MONG THE professional Victorian writers who made a living, or even a fortune, from writing without the aid of outside sources of income, there were a fair number who were incompetent businessmen. Of those who made a fortune, Thackeray probably has the reputation of being the least businesslike. He is known as a lucky, careless genius, a lazy giant with great powers and equal weaknesses. Although he squandered a considerable part of his £17,000 inheritance through a weakness for gambling and in two ill-fated investments in periodicals, the Constitutional and the National Standard, the loss that threw him absolutely upon the resources of his pen appears to have been a bank failure in India — no fault of his own. Having struggled back to fiscal competence from his initial ruin, he invested £500 in the railroad mania in which he lost again in the general collapse of 1845. The success of Vanity Fair made his life easier but did not restore his lost fortunes. His lecture tours in America netted approximately £5,000, which Thackeray invested in American railroads and sold out during the Civil War for only £3,895 (Letters 3: 275). Nevertheless, he left his daughters an estate nearly equaling the £ 10,000 apiece that he repeatedly said was his goal.
Explaining the differences between Thackeray and Dickens as professional writers, Anthony Trollope — certainly one of the most business-manlike of authors — wrote:
The one was steadfast, industrious, full of purpose, never doubting of himself always putting his best foot foremost and standing firmly on it when he got there; with no inward trepidation, with no moments in which he was half inclined to think that this race was not for his winning, this goal not to be reached by his struggles. The sympathy of friends was good to him, but he could have done without it. The good opinion which he had of himself was never shaken by adverse criticism; and the criticism on the other side, by which it was exalted, came from the enumeration of the number of copies sold. He was a firm reliant man, very little prone to change, who, when he had discovered the nature of his own talent, knew how to do the very best with it. It may almost be said that Thackeray was the very opposite of this. <[15/16
Unsteadfast, idle, changeable of purpose, aware of his intellect but not trusting it, no man ever failed more generally than he to put his best .foot foremost. Full as his works are of pathos, full of humour, full of love and charity, tending, as they always do, to truth and honour and manly worth and womanly modesty, excelling, as they seem to me to do, most other written precepts that I know, they always seem to lack something that might have been there. There is a touch of vagueness which indicates that his pen was not firm while he was using it. He seems to me to have been dreaming ever of some high flight, and then to have told himself, with a half-broken heart, that it was beyond his power to soar up into those bright regions. I can fancy as the sheets went from him every day he told himself, in regard to every sheet, that it was a failure. Dickens was quite sure of his sheets. [Trollope, pp. 19-20]
It is not quite clear if Trollope was aware of the potential double meaning of that last assertion, but Thackeray was. In any case, this passage is the sort of realistic fiction for which Trollope is justly famous. But though it is misleading, if not an outright falsehood, Trollope's Thackeray has stuck in the popular mind. The image Trollope evoked corresponds generally with the one promoted by Thackeray himself in such things as his vignette drawing of a printer's devil waiting at the door to carry his manuscripts to a presumably impatient printer and by stories like the one James T. Fields told of Thackeray coming to one of his own dinner parties well over an hour late with ink on his fingers announcing the completion of the last sheet of The Virginians. [Fields, pp. 17-18]
It is indisputable that Thackeray produced much of his work under the pressure of deadlines. That need not mean he was lazy. John Sutherland has argued that Thackeray may even have written better under pressure than at leisure. Thackeray spoke often in his letters of living, eating, drinking his novels to the exclusion almost of his own daily life. He relished the creative pressure induced by deadlines, though he also knew the pace would wear him out. It has been altogether too easy to overplay Thackeray in the role of procrastinator, the would-be gentleman of leisure, and to lose sight of the facts concerning Thackeray the businessman and professional writer, This part of the picture can be filled out from two other sources: his comments in his fiction on the craft of writing and the facts of his relations with his publishers revealed in letters, contracts and publishers' account books. [16/17]
A key episode in establishing the image of Thackeray's view of his profession, its rank, rights, and responsibilities, took place in 1850. Thackeray brought the wrath of John Forster upon his head when, in Pendennis, he had George Warrington remark to Pen on their way home from a dreary publisher's party, "And now that you have seen the men of letters, tell me, was I far wrong in saying there are thousands of people in this town, who don't write books, who are, to the full, as clever and intellectual as people who do?" Thackeray went on in the voice of his narrator, "And it may be whispered to those uninitiated people who are anxious to know the habits and make the acquaintance of men of letters, that there are no race of people who talk about books, or perhaps, who read books, so little as literary men" (1: 346).
