ow Thackeray became a writer has been the subject of many books and articles, but recounting the story (with some new material) emphasizes the connections between his experiences as writer and the point of view about the writer's trade presented in the preceding chapter. It illustrates how a romantic youth developed into a young dilettante; how, without a "useful" education, Thackeray was thrown rather summarily upon the resources of his pen to survive and to support a young and trouble-ridden family; how years of hackwork and dogged determination won for him a combination of pride in his journalistic achievements and a humility or at least unpretentiousness about art; and how, when the laurels of fame and fortune finally became his, he found the dignity of literature in the economic and social rewards for hard labor rather than in the mantle of the hero as man of letters.
His contributions as a schoolboy at the Charterhouse to the Carthusian, as a teenager in 1828-29 to the Western Luminary (a newspaper at Ottery Saint Mary's), and as a college student in 1829-30 to the Snob and Gownsman (literary newspapers conducted by students at Cambridge) have been described in detail by Harold Strong Gulliver, an account still worth reading, though corrections as well as new material can be found in Gordon Ray's Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity2. In some ways, the best [33/34] account of these activities and of Thackeray's attitude toward the Muse and literary work at this time is his own fictional account of young Pendennis. As important as these ventures were in whetting Thackeray's appetite for literary work, they cannot be seen as the beginnings of his professional career. These literary endeavors, on a par with his contributions in 1831 to Ottilie von Goethe's Weimar literary paper, Chaos, were works of amateur enthusiasm. They were not undertaken for pay, nor were they part of any endeavor to forge a literary career, whether "for a living" or as the work of a gentleman of the world, which Thackeray could have been but for his weakness for gambling and, more importantly, the bank failures in India in late 1833 that virtually wiped out his considerable inheritance.
On his return from Weimar in March 1831, having chosen to forgo the rest of his education at college, where he had lost 11, 500 at play, he sampled with distaste the rigors of reading for the law, turned twenty-one on 18 July 1832, dissipated in Paris for three or four months, and tried his hand for three months as a bill discounter. By May 1833 he was ready to invest his money in something more congenial to his tastes and talents. He purchased a periodical, the National Standard, thereby making himself a publisher. He was also the editor and chief contributor. His motive was only partially economic, as is perhaps clear from the oft-quoted self-satire he printed thirty years later in Lovel the Widower where Mr. Batchelor gave himself "airs as editor of that confounded Museum, and proposed to educate the public taste ... and made a gabby of" himself [Lovel the Widower. London: Smith, Elder, 1861, chap. 1] The National Standard lasted till February 1834, by which time Thackeray had learned of the Indian bank failures and knew himself to be a poor man, the bulk of his remaining inheritance having evaporated, for though the estate may still have amounted to £7000, it was encumbered by annuities which left Thackeray financially hobbled [Ray, Adversity, pp. 162-63].
Even before this misfortune, while still Paris correspondent for the National Standard, Thackeray had undertaken the formal study of art in Paris as "an independent man who is not obliged to look to his brush for his livelihood." [Ray, Adversity, p. 167] But by the end of 1833 all that changed. Thackeray first thought to repair his condition by pursuing with serious intent the calling he had chosen from inclination at a better time; however, he knew by the summer of 1835 that he could not succeed as a painter. From need he [34/35] sought out literary assignments, selling at least one article to Fraser's Magazine, working for Galignani's Messenger in Paris, projecting and abandoning a "Picturesque Annual" for which he would both write and draw, producing Flore et Zéphyr, a book of lithographs from which he apparently made nothing, and perhaps starting, editing, or at least working for a Paris rival to Galignani's.
Like painting, writing was a high-risk speculative venture without guaranteed returns. Flore et Zéphyr, Thackeray's first book, has no text beyond captions to the lithographs. It was published in April 1836 in London by John Mitchell while Thackeray was in France. Thackeray's letters to Mitchell betray the confusion characterizing this effort: "I cannot understand from yr. notes what is the drawing wanted," and the next day, "I do not know whether you propose to publish any letter-press with the drawing, will you allow me to see it, before its appearance" (Letters 1: 299-300). The publication of Flore et Zéphyr was financed by Thackeray's wealthy friend John Bowes Bowes, who held an interest in Galignani's Messenger in Paris and who later wrote Thackeray that he thought Mitchell had fudged on the accounts "and put a lot of money in his pocket." [Ray, Adversity, pp. 184, 467] Whether Mitchell made any money is not known, but Thackeray and Bowes did not, though it may not have mattered much to the later. (Time heals all wounds, it seems, for in 1851, Mitchell reappears in Thackeray's
affairs as the manager of the London lectures on eighteenth-century humorists [Letters 2: 783].)
