In 1897, after spending five years at St Thomas's Hospital I passed the examinations which enabled me to practise medicine. While still a medical student I had published a novel called Liza of Lambeth
which caused a mild sensation, and on the strength of that I rashly decided to abandon doctoring and earn my living as a writer; so, as soon as I was 'qualified', I set out for Spain and spent the best part of a year in Seville.
I amused myself hugely and wrote a bad novel. Then I returned to London and, with a friend of my own age, took and furnished a small flat near Victoria Station. A maid of all work cooked for us and kept the flat neat and tidy. My friend was at the Bar, and so I had the day (and the flat) to myself and my work. During the next six years I wrote several novels and a number of plays. Only one of these novels had any success, but even that failed to make the stir that my first one had made. I could get no manager to take my plays. At last, in desperation, I sent one, which I called A Man of Honour
, to the Stage Society, which gave two performances, one on Sunday night, another on Monday afternoon, of plays which, unsuitable for the commercial theatre, were considered of sufficient merit to please an intellectual audience. As every one knows, it was the Stage Society that produced the early plays of Bernard Shaw. The committee accepted A Man of Honour
, and W.L. Courtney, who was a member of it, thought well enough of my crude play to publish it in The Fortnightly Review
, of which he was then editor. It was a feather in my cap.
Though these efforts of mine brought me very little money, they attracted not a little attention, and I made friends. I was looked upon as a promising young writer and, I think I may say it without vanity, was accepted as a member of the intelligentsia, an honourable condition which, some years later, when I became a popular writer of light comedies, I lost; and have never since regained. I was invited to literary parties and to parties given by women of rank and fashion who thought it behoved them to patronise the arts. An unattached and fairly presentable young man is always in demand. I lunched out and dined out. Since I could not afford to take cabs, when I dined out, in tails and a white tie, as was then the custom, I went and came back by bus. I was asked to spend week-ends in the country. They were something of a trial on account of the tips you had to give to the butler and to the footman who brought you your morning tea. He unpacked your gladstone bag, and you were uneasily aware that your well-worn pyjamas and modest toilet articles had made an unfavourable impression upon him. For all that, I found life pleasant and I enjoyed myself. There seemed no reason why I should not go on indefinitely in the same way, bringing out a novel once a year (which seldom earned more than the small advance the publisher had given me but which was on the whole respectably reviewed), going to more and more parties, making more and more friends. It was all very nice, but I couldn't see that it was leading me anywhere. I was thirty. I was in a rut. I felt I must get out of it. It did not take me long to make up my mind. I told the friend with whom I shared the flat that I wanted to be rid of it and go abroad. He could not keep it by himself, but we luckily found a middle-aged gentleman who wished to install his mistress in it, and was prepared to take it off our hands. We sold the furniture for what it could fetch, and within a month I was on my way to Paris. I took a room in a cheap
hotel on the Left Bank.
A few months before this, I had been fortunate enough to make friends with a young painter who had a studio in the Rue Campagne Première. His name was Gerald Kelly. He had had an upbringing unusual for a painter, for he had been to Eton and to Cambridge. He was highly talented, abundantly loquacious, and immensely enthusiastic. It was he who first made me acquainted with the Impressionists, whose pictures had recently been accepted by the Luxembourg. To my shame, I must admit that I could not make head or tail of them. Without much searching, I found an apartment on the fifth floor of a house near the Lion de Belfort. It had two rooms and a kitchen, and cost seven hundred francs a year, which was then twenty-eight pounds. I bought, second-hand, such furniture and household utensils as were essential, and the concierge
told me of a woman who would come in for half a day and make my café au lait
in the morning and my luncheon at noon. I settled down and set to work on still another novel. Soon after my arrival, Gerald Kelly took me to a restaurant called Le Chat Blanc in the Rue d'Odessa, near the Gare Montparnasse, where a number of artists were in the habit of dining; and from then on I dined there every night. I have described the place elsewhere, and in some detail in the novel to which these pages are meant to serve as a preface, so that I need not here say more about it. As a rule, the same people came in every night, but now and then others came, perhaps only once, perhaps two or three times. We were apt to look upon them as interlopers, and I don't think we made them particularly welcome. It was thus that I first met Arnold Bennett and Clive Bell.
One of these casual visitors was Aleister Crowley. He was spending the winter in Paris. I took an immediate dislike to him, but he interested and amused me. He was a great talker and he talked uncommonly well. In early youth, I was told, he was extremely handsome, but when I knew him he had put on weight, and his hair was thinning. He had fine eyes and a way, whether natural or acquired I do not know, of so focusing them that, when he looked at you, he seemed to look behind you. He was a fake, but not entirely a fake. At Cambridge he had won his chess blue and was esteemed the best whist player of his time. He was a liar and unbecomingly boastful, but the odd thing was that he had actually done some of the things he boasted of. As a mountaineer, he had made an ascent of K2 in the Hindu Kush, the second highest mountain in India, and he made it without the elaborate equipment, the cylinders of oxygen and so forth, which render the endeavours of the mountaineers of the present day more likely to succeed. He did not reach the top, but got nearer to it than anyone had done before.
