‘You writers never retire, do you?’ said the guest at the party condescendingly. ‘“Scribble, scribble, scribble, right to the end,” as Edward Gibbon said.’ ‘No,’ said I, ‘it was said to Gibbon, either by George III or the Duke of Gloucester, accounts differ.’ ‘Quite a know-all, aren’t you?’ the man said. ‘But my point is this: there’s no retiring age for writers, and perhaps there ought to be.’
I might well second that wish, ill-natured though it was. I recall vividly V.S. Pritchett, then in his late eighties, telling me how he had to drag himself, groaning and cursing, up the high stairs to his study at the top of the house every morning to do his daily stint. And there was J.B. Priestley, on the eve of his 90th birthday (he didn’t quite make it) grumbling to me that he was still at it, with the Inland Revenue still bombarding him with letters. ‘Why can’t they agree an age and, after that, just leave you alone?’ he asked — in vain, of course. If, for instance, the Revenue were to stop pestering at the age of 80, or even 85, there’d be something to look forward to for the highly productive elderly, who are still churning out their 2,000-words-plus every morning. But that will never happen. People who can still earn money in their eighties will remain galley-slaves of the state, for all time.
Not that writers, at any rate in the long centuries when English literature was in the making, often made it to their eighties. We don’t know for sure how old Chaucer was when he died but it looks like not more than 60. And he had had a lucky, well-rewarded life, his belly with good capon lined, and drinking fine wine supplied by the Crown (and he knew what he was drinking, too, for his father had been a successful wine merchant, like Ruskin’s). But look at Shakespeare! Dead at 52, a colossally productive man who had invested shrewdly and was just beginning to enjoy his leisure when the bony hand tapped his shoulder. His colleague John Webster was dead at 45, and poor Marlowe was not yet 30. Francis Bacon, dying at 65 after foolishly experimenting on a chicken in the snow, must be reckoned long-lived for the age, but then he was a lawyer, not a professional writer. Poets thought they were doing well if they clambered into their sixties. Milton reached 66, Dryden 69, but Pope was only 56 when he died, and Thomas Gray a year younger. Those 18th-century writers we think of as old were in fact barely middle-aged. Addison was 47 at death, Smollett 50. Horace Walpole must have been one of the first English writers to pass his 80th birthday, though we mustn’t forget Hobbes.
If we look at Dr Johnson’s circle, what do we find? The Doctor himself, with some difficulty, survived to 74, thanks to abstention and his own empiric dosing. His friend Joshua Reynolds made 69, Edmund Burke one year less, and Adam Smith 67. But his former pupil David Garrick died at 62 (this provoking one of the noblest tributes in the language). Gibbon was dead at 57 and Boswell at 56. Poor Goldsmith only reached 45. If we look at the circle round Charles Lamb, the score is even lower. And this is even if we discount Keats (died at 26) and Shelley (not quite 30), whom Lamb met only once or twice, and Byron (36), whom he never met at all. Lamb himself died at 59, his lifelong friend Coleridge at 61, and Hazlitt, whom Lamb stuck to through all his follies, at 51. It’s true that Wordsworth lived to be 80, and kept his marbles, though he did little work of value over 50. But Dorothy succumbed to Alzheimer’s in her fifties, and so did Southey a little later, dying at 68. De Quincey did well, living to 74, but Thomas Moore, though he lived to 72, wrote little after his forties. His friend Walter Scott worked frantically to the end to pay off his debts, and died at 61.
The Great Victorians were not long-lived on the whole, especially the writers. We all know that Charlotte Bront