him. No one was
fonder of committing little extravagances in the name of his
house. They generally took the form of a water-colour or a
drawing, and when he feared his womankind would scold him,
he would wait till some friend was present and carelessly bring
forth his bargain ; or he placed his purchase, as if by chance,



in a favourable light in the drawing-room, and invariably
betrayed himself by the joy with which he eyed his acquisi-

But this is to anticipate. He and his two nieces quickly
settled into their new abode which they just filled — at close
quarters — a fact which is worth recording as a measure of
his domestic patience. It was indeed a change from the
freedom of his bachelor solitude to find himself sharing a
small house and a small sitting-room with two shy young girls,
of whose ways he knew very little. His new acquaintance and
next-door neighbours, Miss James and Miss Coates, came
before long to his rescue, and, together with the more distant
' Aunt Mary,' who still lived in Bayswater, gi'eatly helped him
with his charges. He was always anxious about their
observance of the proprieties, though entirely ignorant when
he himself broke them. One day as rigid as Mrs. Chapone
upon some knotty point about an escort, on the next he would
ask a young man to stay and, finding he had to be absent in
town, would contentedly leave him behind as sole chaperon of
the party. ' I ""m afraid I must go into London, now,' he used
to say, soon after two o'clock, to any guest he had chanced to
ask to luncheon, 'but I shall quite hope to find you on my
return'; and to his nieces' dismay, his ' hope' was generally
realised, though he did not come back till six. He liked
inviting many friends now that he had a home, and if he were
in vein when they came, he would take up some book of poetry
and read to them by the hour. If he were not, he would
hardly open his lips. A cloud would sometimes descend and,
for several days together, he seemed unable to speak to those
who were with him. Some of his depression was doubtless
caused by over-work and new responsibilities, and by the
change in his mode of existence ; but most of it was purely
physical. At this period, especially, he went through much
bodily suffering, which generally took the form of a severe
headache, during which he kept a strict fast, often for two
days running. The fatigue of going to and from London, the
increase in number of the classes that he held and the lectures
that he gave in order to make a sufficient income, his con-


stant social doings — all put a strain upon his slender strength.
After his heavy work on Sundays, which detained him in
London till late evening, he was frequently laid up, and next
day he was found, his head on one side, looking at himself in
the glass. ' I think I am rather Mondayish this morning,' he
would say, a speech too often the prelude to hours of bed.
But those who had seen him in the midst of such an illness,
speechless with prostration, were surprised to behold him a
few hours later emerging gaily from his sick-room, to sing
Schubert all the evening, or to break forth into fantastic

It is almost impossible that words should convey Alfred
Ainger's exuberance of fun at this time without making him
seem grotesque — and that he never was. There was no end
to the forms his drollery would take. He would dance a
' fandango ' with a certain lady in Hampstead, a fantastic
dance which they executed with fans in their hands ; or he
would practise his skill as a ventriloquist and drive down
Bond Street imitating the loud cry of a cockatoo, so that all
the passengers looked up and about in search of the escaped
bird, while he sat demure and apparently silent upon the
back seat of the carriage. And then there was his Christmas
Harlequinade which he would not stop for any one, so that
a chance visitor once entering and seeing him trip up on the
hearth-rug, ran forward to help in the accident, unconscious
that he was only witnessing the classic drama of Joey, the
Clown, to be followed by that of Columbine.

Those who saw him thus could perhaps hardly realise the
nature of his daily life. It was, indeed, of the soberest. His
wards at this time occupied a good deal of his leisure ; he took
pleasure in guiding their taste by reading to them, for reading
aloud was always his chief method of teaching ; and he enjoyed
nothing more than escorting the younger girl to the teachers
of music and singing whom he chose for her. He also
educated them — sometimes rather severely — in the arts of
intercourse. He could not bear indolence or apathy.
' Never be ashamed of not knowing, but be dreadfully
ashamed of not wanting to know,"* he used to say to them.


To words and modes of speech he was almost extravagantly
sensitive. Many of his sudden, seemingly capricious silences
were caused by some expression that had jarred upon his
nerves — that had, so to speak, stabbed his taste. If some
one said ' photo ' for photograph, or talked of ' being seedy,'
it was enough to make him shun their society ; and his nieces
averred that if they had used these terms, he would not have
spoken to them for a day. To real faults he was generally
indulgent, but any want of consideration, especially to servants
and dependants, met with no mercy at his hands, whether in
big things or in trifles. An indistinctly written address had
a special power of irritating him ; it was, he said, an act of
selfishness to the overworked clerks in the Post Office, and he
would make his nieces re-write illegible directions, or copy
them out himself rather than despatch them as they were.
His courtesies were occasionally rather inconvenient, and his
nieces did not always relish toiling up Hampstead Hill at
midnight in their evening dresses, ' to save the cab-horse,' an
effort which he never failed to make himself, however tired he
might be. Nor was he less chivalrous to the cabmen. He
chose as his habitual chariot the dirtiest and most broken-
down fly, hardly safe to drive in, and the most dilapidated
coachman, overpaying him largely, and refusing to be taken
by any driver who was not down in the world. The fact was
that he grew fond of all those to whom he was accustomed.
Strangers did not always receive the same forbearance and the
sight of an unknown face was something of an offence.
His usual newspaper man once brought the paper to his house
at an unusual hour, but Ainger, who saw him advance without
recognising him, imperiously waved him back down the path,
refusing all negotiations ; and later, at the Temple, there was
a more fatal occasion, when a barrister coming to the
Master's house to ask the Master to officiate at his marriage,
was similarly sighted from afar, taken for a beggar and
summarily ordered to retreat. None would have been more
shocked than Ainger at this breach of hospitality, but his dis-
like of people taking liberties was almost as great as his