Forster's objection, printed in the Examiner for 5 January 1850, was directed against Thackeray for disparaging literary men as a whole by presenting the Shandons, Waggs, and Bunions of the party as representative of all literary men and women. Forster attributed Thackeray's "attack" to a desire to curry favor with the nonliterary classes. In defending himself, Thackeray gave one view of the professional writer. He claimed never to have "been ashamed of his profession, or (except for its dulness) of any single line from his pen." He considered the charge that he was currying favor among the nonliterary classes absurd, since in his experience people honored writers, and he would gain nothing through the supposed stratagem of which he was accused. Finally, he defended his portrait of the literary world on the grounds that it was true. Why, he asked, "are these things not to be described . . . it such exist, or have existed, they are as good subjects for comedy as men of other callings" (Letters 2: 630, 634). Forster would not let the subject alone, showing himself totally unmoved by Thackeray's explanations, He distinguished between identifying humbug in a profession and identifying humbug with a profession. Here the public debate lapsed into silence without a winner. It is quite likely that Forster was predisposed to pick a fight with Thackeray over this issue because of a long-standing and fundamental difference between them, friends though they had been, concerning the status of professional writers and their role and in society. Forster and Dickens, as has been suggested by Craig Howes, represented the author in a romantic light, as a dignified, inspired artist. The author's role, according to this view, was that of inspirer and castigator — as social conscience for the betterment of society [Howes]. Michael Lund has cited various [17/18 nineteenth-century versions of this view suggesting that authorship is not work like other trades or professions but rather a gift or inspired avocation. Thackeray, on the other hand, had long been speaking and writing from a different perspective, emphasizing the trade relations, admitting the work involved, and making fun of pretentious writing and pretentious writers. Thus, the controversy over the dignity of literature boils down to one side trying to uphold an ideal and a social responsibility (which they see as doing good) and the other side trying to be honest and unpretentious (which they see as being true). The object of fiction for the one is to change society; for the other, to understand it. There is no resolution for such a controversy.
Privately, in a letter to his friend Abraham Heyward, Thackeray admitted, however: "The words in Pendennis are untenable be hanged to them: but they were meant to apply to a particular class of literary men, my class who are the most ignorant men under the Sun, myself included I mean. But I wrote so carelessly that it appears as if I would speak of all, and even if it were true I ought never to have written what I did" (Letters 2: 636). Yet this apology expresses regret for having written carelessly, not for having thought the thought. Thackeray did not change his mind about writers; rather, he was sorry to have stirred up this particularly fruitless controversy.
In the novel Pendennis goes on to become a successful novelist, serving first a sort of apprenticeship writing reviews. He later becomes the author of Thackeray's The Newcomes, in which he gives the following description of the profession of authorship:
The drawbacks and penalties attendant upon our profession are taken into full account, as we well know, by literary men, and their friends. Our poverty, hardships, and disappointments are set forth with great emphasis, and often with too great truth by those who speak of us; but there are advantages belonging to our trade which are passed over, I think by some of those who exercise it, and for which, in striking the balance of our accounts, we are not always duly thankful. We have no patron, so to speak — we sit in ante-chamber no more, waiting the present of a few guineas from my lord; in return for a fulsome dedication. We sell our wares to the book purveyor, between whom and us there is no greater obligation than between him and his paper-maker or printer. In the great <[18/19] towns in our country, immense stores of books are provided for us, with librarians to class them, kind attendants to wait upon us, and comfortable appliances to study. We require scarce any capital wherewith to exercise our trade. "at other so called learned profession is equally fortunate? A doctor, for example, after carefully and expensively educating himself, must invest in house and furniture, horses, carriage, and men-servants, before the public patient will think of calling him in. I am told that such gentlemen have to coax and wheedle dowagers, to humour hypochondriacs, to practise a score of little subsidiary arts in order to make that of healing profitable. How many many hundreds of pounds has a barrister to sink upon his stock in trade before his returns are available? There are the costly charges of university education — the costly chambers in the Inn of court -certain expenses all to be defrayed before the possible client makes his appearance, and the chance of fame or competency arrives. The prizes are great, to be sure, in the law, but what a prodigious sum the lottery ticket costs! If a man of letters cannot win, neither does he risk so much. Let us speak of our trade as we find it, and not be too eager in calling out for public compassion. [The Newcomes, 1: 321-22]
This description of the author's life and work emphasizes one aspect at the expense of others. Pendennis, as the narrator of The Newcomes, has constantly to remind himself not to think in inflated terms about authorship. This litany of the trade relations and modest requirements reveals that authorship is open to one and all who care to risk the chance of publication. Elsewhere, Thackeray emphasized other requirements, most notably the need to develop, through extensive reading, a sense of history. The comparison with the professions of medicine and law both elevate and deflate the picture being presented. It is not so difficult nor so lucrative as those relatively bourgeois professions; but if it is like a trade involving paper sellers, printers, and booksellers, it yet also has freedoms and responsibilities unlike those trades which made it nonetheless a profession. Among those responsibilities Thackeray included the moral one of avoiding inflated language and slipshod moral implications — the two main butts of his humorous attacks in Novels by Eminent Hands.
