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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter X. Further Adversity - Authorship

BY March 1817, or six months after his settlement with his creditors, Miller discovered that it was impossible for him to carry out the bargain he had made with them. The trade depression had extended and become even more serious. Subscriptions were being raised in almost every town in Scotland to cope with the distress. Dunbar, like Edinburgh itself, had started relief works within the burgh. The people upon whom misfortune had thus fallen were, as Miller urged in a letter to his creditors, “ those very classes upon whom I principally depended as purchasers.” To continue his forced sales would be to court additional disaster, and he accordingly asked that the intervals between his instalments should be extended from six to nine months. The proposal was at once agreed to without hesitation.

During the remainder of the year Miller persevered amid increasing difficulties. His auctioneers continued to send him depressing reports on their work, and the canvassing business remained a land of promise only. By the shipwreck of a Kirkwall packet he lost a parcel of books, and for a time was threatened with serious damage through having Cruden’s “Concordance,” which he was selling in conjunction with Gracie, removed from the list of books his canvassers could dispose of. Certain London booksellers had obtained an injunction against Gracie, and for a few weeks it looked as if the sale of the book would have to be abandoned, greatly to Miller’s hurt. The injunction, however, “was afterwards taken off, by what means I shall not say, further than I would have had some ‘compunctious visitings’ before I could have adopted them.” The only bright spot in Miller’s dreary experience was the loyal aid he received from his two sons, William and James. They travelled the country in his interests, accepting a small weekly wage, for as James wrote, “I think 25s. a week as much as can reasonably be expected, circumstances considered, as no mechanic should have 30s. a week unless for travelling expenses.”

A crisis was again reached in Miller’s affairs at the beginning of 1818. In February he became convinced that it was impossible to implement the promises he had made, and he accordingly issued a statement to his creditors. He declared that he had done his best. He had had sales in every corner of the land where success appeared possible, and in prosecuting these “ all the available members of my family have in one shape or other been occasionally employed in the business, and two of them are at this moment traversing the country as clerk to the sales.” So great had been his exertions that his health had been impaired, and he stated that to continue the struggle longer in face of the protracted depression was impossible. He ended by suggesting that they should be satisfied with 14s. in the pound.

One or two creditors had become somewhat irritated by what appeared to them to be Miller’s somewhat frequent “ proposals,” but in the end all were content 'to accept his offer. However much the majority may have sympathized with the debtor in his troubles, no other course seemed open to them. To have stripped him of his stock and sold him out would not have served them better. In the depressed state of the book market the stock could have been disposed of only at a price that would have made the return much less than was offered by the plan he proposed.

Once more set free from his immediate embarrassments, Miller began work again with a will. He withdrew none of his agencies, and endeavoured to inspire all he employed with new zeal. “I must have had no sinecure of it,” he said, “to wind up so many regulators and keep such a number of wheels in unceasing motion.” “ Indeed,” he says in another place, “ no general could have been more incessantly busied with his plans in the midst of his campaigns than I was with my routes, until the maps of the Scottish counties had become so familiar to my eye that, as I have expressed myself, I could almost chalk them out from memory.”

Most of his hopes were centred in the north, and for a very short time it did seem as if the trade there was to aid him in retrieving his position. The country round Inverness as well as the long stretch that lay to the north of it was practically virgin soil for books of all sorts, and especially for those likely to be carried by canvassers. Agents were continuously at work in Sutherland, Caithness, and the Orkneys. But the hope proved delusive. His chief agent in Inverness never seemed able to make good the promises he had held out of extensive profits from the north. The people of Caithness were quite willing to take books but were equally unwilling to pay for them. To add to the difficulties of the position, a London canvassing agency—the “Bungay ” opened operations within the district, and to the astonishment of all Gracie of Berwick also joined in the rivalry. Miller was furious at this latter development. In an angry letter he accused Gracie of treacherously taking advantage of the disclosure of his plans which he had made at his last settlement with his creditors. He had then indicated the splendid field he had expected Inverness to become, and Gracie had evidently made use of the information thus acquired to further his own interests. A personal interview was arranged between the rival traders, and Gracie succeeded in escaping from the awkward position by declaring that the business had been entered upon without his knowledge, and through the perversity of an agent. Miller allowed himself to have his own thoughts on the explanation.