Crowley was a voluminous writer of verse, which he published sumptuously at his own expense. He had a gift for rhyming, and his verse is not entirely without merit. He had been greatly influenced by Swinburne and Robert Browning. He was grossly, but not unintelligently, imitative. As you flip through the pages you may well read a stanza which, if you came across it in a volume of Swinburne's, you would accept without question as the work of the master. 'It's rather hard, isn't it, Sir, to make sense of it?
' If you were shown this line and asked what poet had written it, I think you would be inclined to say, Robert Browning. You would be wrong. It was written by Aleister Crowley.
At the time I knew him he was dabbling in Satanism, magic and the occult. There was just then something of a vogue in Paris for that sort of thing, occasioned, I surmise, by the interest that was still taken in a book of Huysmans's, Là Bas
. Crowley told fantastic stories of his experiences, but it was hard to say whether he was telling the truth or merely pulling your leg. During that winter I saw him several times, but never after I left Paris to return to London. Once, long afterwards, I received a telegram from him which ran as follows: 'Please send twenty-five pounds at once. Mother of God and I starving. Aleister Crowley.'
I did not do so, and he lived on for many disgraceful years.
I was glad to get back to London. My old friend had by then rooms in Pall Mall, and I was able to take a bedroom in the same building and use his sitting-room to work in. The Magician
was published in 1908, so I suppose it was written during the first six months of 1907. I do not remember how I came to think that Aleister Crowley might serve as the model for the character whom I called Oliver Haddo; nor, indeed, how I came to think of writing that particular novel at all. When, a little while ago, my publisher expressed a wish to reissue it, I felt that, before consenting to this, I really should read it again. Nearly fifty years had passed since I had done so, and I had completely forgotten it. Some authors enjoy reading their old works; some cannot bear to. Of these I am. When I have corrected the proofs of a book, I have finished with it for good and all. I am impatient when people insist on talking to me about it; I am glad if they like it, but do not much care if they don't. I am no more interested in it than in a worn-out suit of clothes that I have given away. It was thus with disinclination that I began to read The Magician
. It held my interest, as two of my early novels, which for the same reason I have been obliged to read, did not. One, indeed, I simply could not get through. Another had to my mind some good dramatic scenes, but the humour filled me with mortification, and I should have been ashamed to see it republished. As I read The Magician
, I wondered how on earth I could have come by all the material concerning the black arts which I wrote of. I must have spent days and days reading in the library of the British Museum. The style is lush and turgid, not at all the sort of style I approve of now, but perhaps not unsuited to the subject; and there are a great many more adverbs and adjectives than I should use today. I fancy I must have been impressed by the écriture artiste
which the French writers of the time had not yet entirely abandoned, and unwisely sought to imitate them.
Though Aleister Crowley served, as I have said, as the model for Oliver Haddo, it is by no means a portrait of him. I made my character more striking in appearance, more sinister and more ruthless than Crowley ever was. I gave him magical powers that Crowley, though he claimed them, certainly never possessed. Crowley, however, recognized himself in the creature of my invention, for such it was, and wrote a full-page review of the novel in Vanity Fair
, which he signed 'Oliver Haddo'. I did not read it, and wish now that I had. I daresay it was a pretty piece of vituperation, but probably, like his poems, intolerably verbose.
I do not remember what success, if any, my novel had when it was published, and I did not bother about it much, for by then a great change had come into my life. The manager of the Court Theatre, one Otho Stuart, had brought out a play which failed to please, and he could not immediately get the cast he wanted for the next play he had in mind to produce. He had read one of mine, and formed a very poor opinion of it; but he was in a quandary, and it occurred to him that it might just serve to keep his theatre open for a few weeks, by the end of which the actors he wanted for the play he had been obliged to postpone would be at liberty. He put mine on. It was an immediate success. The result of this was that in a very little while other managers accepted the plays they had consistently refused, and I had four running in London at the same time. I, who for ten years had earned an average of one hundred pounds a year, found myself earning several hundred pounds a week. I made up my mind to abandon the writing of novels for the rest of my life. I did not know that this was something out of my control and that when the urge to write a novel seized me, I should be able to do nothing but submit. Five years later, the urge came and, refusing to write any more plays for the time, I started upon the longest of all my novels. I called it Of Human Bondage