Monday, 12 December 2011

LEONARD MERRICK The Position of Peggy Harper (1911)

Doughty Library No 8/Anthony Blond Ltd UK, 1967

It wasn't the girl's fault: she had been a good-natured, unpretentious little Cockney with a warm heart.  It was the fault of the Cabinet Minister, the RA, and the man of letters, of their wives and daughters, and of a press that pandered to an idolatry which it privately condemned: it was the fault, in fine, of the age in which she lived.

The Novel: The Position of Peggy Harper is an Edwardian novel set in the shabby genteel world of England's theatrical boarding houses and struggling provincial repertory companies.  Its hero, Christopher Tatham, is an aspiring playwright who achieves a minor success with a tawdry little potboiler (from which he earns almost nothing) but continues to dream of writing a serious modern drama in the style of Shaw or Ibsen.  Things look grim for Tatham until he meets the charming and shamelessly self-promoting Peggy Harper –– a pretty young actress of limited ability who will clearly stop at nothing to win the fame she's convinced she's one day 'destined' to find.  Tatham quickly finds himself engaged to Peggy, only to discover as the day of their marriage draws approaches that he doesn't really love her and probably never has.  

What makes the book remarkable for its time is the way Merrick portrays the seedier side of the Edwardian theatrical world –– a world populated by hack writers, drunken actors, pushy stage mothers, unscrupulous managers and penny-pinching landladies –– without making any attempt to glamorize or romanticize it.  This is a world of aspiration and failure, of living in uncomfortable rooms where you're forced by lack of money to toast your engagement in unpaid-for ginger beer rather than in champagne, of waiting for that ever-elusive 'big break' you probably won't be lucky enough to find.  Peggy is a very 'modern' character in the sense that she ruthlessly puts her career first and allows nothing to distract her from pursuing it, taking full advantage of every opportunity to foist her extremely limited 'talent' on an unsophisticated, easily satisfied playgoing public.  She's alluring and appealing but she's also completely vain and empty, so of course she succeeds beyond her wildest expectations, eventually becoming a star of the theatre and the fiancee of a peer while Tatham, as poor and unsuccessful as ever, finds consolation for the continuing frustration of his artistic ambitions in the arms of her more down-to-earth room-mate. 

The Writer:  Leonard Merrick was born 'Leonard Miller' in Belsize Park, London on 21 February 1864 to wealthy Jewish parents.  He was raised in luxury and educated at Brighton College, after which he expected to go to Germany to study law at Heidelberg University.  However, the sudden collapse of his father's business meant that this plan had to be abandoned, forcing him to make his own way in life as best he could from that point onward.  

At eighteen he travelled to South Africa with his now-impoverished parents, where he worked as a supervisor in the diamond fields and for a time as a clerk in a local courthouse before almost dying of typhus –– a brush with death which almost certainly hastened his return to England.  Stage-struck from an early age, he talked his way into a position in a provincial repertory company (living and acting in the same down-at-heel environment in which so many, but not all, of his novels are set) before abandoning the stage in 1884 to try his luck as a novelist.  It was also around this time that he changed his surname by deed poll from 'Miller' to 'Merrick' –– the name he had always been known by as an actor.

His first novel, Mr Bazalgette's Legacy, was published in 1888 and was not successful.  Its low sales forced Merrick to return to the stage and, after borrowing money from a friend, he sailed for New York, where roles for genteel Englishmen proved as difficult to come by as they had been in London.  To keep himself occupied between auditions, he wrote a second novel called Violet Moses, for which he was offered $150 by one American publisher and nothing at all by several others.  Rejecting the $150 even though he was sick and could barely scrape together the money required to pay his passage home, he returned to England where Violet Moses was finally accepted and published, again to little acclaim, in 1891.  A third novel The Man Who Was Good followed in 1892 and sold well enough (but not well enough to permanently ease his straitened financial circumstances) to encourage him to keep writing.

In 1894 he married, fathering a daughter who, like his wife, would eventually pre-decease him.  For the next dozen or so years he spent much of his time in Paris –– a city that would serve as the background for many of the short stories he wrote about poets, boulevardiers and others striving to live la vie artistique in its cafés and brasseries.  His friend, the American-born author and journalist Frank Harris, described Merrick during his Paris period as 'a small, handsome man, slight but wiry and healthy, with melancholy, dark, brooding eyes, long straight nose, and large black moustache.'  

Although he apparently possessed no gift for self-promotion –– a skill every bit as vital to literary success in Victorian times as it is today –– Merrick nevertheless went on to publish nine more novels, five plays and nine volumes of short stories between 1896 and 1930, many of which were reissued in a 1918 Deluxe Edition featuring specially commissioned introductions (a great honour at the time) penned by famous authors of the day including HG Wells, Arthur Pinero, GK Chesterton and William Dean Howells.  Despite being described as a 'writer's writer' by JM Barrie (the world famous author of Peter Pan, as played by Johnny Depp in the 2004 film Finding Neverland), Merrick's work, which cleverly combined subtly-rendered satire with clear-sighted honesty, never attained the popularity it deserved during his lifetime.  He died alone and virtually penniless in a London nursing home on 7 August 1939.  He was one of George Orwell's favourite novelists and one of the first to write realistically and unsentimentally about showbusiness and its associated pitfalls.  

His best novels are generally considered to be Cynthia (1896), The Quaint Companions (1903), Conrad in Quest of his Youth (also 1903) and The Position of Peggy Harper (1911), although any of his early work (ie. anything he published between 1896 and roughly 1915) is worth reading if you can find it.  This won't be as difficult as it sounds because much of it is still available second-hand and is now beginning to be republished online.

Many of LEONARD MERRICK's novels and stories can now be read freely available eBooks.  Click HERE if you would like to read The Position of Peggy Harper in this format.  His work is also being sold in 'new' paperback editions published by Indian print-on-demand companies like BiblioBazaar and the Nabu Press.  Be warned, however, that these are cheap and sometimes very poorly-executed digital scans of the Hodder and Stoughton 'Collected Edition' which, at prices ranging from US$25-$35, are frankly not worth the money.

A biography written by WILLIAM BAKER and JEANETTE ROBERTS SHUMAKER titled Leonard Merrick: A Forgotten Novelist's Novelist was published by the Fairleigh-Dickinson University Press in 2009.

You might also enjoy:
LEONARD MERRICK The Actor-Manager (1898)
GEORGE MEREDITH The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859)
DAWN POWELL Come Back To Sorrento (1932)


  1. I've only read Conrad in Quest of his Youth (Merrick is hard to find!) but that one has a wonderful section on theatre life, too. I was prepared to hate it because the novel suddenly plops you down with new characters in a new setting about 2/3s of the way through, but the writing is so good that I quickly spat out that thought and stomped it into the ground where it belonged. Hopefully, I'll find more Merrick soon.

  2. Thanks for the comment, PM. Happily, Merrick's work isn't as hard to find as it used to be thanks to free 100% legal download sites like Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. Much of his best work is also available via 2nd hand book sites like ABE Books. Good hunting!