The Inverness agency having thus disappointed expectations, Miller determined to rid himself of it. His agent had just married a “ lady of fortune,” and for a time held out hopes of acquiring the business on his own account. To arrange the matter Miller journeyed to the northern capital in July, taking his son George with him to put in charge of the agency in case negotiations failed. His plans broke down on all sides. The agent could not be prevailed upon to take over the stock. George had one of his fits of perversity, and Miller was forced to place another man in charge with instructions to make the best of the situation.

Miller’s last hope was gone. Calamity was added to calamity. A three months’ illness laid him aside from duty. His wife, on whom devolved the management of the shop, also fell ill, and his son William, “the sheet-anchor of the auctioneering department,” had to return home to take her place. Some of his agents proved less faithful than he had expected. By a shipwreck he lost a quantity of books which were on their way to Aberdeen to be sold. A friend on whom he had greatly leaned for help intimated that he himself was in difficulties. To add to these troubles, the state of the country continued deplorable, and the winter, when most of his business should have been done, was slipping past while he himself was incapacitated.

There could be only one end to such a situation. Miller was again forced to call, his creditors together. The meeting took place at the Royal Exchange Coffee House, Edinburgh, on April 14, 1819. The statement of his affairs showed a trade considerably reduced from what it had been three years before. His debts amounted to £6,100, while his nominal assets came on his own estimate to £6,253. The booksellers present, however, knew that in the depressed condition of the market the prices Miller anticipated for his stock could not be realized, and at last a composition of 8s. in the pound, payable at 6, 12, and 21 months, was accepted. The debtor was evidently much pleased with the result, for he wrote that “the matter may be said to have been adjusted fully up to my most ardent wishes and to the utmost extent of my most sanguine expectations.”

However disappointing his failure had been the composition he had now effected with his creditors cleared his feet. “By being allowed more time to dispose of my stock I was better enabled to husband my resources by selecting the best auctioneers and the best times for auctions.” The year 1820, accordingly, opened for him with a certain amount of brightness. While pushing his sales by the issue of catalogues both to the trade and to the public, he determined to curtail his canvassing business, which for some time had been confined to the north. The amount of actual loss incurred in this department was very great, for there were being constantly thrown on his hands incomplete copies of books which customers found themselves no longer able to accept. He accordingly withdrew his agent from Orkney and Caithness, leaving what business remained there to be finished on his behalf by local booksellers in Wick and Kirkwall. At the same time he gave orders that the agency in Inverness should be wound up as speedily as possible, a matter, however, which it took some months to accomplish. So successful were his whole endeavours that he was able to discharge his liabilities under the last settlement at the appointed date, and he was accordingly set free from the pressure of business anxiety.

During the next eight years Miller’s life flowed in more serene channels. Only one more venture did he make along unknown paths. He attempted to establish a connection in America, but the scheme speedily fell through, one remittance only being received from his agent there. He had private bereavement to meet, but he had sufficient leisure and ease of mind to be able to settle down and do some serious literary work on his own account. The object he had in view in these extra labours was undoubtedly not so much to achieve literary fame—though he afterwards thought that his exertions had given him a certain position as a popular author—as to relieve the strain of his financial difficulties. He had the satisfaction of knowing that his writings did in part have the effect he desired.

With the consent of the authoress he gathered together and edited the articles Mrs. Grant of Duthil had contributed to the Cheap Magazine under the title of the “History of an Irish Family,” and in 1822 issued them in a volume under the same name. In his “Latter Struggles” he distinctly names Mrs. Grant as the writer, but he chose a remarkable way of announcing her authorship in the book itself. Her name appears, not on the title-page, but as a footnote to a preface which deals mainly with Miller’s own works. He, however, quotes the following interesting paragraph from the preface of her “Popular Models”: “I shall not even insinuate that to the ‘History of the Irish Family,’ which appeared in the Cheap Magazine for 1814, I owe permission to inscribe my feeble efforts to His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent ”—a somewhat remarkable dedication when the character of that same prince is remembered.

