Memoirs of a Great Editor

From the Cornhill Magazine


Memoirs of a Great Editor

From the Cornhill Magazine


Memoirs of a Great Editor

the DEAN OF CANTERBURY From the Cornhill Magazine

HAVING been closely associated with Mr. Delane, the famous editor of the Times, as a writer of leading articles under him for some fifteen years, I was asked ten years ago at the instance of some of his friends, to contribute some account of him to a series of papers on great editors, projected by the Philadelphia Evening Post. This article, though written at that time, only ap-

peared last February, but it will thus be seen that it is independent of the recent publications on the subject.

Perhaps the first and most important point to be mentioned about Mr. Delane and his methods is that he maintained an absolute mastery of the whole of the paper in all its details. He controlled with the utmost thoroughness every branch of it. I do not suppose, indeed, that he troubled

himself with the advertisements, nor can I say how far he trusted the law reports to a professional eye, except that a case of public interest would be sure to attract his notice before publication; but, with such technical exceptions as these, he “read," in the press sense of the word, everything which was to appear in the paper the next morning, and edited it so as to ensure that the whole was in harmony, and was fitted to produce one clear impression on the public mind. The telegrams, the correspondent's letter, the observations in Parliament, were all kept in view in the leading article, and were themselves kept in due relation to one another. This, of course, involved the principle that he kept strictly in his own hands the initiative of all that was to appear in the paper, and especially of the leading articles. No one, while Delane was editor of the Times, could obtain the insertion of articles which he had written of his own motion or at the suggestion of others.

One of my earliest experiences is an instance in point. Having had no subject sent to me for several days, I ventured, at the instance of a person of high distinction who was a great friend of Delane’s, to write an article and offer it to him. But it was at once returned to me with one of Delane’s inimitable notes, saying:

I return you this article, because it is, I assiire you, essential that whatever is to appear in the Times should proceed from the initiative of whoever holds my place, and not from that of any other person, however highly esteemed. The effect of any divergence from this principle would be to deprive your contributions of any value, and to prevent their being accepted as embodying the opinions of the Times, which must, believe me, be those of no other than

Yours faithfully,


That note exactly expresses the principle on which his whole work as

editor was carried through. He insisted on being himself responsible for all the news supplied to the public ; he was solely responsible for the interpretation of those news and for the comments upon them. He selected the letters addressed to the Time= which were to be published ; he chose the books which were to be reviewed, and exercised an independent judgment on the reviews which were supplied ; he was scrupulous as to the way in which even small matters of social interest were announced and handled. In short, the paper every morning was not a mere collection of pieces of news from all parts of the world, of various opinions, and of more or less valuable essays. It was Mr. Delane's report to the public of the news of the day, interpreted by Mr. Delane’s opinions, and directed throughout by Mr. Delane's principles and purposes.

This method of editing was infinitely laborious. Even when the Times was much less than its present size, the task of “reading,” correcting, and controlling from forty to fifty columns of new matter every night was immense. But Mr. Delane never shrank from it, and it certainly gave the paper as a whole a unity, a cohesion, an interest, and an effectiveness which can be obtained by no other method.

But, of course, there was one qualification which was indispensable for such editing. It needed an adequate acquaintance with every field of the varied human life which was reflected in the pages of the paper, and this acquaintance Delane enjoyed by virtue of a rare experience. He had brought away from his undergraduate career at Oxford what, after all, was the best endowment of university life in those days—a general literary culture and capacity, combined with a general knowledge of affairs and a wide sympathy with men. The foundation of his character was a robust and genial human nature, which loved real action of all kinds, and delighted to throw itself into the current of public life.

He is said to have supported himself at Oxford by writing for the provincial press, and his great enjoyment was hunting. He was a bold and fine rider, and his delight in that English sport was typical of his whole character. When he came, as a very young man, to London, he took a part for a while in reporting and other secondary branches or newspaper work. He was called to the Bar, and he attended the hospitals for some terms. He was always fond of medical and surgical knowledge, and he has more than once mentioned to me his experience in Paris under the great French physiologist, Magendie. Although, therefore, he was neither a scholar, nor a lawyer, nor a doctor, he was a good deal of each, and he was able to follow the varying developments of those great spheres of thought and life.

But these varied elements of a many-sided character were brought to practical perfection, for the purposes of his work, by his social capacities and opportunities, which were of the rarest kind. Pie was the most agreeable of companions,and all the best classes of London society were soon open to him. He took advantage of these opportunities with extraordinary tact. While availing himself freely of the hospitality offered him on all sides, he maintained in all societies his dignity and independence ; and Lord Palmerston was not making any formal excuse when, on being rallied in the House of Commons upon exerting an unrlue influence through the editor of the Times, he simply replied that Mr. Delane’s company was so agreeable as to be always welcome. Mr. Delane did not deny that one of his objects in society was to obtain news, or, at least, the means of understanding news ; and it required a rare delicacy to be able to turn to account the information he might gather without taking any undue advantage of the confidence or frankness of his hosts. But he succeeded in doing this with wonderful success, and, consequently, he was day by day gleaning

in society, in the intercourse of drawing-rooms or clubs, the information which enabled him to form a just apprehension of every subject which arose in the evening’s news.