The shabby fly was in constant requisition at Hampstead,
for there was seldom an evening on which he did not dine
out. Though he rejoiced in the new atmosphere of home,
he was not yet as domesticated as he believed, and his friends
claimed him as they were wont. But when it came to bigger
projects, summer holidays and country invitations, he often
had to refuse them.

' We are at present without plans of any kind ; you see I now
have encumbrances and I can't get about as independently as of
old, when I enjoyed what somebody called " the desolate freedom
of the wild ass." '

Thus he wrote to a friend who had begged him to come and
stay. All the same, his nieces used to try and count up how
many beds he slept in during the year, and they were never
able to complete the computation.

Voluntary work took up a good part of the leisure left him.
It was seldom that he figured as a civic character, and it
is therefore worth recording that he devoted a good deal of
time and labour to the public library at Hampstead. It
included several rooms and was intended for the use of all
classes, but especially for the use of working-men, for whom it
made a sort of club. The kind of help that he gave there
was characteristic. His colleague in this matter. Sir Henry
Holland (now Lord Knutsford, and then member for Hamp-
stead) recalls a difficult moment when it was found that the
working-men themselves hardlv came to these club-rooms at
all. It was Ainger who discovered that some of them did not
possess 'best coats,' and so did not like 'the world' to see
them in shabby dress going in at the public entrance ; and his
sympathetic invention of a back-door finally solved the
difficulty and filled the empty rooms. But the most im-
portant work he did for Hampstead lay in the impetus he
gave to its concerts and the way that he raised their position
till they ranked among the best in London. Soon after
settling in Hampstead, he became prominent on the Concert
Committee, advising the choice of music and of artists. And
he made it his task to translate the German songs they gave


into English, leaving in this way some of his best-wrought
lyrics ; for his lines, though keeping close to the original,
were poems by their own right.

These concerts brought him into contact with a good many
fresh people. So did the literature classes which he now
held at Hampstead, setting papers for his pupils the response
to which linked him to many among them. The humble and
the timid wanting guidance, the intellectual wanting sym-
pathy, found in him an unfailing helper, sparing neither
trouble nor patience, ready with books as with counsel. He
rapidly became a solid literary influence, moulding the taste
of his neighbours and setting the literary standard wherever he
read or lectured.

In private houses he read, too, more especially in that
of his old friends the Misses Johnston, who lived on in the
home that he remembered in his young days. Hampstead
was still a world apart — almost like a University town, with its
own characters and its own men of note, among whom he soon
counted. There were old acquaintances, there were new
ones ; Miss James, his supporter on the Concert Committee ;
Mrs. Julian Marshall, another musical colleague ; Mrs. Charles,
the author of the Schonhe^-g-Cotta Family ; the Champneys,
the Holidays, the Spencer-Wells, with many of whom he grew
intimate. Chief among all these ties was his friendship with
George du Maurier, which played so important a part
in his life that it demands a chapter to itself.

Less prominent, but meaning much to him, was another
friendship that he formed with Miss Margaret Gillies, a
portrait-painter of past repute, then nearly eighty years old.
She had belonged to the Lake School circle, had taken Words-
worth's portrait in her youth, and stayed much at Rydal
Mount. She fell in love with her new neighbour as only
charming old ladies can, liking to receive daily visits from
him ; to hear his fancy play round her memories ; to send him
delicate little notes ; or to give choice dinners at which he
was the honoured guest. She bestowed on him her greatest
treasure, a water-colour picture of Leigh Hunt, which hung
on his drawing-room walls — one of his favourite possessions ;


and when she died in 1887, he missed her sorely as one of the
few persons who revived a bygone world.

Perhaps one of his little letters to her best finds its place
here, although it was written a few years later.

'Dalness Lodge,
'Taynuilt, Scotland.

* . . . Have you read Carlyle's Life, I mean the later volumes
by Froude ? It is most interesting and deeply pathetic. I have
also read the new book Natural EcUgion, by the author of Ecce
Homo, which I doii'l recommend to you, for it is depressing, and
practically atheistic. Art and Science are to be, it seems, the
one solid religion of the future. If so, God help us ! But I
don't believe it. I believe that this worship of Science, and this
pagan pursuit of Beauty, will pall sooner or later. It will not
avail us if great national or personal chastisements come upon us.
. . . Did you ever know (talking of artists) one of the name of
Edward Burney, a half-brother, I believe, of Madame D'Arblay.
There is a pretty story of him in Lamb's Essays, "Valentine's

' God bless you, dear Friend. I hope we shall meet again
before very long. — We all send love : yours affectionately,

'Alfred Ainger.'

And here too belongs the note which he wrote at her
death, to her great friend, Mrs. Lewes.

Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 11 of 32)