Like Thackeray's celebrated redefinitions of snob and gentleman, his view of the professional writer as tradesman is a double one reconciling in itself traditionally opposing views. just as a middle-class or poor [19/20] gentleman seemed a contradiction in Regency terms, so too the poet as tradesman seemed contradictory in romantic terms. Both Dickens and Forster remonstrated with Thackeray for his failure to hold high enough the dignity of the profession — their arguments smacking of conventional notions of the smudge of trade. There is a tawdry irony in the notion of Dickens and Forster, both with tradesman connections in their backgrounds, and particularly Forster, who besides writing was a paid employee of a publisher, objecting to Thackeray's portraits of writers as tradesmen. But Thackeray's view cuts through the pomposity and cant about the dignity of literature to the heart of the ideals of his profession — to love and truth8 upholding the ideals without losing sight of the mundane business facts of authors writing for money, relying on and being relied upon in turn by publishers in much the same way that the printers and the paper sellers rely on one another in the business transactions that make books and periodicals. To admit that the author is one in a line of necessary manufacturers and purveyors of literature that includes the publisher, printer, stationer, and bookstall vendor is to pursue truth where there seems to be nothing to gain except the miserable satisfaction of knowing it. In fact, however, that view is subversive to establishment conventions — a fact that goes a long way toward explaining the disagreement between Forster and Thackeray. Of course, this truth is not the whole truth any more than is that other much better known image Thackeray created of the novelist as the preacher in cap and bells [cf. Ray, Vanity Fair] That is to say, Thackeray was not just an exposer of sham, nor was he just a satirist.
Thackeray's double view of the word trade as it applied, without shame, to his own profession, is reminiscent of his similar treatment of trade in Vanity Fair where poor Dobbin in school is the butt of all the jokes because his father, a grocer, pays his bill in goods. Dobbin gains respect by beating Cuff in a fight, but the narrator notes that the lordly little George Osborne's grandfather was a tradesman too. Dobbin's father becomes a respected alderman albeit none too refined a man, and Dobbin is [20/21] unquestionably the real gentleman of the book. If authorship and publishing have the taint of trade, they also can have the honor of trade. And where there is honor, there is the risk of dishonor. The ideals of the profession could be traduced not only by inflated rhetoric but by dishonest shows of learning or of sentiment. In an early review Thackeray complained of writers who sugared their instructions in manners and morals and academic subjects by putting them into fiction, but at the same time he firmly believed in the novelist's responsibility, even in the guise of a clown's cap and bells, to instruct — not with moral platitudes, of course, but with the lessons inherent in what he thought was unvarnished truth.10 To the editor of Punch, Mark Lemon, he wrote on concluding the "Snobs of England": "A few years ago I should have sneered at the idea of setting up as a teacher at all, and perhaps at this pompous and pious way of talking about a few papers of jokes in Punch — but I have got to believe in the business, and in many other things since then. And our Profession seems to me to be as serious as the Parson's own" (Letters 2: 282).
One need not agree with Trollope that the vagueness or ambivalence in Thackeray's work reveals lack of commitment or conviction or strength. What some of his contemporaries thought of as a feigned "want of earnestness," an "undervaluing of his art," a carelessness about details, plain ineptitude, or tired repetitions in narrative structures may better be understood as the deliberate manifestations of a cast of mind that rejected, or at least suspected, the values represented by earnestness and narrative order. Thackeray's narrative technique undermines surface realism and the sense of certitude and stable values implied by authorial omniscience. I think it likely that Thackeray deliberately undermined such values because he did not believe in them, because he thought the danger lay in overvaluing art. Thackeray saw more clearly than most of his contemporaries the problems of trying to create or capture "reality" in "fiction," and he knew more clearly than many a historian of his day that the coherence created by the orderly arrangement of historical data, commonly taken for "truth" in "history," is an illusion. Jack Rawlins has recognized and described in some detail Thackeray's habit of undercutting the fictional realities he had created, but Rawlins seems not to have understood the implication of the narrative strategy, deploring Thackeray's refusal to adopt the novelist's [21/22] responsibility to impose a moral order beneficial to society." In this regard Rawlins agreed with Forster.
