Popular Tales From the Norse
long as Delane remained at his post, Dasent now for the first time turned his attention to contemporary fiction. His first novel--The Annals of an Eventful Life 1--issued at first anonymously in 1870, went through several editions in the course of a few months, and has since been frequently re-issued in one volume.
The capacity for fiction displayed in this highly original work, and its instantaneous success, led to his writing Three to One in 1872 and Half a Life in 1874.
To those who knew him well it is easy to see that the latter is mainly autobiographical, and while not amongst his best writings, it will always be interesting for the vivid account in its pages of his Westminster school-days.
The Vikings of the Baltic, an ingenious attempt to dilute the Jomsvikinga Saga into a modern three-volume novel, was published in 1875.
On June 27th, 1876, on Mr. Disraeli's recommendation, Dasent received the
honour of knighthood "for public services." 2 He was
already a Knight of the Danish Order of the Dannebrog; another compliment which
he received from the Danes being a beautiful silver drinking-horn, shaped like
a Viking ship, in recognition of his services to Northern literature. On the
institution of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, he was invited
by the Government
1. This he wrote at his London house, No. 19 Chesham Place, S.W., whilst lying on his back during the enforced inactivity following on an accident to his knee.
2. The Queen has knighted Dasent;
Wit well deserves a handle to its name."
--Punch, 8th July 1876.
to be one of its original members, and many of its subsequently printed volumes are the result of his personal knowledge of unpublished literary treasures long lying unheeded in the muniment rooms of many an English home.
On the retirement of Sir Thomas Erskine May from the clerkship of the House of Commons in 1886, Gladstone was inclined to appoint Dasent as his successor in that high office, but his infirmity of lameness, the result, in the first instance, of a fall in 1863, aggravated by other accidents of a like nature, was held to be an insuperable obstacle to the efficient discharge of the onerous duties attaching to the post, and he remained at the Civil Service Commission, of which he had become, on the death of Lord Hampton, the official chief. In 1890 he sustained a severe shock through the total destruction by fire of his country house at Tower Hill, Berks, and the loss or grievous damage of much valuable property, including an extensive library dating from his Oxford days, old furniture, pictures, plate, china, and curiosities collected during a long life in all parts of the world.
In this connection it should be mentioned that he was one of the first to give serious attention to the study of hall-marks on plate, long before the appearance of Chaffers's and Cripps's books on this subject, and that he had secured in middle age an unrivalled collection of antique silver, including specimens from the Stowe sale, which he attended in person, and from the Bernal and Hastings collections.
Many choice examples of old Norwich, York, and other provincial work came into his possession, at a time when
the secret of the various alphabetical cycles was known, perhaps, only to himself and the late Mr. Octavius Morgan. A portion of his collection was sold at Christie's in 1875, and realised prices then regarded as enormous, though since largely exceeded on the dispersal at the same rooms of the Milbank and Dunn-Gardner collections. The exhaustive article on "Plate and Plate Buyers," in the Quarterly Review (No. 282) for April 1876--the lamp at which all subsequent writers on Old English Silver have lit their torch--was from his pen.
The thorough grasp and appreciation of the subject therein displayed, the timely warnings as to forgeries, addressed to would-be buyers with long purses but little real knowledge, and the confident prediction expressed by him, and since abundantly verified, that genuine specimens of mediæval and pre-Caroline plate (of which there were some thirty in his own collection), must greatly increase in value as their extreme rarity was better realised, render the whole article of singular interest to collectors at the present day.
With characteristic energy, although his health was now beginning to fail, he applied himself to the task of rebuilding his ruined home, and on his final retirement from the public service in 1892, he withdrew altogether from London society to end his days in the peaceful atmosphere of Windsor Forest, a neighbourhood to which both he and Delane had been strongly attached from their boyhood. His services at the Civil Service Commission are thus commemorated in the opening words of the thirty-sixth Report of that body:--
"This Commission has sustained a heavy loss owing to the
superannuation of Sir George Webbe Dasent at the close of the last financial year. Appointed Commissioner in 1870, before the principle of open competition was applied to the Home Civil Service, he helped, in conjunction with the late Sir Edward Ryan, aided by the late Mr. Theodore Walrond, then secretary to the Commissioners, to organise the new system; he continued to watch over and guide its development; and whatever success has attended its administration has been largely due to his ability and judgment."
