Monday, 15 May 2017

A Review of 'Wrecked Lives, or, Men Who Have Failed by William Henry Davenport Adams'

(In the quotes below, the paragraphs have been added by me. Adams is a Victorian and does not really believe in them, perhaps taking them as a sign if weakness.)

I got this from the 'Scholars Select' series, which is essentially the 'print on demand from a scan' series, which means the page has all kinds of crazy copying and printing artefacts like one part where a few are missing, a few where it tilts and the first words and letters of lines are lost and one or two points where a page has been folded over and scanned.

I'm not complaining, its actually quite fun, it adds a new layer of bibliographic mystery and makes 19th Century popular writing available for cheap so that's fine with me. The cover on this is also pretty robust.

Inside are scans of the original pages so all the original typography and punctuation has been preserved.

Like any book of criticism it speaks to us as much about the critic as about anyone else and oh my god what a critic, he is the extruded essence of the Victorian Age, he lived from 1828 to 1891 and Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1876, so he only exceeded her by a decade and a half. [EDIT - SHE REIGNED TILL 1901- GOD DAMN IT]

Adams seems to have been a sort of one-man Victorian proto-wikipedia. All he did was read and write. He read everything and he nearly seems to have written everything. Even the scanned re-prints on Amazon go to over 500 books, here is a non-chronological and non-representative handful;

- Witch, warlock and magician; historical sketches of magic and witchcraft in England and Scotland.
- Lighthouses and lightships; a descriptive historical account of their mode of construction and organisation.
- Temples, tombs and monuments of ancient Greece and Rome; a description and a history of some of the most remarkable memorials of classical architecture.
- Curiosities of superstition, and sketches of some unrevealed religions.
- Celebrated women travellers of the nineteenth century.
- Womans's work in girlhood, maidenhood, and wifehood.. With hints on self culture and chapters on the higher education and employment of women.
- The buried cities of Campania; or Pompeii and Herculanium, their history, their destruction and their remains.
- Women of fashion and representative women in letters and society. A series of biographical and critical studies.
- Celebrated Englishwomen of the Victorian Era - "This book presents biographical sketches of notable women of Victorian England in an effort to display women’s intellect and thereby help the cause of women's rights."
- Child-life and girlhood of remarkable women. A series of chapters from female biography.
- Stories of the lives of noble women
- Famous beauties and historic women. A gallery of croquis biographiques.
- "In perils oft": romantic biographies illustrative of the adventurous life
- Wonders of the Vegetable World
- Egypt Past and Present
- The household treasury of English song. Specimens of the English poets
- The Sunshine of Domestic Life: or Sketches of Womanly Virtues and Stories of the Lives of Noble Women
- Good Samaritans: Or, Biographical Illustrations of the Law of Human Kindness
- The Secret of Success: Or, How to Get On in the World.
- The Catacombs of Rome: Historical and Descriptive
- Great Shipwrecks: A Record of Perils and Disasters At Sea 1544-1877
- Nelsons' Hand-Book to the Isle of Wight
- Dwellers on the Threshold. Or, magic and magicians. Vol II
- Beneath the Surface: Or, Wonders of the Underground World

And this is only a handful. I'm sure people familiar with me can see the shared interests, magic, underground spaces, tombs and heroism.

I put 'Men Who Have Failed' on my wish-list largely due to its wonderful and ridiculous title and it has not dissapointed me. Adams takes us on a tour of (to his eye) ruined lives. The effect is rather like watching Adams march sternly down a line a grieving and fragile artists and bad politicians, wielding the big, dead salty haddock of Victorian morality. As he passes by, each failed man receives a rueful, but well-deserved salty smack in the face for not being Victorian enough.

The section on Robespierre takes up nearly half the book, but we cannot blame Adams for this, the doom of the French Revolution and the Terror are just much, much stranger, more exciting and more interesting than anything else that could possibly happen. It is one of the pleasures of left-wing nutters as opposed to right-wing nutters that, because they think they are opening a new chapter in history, they tend to obsessively record everything they do, which, if they don't manage to burn it later, gives the popular historian a lot of detail to work with. So we know, for instance, that Robespierre was really into tarts, and;

"To this description of his person and character it may be added that he was temperate to an extreme, drinking water only, and passionately fond of oranges. Freron says he was insatiable in his appetite for this fruit, and thinks that their acidity acted on the bilious humours of his body, and favoured their circulation. 'It was always easy to detect the place at table which he had occupied, by the piles of orange-peel which covered the plate. It was remarked that, as he ate them, his severity of countenance relaxed'."