From time to time scholars, noting the "lapses" in Thackeray's "artistic values," explain them as carelessness or as the inevitable, though lamentable, results of a hectic mode of production — John Sutherland, in Victorian Authors and Publishers, and N. N. Feltes, in Modes of Production of Victorian Novels, have turned this argument on its head as a means of praising Henry Esmond, which was produced under circumstances different from those attending any other Thackeray work; it is the only novel Thackeray finished before it was published. However, the very same kinds of disruptions of realism occur throughout that book, as a multitude of readers have noted, particularly Elaine Scarry.
John Sutherland has remarked that "the mode of production confirmed in Thackeray a kind of narrative opportunism. One always feels that he has reserved the right to switch the course of his narrative whenever and however it suits him. He alludes jokingly to the arbitrariness of his power over plot in the preface: 'Perhaps the lovers of "excitement" may care to know that this book began with a very precise plan, which was entirely put aside. Ladies and gentlemen, you were to have been treated and the writer's and publisher's pocket benefited, by the recital of the most active horrors.... Nay, up to nine o'clock this very morning, my poor friend, Colonel Altamont, was doomed to execution, and the author only relented when his victim was actually at the window." [Sutherland, p. 103; Sutherland's quotation is from the Preface to Pendennis].
Sutherland opined that this was "high-spirited nonsense" and the "element of truth" about Thackeray's work was the lamentable one of "narrative opportunism." That particular interpretation is apparent only to persons committed to the tradition of English fiction adhering to Jamesian inevitability, to Trollope's insistence on the novelist's right (and need?) to be able to adjust the beginning to the end, to a Joycean refining of the author out of existence. But it is not "nonsense," high-spirited or otherwise, to anyone willing to face the possibility that these "lapses" (they seem rather too frequent and to come in too strategic locations to be lapses) are, if not deliberate, at least characteristic gestures reflecting a point of view about history, fiction, and reality that is controlled by a value system rejecting the Jamesian striving for realism precisely because realism is a contrived illusion. [22/23]
The particular example of "opportunism" in question is from Pendennis. It illustrates the carefully planned contrivance of this illusion, for the "communicating leads" and window box that make Altamont's escape possible were first planted, so to speak, 330 pages earlier (2: 38) and had already been used (2: 260-61) by Colonel Strong to escape a bailiff. No reader finding Altamont cornered in the same apartments could be surprised by the escape. To accuse Thackeray of opportunism — that is, to take seriously his remark about relenting at the last moment — is both to underestimate the control he had over his materials and to misunderstand his deliberate exposure of the illusion of reality in order to make his point.
For Thackeray, fiction was fun, and the illusion of reality was fascinating. All his sympathies were on Dobbin's side, for example, when on a school half-holiday the boy sits under a tree, carried away by a book into the world of the Arabian Nights. But he continually insisted that that world was not real; reality obtrudes for the reader of Thackeray's fiction in the form of his "lapses" just as surely as it did for Dobbin when the altercation between Cuff and George Osborne broke in on his fictive Arabian world. Thackeray addresses the reader, laughs in his sleeve, imagines Jones yawning over the number, and "reserves the right to switch the course of his narrative whenever and however it suits him" because, much as he likes creating the illusion of reality, he likes more reminding his readers that in actuality he, Thackeray, is telling the reader, sitting in a chair, a story. That is realism with a significant philosophical point: that the author, like the reader, is subject to human limitations of knowledge and judgment. Authors may have a keen view of human foibles but are no better at prescribing for the world than any other reader, Thackeray refused to set himself up to be the hero as man of letters. And for all that, paradoxically, there is more of truth in his sheets than in the pages of many a self-proclaimed regenerator of the age.