He was forced to retire, notwithstanding his unwearied exertions in the public interest, on a very inadequate pension: in such fashion does an ungrateful Treasury reward its best servants. His last contribution to the Times was a letter which appeared on December 6th, 1893, when he wrote from his retirement at Tower Hill to claim the authorship of a classical epigram made on the occasion of the marriage of Mr. Henry Wyndham West to Miss Violet Campbell, which had been wrongly attributed (in a mention of Mr. West's death in the same newspaper) to Abraham Hayward. The epigram ran as follows:--
"Quaerebat Zephyrus brumali tempore florem:
En! Campis Bellis incidit in Violam."
And to the right understanding of this dainty classical morsel it should be added that Mr. West's nickname in early life was "Zephyr," and that he was married in midwinter to Miss Violet Campbell, a sister of Lady Granville, and half-sister of Dasent's old friend, John Campbell of Islay.
Yet another book was to be published under his name before the curtain fell--his masterly translation of the Orkney and Hacon Sagas issued in 1894 for the series of
National Historical Publications by the Master of the Rolls; but it should here be stated that in the revision of this work he received great assistance from his eldest son, Mr. John Roche Dasent, C.B., who is himself engaged at the present time in editing the Acts of the Privy Council of England, a task left unfinished by Sir Harris Nicolas.
The publication of these two Sagas completed the labours of more than half a century devoted to the popularisation of the literature of Scandinavia and its bearings upon the history of England. His contemplated Life of Delane, whose vast and unique correspondence passed into his keeping, and fortunately escaped the flames at Tower Hill, is withheld from publication for the present, though it will surely see the light when the times are ripe for it to be given to the world. 1
Dasent's once iron frame at last began to break down, and a gradual decay
of his powers set in. For the last year and a half of his life be was confined
to his room by a distressing malady, which be bore with admirable fortitude,
rarely uttering a word of complaint, though he suffered constant and acute pain.
The end came on Thursday, June 11th, 1896, when he passed away, surrounded by
his family, at his house at Tower Hill, overlooking the wild landscape of Bagshot
Heath, and the woodlands of Swinley which he loved so well.
1. Delane wrote to Reeve, October 22nd, 1874:--"The world moves too quickly for long intervals of suppressed publication," à propos of the Times review of the Greville Memoirs. Dasent wrote the article referred to, and sat up all night to finish it, as was his wont when absorbed in his subject.
On the Monday following his remains were quietly interred in the picturesque churchyard of the old forest parish of Easthampstead, where, too, his life-long friend, John Delane, rests from his labours. Dasent married, at St. James's, Piccadilly, in 1846, Fanny Louisa, third daughter of the late Mr. William Frederick Augustus Delane, of Old Bracknell, Easthampstead, the only son of Cavin Delane, of an ancient Irish family in Roscommon and the Queen's County, Serjeant-at-Arms to George the Third, in 1775, by his wife Elizabeth Davenport. By this lady, who survives him, Dasent had four children:--
(1) John Roche Dasent, C.B., educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, assistant secretary to the Board of Education, married in 1878 to Ellen, younger daughter and co-heiress of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Codrington, K.C.B., by whom he has two sons, Manuel and Walter, both in the Royal Navy.
(2) George William Manuel, also at Westminster and Christ Church, accidentally drowned at Oxford in 1872.
(3) Frances Emily Mary.
(4) Arthur Irwin, educated at Eton, and now one of the clerks of the House
of Commons, married, 5th February 1901, at St. Paul's, Knightsbridge, to Helen
Augusta Essex, youngest daughter of the late Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Tippinge,
Grenadier Guards, of Longparish House, Hants.