Andrew Lang: the life and times of a prolific talent

By the time of his death 100 years ago, Andrew Lang’s name could be found on 249 individual books and his collected journalism ran into thousands of articles. Yet today, the Selkirk author is largely forgotten

By the time of his death 100 years ago, Andrew Lang’s name could be found on 249 individual books and his collected journalism ran into thousands of articles. Yet today, the Selkirk author is largely forgotten

‘I NEVER yet met a man of genius,” said the critic Theodore Watts-Dunton, “who did not loathe [Andrew] Lang”. It is a judgment with which posterity has too often concurred and, even when he is not depicted with outright hostility, his achievements are often marginalised or referred to with condescension. Yet, for a period at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Lang was the most famous man of letters of his day. The playwright George Bernard Shaw, a man who never suffered fools gladly, said: “The day is empty unless an article by Lang appears.” One hundred years after his death, it would be regrettable if the only commemoration of his astonishing career was the fact that the NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services Unit in the Scottish Borders is named after him.

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Lang was born in Selkirk on March 31, 1844, into a family steeped in Scottish myth and history. One ancestor, Bessie Lang, had been condemned by the Church Session in 1714 for cursing Bailie Tudhope (she had apparently prayed that “the hare would kittle in his hearth”). Lang’s grandfather had been the sheriff clerk to Sir Walter Scott – and Lang would later write introductions to every one of the Waverley Novels, as well as writing the biography of Scott’s son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart.

His mother, Jane Plenderleath Sellar, was the daughter of the notorious Patrick Sellar, the factor of the Duke of Sutherland, who had stood trial for his role in clearing crofters. An avid reader, Lang was described by his aunt as “shy and somewhat farouche”. Although he spent the majority of his writing career living and working in England, he never lost a lifelong attachment to Scotland (his final book, completed by his brother, was The Highways and Byways of the Scottish Borders). But he displayed, as he said, no precocious patriotism: “A boy of five is always more at home in Fairyland than in his own country”. This would become a keynote of his most famous later writings. He had, by all accounts, an extraordinarily happy childhood. Unlike his later friend, Robert Louis Stevenson, he was not haunted by fears induced by Calvinism, claiming he spent most of the sermons he heard thinking about catching trout. His gifts were sufficiently evident that he was sent to Edinburgh Academy, where a gift for wit became clear. Tasked to write a historical essay about why Elizabeth I never married, he wrote instead a romance, where Elizabeth secretly comes to Scotland disguised as a man to spy on Mary, Queen of Scots. She impersonates Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley, and is killed in his place; forcing Darnley (who had been off gallivanting) to impersonate Elizabeth and become Queen of England and Mary’s mortal enemy.

Lang went to St Andrew’s University (about which he wrote some delightful poems) and excelled in every topic except mathematics. After an unhappy year in Glasgow he transferred to Balliol College, Oxford. Graduate students were expected to read papers to the master, Thomas Hill Green, every Sunday evening: Lang remembers his motivation as being to pin him to his chair with paradoxes; Green purportedly and prophetically said Lang “wrote essays as if for a penny paper”. Lang then won a prestigious fellowship at Merton College. At the time, Oxford had just relaxed its prohibition on dons marrying. There were, however, still strict rules and the college’s quota of tutors given leave to marry had already been filled. Lang left, in 1874, to marry Leonora Blanche Alleyne, and swap the ivory tower for Fleet Street. They did not have any children.

Before he left Oxford he had his first meeting with Stevenson. The initial encounter was not a success. Lang, a devotee of the fashionable Aesthetic movement, had, according to one mutual friend, “purely English speech, but with a recurring falsetto” in stark opposition to Stevenson’s Scottish accent and language. Stevenson’s first impressions are preserved in a squib poem: “My name is Andrew Lang/Andrew Lang/That’s my name/And criticism and cricket is my game/With my eyeglass in my eye/Am not I/Am not I/A la-di da-di Oxford kind of Scot/Am I not?” That they went on to become fast friends – even collaborating on an unfinished novel about anarchists, Where Is Rose? – is testament to Lang’s gift for friendship. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, JM Barrie and FR Anstey (now best remembered for the body-switching comedy Vice Versa) all became close friends with him.

Author Edmund Gosse wrote of Lang that “no other such combination of poet, scholar and journalist has been known in Fleet Street”. Lang had published slim volumes of poetry already, as well as academic books on comparative mythology and translations of Homer and Aristotle before his 40th birthday. He had also written a longer poem on Helen of Troy, just at the point where the long poem was falling from fashion. His work on mythology was progressive. Author and archaeologist Solomon Reinach wrote: “Lang has taught us that folklore is not the debased residue of a higher mythology but that higher or literary mythology rests on a foundation of folklore”. He was a regular book reviewer, and a columnist and leader writer for the Morning Post, The Pall Mall Gazette and the Daily News.

