As a species, the dry and dusty bibliography is not generally classed as being among the more exciting of literary genres. They improve on acquaintance and – truth to tell – a good bibliography will often give a more accurate and more reliable picture of an author and his work than most biographies – I suppose Richard Little Purdy’s eminently readable bibliography of Thomas Hardy, which I have just been using, is a case in point.
At the very least, they do – and surprisingly often – come up with something rather startling and inexplicable. I mentioned last week “an absolutely delightful Fin de Siècle novel with an Aubrey Beardsley frontispiece”, bought from Charles Cox in Edinburgh, and hinted at a mystery about to be solved. The book in question has the rather chilling title, “An Evil Motherhood : An Impressionist Novel”, and was published by that great figure in 1890s publishing, Charles Elkin Mathews (1851-1921), in November 1895 (although the book is dated 1896) – relatively early in his independent career. The author was one Walt Ruding.
Lots of things going for it – arresting, provocative and consciously modern title, dramatic cobwebby cover design with art nouveau lettering in bronze rather than gilt, Beardsley frontispiece, the Elkin Mathews imprint. No surprise to find that there were two copies of it displayed in the memorable “Eighteen-Nineties” exhibition put on at the National Book League in 1973 – and why don’t we attempt more exhibitions on these lines, the fruits of one generation of collectors inspiring the next? Both copies are described in the interesting catalogue compiled by Dr Krishnamurti (an occasional customer at that time) – items 572 and 573.
The first copy had Beardsley’s “Black Coffee” frontispiece (a design prepared earlier for “The Yellow Book” but apparently not used in the wake of Beardsley’s sacking as art editor in April 1895). John Kettlewell’s copy with his note, “One of twelve copies containing the ‘Black Coffee’ frontispiece, all of which were either retained or recalled (from the reviewer) by the publisher”.
The second copy had what is simply described as an ‘alternative’ Beardsley frontispiece and – in the parlance of the day – is described as a ‘second issue’, although the inference is plain from the first description that the book was never actually put on sale other than with this alternative frontispiece. Interesting so far, but not wholly startling. The story is picked up in Mark Samuel Lasner’s Beardsley bibliography (item 94). Lasner cites other authorities suggesting that just six copies (rather than twelve) were bound up with the earlier frontispiece, describes a genuinely later issue containing both frontispieces, and fills in the rest of the detail. John Lane (1854-1925), publisher of “The Yellow Book”, had objected to his former partner (Mathews) and his former artist (Beardsley) using an image which had been produced for him: Beardsley was compelled to produce a substitute – this referred to in correspondence as a “Portrait of the Author”. And this it where it becomes startling, because Lasner goes on to say that this portrait “may or may not depict the mysterious Ruding (who may or may not really have existed)”.
Nothing else written by Ruding is known. Nothing else of Ruding is known. The only evidence known to Lasner that he existed at all – very far from conclusive – is the existence of two inscribed copies, one (Black Coffee frontispiece) presented to a reviewer on 7th November 1895 and the other (Portrait frontispiece) given to Elkin Mathews on 14th November (the day of publication). Both are signed Walter rather than Walt Ruding. Beyond that, a Beardsley letter asks Mathews to send him a copy of “Mr. Ruding’s book” in January 1896. The suspicion has long been that “as with so many writers of the 1890s, the name may be a pseudonym”.
But not so. Walter Ruding certainly did exist and perhaps fittingly for one of that doomed generation of the Fin de Siècle his life was short and tragic. A brief and obscure note in the pages of the “Worcestershire Chronicle” for Saturday 28th December 1895 tells the story:
The announcement of the death of Mr. Walter Ruding, at the age of 25, has fallen as a shock and a surprise upon his friends and others who anticipated the literary results of the riper efforts of his marked and distinctive ability. It is only two or three weeks since he made his debut as an author by the publication of a work entitled “An Evil Motherhood”.
The remainder is simply told. He was born on 30th November 1870 at Hawkhurst Lodge, Sydenham – the son of John Clement Ruding (1823-1881), a retired bank manager, and his rather younger wife Gertrude Buckley or Bucklee (1847-1929), who had married the previous year. His father emerged from his retirement to act as the manager of the “Whitehall Review” before his death in 1881. His mother was the daughter of a Liverpool physician, largely brought up by her mother in her draper’s shop in Hereford.