Thackeray's realism is one that his contemporaries and, it seems, many later generations of Thackeray's readers have been unprepared to see or accept. Thackeray must have known that, for he introduced his disruptions of fictive realism gently; they can be dismissed as "lapses" or the eccentricities of genius. Perhaps it has been too easy for readers to miss the implications. Thackeray's sardonic view of aristocratic airs, his tracing of meanness and snobbery from top to bottom of the social scale, his "failure" to produce a moral framework within which the indeterminacies can come to moral closure have variously been explained as gentlemanly detachment, as declining to be the moral enthusiast, or as a weakness of spirit or lack of moral fiber. Among Thackeray's most enthusiastic fans, these matters have been, at worst, irritations to be ignored. Thackeray [23/24] was, to my mind, deliberate and committed in this fundamental point from his early writings throughout his life. But he was not prepared to make the point at the expense of his livelihood or the fortune he intended to make and leave for his daughters. He was very much aware of the commercial exigencies of novel writing, and it was not his aim to disrupt profits by focusing attention on his private beliefs and values. But there was good and ample reason for him to introduce into his fiction those elements that so irritated John Forster and Charles Dickens and that apparently disappointed Trollope and John Sutherland. In such passages as the one in Philip where Thackeray discussed the amount of money the paragraph he was writing would earn him or the closing of Vanity Fair where the emphasis falls so heavily on the show and contrivance that his puppets "really are," he reminded his readers that the illusion of realism is created in the reality of storytelling. The neat wrapping up of loose ends where villains are punished and heroes vindicated and rewarded, Thackeray knew, is an illusion. Reality is ambiguous and indeterminate. The true realist does not know enough to pass out poetic justice justly. So Thackeray reminds his readers constantly and truthfully that the puppet show is not real. He forces an ultimate realism upon his readers by denying the possibility of honest satisfaction in fictive endings. To him, the truth about the world included the truth about writing fiction for a living,
Thackeray's methods expose the sham realism in which the author pretends to know not only what his characters think and do but by what moral standards characters should he measured. Thackeray's tentativeness, his apparently cynical view of good, and his supposedly infirm or sentimental stance on evil resulted, I believe, from honesty, humility, and simple acknowledgment of the true limits of authorial knowledge.
Henry Dodd Worthington's description of his father in James Gould Cozzens's Morning Noon and Night suggests something of what I am trying to identify in Thackeray's character.
Then there was that manner of his. You could not say it was shy, but you felt some lack of self-assertion, by most people associated with weakness, infirmity of purpose. . . .What these were plain signs of I can now see. They were signs of deep and thorough skepticism, That I then didn't see it wasn't, I think, just boyish imperceptiveness, I would guess that few people saw it, that few people ever thought of him as skeptical. What people expect from a skeptic is skepticism in its commoner loud, assertive form of scorning, challenging, contemptuously rejecting. This kind of skepticism will often be superficial, professings of men who basically are cynics, men of shallow thinking and loose feeling. My [24/25] father's kind of skepticism made no show. It worked as a sort of silent patient withholding of judgment, almost as though his mild steady distrust of all appearances or supposed certainties went so far that when he felt serious doubts about anything those very doubts had to he held open to doubt. [Cozzens, p. 287].To many of his contemporaries, Trollope and Carlyle particularly, Thackeray was a weak man, indecisive, lacking positive force. I believe they mistook his distrust of certainty.
The other extreme response to Thackeray, typified by Charlotte Brontë's remarks in the dedication of the second edition of Jane Eyre, calling Thackeray "the first regenerator of the day" who resembled Henry Fielding "as an eagle doth a vulture," is a corrective that goes too far. Reacting to Thackeray's bold cutting through the cant and hypocrisy of the upper middle class, Brontë and other admirers tended to see in him a prophet whose attack on conventional values established art alternative foundation of values enshrining duty, loyalty, humility, and social responsibility. When upon meeting him Brontë discovered that Thackeray was no Carlyle, her disappointment arose from a misunderstanding not far removed from Trollope's. Alike, they failed to recognize and admire the profound honesty of Thackeray's aversion to overconfident assertions of values. Intense assertion of values was a common Victorian stance, but it was not Thackeray's.