The course of a day's work in his prime will best illustrate his capacity in this respect. He rarely left the office in Printing-House Square before five o'clock in the morning, and walked to his small house in Serjeants’ Inn, a little square off Fleet Street, about a quarter of a mile distant. When he rose, he would spend three or four hours in arranging the work of the day, writing and answering letters ; and sometimes, especially in my years of apprenticeship, I would receive a letter from him about six o'clock giving me my subject and my cue for the work of the evening. But about the middle of the afternoon his horse was brought to him, and, followed by his groom he rode away towards the West End. He said to me once that if he started to walk from Fleet Street along the Strand to Pall Mall or Westminster he would never get there, as so many people would buttonhole him. But on his horse, which he rode slowly, he could greet them and go on. When the Houses of Parliament were in session he would always ride down to them, stroll into the Plouse of Commons or the House of Lords as he pleased, stand under the gallery, and acquaint himself with the parliamentary situation of the day. Peers or members who were concerned in the current business would speak to him, and thus he was always in touch with the prevalent feeling and tendency in both Houses.

Thence he would ride on to the Athenaeum or the Reform Club, and there he was sure to meet someone interested in the political or scientific or legal question of the hour ; or else he would ride on to Lady Palmerston’s house in Piccadillv, or to Baroness Lionel de Rothschild’s, or some other great leader of political or social life, and carry away at least as much suggestion or information as he brought.

In the evening the days must have been rare when he was not, or could not have been, dining in some society which brought him once more into contact with the current interests and living thoughts of the hour. He was thus always learning and observing, living in the best life of London from day to day, hearing the questions of the moment discussed from the most various points of view, and gaining an appreciation of the men and the influences which were determining the course of events.

In his best time, moreover, he was treated with great confidence by Ministers of State. A Minister who was engaged in carrying through some important measure would take Delane at least so far into confidence as to enable him to understand the real bearings of what was done and said in public; and even during critical situations in foreign affairs I have seen at night short notes from the Minister of the day, which sufficed to indicate the direction in which it was desirable that public opinion should be guided.

This was to a vast extent the secret of Delane’s power as an editor. His paper reflected the real state of the English world in London because it reflected him, and because in his mind were reflected the varying thoughts and influences of the several men and women by which and by whom the course of English life was at the moment being determined. The Times held up a mirror to the public because Delane, who molded it from day to day, was himself the mirror—a mirror, indeed, which so far modified the reality as it brought all which it reflected to a focus and an object, but in which all the elements of the life of the day found their place.

Delane generally came away from dinner in time to reach PrintingHouse Square about ten p.m., or, at least, before eleven, and then he had to bring to bear upon the material' laid before him, whether of the tele graph, or of parliamentary reporters, or correspondents’ letters, the knowledge of the real position of affairs

which he had been gaining during the day. There were generally two or three leader-writers in attendance, in separate rooms, and in a short timeafter his arrival he would send to each of them, unless they had been previously instructed, the subject he wished them to treat. If its treatment were obvious, he would leave them to themselves with no more than a verbal message. But if it were a matter of difficulty or doubt he would soon come into the writer's room, and in a few minutes’ conversation indicate the line which it was desirable to take, and the considerations which the writer should have in the background. He never gave these suggestions in such detail as to hamper original treatment on the writer’s part. A few interesting and humorous observations would suffice to illustrate the true state of the question and to indicate the purpose to be kept in view, and then the more original the writer’s treatment of the subject the better he was pleased. His influence in such conversations was due not so much to his authority as editor as to the impression he produced of mastery of the whole situation. To talk to him was like talking to the great political or social world itself, and one’s mind seemed to move in a larger sphere after a short discussion with him. He always listened patiently to inquiries or hesitations, and was tolerant of everything but trivialities.

Those midnight conversations are among the most interesting and instructive reminiscences of my life, and they were amongthe chief pleasures of my work in Printing-House Square. In connexion with them there is one characteristic of him to be particularly mentioned : it is that he elevated every subject that he touched.

I never remember, even in the heat of the most rapid exchange of thoughts and suggestions, one undignified or common thought or expression escaping him. He spoke of all subjects of consequence as involving deep human interests, and he treated them, and helped us to treat them, under that

aspect. In a word, he maintained as an editor, under whatever strain and whatever provocation, the part of a great gentleman, and it was a gentlemanly as well as a literary education to work under him.