Thackeray's depression over blasted hopes as a painter was alleviated somewhat by his meeting and falling in love with Isabella Shawe, an event with financial implications requiring an even more assiduous pursuit of literary work. Thackeray found that writing for a living, which he could do with some success, was far more demanding than writing occasional pieces for fun and glory. So when in early 1836 the opportunity arose to become involved with a politically radical literary paper, the Constitutional and Public Ledger which was supposed to have a broadly subscribed economic base, Thackeray persuaded his stepfather, Major Carmichael-Smyth, to help him by subscribing the venture and serving as chairman of the company. Thackeray's salary was set at eight guineas a week [Ray, Adversity, p. 185; Gulliver, p. 54, said £400 a year without citing a source]. In the flurry of setting up the company and gathering a staff, Thackeray wrote to Isabella that he was to have £450 per year (Letters 1: 306), and serious [35/36] courtship and plans for marriage became possible in spite of the obstacles provided by his future mother-in-law, Mrs. Shawe. Thackeray's writings for the Constitutional began appearing in September, one month after his marriage. The account given by Ray of those next months suggests that Thackeray thought himself arrived at stability and contentedness, with the leisure to secure and execute additional jobs as illustrator [Ray, Adversity, pp. 188-89]. But the whole project collapsed by July of the next year, crippling Major Carmichael-Smyth financially and throwing Thackeray once again upon the resources of his free-lance pen, this time with a wife and child to support. Thackeray would not again enjoy the leisure and stability of those few months as Paris correspondent for many years to come, but he had broken into print, he knew how to do it, he had developed some confidence in his abilities, and he set about his work with vigor.
When in 1833 Thackeray had commented to his mother that the National Standard was "very rapidly improving, & will form I have no doubt a property" (Letters 1: 268), he was still the investor seeking to acquire and improve a property ready made; now he was to discover that he had "no other saleable property" than his writings.
It cannot be said that Thackeray deliberately set about to build a property]
He knew full well in July 1837, as the last number of the Constitutional was being printed, that his property was in the inkwell. But life came at him too fast and furiously for him to think beyond the present. For the next ten years Thackeray encountered one disaster after another, justifying his recollection years later of "the wife crazy and the publisher refusing me 15£ who owes me £13.10 and the Times to which I apply for a little more than 5 guineas for a week's work, refusing to give me more" (Letters 4: 271). But with the publication and growing success of Vanity Fair in 1847-48, Thackeray awoke to discover that he had a property, one he had been building all along.
From the failure of the Constitutional in July 1837 to the start of Vanity Fair in January 1947, Thackeray was a journalist, writing for his life at a job - one hesitates to call it either a trade or profession - that he spoke of as "odious magazine-work wh. wd. kill any writer in 6 years" (Letters 1: 459). During that period he contributed nearly 450 pieces of original work to at least twenty-two different magazines, newspapers, or other periodicals. The major vehicles of his magazinery were Fraser's Magazine, [36/37] the Times, New Monthly Magazine, Foreign Quarterly Review, Morning Chronicle, and Punch. From these Thackeray expected and got regular work for at least several months together. Fraser's was his first regular means of support, and Punch sustained him and launched Vanity Fair, which bore as the imprint on the monthly wrappers not Bradbury and Evans, the staid publisher and printer, but "Published at the Punch Office."