Thackeray's respect for the "uncertainty principle," the humility with which he declined to be sure, is, of course, not peculiar to him, though it was a rare enough position in Victorian England. The position has had its influential manifestations, notably following periods of rigid or excessive authoritarianism. It played roles in the decline of the Spanish Inquisition and the rejection of Puritan rigidity following the excess of the Salem witch trials. But it can be seen also in the tremendous variety of human foibles tolerated without authorial condemnation in Shakespeare and in the attitudes revealed in Fielding's Tom Jones, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and Keats's Odes — all hesitating to judge too finely or too finally and, consequently, all creating problems for earnest moralists. In Thackeray's case it is particularly necessary to distinguish, also, between a mere dislike of rigidity or discipline (which he indeed had) and a deeply felt suspicion of certitude (which I think he also had). The former results from an irritable or sensitive personality, the latter from a philosophical position15. [25/26]
In his own day Thackeray's satiric view of the romantic ideals of his profession made him appear weak, ambivalent, his own worst enemy. And that view, with a hefty boost from Trollope, has carried over into the image of Thackeray as an undisciplined craftsman, leading more than one critic to characterize him as a "careless putter forth" or hasty or even lazy improviser [the phrase comes from George Saintsbury's Introduction to Pendennis, in which he also calls Thackeray a shrewd reviser]. And this unflattering view extends to the image of Thackeray the businessman or, as he implied with characteristic deflation, tradesman.
The word tradesman in Victorian England denoted, as it still to some extent does, an outlook and a rank in life that were incompatible with imagination and beauty, which were central to the concept of artist, poet, or even novelist. One equates tradesman in Victorian England with Mr. Pumblechook in Great Expectations and Mr. Polly in H. G. Wells's History of Mr. Polly or, on a higher economic — though not sensibility — scale, Mr. Freeman in John Fowles's French Lieutenant's Woman, whose industrial and commercial sensibilities are impervious to art. But Thackeray was a practical man who had learned, from more than one penniless crisis, the reality of writing for money. That reality was a fact to be honestly acknowledged. If authorship had certain high ideals, it included, on the other hand, the mundane practical details of the trade of writing. By using the loaded word trade for the artist, Thackeray undercut both the social snobbery and the mystical trappings of artist, which some writers cultivated.
The social snobbery probably was an unconscious outgrowth, rather than a desired aim, of earlier proponents of the mystical view. The Victorian version of that view derived at least in part from the notions of poet or artist promulgated by Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, where the poet's sensibilities above the common run of men is claimed, and by Shelley's "Defense of Poesie," where the poet's position as an unacknowledged legislator of the world is proclaimed. But perhaps the strongest impetus to view the writer's calling in a special light with special capabilities and privileges was Thomas Carlyle's portrayal of the "Man of Letters" in On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History. Thackeray's early send-ups of Dr. Lardner and Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton as pompous [26/27] snobs playing off their roles as artists in social settings is an indication of his suspicion of the role. As a practicing writer, he turned to the trade rather than the calling in order to deflate the aggrandized view.
Thackeray became, in fact, an able and a reliable businessman who expected publishers and illustrators to fulfill their commitments with equal promptness. To his publishers, Bradbury and Evans, Thackeray wrote in May 1854 to complain of Richard Doyle, the illustrator Thackeray himself had chosen for The Newcomes: "However much I may regard Doyle as a friend it is clear that as men of business we cannot allow our property to suffer by his continual procrastination. The original agreement with Doyle, made between Bradbury myself & him was that the blocks & plates for the ensuing month should always be supplied by Doyle on the 15th of the month current. I have now written to him, to say that I shall hold him to his agreement & that if by the 15 June the plates & blocks of No 10 of the Newcomes are not in your hands I shall employ another designer" (NLS). It would have been the height of arrogance and insensitivity for Trollope's Thackeray to require promptness and commitment from another man — holding Doyle to standards too rigid for himself. But Trollope's Thackeray was a fiction. The real Thackeray was a reliable professional masked by a public image. The popular concept of a harried Thackeray dashing off the last lines of the monthly number for the printer just in the nick of time is a romantic misunderstanding of serial publication.
In thirty years of professional writing, Thackeray failed to meet only three deadlines that seriously affected a publisher. Only one of these commitments lay within his power to fulfill. The October 1844 installment of Barry Lyndon was delayed one month for lack of copy, and even then there were mitigating circumstances. He mailed off the October installment on 23 September from Smyrna while on his Eastern tour (recounted in From Cornhill to Grand Cairo), and it arrived too late in London for the October number of the magazine. He finished the book on 3 November [Ray, Adversity, p. 343; Letters 2: 154-54, 156]. In September 1848 he become so ill he had to suspend the writing and publishing of the monthly numbers of Pendennis for three months, and in August 1859 he was too ill to write a complete final double number for The Virginians, providing instead a one-part number 23 and a one-part final number in September.