One of the first things he had to do when he came to the office at night was to determine what subjects should be treated in the leaders for the next day. He always, of course, had some ready written which he used in emergency. His witty colleague, Sir George Dasent, used to call these leaders the “marmalade articles,” because they were “an excellent substitute for butter at breakfast.” They were, however, a very valuable element in the paper, as they were generally reviews of some important information which had lately been made public.

Delane kept a close eye upon parliamentary blue books, in which the most interesting facts are frequently buried; and often, when there was no more urgent subject, I have thrown the substance of one of such blue books into a leading article. But Delane’s main object with the leading articles was to treat with the utmost promptness every question as it arose. He hated all delay or dallying with the subjects of the day. In connexion with this habit, his publication of correspondence was characteristic. Nowadays, when some interesting topic has been started by a correspondent, two or three days may elapse before a reply is printed, and so, instead of a quick return of question and answer, observation and counter-observation, a succession of letters drop casually into the columns of the paper, and people have forgotten one letter before another appears. But Delane, as he once said to me, liked to serve his dishes up to the public “hot and hot.” A subject once started was followed up smartly until it was exhausted. In the same way, in the leaders, the news of the evening or the debate of the evening was treated the next morning, and the reader found in the same 90

number of the paper the subject-matter and the comment on it.

It was particularly gratifying when the race was over to be cheered by a generous note of thanks from him, written after the paper had gone to press, perhaps when he had gone home about five in the morning, and before he went to bed. Here is one example out of many :

My dear Wace,—Though I have come home here, I cannot go to bed without congratulating you upon your admirable army article of this morning. It does you great honor and reflects as much credit upon the paper.

Ever yours,


His gift for writing little letters of this kind was one of his great accomplishments. Among the many hundreds of letters I received from him there was not one which was not gracefully as well as tersely expressed, and which might not have been published as it was written. However hurriedly he had to write, he never wrote “in haste,” and never used the loose shorthand of common colloquial expressions. Here is a characteristic specimen, from the last years of his career, of the sort of letter in which he would propose the evening’s subject:

My dear Wace,—I think you will And a fair subject in the letter from the Cape; but if you agree with me, and will do it zvith interest, I should like an article recommending the adoption of the earliest opportunity for a mediation in Turkey. The terms, indeed, must be altogether reconsidered, since the “bag and baggage” policy zvas advocated. The Turks have shown that they are second to no European pozver in the field, and have justified the boasting which seemed so out of place during the Conference. England is alone capable of urging an armistice, if, indeed, there is now time for it.

Ever yours,


Just a word or two in this way would give the cue, and the rest was left to the writer. But to return to his work at night : there was another element in it which completed his power. This was the extraordinary thoroughness of his editorial revision. He watched with the utmost care not merely the substance and the general argument of an article, but every detail of expression. Ble could correct commas at 3.30 a.m., and would write one of his brilliant little notes at that hour to warn a writer against an incorrect expression. I remember his once writing to me at that hour to protest against my using the word “action” to describe an act. “Action,” he said, “is properly used only of a military action or an action at law.” I think he was wrong, on the authority of the Scriptural expression : “The Lord is a God of knowledge, and by Him actions are weighed” ; but the vigilance which could insist on such a point in the heat and haste of editing illustrates the indefatigable conscientiousness of his work.

He extended the same vigilance to the ordinary work of reporters and to the simplest paragraphs. I remember his being particularly indignant with the use of the slipshod phrase that a marriage, or a funeral, or a race had “taken place.” It was mere slovenliness of expression, he said, instead of saying that a marriage had been solemnized or a race run. He exerted a valuable influence in this way toward maintaining in the public mind a standard of correct English writing.

He was very considerate if one of his subordinates was in real difficulty, as from illness or domestic trouble, but in the ordinary course of work he would take no excuses. A man must do the work given him, and do it well, or else Delane had no place for him.

I am not competent to describe another and most important sphere of his work—his instructions to the reguular and special correspondents of the paper, and his own correspondence with public men. Something of it is known, though imperfectly, from the story of his vigorous action at the time of the Crimean War ; but there is good reason to believe that he played a much larger and more important part in public affairs than is generally known. In fact, he wielded a power, in his prime, of which public men were obliged to take account.

He may well, in such a position, have made occasional mistakes, but it is a marvel they were so few ; and perhaps it is still more to his honor that, amidst all the flattering influences, personal and public, by which he was surrounded, be remained to the last a simple, strong, independent character, a robust and generous Englishman to the backbone, intolerant of all unrealities, a great man of action, whose delight was in using his rare powers for public ends and for the good of his country, and at the same time a staunch and affectionate friend, full of sympathy, courtesy and dignitv. It was because he was a great and good man that he was a great editor, and it is to his manly qualities I would render chief homage in this inadequate tribute.