By the time of his death in 1912, his name could be found on 249 individual books and his collected journalism would run to thousands of articles. No wonder that some people suggested that “Andrew Lang” did not exist, and was a pseudonym used by a cabal of different authors from different genres. Lang had a glorious felicity in writing – his leaders were referred to as “fairy tales written by an erudite Puck” – which led to his most famous nick-name: “the divine amateur”. This very ease was part of the reason he was detested as well as adored. Lang gave off the impression that literary matters were really rather easy: Richard Le Gallienne, a now little-read poet, remembered Lang as exuding a sense that “writing a good book is nothing compared to playing a good game of golf”. The old Balliol motto of “effortless superiority” might have been invented to describe Lang.

Although Lang is still remembered for one series of books, his other attempts are significant. He collaborated with Rider Haggard on a novel called The World’s Desire, which was the biggest failure of its day, and rather more successfully with AEW Mason on a novel called Parson Kelly. Lang’s biographer, the writer Roger Lancellyn Green, makes the brave claim that his antiromantic children’s book about an insufferably brilliant young man who does not believe in magic, Prince Prigio, ought to be ranked alongside Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

One minute Lang would be inventing the genre of popular history (with such books as The Voices of Jeanne d’Arc, Pickle the Spy and James VI and the Gowrie Conspiracy), the next he would be writing critical studies of contemporaries (Alfred Tennyson, The Puzzle of Dickens’ Last Plot), then debunking people who believed that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, then writing some of the greatest works in the much-scorned genre of “belles-lettres” (Does Ridicule Kill?, New And Old Letters To Dead Authors). In between, he would continue to write academic works on spiritualism, totemism, Homeric epic and early French romantic poetry, spliced with works on his passions of golf, cricket and angling. No wonder some people hated him.

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Although Amazon claims it will release everything Lang wrote in one file on Kindle this year – a claim I will examine with a degree of sceptical scrutiny, since the entire Lang might well fill a Kindle – there is one book by him which I will re-read, on account of its sheer oddness and ingenuity. Old Friends was written in 1890 and has a dazzling premise: if literature really did describe the world rather than invent it, why should characters be restricted to their own books? Lang imagines Catherine Morland, Jane Austen’s gothic-obsessed heroine of Northanger Abbey, turning up at Rochester’s house from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Inspector Lecoq from Émile Gaboriau’s then famous series of novels arrests the eponymous Pickwick, with the help of Bucket from Bleak House. It is the beginning of crossover literature, which reaches its heights with works such as Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Christine Brooke-Rose’s Textermination, and its pulp incarnation in Pride And Prejudice And Zombies and Android Karenina.

Lang’s most famous work was the one he always pointed out was not actually by him; the so-called Colour Fairy Books, beginning with The Blue Fairy Book in 1889 and culminating with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910. Lang’s serious literary criticism is sometimes thought to be compromised by his wholehearted love of the fairy story – he famously wrote a very bad review of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, although he was highly impressed by George Douglas Brown’s even more depressing The House with the Green Shutters.

His opponents will cite such comments as that he preferred “more claymores and less psychology” in fiction. But this misses the point: Lang thought all literature was a variation on the fairy story, and the idea that it was a morally improving disquisition on contemporary mores cut it off from its wellspring.

It was a belief shared by Stevenson, then expanded by GK Chesterton, Lang’s great and more successful successor. The fairy books were retellings of stories, from the Brothers Grimm to obscure pieces headed “from the Finno-Tartaric”, and it is not an overestimation to say that three generations learned about fairy stories from Lang. The Booker prize-winning novelist Margaret Atwood, who would in her own way reimagine the fairy story, recollects reading Lang with wonder at the age of ten.

Lang, as a biographer, did not want a biography of himself written. One of his poems has the lines: “But now the dentist cannot die/And leave his forceps as of old/But round him ere he yet be cold/Begins the vast biography”. For all his elan and charm, there is a shut-away secret in Lang: he mentioned once that “my mind is gay but my soul is melancholy”. It might be argued that Lang always felt he never lived up to his promise: there is no single, great work by Lang. Once asked by an acquaintance if he was writing anything at the moment, he tetchily replied: “As if I ever do anything else”. After giving a speech to students, he was asked by the organisers if he wanted to retire elsewhere: “I hate dinners, I hate clubs and I hate universities,” he replied. “I believe you hate everything,” one person ventured. “No, I don’t hate Mary, Queen of Scots,” was the enigmatic reply. One wonders, in the words of Iain Crichton Smith about Lang’s hero Scott, “what love he must have lost to write so much”.

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