"What is that book you are reading?"
(Holding up the back for the curious one to look at) "It's a collection of biographical sketches of people who have risen to fame only to die as failures--such as the Emperor Maximilian or Beau Brummel or Lady Hamilton."
"I'd like to read that--it ought to be interesting."
Which are the very words we utttered upon reading the advance notices of Mr. Ellis' book. It ought to be interesting. It would be a relief we thought to read the story of "some unprofitable lives"; it would be a welcome contrast to most biographics where the writer is evidently assuming that his subject can do no wrong.
But after we had read some half dozen of Mr. Ellis' sketches we felt a little disappointed. They were not quite as refreshing or as interesting as we had anticipated. True, they were complete and evidently the result of much labor; Mr. Ellis' style, although at times approaching that of a first year primer, was straightforward and unaffecting. But as we read on it became more and more of an effort to continue.
In the first place the eighteen lives in the volume are too condensed. In twenty pages, sometimes less, Mr. Ellis tells the story of a man's life. Some lives, it is true, can be told in less space than that. But when they are people who have traveled from obscurity to almost the highest pinnacle of fame and then down to failure, such condensation is not possible. Any one of the characters of whom Mr. Ellis tells deserves a novel at least. For it must be remembered that the author only writes of those failures who have at first been successes--no humble persons find a place in his volume. To tell the story of de Lesseps, the great Frenchman who dug the Suez Canal but was branded a failure by Mr. Ellis because in his old age he was not so successful in his attempt to construct the Panama Canal, in a little less than seventeen pages is, to say the least, impracticable. Imagine Thackery giving as little space to Becky Sharp's life (Mr. Ellis, by the way, would have considered Becky Sharp a failure of the first order) and you will have some idea of the effect of the condensation in "Fame and Failure."
There are several of the sketches, however, which do not suffer from condensation--the life of Beau Brummell, for example. This work is easily the best in the volume. Mr. Ellis is at his best in his description of the famous dandy's reign as the leather of society, of the crash that came when he went too far in his intimacy with the Prince Regent, and of the miserable years that he spent, exiled in Calia. when he lived a little better than a beggar.
Another life that stood out above the others was that of Lady Hamilton. We must confess that we were more or less ignorant of the part that this remarkable woman played in the life of England's Idol, Lord Nelson. Those who have been accustomed to regard Nelson as a pale but inspired saint will do well to read of the woman who made Nelson human--indeed she almost made him a second Antony, according to Mr. Ellis.
But in this sketch as well as in the one of Brummell there can be sensed a spirit of Puritanism which pervades the whole volume, much to its detriment. Mr. Ellis has but little sympathy for those who do not play the game according to Hoyle. He always seems to be saying: "You see these men and women I am writing about were essentially immoral--so it is only natural that they failed--as they deserved to."
One of the failures of which Mr. Ellis tells will be of particular interest to undergraduates; namely, John White Webster 1811, Ewing Professor of Chemistry and Mineralogy in the University. This gentleman in his time was one of the most respected men of learning in New England. But this genial doctor, this cultured scientist, this popular society man came to an untimely end because he murdered a creditor who had hounded him too mercilessly. Whether Mr. Ellis considers him a failure because he committed the murder or because he was unable to hide his guilt, we cannot say; but it was probably for the first reason.
At all events Dr. Webster, having incurred debts with one Dr. Parkman and, having been unable to trick that gentleman with any great success, decided that the best way out of the difficulty would be to murder him. So he invited him to his laboratory and, when they were alone, disposed of him. Knowing that if he could entirely dispose of the body he could not under any circumstances be accused of murder, he summoned all his knowledge of chemistry to destroy it. He dismembered it and he boiled it and he treated it with acids until finally it was entirely disintegrated.
But unfortunately when he was cremating some scattered portions of Dr. Parkman the gentleman's false teeth fell through the grate of the furnace into the ash bed beneath. The discovery of these false teeth and its identification by the doctor's dentist were enough to send Professor Webster to the gallows.
The story has all the ear-marks of the best mystery novel. Indeed it impressed us so much that whenever we see some particularly benevolent and distinguished professor strolling through the Yard we wonder involuntarily whether he has engaged in applying his knowledge of science to divide the remains of some unfortunate creditor into its chemical clements.