The Life and Adventures of Charles Eldridge Constance
By the age of eighteen, Charles Eldridge Constance had written three celebrated novels and was the heir apparent to a highly successful publishing house; at the age of twenty his once easy fame had proven fickle and he was almost entirely forgotten by a once devoted public; he would never write again and be dead by the age of twenty-two.
1st of November 1827—All Saints’ Day
Charles Eldridge Constance is born to a shopkeeper of modest means, Horace Bainbridge Constance, in Kingston, Surrey—the forth of five children and third son. Due to pressing financial concerns, exacerbated no doubt by the errant proclivities of Madame Constance, a five-year-old Charles is taken in by a widowed and childless printer, Samuel Hayworth, with whom he is to live and serve as apprentice—a most fortuitous development in his young life.
Quick to learn and establish his worth, exhibiting both a supreme work ethic and almost preternatural skill at setting type, Charles is put to use in the shop well before he is even able to operate the heavy Acorn Frame Press. Charles, for his part, enjoys the work greatly, tasks big or small—running errands, sweeping the shop, cleaning the type, setting it, inking it, but most of all, he enjoys hanging the delicate, freshly printed leaves up to dry from strings bowed between the shops rafters, all the while gleaning what he might from the words printed within his daily world. In this way his relationship with Samuel Hayworth blossoms, and Charles is seen not just as an invaluable employee, but as a son.
At the age of sixteen Charles Eldridge Constance begins work on what will become his first novel, The Life and Adventures of Jack Pitkin. Written on the sly, composed entirely on the backs of scrapped print jobs he salvages from the shop’s waste bin, and likely completed within the span of four months, the existence of this work is discovered (almost too late) by Samuel Hayworth, when looking for a bit of fire-starter.
Immediately impressed by the depth and complexity of the work Samuel Hayworth decides, unbeknownst to Charles, to set and print a small run of the novel as a gift to the boy. Sending him off on an elaborate errand, to last most of the day, Samuel Hayworth does just that. The initial run of ten copies is thereafter displayed prominently in the shop’s case, much to the delight of the young Charles, and after a period of only three weeks, again served by a fortuitous chain of events, a copy of the book finds its way to Martin Denton, a reviewer for The Times. His subsequent column, which does nothing but heap praise on Charles’ debut, leads to rampant journalistic inquiry into the person of Charles Eldridge Constance; when it is discovered that the author is but a boy, a lowly apprentice in a print shop at that, he is catapulted into the public sphere, a national celebrity, and Samuel Hayworth cannot print off enough copies to sate the public.
Exhibiting a hitherto dormant business-savvy, Hayworth is able to parlay the success of The Life and Adventures of Jack Pitkin—trading on the promise a forthcoming trilogy—into a sizeable backing investment which supports both an upgrade in his printing operation, and a move from Kingston, Surrey to London-proper. And here marks a distinct change in the life of Charles Eldridge Constance, much for the worse.
In London Charles finds himself hounded by the press, barraged by family members (suddenly, predictably) seeking financial assistance, and bound by a hasty contract to produce two additional novels in the Jack Pitkin series for Hayworth’s newly-established publishing house (these required within the span of two years—so as to strike while the iron is hot). Troubled by his newfound fame, and yet forced to set ink to paper, here Charles—as evidenced by a noticeable change in the mood of his Jack Pitkin offerings, and corroborated in part by his, albeit erratic, journal entries—enters a dark period of his life, one marked by profound despondency and severe bouts of depression.
Hayworth, unable or unwilling to recognize the root of Charles’ troubles—he himself thrilled by life’s new offerings—uses the threat of financial sanction to force literary production out of the lad. And so, cooped up in a Knightsbridge flat with little-to-no human companionship, the severely morose, largely malnourished, and continually ill Charles set about producing the works required of him. It is altogether astounding that he was able to meet his established contractual deadlines; that these novels, released in quick succession, were met with such critical and financial success seems inconceivable. And yet Samuel Hayworth, who had once seen Charles as the likely heir to his company, had, by this time, begun to see Charles as a ruined investment and soon after cut ties with the young man, newly nineteen.
Even taking his two-year monthly stipend into consideration, Charles’ contract with Hayworth’s Publishing House is grossly inadequate, and his stingy return on royalties met with his substantial debts and poor money management leave him a pauper within a year.
Trading on his name alone (his book still relatively hot off the presses) Charles is able to establish some obscure lines of credit and stay afloat; however, these windows of opportunity close abruptly when his patrons have no product to show for their investment. No longer able to write, and crippled by depression, by the age of twenty Charles Eldridge Constance is living in a perpetual state of squalor with whores and madmen as his only companions in London’s most seedy neighborhoods.
Particulars of his existence from this point on are unknown, perhaps unknowable. And largely forgotten by this point, his death warrants no mention in the newspapers, not even in The Times, that publication which had made him so famous.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
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