1902 Encyclopedia > Douglas William Jerrold

Douglas William Jerrold
English dramatist and satirist

DOUGLAS WILLIAM JERROLD (1803-1857), dramatist, satirist, and one of the most brilliant of the English wits who distinguished the first half of the 19th century, was born in London, January 3, 1803. His father, Samuel Jerrold, actor, was at that time lessee of the little theatre of Wilsby near Cranbrook in Kent, but in 1807 he removed to Sheerness. There, among the blue-jackets who swarmed in the port during the war with France, little Douglas grew into boyhood, a stout, well made, rosy-cheeked, white-haired urchin, fond of reading and pugnacious withal. Familiarity with the tinsel and glitter of his father's profession robbed it of its chief attractions for the boy; but the glorious renown of Nelson and the anti-Gallic enthusiasm of his father's naval patrons filled his susceptible bosom, and wooed him to his majesty's uniform. From December 1813 till October 1815 Douglas Jerrold served his country as a midshipman. He saw nothing of the war save a cargo of maimed warriors from Waterloo ; but till his dying day there lingered traces of his early passion for salt water. The peace of 1815 ruined poor Samuel Jerrold; there was no more prize money. On January 1, 1816, he removed with his family to London, where the plucky little ex-midshipman began the world again as a printer's apprentice, studying hard in the grey of the early morning at Latin, pinching himself to get the Waverley Novels from the library, and finding unspeakable delight in the pages of his Shake-speare. In 1819 Douglas Jerrold was a compositor in the printing-office of the Sunday Monitor. Several short papers and copies of verses by him had already appeared in the sixpenny magazines, but he aspired now to contribute to the Monitor; and stealthily one evening he dropped into the editor's box a critique of the opera Der Freischiltz. Next morning he received his own copy to set up, together with a flattering note from the editor, requesting further contributions from the anonymous author. Thenceforward Jerrold was engaged in journalism.

He soon entered another field where he was to reap no less honourable laurels. In 1821 he had the satisfaction of seeing a comedy that he had composed in his fifteenth year brought out at Sadler's Wells Theatre, under the title More Frightened than Hurt. Other pieces followed, and in 1825 the popular young dramatist was engaged for a few pounds weekly to produce dramas and farces to the order of Mr Davidge of the Coburg Theatre. By his marriage in the autumn of 1824 the "little Shakespeare in a camlet cloak," as he was called, had found a less fitful incentive to industry than his mere ambition ; and, while he was engaged with the drama at night, he was steadily pushing his way as a journalist by his daily labours. For a short while he was part proprietor of a small Sunday newspaper. In 1829, through a fortunate quarrel with the exacting Davidge. Jerrold left the " Coburg," and Black-Eyed Susan was brought out on the " Surrey " boards. The success of the piece was enormous. With its free gallant sea-flavour, it took the town by storm, and "all London went over the water to see it." On the three hundredth night the theatre was illuminated. Elliston, manager of the " Sur rey," made thousands of pounds; T. P. Cooke, who played William, made his reputation; Jerrold received about £70. But his fame as a dramatist was achieved. In 1830 it was proposed that he should adapt something from the French, for Drury Lane. " No," was his reply to the offer, " I shall come into this theatre as an original dramatist or not at all." In December of the following year he was received on his own terms ; The Bride, of Ludgate was the first of a number of plays which found their way to Drury Lane stage. The other patent houses threw their doors open to him also (the Adelphi had already done so); and in 1836 Jerrold himself became co-manager of the Strand Theatre with Mr Hammond his brother-in-law. The ven-ture was not successful; and the partnership was dissolved. While it lasted Jerrold wrote his only tragedy, The Painter of Ghent, and appeared himself in the title r61e, without any very marked success. His pen continued to be fruit-ful of sparkling comedies till 1854, when his last piece, The Heart of Gold, was written.