The incredible number of Thackeray's contributions to periodicals during those ten years and especially the fact that so much of his work appears in six apparently friendly magazines may mask the desperate difficulties and repeated rebuffs he endured from publishers in the early years. There are a number of letters in 1837, for example, from Thackeray to John Mitchell Kemble, his friend from Cambridge days and at the time editor of the British and Foreign Review, asking for work and proposing articles and reviews, but after two acceptances Kemble apparently decided against any more of Thackeray's "light" articles and, in spite of Thackeray's pleas for more work, evinced enough coolness toward his college friend that Thackeray gave up on account of Kemble's "airs." [de Groot/Houghton, 3: 68; Letters 1: 420]. In February 1841, having recently concluded that his wife's mental condition demanded professional care, he wrote from France a plaintive letter to Jane Carlyle asking her to forward three letters for him, one to the Times, one to James Fraser, editor of Fraser's Magazine, and a third to an unknown correspondent, possibly Richard Bentley, whom Thackeray mentioned in his cover letter. He further asked her to intercede with the Times and with John Forster to help promote the sale of Comic Tales by writing good reviews. The letter reveals a man desperate for cash though he asked only for help in getting his work published and sold. A month later on 20 March, he wrote Mrs. Carlyle again, this time in a slightly more relaxed tone, thanking her for the success of her intervention with Fraser (with whom Thackeray had had "a slight coolness") and remarking that Fraser and Bentley had "stuff enough to keep my dear little woman where she is for 3 months to come." Although Fraser published Thackeray's work, Thackeray had to write Bentley on the first of June to turn his manuscript of The History of Samuel Titmarsh over to another publisher, Hugh Cunningham [Harden, Carlyles, pp. 168-70; Ray, Adversity, p. 478]. And there is no record of an acceptance from the Times in that year. [37/38] Short series and occasional items continued to be equally necessary to his livelihood, and in addition to writing for the "big six," Thackeray contributed sporadically to fourteen other periodicals, including the Calcutta Star (contributions which have yet to be traced, listed, and reprinted) and Corsair (an American enterprise operated by N. P. Willis which Thackeray apparently abandoned for nonpayment of fees). Thackeray also illustrated works by Douglas Jerrold, John Burrow, and Charles G. Addison, as well as providing drawings for the Anti-Corn Law Circular and Punch where the text, if any, was supplied by others. He also tried and failed to get work illustrating novels by Charles Dickens and William Harrison Ainsworth. But his attempts remind us of his real ability as an artist who chose to illustrate many of his own works because he was talented enough to do so
Magazine work was, of course, more odious some times than others, and Thackeray's relatively stable staff status with Fraser's the Morning Chronicle and Punch provided him with income he did not readily give up when he became a top book author. His magazinery, moreover, included apprentice fiction that one day would earn him both more money and more reputation than the struggling author at first thought. During the ten years preceding he wrote as serials The Yellowplush Papers for Fraser's (November 1837 - August 1838), Major Gahagan for New Monthly (November 1838 - February 1839), Catherine for Fraser's (May 1839 - February 1840), for Fraser's (June - October 1840), The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond for Fraser's (September - December 1841), "Miss Tickletoby's Lectures" for Punch (July - October 1842), "Fitzboodle's Confessions" for Punch (October 1842 - November 1843), and The Luck of Barry Lyndon for Fraser's (January - December 1844). All these, of course, were paid at odious magazine rates, about ten to twelve guineas a sheet (sixteen printed pages). Though he had little success, throughout these years his aim was to produce books, from which, as he said rather too optimistically in 1840, he could "get 300£ for my 3 months work instead of 120 wh. the Magazines wd. pay" (Letters 1: 459).
hackeray had lost his fortune in 1833; he married in 1836 on the strength of a position that failed him within a year . His needs and his production were prodigious, but in 1840, after seven years in the profession, he still had not published a book. He was still learning the lesson that had to be learned by any person "with no other saleable property," that Pegasus [38/39] "does his work with panting sides and trembling knees," and that to survive the artist must "hit the public" with what it wants. Success was slow in coming; it entailed a shift from the view of a romantic artist to that of a professional tradesman.
The bibliographies usually tout The Yellowplush Papers (Philadelphia: Cary and Hart, 1837) as Thackeray's first published book, but he had nothing to do with its production and received not a penny from it, for Cary and Hart lifted it without so much as a by-your-leave from Fraser's MagazineBut Yellowplush's rapid transformation from periodical to book form is ample support for thinking Thackeray's early assessment of his work was right when he wrote on 5 March 1839 to Fraser:
I hereby give notice that I shall strike for wages. You pay more to others, I find, than to me; and so I intend to make some fresh conditions about Yellowplush. I shall write no more of that gentleman's remarks except at the rate of twelve guineas a sheet, and with a drawing for each number in which his story appears - the drawings two guineas.
Pray do not be angry at this decision on my part; it is simply a bargain, which it is my duty to make. Bad as he is, Mr. Yellowplush is the most popular contributor to your magazine, and ought to be paid accordingly; if he does not deserve more than the monthly nurse or the Blue Friars, I am a Dutchman.
I have been at work upon his adventures to-day, and will send them to you or not as you like, but in common regard for myself I won't work under prices.
Well, I dare say you will be very indignant, and swear I am the most mercenary of individuals. Not so. But I am a better workman than most in your crew and deserve a better price.