Which I reproduce here as an example of Adams' eye for the telling or ridiculous detail, for its inherent interest and for the intriguingly stated possibility that the problem with Robespierre was that he was too alkali.

Before the solemn judgement comes down;

"... his intense selfishness ruined him. He could govern only by silence and terror ; he could think of no other way of disarming his adversaries than by crushing them. ..... When he had swept out of his path every enemy he would announce that the Terror was no more. He was sick and weary of the Terrorists, and he wished, and had resolved, to destroy them. There can be no doubt that he was appalled at the incessant bloodshed and yet he was resolved to pour out more blood in order to arrest its flow !"

Robert Burns is next to get a kicking. It’s curious that a Victorian moralist and a modern reader would both look askance on Burns for exactly the same behaviour (he was a massive slut) but with a very different tenor.

It is lack or heroism and high-mindedness that does for Burns in the end.

We move on to Benjamin Haydon, rarely has anyone exploded in the air like Haydon. He has the perfect vector, just enough talent, ability, hard work and high-mindedness to put him high, high, high in the sky, and just enough deranged narcissism, paranoia, indebtedness and lack of self-control to make sure he goes up like a drone strike in full public view.

I offer the second part of the following quote as an example of someone utterly unlike myself or anyone else I know.

"In March 1890, the "Dentatus" was completed, and at the Royal Academy's Exhibition was submitted to the judgement of the critics and the public. This was not particularly favourable ; the general opinion being that the painter had "attempted too much;" but Lord Mulgrave liberally rewarded him with 210 guineas. Haydon, however, conceived the idea that the Academicians had not given him a good place in the Exhibition, out of jealousy ; and thus began his long warfare against the Academy, which continued during the remainder of his life, and acted on his brain like a powerful irritant.

Never was any man more impatient of criticism or more intolerant of opposition. To disagree with him was a sure and certain mark of incompetence, envy, malice, uncharitableness. His estimate of his powers was so enormous, that it was difficult for any calm, unprejudiced observer to accept it; yet, at the same time, it indisposed him to believe in the possibility that a critic might honestly regard it as excessive. Hence he waged an incessant warfare against a constantly increasing host of adversaries, for his pretensions were so disproportionate to his performance that men naturally took offence at their transparent egotism."

Haydon has a very, very sad end, but even though it should call us to sympathy, blowing your brains out in the study, knowing either your wife or kid will find you, is a particularly representative example of his self-absorption. At least leave the house to do it man.

On Heinrich Heine

Heine has the misfortune of being, not only a flake, but also German.

[Heine is salty about the English, Adams prepares and unleashes his own not-inconsiderable reserves of salt]

"Passing over the exaggeration of this passage, we may remark that "freedom" here means, evidently, something more than political liberty, or else Heine could hardly have ignored the fact that England had attained to a successful application of its principles long before they were understood by the majority of Frenchmen ; and we may assume, I think, that it signifies a general impatience of restraint ; an independence of those conventionalities which, however ridiculed by the wits, are the safeguard and the bond of society; and an arbitrary revolt against order, custom, and common  sense. If such were Heine's idea of freedom, and if this kind of freedom were his "new religion," it is easy to believe that the most intelligent Englishmen would, to Hein's perception, talk foolishly about it !"

Albion thus preserved, we move on to the real meat and Adams digs into his bag of exclamation marks;

"Alas for those powerful, fervid, irregular spirits, which so fatally mistake license for liberty, and so sadly plunge into fruitless warfare against the wisely conservative forces of established society! How pitiable is their waste of strength and effort! How surely do they prepare for themselves the doom of failure! Wheras if, instead of aiming at revolution, the would be content with reform, they might accomplish so much good for their brethren, and reap so abundant a harvest of crowned and consummate labour !"