Meanwhile he had won his way to the pages of numerous periodicals,—before 1830 of the second-rate magazines only, but after that to those of more importance; and he had almost reached comfort and ease when an obligation, undertaken for an unfortunate friend, drove him forth to fresh years of hard toil. When at last he could settle in comfort he found himself the centre of a host of friends, whose affection was his no less than their admiration; and his last years were spent in peaceful happiness. The Monthly Magazine, Blackwood's, the New Monthly, and the Athenaeum, all welcomed his brilliant articles. To Punch, the publication which of all others is associated with his name, he contributed from its second number in 1841 till within a few days of his death. He founded and edited for some time, though with indifferent success, the Illuminated Magazine, Jerrold's Shilling Magazine, and Douglas Jerrold's Weekly Newspaper, and under his editor-ship Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper rose from almost nonentity to a circulation of 182,000. The history of his later years is little more than a catalogue of his literary productions, interrupted now and again by brief flights to the Continent or to the country. Douglas Jerrold died at his house, Kilburn Priory, in London, on June 8, 1857.

Jerrold's figure was small and spare, and in later years bowed almost to deformity. His features were strongly marked and expressive from the thin humorous lips to the keen blue eyes gleaming from beneath the shaggy eyebrows. He was brisk and active, with the careless blufi'ness of a sailor. Open and sincere, he concealed neither his anger nor his pleasure; to his simple frankness all polite duplicity was distasteful. Hating the conventionalities of the town, he loved to make his home in some rural retreat where he could roam at ease, with loose coat and straw hat. To his house, always hospitable, he was especially fond of attract-ing young men, whom he encouraged with strong, cheery words, and often with more material aid. The cynical side of his nature he kept for his writings; in private life his hand was always open. In politics Jerrold was a Liberal, and he gave eager sympathy to Kossuth, Mazzini, and Louis Blanc. In social politics especially he took an eager part he never tired of declaiming against the horrors of war, the luxury of bishops, and the iniquity of capital punishment.

Douglas Jerrold is now perhaps better known from his reputation as a brilliant wit in conversation than from his writings. In animated talk his retorts and fancies flew from his lips like a shower of sparks. His jests were un-premeditated and unforced; their spontaneity, which not seldom surprised Jerrold himself, was one of their most telling characteristics, and often robbed his sharpest retorts of their sting. For he let no sentimental or polite con-sideration stand in the way of a brilliant rejoinder. As Dr Charles Maokay expresses it, " when his jest came to the tip of his tongue, it had to explode though the heavens should crack, and his best friend should take it amiss." Yet no one can accuse Jerrold of being spiteful. Ill-advised and thoughtless, even unjust, his wit often was ; but it was not barbed. It did not rankle in the wound. Jerrold's wit was of a tolerably high intellectual order. It is said that no pun is to be found in his writings. Their wit is the wit of burnished epigram and quaint conceit, of happy phrase and lightning retort. But the puns that abounded in his talk were often wise as well as witty. The well-known description of dogmatism as " puppyism come to maturity " is an excellent example of the flashing insight that gave life and meaning to his jests.

As a dramatist Jerrold was very popular, and struck out quite a line for himself in the domestic drama. Here he dealt with rather humbler forms of social life than had commonly appeared on the stage ; and it is worthy of note that plays of this kind have had the greatest run in modern times. Jerrold was one of the first and certainly one of the most successful of those who in defence of the native English drama endeavoured to stem the tide of translation from the French, which threatened early in the 19th century altogether to drown original native talent. Thoroughly English in motive, action, and atmosphere, his plays, whether comedy or domestic drama, are all effective from their freshness, point, and spirit. The author is at his best in construction as well as in sparkling epigram and brilliant dialogue in Bubbles of the Day, and Time Works Wonders. The latter perhaps excels in plot and human interest. The tales and sketches which form the bulk of Jerrold's collected works vary much in skill and interest ; but, although the artistic symmetry is here and there marred by traces of their having been composed from week to week, they are always marked by keen satirical observation and pungent wit. While reading them it is well to remember that they have a higher aim than the beguiling an idle hour by the mere interest of the story ; for the author is always trying to call attention to some wrong, to rouse pity for some hardship, to stir up indignation against some form of social oppression or abuse.

