The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft Summary

George Gissing


(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

For many years, Henry Ryecroft had toiled unceasingly at all kinds of writing. He did straight hack work, translating, and editing. At first, he knew the bitterest of poverty, but at long intervals a book appeared under his name. At last, he gained a somewhat less precarious livelihood. At rare intervals, some modest affluence enabled him to take a short trip abroad. By the time he was fifty years old, his health was failing; his wife had been dead for years, and his married daughter had a home of her own.

By a stroke of luck, he inherited a legacy from an acquaintance, a sufficient income for his modest needs. He lost no time in leasing a cottage in rural Devon for twenty years and in bidding good-bye to his writing. In Devon, he settled down contentedly with a quiet housekeeper. After his death, his private papers, written during his few years in Devon, were arranged by a friend and published.

It was spring. For more than a week, Ryecroft had done no writing. His house was perfect, with just enough room, a completely rustic setting, an interminable quiet. His housekeeper, who rarely spoke more than a word or two at a time, kept the house shining and cheerful. Ryecroft walked about the countryside in the pleasant weather. He was no botanist, but before long he knew the names of most of the common plants he saw.

One day, he came upon a boy crying bitterly. The child had been given sixpence and sent to repay a debt, but he had lost the money and had been weeping in the woods for hours. He did not fear his parents’ wrath; rather, he was aware of how much a sixpence meant to them. Ryecroft gave him a sixpence. Not long before, he could not have afforded such a sum.

Ryecroft remembered the many years when he was bound to the pavements of London. He lived in a mean room, ate irregularly, and begrudged time away from his hack writing. The beds he slept in so soundly would now seem an abomination. He had been young in those days, but not for anything, not even for a regained youth, would he go through those lean years again.

Ryecroft had always purchased books, even when he was poor. Once he got a complete Gibbon at a bargain and carried it home in two trips. To look at booksellers’ windows and at advertisements one might think that the English were literary or at least book lovers. The daily newspaper, however, was a better measuring rod. It was devoted to horse racing, scandal, war, and threats of war; books got very little space.

In the summer, Ryecroft sat reading one day in his garden. A chance breeze carried a perfume that reminded him of his boyhood. His wise father had seen to it that his family was seldom in crowds. In those days it was still possible to find spots along the English coast where crowds were unknown, and the Ryecrofts always spent tranquil vacations at the seaside. It always seemed that...

(The entire section is 1175 words.)