May Books 3) The Life of W.T. Stead

3) The Life of W.T. Stead, by Frederic Whyte

This is the end of a reading project that has kept me going for just over a year: the works of my distant relative Frederic Whyte (1867-1940). Having spent most of his career as an editor, reviewer and translator, he married a Swedish woman and moved to Sweden some time around the first world war, and in 1925 published the first of a succession of four books over the next six years – two biographical (this and one on William Heinemann) and then two autobiographical (one on Sweden and one on England), each book containing more of Whyte than the previous ones.

I confess I didn’t know a lot about Stead before I read this. He was born in 1849 and famously died in 1912. From 1871 he began to make a career as a crusading journalist on the Northern Echo (which is of course still going); in 1880 he moved from Darlington to London to join the staff of the daily Pall Mall Gazette, and became its editor in 1883. He fell out with the P.M.G. in 1889 and in 1890 started his own monthly, The Review of Reviews which he kept up until he died. In 1904 he tried to start a daily paper (called, with startling originality, The Daily Paper) and hired Frederic Whyte as the book review editor, but it folded in weeks. Twenty years earlier he had been the first – but far from the last – editor to commission a theatre review from George Bernard Shaw.

Anyone interested in the late Victorian and Edwardian history of any of the subjects which Stead campaigned on – child prostitution (against); sending General Gordon to Khartoum (in favour); Cecil Rhodes (mixed); the Boer War (against); Irish Home Rule (in favour); religion (in favour); spiritualism (in favour); world peace (also in favour) – will find much in terms of primary source material here. This is a book much more about trees than about the forest; for each of the memorable events in Stead’s career, we get substantial excerpts from Stead’s own correspondence, both incoming and outgoing, plus where possible the reminiscences of other protagonists (Whyte was writing in 1925, but had obviously started a few years before).

Stead comes across as opinionated, eloquent, persuasive, and fundamentally good at heart, but very poor at acquiring and managing allies, and much better at making enemies through his writing, both through actual hostility and through journalistic indiscretion. His enthusiasm for spiritualism must strike most of us now as pretty barmy, and Whyte doesn’t pull his punches on that score. But on the other big issues he was more right (Boer War, Ireland, prostitution) than wrong (General Gordon).

His death came about as a result of accepting an invitation to speak on the same platform as President Taft at a meeting in New York on the topic of “World Peace”, as part of a new American movement to encourage men and boys to participate more in the Church. His last editorial in the Review of Reviews explains the whole scheme (which seems well-meaning but also wacky) in great detail, and signs off confidently,

I expect to leave by the Titanic on April 10th, and hope I shall be back in London in May.

Of course, he never made it to New York.

Lots more about Stead on this website. Whyte’s biography, two volumes of smallish type-face totalling over 700 pages, is fairly widely available, though I was fortunate to pick mine up for a mere $16.50 – the going rate seems to be about three times that.

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