Jerrold's writings are scattered over all the periodical literature of his day; but perhaps his most important works are in the following list. Men of Character are seven sketches (collected in 1838), in which he throws sarcastic ridicule on various foibles and hypocrisies of every-day men ; Cakes and Ale, a collection of short papers of all sorts made in 1842, contains whimsical tales directed against the tyranny of riches, the folly of judging by ap-pearances, with similar thrusts at the weaknesses and vices of humanity ; The Story of a Feather, which originally appeared in Punch in 1842-43, tracing the career of an ostrich feather as it passes to successive owners, affords the author opportunités of exposing shams, lashing vice, and gibbeting successful villany in every rank of life. In The Chronicles of Clovernook he ventilates his philosophy of life, and his objections to existing social and political institutions ; in A Man made of Money, where the super-natural forms the basis for a story of an eminently matter-of-fact character, he fulminates against the blind worship of lucre ; St Giles and St James, perhaps his best work of this class, is described in his own words as " an endeavour to show in the person of St Giles the victim of an ignorant disregard of the social claims of the poor upon the rich, ... to present . . . the picture of the infant pauper reared in brutish ignorance." Of his professedly satirical papers the chief are Punch's Letters to his Son, Punch's Complete Letter-Writer, and Sketches of the English. Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures, possibly the most widely known of all Jerrold's writings, explain themselves by their title. Be-sides the " Q Papers," which began in the second number of Punch, Jerrold wrote various political articles for his own and other newspapers.

Were a reader now to go to Jerrold's writings, he would find much that seems commonplace and trite. The fault is not with Jerrold, but with the host of his imitators who have sought with more or less success to reproduce in the pages of every magazine the social cynicism which is apt at first view to be taken for the essence of Jerrold's style. But Jerrold has his own happy knack of handling ordinary subjects, his own singular method of regarding things. His truths may sometimes be commonplaces, and his morahzings trite ; his descriptions may sometimes drag on to tedium, and his characters stiffen into lay figures ; even his passion may sometimes attenuate to fustian, but every paragraph is lit up by quaint phrase or happy conceit; every page is illumined by some gleaming epigram or flash of originality. Jerrold seems to revel in the sarcastically satirical, perhaps the easiest and most directly effective of all satire. He appears to have reserved the softer side of his nature for his private life. He is far more at home in satirizing the foibles of men than in praising their good points. Here and there there are tender gleams of rarest pathos in his pages ; but these do not occur in scenes ela-borated to move pity, but in the simple half unconscious finishing touch to some little picture, drawn from the author's heart. That Jerrold has painted for us no full-length portrait of a thoroughly noble character is due to his ultra-keen perception of the bad in human nature. " Mr Capstick" in St Giles and St James, who is perhaps the most truly benevolent of all his personages, escapes the difficulty of revealing his excellence in consistent speech by becoming an amiable hypocrite, and poses as "the man with gall in his words and balm in his deeds."

A writer in the Edinburgh Review for 1859 accuses Jerrold of being a "sentimentalist,"—of writing " to gratify his sympathies and antipathies, and not to bring out the truth." That is an extreme statement, which has some foundation in fact. Jerrold often attacked what he con-sidered an abuse without stopping to weigh the ultimate consequences, and without being swayed by very satisfac-tory or conclusive reasons. Sometimes too the epigram or the jest seems to have suggested the opinion, rather than the opinion the epigram. That he generally espoused the healthy side was due more to his instinct than to his reason, more to his heart than to his head. His keen feelings often carried him to great lengths in invective. He did not escape the besetting sin of all social reformers. He is tempted to elaborate and intensify the peculiar aspect of the question that best suits the lesson he seeks to read ; and although it is impossible to doubt his perfect sincerity and honest intention, yet the darkening of the shadows has a disingenuous air, and we are tempted to suspect that he has been unconsciously impelled to exaggerate reality or distort fact in order to justify his diatribe. Such a sus-picion is fatal to satire. It enlists our sympathies, on a most healthy principle, on the side of what is attacked ; and it is the cause why so much of what Jerrold wrote has missed fire. This fault of colouring, which earnest social satire can scarcely escape, has been commonly translated by critics as " bitterness " ; but bitterness is far too ill-natured a word to describe the vivid, quivering feeling in which there is not the faintest tincture of personal animus, and in which all the sharpness is on behalf of the poor and the op-pressed, with whom his own life had taught him sympathy.

Douglas Jerrold's Works were collected by himself in 8 vols. 8vo., 1851-55, and again in 4 vols. 8vo in 1859. The Life and Remains of Douglas Jerrold, by his son Blanchard Jerrold, was published in 1858; 2d ed., 1869. (F. MU.)

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