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JOHN THADEUS DELANE.
BY THE DEAN OF CANTERBURY.
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 appeared 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 saying :
I return you this article, because it is, I assure 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
John T. DELANE.
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 Times 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 of 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. He 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 undue 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 PrintingHouse 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 House 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 Athenæum 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 Piccadilly, 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 moulded 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 Printing-House Square about ten P.M., or at least before eleven, and then he had to bring to bear upon the materials laid before him, whether of the telegraph, 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 time after 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 enquiries 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 among the chief pleasures of my work in Printing-House Square. In VOL. XXVI.-NO, 151, N.S.