Thackeray's sense of the business requirements of authorship was hard won. Though he had earned his livelihood by journalism for ten years [27/28] when he began Vanity Fair, he was in 1846 still very much a petitioner appealing to the largess of the proprietors of Punch and other publishers, and he was dependent on their valuation of the goods he brought for sale. But by 1854 the author of The Newcomes saw himself as coproprietor with the publisher, The change is dramatic, and the composition, production, and financial success of Vanity Fair mark the watershed of Thackeray's career as a businessman, transforming him from the investor/ gambler, the writer waiting upon publishers with his goods, into the propertied tradesman who built himself a debt-free mansion at 2 Palace Green, Kensington.
Five chapters of Vanity Fair were written by early spring 1846. Thackeray announced to his mother that serial publication would begin on 1 May, and in March or April the first five chapters were set in type.18 Production problems immediately became apparent: when the corrected galleys were paged, it was discovered that the fourth chapter reached page 28 and the fifth chapter extended to the middle of Page 35 Serial publication, however, required exactly thirty-two pages, no more and no less. The first of May passed with no publication. The type for chapters 1-5 was knocked down and redistributed to the typecases, while Thackeray eked out his living with "The Snobs of England" and "Novels by Eminent Hands" — contributions to Punch lasting beyond the publication of the revised initial number of Vanity Fair in January 1847.
What Thackeray learned during the eight-month delay in the publication of Vanity Fair can only be surmised from the regularity of his serial numbers from 1 January 1847 to the end of his life (except in the fall of 1848 and August 1859 when illness, not lassitude, prevented the professional fulfillment of his commitments to the public). The process he worked out was fairly simple but has only recently been understood by scholars. Except when he wrote The Newcomes, a few numbers of Philip, and Denis Duval, Thackeray never completed a monthly installment before the month it was due at the print shop. Hs contract for Vanity Fair — written and signed, curiously enough, on 25 January 1847 as the second installment was being printed — specifies that he was to submit copy by the fifteenth of each month. According to his letters, however, often on about the twenty-fifth of the month he would write that he had "just ended his number." Such statements, along with his frequent self-accusations of [28/29] procrastination and the picture of the sleeping printer's devil waiting at the door, combine to give the superficial and false impression of a writer who could not meet his contracted deadlines. In fact, the process was a smooth, if hectic, coordination of writing, typesetting, proofreading, correcting, and printing responsibilities.
The reason Thackeray "ended" his numbers on the twenty-fifth or so is that serial publication does not lend itself to the submission of a finished manuscript on the fifteenth. The first time Thackeray tried that, his installment would have occupied either twenty-eight or thirty-five pages had it been published. Instead, he would submit about three-quarters of an installment to the printer — probably by the twentieth or earlier — to be set in type. With as many as five compositors working on a single installment (their names are an the manuscripts), typesetting twenty to thirty pages could be completed in a day or less. The printer's devil would then carry proofs to Thackeray, who corrected them and measured them with a string corresponding in length to a page of the printed book.19 Arriving at a fairly accurate estimate of the amount of text still required to fill the number, he would revise and augment or cut as necessary. A printer's boy or the mails would then return the corrected and augmented proof to the printshop. Second proofs with page headings and page numbers embedded would be ready in another day or so, making it possible for Thackeray to read proofs and make final adjustments in length by the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth of the month. The printers and binders then usually had about five days to get an installment ready for distribution by the last day of the month.