The chapters of the book grow smaller and smaller as we go on, as if Adams is running out of a particular kind of fuel. His engine of exasperation is chugging on fumes. Even the most Victorian Victorian can only mine so much salt.

On Poe

"It is annoying, after one's nerves have been thrilled and one's fancy stimulated, by such a crowd of sepulchral images, to find that nothing comes of it, except some rhodomontade about "a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore" - which by the way, the angels would certainly not do. It is just as if the ghost of Hamlets father had broken his prison-bonds to inform his startled son that his mother was called Gertrude in the realm of shadows!"


"Towards the close of the year he produced his fine poem of "Eureka," which Mr. Ingram rapturously pronounces "the last and grandest monument of his genius." "In all probability," he adds, "no other author ever flung such an intensity of feeling, or ever believed more steadfastly in the truth of his works, than did Edgar Poe in this attempted unriddling of the secret of the universe!"

"The Secret of the Universe" however is not unriddled in this volume of vague, mystical, and pantheistic 'fine writing.'"


"To retrace the record has been to me no agreeable task ; but in a book dealing with "Men who have Failed" - men who, by their failure, have left us a warning and an example - I could not ignore it, for it points very vividly and with even terrible force the moral I am bound to inculcate. Alas that, with all the fervour of his imagination, with all the rich promise of his intellectual energy, the name of Poe should be entered on so sad a roll, instead of among those

"Who prove that noble deeds are faith,
And living words are deeds,
And leave no dreams beyond their dreams,
And higher hopes and needs"!

It is a pitiful thing when of a mans life we can make no better use than to adopt it as a beacon which indicates a danger and commemorates a wreck!"

Adams seems drained, not only by the difficulty of his own research but by the moral nature of his quest. For all his high feeling at the beginning. I think it is becoming increasingly obvious to him, and to us, that we are driving along the road looking at crashed cars. There is only so much we can learn from this and even though I have a great deal of affection for Adams and his patriarchal Victorian bullshit, even I am running out of patience with him a little.

We wheedle to a slim finish with Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish patriot who did everything right, was heroic, self-sacrificing and high-minded, but still got utterly fucked by reality.

If, by chance, anyone buying this book today was expecting to find out anything genuinely useful from the doom of these great and talented men, then I am afraid there is little to discover here that you wouldn’t get from a Wikipedia page. Adams may be right 60% of the time, but its not too hard to point out that when Robespierre is acting like a nutter, that he is nuts, that Burns slutting around ruined some young women’s lives or that Haydon was a fucking tool.

They are worth considering, none the less, especially Haydon who is almost a living signpost to the systematic failings of the artistic mind.

Adams successfully points out that a bunch of flaky self-destructive narcissists couldn’t keep their shit together with verve and drive and from an exclusively pre-Freudian, Christian, and Victorian point of view. A modern blogger would do the same but would probably be less salty and a lot less fun to read.

If you are buying it as a mixture of historical miscellany and a romp through the popular Victorian mind, then you can certainly have a lot of fun with ‘Wrecked Lives’, it is the very living image of its creator and its time.


  1. Point of information: Victoria reigned until her death in 1901.

    Benjamin Haydon's autobiography is a fascinating read, in a sad sort of way. It's available on, if you're interested. (Though maybe you've already read it. And if not, I understand that 650 pages of self-pity isn't everyone's idea of a fun time!)

    1. Amended, thank you Joseph. I am probably not up to reading Haydon right now but I will keep him in mind.

  2. Hi Patrick,
    could you please tell me where that verse is from that starts:
    "Who prove that noble deeds are faith,"?

    1. I'm sorry no source is given, the closest I could find on google was here but even there its a quote.

  3. I found it. It is from Twenty-Second of February by Anne Whitney.
    She released a collection of poems that were previously published in magazines I think. She then went on to become a sculptor.

    Full version at these links:
    (Parts behind pay wall)

    I am not sure about the significance of 22 Feb but I think it is because it was George Washington's birthday. About 20 years after the collection was published that day was made a public holiday for that reason in the United States, so it was obviously on the minds of the public at the time. Plus he is called out by name in the first stanza.

    Here is another poem on the same subject with an almost identical name.