Walter Ruding attended Christ’s Hospital school. On 23rd November 1895, eleven days after his novel was published (and proudly describing himself as an author on the marriage certificate), he married Edith Marion Herberta Johnstone – the Scottish daughter of an army major – at St. Mary, Stoke Newington. Nineteen days later, on 12th December 1895, he died. He was buried at Norwood Cemetery in South London from an address at 4 Clarendon Road, Clapham, on the 16th of December. His widow, Edith Ruding, herself died young in 1902.
Meanwhile, the critics were at work. Let us hope that Walter Ruding was unaware of the opinion given of his “‘very foolish book” in the Glasgow Herald of 21st November – “If the novel of the future is to bear any resemblance to Mr Ruding’s incoherent and pointless rhapsodies, the critics of A.D. 1995 will indeed have a bad time of it. We are inclined, however, to believe that his work is not akin to that of the future, except in so far as it may be supposed that amateurish and incompetent fiction will, like the poor, be ever with us … it is hardly to be hoped that it is of any use to spend criticism on the author of so poor a performance”.
And let us hope that the “Morning Post” reviewer (19th December 1895) was unaware that Ruding was already dead and buried. Unfortunate, but worth quoting in full, both as a fine example of the why-oh-why school of reviewing of a more confident age and as a not wholly unfair summary of the plot:
Why will so many people try to be ‘modern, at the expense of all besides ? “An Evil Motherhood” (Elkin Mathews), by Mr. Walt Ruding, is described on the title page as ‘An Impressionist Novel’. ‘Impressionist’ of course, is to the ‘modern’ author as blessed a word as ‘Mesopotamia’ was to the old woman, inasmuch as it may mean almost anything, and is entirely non-committal. It is quite possible that all of the jumbled up factors in this farrago may have occurred as ‘impressions’ to Mr. Ruding, and that he himself may regard them as highly impressive. In a ‘special notice’ we are assured that “owing to the nature of the plot the author expressly repudiates any suggestion that the events or characters have any reference to persons living in the world of fact. It seems, therefore, advisable to disavow any intention of writing a ‘roman à clef’”. Mr. Ruding need not have been so anxious to disclaim personalities. It is hard to believe that anyone would trouble to unlock the door, even if this were indeed a romance of the class to which we are expressly assured it does not belong. So far as the reader can make out, it is supposed to contain a study of the mental condition of a man whose mother, from motives apparently of a very mixed character, has had him locked up in an asylum with the aid of some very shady ‘alienists’ indeed. Various events, including an escape from durance, occur, but the book is so disconnected and so uninteresting that the heading of one of the chapters, ‘A Study in Irrelevance’, might fittingly have been substituted for the sub-title already quoted. It may, however, be noted that the doctors who signed the certificate are partly justified in the frontispiece, a rather favourable example of Mr. Aubrey Beardsley’s art. If Cecil Knollys, or Sackville — for the nomenclature in the novel is slightly confused— is truthfully portrayed in the picture, his appearance afforded strong prima facie evidence for treating him as a very abnormal person indeed, and judging from the face of his mother, who stands behind his chair, his idiosyncrasies were hereditary.
Pretty damning – and it’s a flawed book, certainly, careless in places, irritating in others – but very far from being ‘uninteresting’. It is very consciously modern, it does delve into the new-fangled concept of psychology, it is deliberately experimental – and quite genuinely ‘impressionist’. Seeds here of stream of consciousness, seeds here of all that was to come in the best of twentieth-century fiction. By no means badly written. An apprentice piece, but offering great promise for the never-to-be “riper efforts of his marked and distinctive ability” as the press announcement had it.
Which brings us back to the portrait. It’s an excellent example of Beardsley at his best and most enigmatic – the foppish young man in curious attire (note the slippers), possibly an invalid before the fire, the feminine armchair, a life lived in books and artificial light. A still-young woman looking on in – what is that expression? Contempt or concern? Love or loathing? The reviewer takes it to be a study of the hero – although ultimately almost an anti-hero (that’s how modern it is) and his either sane or evil mother. But it seems that Mathews commissioned a portrait of the author (and one story has him standing over Beardsley and refusing to leave his rooms until the work was well begun) – and I think we have to assume that this is what it is – a portrait of Ruding. But who then is the unmatronly woman? Ruding’s own dear mother, still in her forties, to whom the book is dedicated? His bride-to-be, Edith Johnstone? Or perhaps the mysterious Isabella of the novel – a love interest obliquely hinted at but named only once and who never appears?
Ruding we have found, but some mysteries are perhaps better left that way. And what a pleasant time can be had in researching such matters – it’s what we do.