Traill, Henry Duff (DNB01)
TRAILL, HENRY DUFF (1842–1900), author and journalist, belonged to the Traills of Rattar, an old family long settled in the county of Caithness and in the Orkneys. He was sixth and youngest son of James Traill, for some time stipendiary magistrate at the Greenwich and Woolwich police-court, and of Caroline, daughter of William Whateley, of Handsworth, Staffordshire. His uncle, George Traill, represented Orkney and Caithness in parliament as a liberal for nearly forty years till 1869.
Henry Duff Traill was born at Morden Hill, Blackheath, on 14 Aug. 1842. He was educated from April 1853 at Merchant Taylors' School, where he was distinguished for his attainments both in classics and mathematics, particularly the former. As head of the school he was elected to St. John's College, Oxford, in Michaelmas term, 1861, and subsequently obtained one of the last of the close fellowships then reserved on the foundation for Merchant Taylors' scholars. He took a first class in classical moderations in 1863, but after passing moderations he took up the study of natural science, with a view to the medical profession, and obtained a second class in the final schools in that subject in 1865. He graduated B.A. in that year, B.C.L. in 1868, and D.C.L. in 1873. On leaving the university he abandoned his scientific intentions and was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1869. In 1871 he was appointed an inspector of returns under the education office. But literature, or at least the periodical form of it, soon attracted, and presently absorbed, him. His earliest journalistic connection was with the 'Yorkshire Post,' and, after settling down regularly in London, he contributed occasionally to several other newspapers. In 1873 he joined the staff of the 'Pall Mall Gazette,' then conducted by Mr. Frederick Greenwood, and subsequently migrated to the 'St. James's Gazette on the foundation of that journal in 1880. He wrote much and brilliantly during this period in the 'Saturday Review,' contributing political 'leaders,' literary reviews, and essays. He also wrote verses, some of which were republished under the titles of 'Re-captured Rhymes' (1882) and Saturday Songs' (1890). With a few exceptions these pieces are in the humorous or satirical vein and deal with topics of the day ; but one, called 'The Ant's Nest,' is deeply serious, and deserves to take rank among the finest philosophical and reflective poems of the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. Traill's remarkable gift of parody, in prose as well as in metre, was exhibited by an anonymous pamphlet, published in 1876, called ' The Israelitish Question and the Comments of the Canaan Journals thereon,' in which the style of the leading London newspapers was cleverly burlesqued.
In 1882 he quitted the ' St. James's Gazette ' and joined the staff of the ' Daily Telegraph,' with which journal he was closely associated as chief political leader-writer till 1897. He continued to contribute to the ' Saturday Review,' and after 1888 he again wrote for the ' St. James's.' In 1889 he became editor of the ' Observer,' a post he retained for about two years. In 1897 he became the first editor of ' Literature,' and held this position at the time of his death. Refurnished a good many critical essays, political articles, and occasional short stories and satirical skits, to various monthly magazines and reviews.
During these years of versatile and strenuous journalism, Traill was also publishing boons on a variety of historical, literary, and political subjects. In 1881 he wrote a short account of our constitutional system, called 'Central Government' ('English Citizen' series). To the 'English Men of Letters' series of literary biographies he contributed brief but excellent memoirs of Sterne (1882) and Coleridge (1884) ; and he also wrote monographs on Shaftesbury (1886), William III (1888), Strafford (1889), the Marquis of Salisbury (1891), and Lord Cromer (1897). The literary studies were more successful than the political ; for Traill was a fine and penetrating critic rather than a trained historian. But everything he wrote was couched in the same admirable style easy, fluent, dignified, and correct which never seems to have deteriorated under the constant strain of daily journalism. A more elaborate biography than those just enumerated was the 'Life of Sir John Franklin' (1896). The work was executed by Traill after a thorough study of the materials placed at his disposal, and it is an adequate indeed the only adequate account of the great Arctic explorer. Between 1893 and 1897 he acted as editor of an elaborate compilation in six volumes, called 'Social England,' which was intended to be an historical account of the social, industrial, and political development of the nation. But he is at his best as a satirist of intellectual foibles, or a speculator, half playful and half melancholy, on the problems of life. These qualities are exhibited in his collections of literary and miscellaneous essays, 'Number Twenty' (1892) and 'The New Fiction' (1897), and particularly in the most remarkable of his works, ' The New Lucian.' This is a series of 'Dialogues of the Dead,' full of wit, pathos, and insight. It gives a better idea of the author's brilliancy and scholarship, his humour and his irony, than anything else he wrote. 'The New Lucian' was published in 1884; a second edition, with some supplementary dialogues and a touching dedication, was issued a few days before the author's death in February 1900.
Traill made several attempts at dramatic composition. He acted and wrote plays for private representation at school and at Oxford. Satirical dramatic sketches by him, called 'Present versus Past' and 'The Battle of the Professors,' were performed at Merchant Taylors' School in June 1869 and June 1874. He wrote a drama, 'The Diamond Seeker,' in the early seventies which was privately printed. It is a gloomy rhetorical tragedy in prose and blank verse of no great literary merit. On 5 July 1865 Traill's 'New and Original Extravaganza,' entitled 'Glaucus : a Tale of a Fish,' was performed at the Olympic Theatre, with the popular burlesque actress, Miss Ellen Farren, in the title role. His most ambitious dramatic effort was a play called ' The Medicine Man,' written in collaboration with Mr. Robert Hichens. It was produced by Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre on 4 May 1898, and ran for about four weeks.
In private life Traill was one of the most agreeable of companions, and in the company of intimate friends a delightful conversationalist. But his incessant journalistic and literary activity, combined with a constitutional shyness and reserve, prevented him from taking much part in society. He found relief from the strain of constant composition in an occasional trip abroad. He was fond of the Mediterranean countries. In 1893 and in 1895 he visited Egypt, The second of these journeys he described in a series of animated letters to the 'Daily Telegraph,' afterwards republislied as a book, 'From Cairo to the Soudan' (1896). A general account of the recent history of North-Eastern Africa, written by him in the last year of his life, was published posthumously under the title 'England, Egypt, and the Soudan' (1900).
Death took him unexpectedly in the full tide of his various projects and occupations. He died at the Great Western Hotel, Paddington, on 21 Feb. 1900, from a sudden attack of heart disease. He was buried on 26 Feb. 1900 in the Paddington cemetery, Kilburn. A portrait of H. D. Traill, painted by Sydney P. Hall, was exhibited at the New Gallery in 1889.
[Times, 22 Feb. 1900; Observer, 25 Feb. 1900; Literature, 3 March, 1900.]