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AUTHORS SPRUNG FROM THE PEOPLE.
THOMAS HOLCROFT. I REMEMBER saying one day to a woman of high genius that a mutual friend of hers and mine proposed to give a series of lectures on authors sprung from the people, from the masses, as it is the fashion to say now-a-days, and her replying quickly: “Why all authors who are worth reading are sprung from the people ;- it is the well-born who are the exceptions.” And then she ran through a beadroll of great names from Chaucer to Burns: nevertheless this repartee was not quite accurate; not a whit more accurate than a repartee usually is; for the number of educated writers must always preponderate. But still the class of self-educated writers is large, increasingly large; and truthful biographies of such persons must always be amongst the most interesting books in the world, as showing better than any other books the development and growth of individual minds.
Mr. Bamford's “ Life of a Radical” and Mr. Somerville's account of his own career have much of this merit; but the most curious of all these memoirs both for the vicissitudes of the story and the indomitable character of the man, is the “Life of Thomas Holcroft," begun by himself and concluded by Hazlitt.. Of his strength of character no better evidence can be offered than that the first seventeen chapters were dictated by him during his last illness, whilst he was in such a state that he was frequently obliged to pause several minutes between every word, and yet the events are as clearly narrated, and the style is as lucid and as lively, as if it had been written in his most vigorous day.
He was born in London in the winter of 1745 ; his father being by trade a shoemaker, but of a disposition so unsteady that he never could remain long in any place or at any occupation. Here is the account his son, a most dutiful and affectionate son, who maintained him to his death, gives of these rambling propensities:
“Having been bred to an employment for which he was very ill-fitted, the habit that became most rooted and most fatal to my father was a fickleness of disposition, a thorough persuasion after he had tried one means of providing for himself and his family for a certain time, that he had discovered another far more profitable and secure. Steadiness of pursuit was a virtue at which he never could arrive ; and I believe few men in the kingdom had in the course of their lives been the hucksters of so many small wares, or more enterprising dealers in articles of a halfpenny value.
“I should mention that to carry on these itinerant trades my father had begun with purchasing an ass, and bought more as he could ; now and then increasing his store by the addition of a ragged pony or worn-out weather-beaten Rozinante. In autumn he turned his attention to fruit and conveyed
apples and pears in hampers from villages to market towns. The bad nourishment I met with, the cold and wretched manner in which I was clothed, and the excessive weariness I endured in following these animals day after day, and being obliged to drive creatures perhaps still more weary than myself, were miseries much too great, and loaded my little heart with sorrows far too poignant ever to be forgotten. By-roads and high-roads were alike to be traversed, but the former far the oftenest, for they were then almost innumerable, and the state of them in winter would hardly be believed at present.
“My father became by turns a collector and vender of rags, a hardwareman, a dealer in buttons, buckles, and pewter spoons-in short, a trafficker in whatever could bring gain. But there was one thing which fixed his attention longer than any other, and which, therefore, I suppose he found the most lucrative, which was to fetch pottery from the neighbourhood of Stoke in Staffordshire, and to hawk it all through the north of England. Of all other travelling this was the most continual, the most severe, and the most intolerable. * * *
“ Towards Litchfield on the right lay Cannock heath and town, and adjoining to this heath on the left there were coal-pits situated in a remarkably heavy clay country. Desirous of employing his asses, yet averse to go himself, my father frequently sent me to these coal-pits to get a single ass loaded, and to drive him over the heath to Rugeley, there to find a customer for my coals. The article was so cheap and so near that the profits could be but very small, yet they were something. Had the weather been fine when I was sent on these errands the task would not have been so difficult nor the wonder so great; but at the time I was unfortunately sent there I have a perfect recollection of deep ruts, of cattle, both asses and horses, unable to drag their legs through the clay, and of carts and waggons that were set fast in it.
“One day my ass had passed safely through the clay-ruts and deep roads, and under my guidance had began to ascend a hill we had to cross on Cannock heath on our way to Rugeley. The wind was very high, though while we were on low ground I had never suspected its real force. But my apprehensions began to increase with our ascent, and when on the summit of the hill, nearly opposite to two clumps of trees which are pictured to my imagination as they stood there at that time, it blew gust after gust too powerful for the loaded animal to resist, and down it came. Through life I have always had a strong sense of the grief and utter despair I then felt. But what a little surprises me is that I have no recollection whatever of the means by which I found relief, but rather of the naked and desolate place in which I was, and my inability to help myself. Could I have unloaded the ass it would not have been much matter, but the coals were brought from the pits in such masses that three of them were generally an ass-load, any one of which was usually beyond my strength. I have no doubt however but I got them by some means or other to Rugeley, and brought the money for them to my father, whom I could not help secretly accusing of insensibility, though that was the very reverse of his character.
“ The coal-pits were situated on the extremity of an old forest inhabited by large quantities of red deer. At these I always stopped to look ; but what inspired and delighted me most was the noble stag, for to him the deer appeared insignificant. Him I often saw bounding along, eyeing objects without fear, and making prodigious leaps over obstacles that opposed his passage. In this free state, indeed, he cannot but excite our admiration.
“One little anecdote I must not omit. The reader will naturally suppose that from the time I began to travel the country with my father and mother I had little leisure or opportunity to acquire any knowledge by reading. I was too much pressed by fatigue, hunger, cold, and nakedness. Still, however, I cannot but suppose, as well from my own propensity to obey the will of God as from my father's wish to encourage my inclinations of this kind, that I continued to repeat my prayers and catechism morning and evening, and on Sundays to read the Prayer-book and Bible. At all events, I had not forgotten to read ; for while we were at the house near Rugeley, by some means or other the song of Chevy Chase' came into my possession, which I read over with great delight at our fireside. My father, who knew that my memory was tolerably retentive, and saw the great number of stanzas the ballad contained, said to me, 'Well, Tom, can you get that song by heart ? To this question I very readily answered, 'Yes.' 'In how long a time? • Why, father, you know I have got such and such work for to-morrow, and what you will set me for the following days I can't tell; however I can get it in three days. What, perfectly?' “Yes.' • Well, if you do that, I'll give you a halfpenny. Rejoiced at