Miller had himself been his own chief contributor to the Cheap Magazine and the Monthly Monitor. Some of his articles had attracted the attention of men whose opinion was of some value, and he determined to put into more permanent form what had won their approbation. One series he published in 1821 and named “The Affecting History of Tom Bragwell.” The purpose of the book was to prevent juvenile crime, and this he sought to do by setting forth the dreadful end of a young convict, and by insisting that all young people should be taught to read good books. The means might be inadequate to the end in view, but Miller had no doubt that his plan would be efficacious if it received a fair trial. The writing is occasionally sensational, but the book is manifestly sincere, and Miller had the satisfaction of thinking that it had not only commended itself to religious teachers but that it had done something towards effecting the purpose for which it was written. “Since the appearance of ‘Tom Bragwell,’” he says, “we have had fewer delinquents of this description on our criminal records” though he modestly adds, “I take no particular merit in this; it may be perfectly accidental so far as my writings are concerned. But I mention facts as I find them, to whatsoever cause or combination of causes these facts may be imputed.”

A curious circumstance is connected with the publication of this book. While Miller was preparing the revised matter before sending it to the press, he was annoyed “ by the publication in London under a fictitious name of the very work with a very slight alteration.” He entered into a correspondence with the publisher, which he describes as “unpleasant,” but he soon became satisfied that the latter also had been victimized. He had actually bought the book as a manuscript from some designing rogue!

The other book he published five years later in 1826. The draft of the work had been committed to paper as long ago as 1791. He tells that on January 25th of that year he “began to write the Book of Nature laid Open, or the Wisdom and Goodness of God in the Works of Creation Unfolded ”such was the original title“ and by the end of May following I had written or rather scrolled 627 pages 4to on this grand and sublime subject.” Miller has no doubt about the precocity that he thus exhibited. “It will no doubt excite some surprise,” he writes further, “to be informed that the original of a work that has got so many and so powerful recommendations emanated from the pen of, I may say, a self-taught youth in philosophical matters when he had just completed his twentieth year, and under circumstances that obliged him to sit up in the morning in the bed, making a desk of a folio volume of Stackhouse’s ‘History of the Bible’ in order to complete his morning task of twelve pages, and sometimes to continue till rather a late hour at night in order that he might make out his evening oblation of eight pages more.”

Under the original title the book ran through the second volume of the Cheap Magazine in 1814. In volume form it showed considerable additions and rearrangement of matter, and appeared under the name of “Popular Philosophy.” Although not drawn exactly on the lines of such books as Paley’s “Natural Theology,” published in 1802, Miller’s book followed that well-known treatise afar off. It was a survey of all creation, with the object of deducing the existence of a Creator, and of finding some evidence of His wisdom and majesty. The book shows a wide range of reading, and if it does not prove its author to be an original observer, it at least indicates that he could put what he read in an attractive and popular form. It was dedicated to Dr. James Davidson, professor of Civil and Natural History in Aberdeen, to whose interest in it its republication was due, and who designated it a “very excellent and instructive treatise.”

The preparation of “Popular Philosophy” for the press proved a pleasant task to Miller ; he declared that the time he spent in getting it ready was “perhaps the most happy as well as the best employed period of my life.” After its issue he had to complain that its sub-title, “The Book of Nature,” had been appropriated for a series of lectures on the same topic by a London writer, and that advertisements of this book followed his own in the Scottish newspapers. Inquiry convinced Miller that the device was merely one of those literary coincidences that occasionally vex the souls of authors. Miller also points out another coincidence. The original draft had been written during a period of great trade depression, and the work itself made its reappearance in a year notable for calamities in the book world. While it was passing through the press the great house of Constable collapsed. The want of money had a damaging effect on the sale of the book, but it had a cordial reception from the press. One compliment its publication brought him. The famous Church leader, Dr. Thomas Chalmers, called on him, and Miller tells how, on leaving him, “although I could give him no hope of being able to visit it [the coast] with the encumbrance of a gig, he took along with him that part of my work which described the Geological Alphabet and the other curiosities along the coast of the Cove shore, etc.”

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