This coordination of production effort lends itself to the concept of writing as a trade. The artist's fancy is not free; the grinding schedule of production curtailed the craftsman's time and forced his energies in ways which Thackeray is on record as both appreciating and lamenting. The conditions of serial novel writing were not very different from newspaper journalism or the scheduled inches of letterpress Thackeray was responsible for in Punch. Novel writers of Thackeray's standing today may have a fellowship or an advance front the publisher and a full year or eighteen months to write the novel. Not so Thackeray. Yet the pressure was [29/30] invigorating; he lived, talked, ate, slept his fiction up until deadline time. Thackeray's enthusiasm for the invigorating aspect of the engines of journalism shows in George Warrington's praises of it in Pendennis:
There she is — the great engine — she never sleeps. She has her ambassadors in every quarter of the world — her couriers upon every road. Her officers march along with armies, and her envoys walk into statesmen's cabinets. They are ubiquitous. Yonder journal has an agent, at this minute, giving bribes at Madrid; and another inspecting the price of potatoes in Covent Garden. Look! here comes the Foreign Express galloping ire. They will be able to give news to Downing Street tomorrow: funds will rise or fall, fortunes be made or lost; Lord B. will get up, and, holding the paper in his hand, and seeing the noble marquis in his place, will make a great speech; and — and Mr. Doolan will be called away from his supper at the Back Kitchen; for he is foreign sub-editor, and sees the mail on the newspaper sheet before he goes to his own. [1: 308]
The mock-heroic tone of the adjective "ubiquitous, " of the exclamation "Look!", and of the juxtaposition of bribes in Madrid with the price of potatoes in Covent Garden introduces a faint distrust of the enthusiasm but does not belie the excitement Warrington feels for the press. The positive part of the passage echoes the spirit of historic significance that prompted the 1832 pressmen's parades in London, complete with a working press carried in a cart producing ink-wet pamphlets on freedom of the press for the crowd. But Warrington's detachment, echoing Thackeray's own balances the sentiment with the dash and the pun on Mr. Doolan's mundane diurnal oscillation between the printed sheets and his bed sheets. The double view suggests that the situation is too complex to be captured by one feeling or one attitude. That same sleepless engine is also the inexorable, insatiable engine which fed on the writer and caused the haste and the drain of energy which sapped the health of more men than just Thackeray.
Thackeray's sense of the economic realities of publishing was acute-won at the price of two failed literary magazines and years of journalistic hand-to-mouth work. His image of Pegasus drawing a wagon and his unaristocratic equation of the literary profession with the trades are of a piece with his mockery of inflated self-importance in any calling in life. These self-deprecatory remarks cannot be taken to mean more than they do — that literary men must work hard, must meet their deadlines, must accept the consequences of the responses of publishers as merchandisers and readers as the market for art: they must write what will be published and purchased. Thackeray's remarks on his profession do not mean that he [30/31] held it in low regard or that he had no sense of the dignity of literature. For Thackeray the dignity of the profession lay in the integrity of presenting the world he knew as he saw it — including the business of authorship. In a letter to John Forster20 he indicated what humbug he thought lay at the root of attempts to assert the dignity of literature by any other means: "I don't believe in the Guild of Literature I dont believe to the Theatrical Scheme; I think that is against the dignity of our profession, — but you are honest and clever men and free to your opinion (thank you for nothing say you) well, believe that mine's loyally entertained too. " Thackeray was saying that the artist cannot with honesty or true dignity hide behind cant about a high calling.
Thackeray's position is neither starry-eyed or simpleminded. He knew the plight of many literary men who could be said to want the dignity of a bare living; his purse was frequently open to them.21 With similar honesty he acknowledged the ambiguity of good and evil, a view which more positive men took to reveal weakness. Nor is his position uncomplicatedly open and without subtlety of its own. A chapter of Thackeray's life remains to be written by someone who can see beyond or beneath the surface and untangle the remark in John Chapman's diary for 14 June 1851: "I find that his religious views are perfectly free, but he does not mean to lessen his popularity by fully avowing them, he said he had debated the question with himself whether he was called upon to martyrise himself for the sake of his views and concluded in the negative. His chief object seems to be the making of money. He will go to America for that purpose. He impresses me as much abler than the lecture I heard, but I fear his success is spoiling him."22
Thackeray's net worth when he died unexpectedly on 23 December [31/32] 1863, at age fifty-three, attests for our material age his business success. His house was sold for £10,000. His furniture and personal effects sold for £2,000; his wine for £400. His copyrights brought his daughters £5,000. A total of about £18,000 — one thousand more than his father had left him.
It is difficult to understand in modern terms the meaning of £18,000 or of an annual income O £2,000 to £4,000, which Thackeray was making in the last six or seven years of his life, An exchange rate does not help much because buying power changes as goods and services go up or come down. According to an article on the Royal Literary Fund in the Smithsonian Magazine (May 1985), London postmen made £50 a year in 1839 [Strebigh, p. 126]. Of Anthony Trollope, John Sutherland has said, "With a bit of scrimping £250 was a tolerable annual salary." [Sutherland, p. 16]23 Another source claims that £250 was the minimum required to be a gentleman. By such meaningless standards the man who wrote a chapter of Vanity Fair called "How to Live on Nothing a Year" was twelve times a gentleman.
Last modified 16 July 2012