You must not, I repeat, be angry, or because we differ as tradesmen break off our connection as friends. Believe me that, whether I write for you or not, I always shall be glad of your friendship. [Letters 1: 351-52]11
This letter is important as an early indication of Thackeray's realistic attitude toward his occupation and his place in it. It indicates furthermore the personal relationship he shared with many of his publishers. [39/40] Thackeray's assumption of equality, evidenced in his right to strike, is equaled by the publisher's right to decline. The reference to publisher and author as fellow tradesmen and the assumption of a value for the friendship aside from pounds, shillings, and pence reflect Thackeray's easy acceptance of the real conditions of his position as a professional writer in the commercial world of letters. He was no snobbish "gentleman" condescending to a bookseller. Any appreciation of his desperately precarious financial condition would dispel that notion.
Another candidate for Thackeray's first book resulted from a similar episode in 1840 with perhaps a less happy ending involving another publisher friend, Sir Henry Cole, for whom Thackeray in 1839 had supplied illustrations for the Anti-Corn Law Circular. In 1840 he dealt with Cole for an article on George Cruikshank for the Westminster Review. The article, a long one, appeared in June 1840; work on it may well have helped delay the work on The Paris Sketch Book, which also appeared in June. Thackeray's attitude toward the work he was doing on this essay can be seen in his correspondence with Cole. In April he noted that "after thinking and thinking I am come to the determination that the Ck. article MUST have several vignettes introduced into the pages, and this not for money's sake." Here a sense of what is required professionally outweighs money considerations. The next month he sent in the finished article, saying: "Amen, and as I think it over, and over, the hours of toil which have been spent in its composition I cannot but give it as my candid opinion that you have had all things considered a pretty good bargain for your money... I know not how far the article may extend but I request you as speedily as you possibly can to transmit to its author that trifling remuneration for which in a moment of weakness - of imbecile delirium he engaged to supply you with his composition." [two letters to Cole, in van Duzer, p. 45; not in Letters] Called "George Cruikshank's Works" and signed "Θ", the article took up sixty pages of the June issue. Cole decided to reprint the article separately and must have communicated with Thackeray some proposition, for on 31 July Thackeray wrote Cole, "If the Cruikshank article is to be published in the shape of a pamphlet, I would humbly suggest to you - that the author who was paid ½ price in the first instance, should be paid something for his name and his permission to use his writing. I have spoken with him on the subject & he says, by Jove, he will not otherwise consent to the appearance of the publication" (Houghton). In an undated note that must have been written in August, a much [40/41] subdued Thackeray wrote Cole: "I suppose Cruikshank is useless by this time - indeed I take shame to myself for not having earlier answered your note concerning him. But I was out of town when it arrived only came back to be in a great deal of bustle and anxiety and be off again, and indeed forgot all abt. the Cruikshank matter till this very morning of my return. Of course you may do exactly as you like with the article - and put my name to it if it is the least use." [Houghton; not in Letters] Thackeray's name was not used in the reprint, and he may well have missed out also on any added remuneration.
Though Thackeray's review of Cruikshank's works in the Westminster may have appeared before the publication of The Paris Sketch Book, its book form postdated the larger book, making Thackeray's first real bookThe Paris Sketch Book (1840).14 It came only after seven hard years of labor as a journalist, and the success it represented bore little resemblance to his anticipated £300 for three months' work. The burden was scarcely eased from Thackeray's panting sides. Thackeray first mentioned The Paris Sketch Book as a project in January 1837 in a letter to John Macrone, its eventual publisher, for whom Thackeray was trying (and failing) to provide illustrations to William Harrison Ainsworth's Crichton. Though Macrone died in September 1837, his name appeared on the publisher's imprint for The Paris Sketch Book in 1840, by which time Hugh Cunningham was running the business. When Thackeray first approached Macrone in January 1837, that new, enterprising, and nearly insolvent publisher had just published Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz, second series. Though Macrone had been best man at Dickens's wedding in the spring of 1836, he was no longer on speaking terms with Dickens, the result of contract disputes over a new edition of Sketches [cf. Patten, pp. 28-44].
That sort of problem seems not to have affected Thackeray's brief relations with the publisher, perhaps because, unlike Dickens, Thackeray did not suddenly and unexpectedly become a best-selling author. Next to a trial title page surrounded by a decoration vaguely resembling a fiddle case, Thackeray wrote to Macrone:
Will you give me £50 20 now for the 1st Edition of a book in 2 Wollums. with 20 drawings. entitled Rambles & Sketches in old and new Paris by I have not of course written a word of it, that's why I offer it so cheap. but I want to be made to write, and to bind myself by a contract or fine.
Think now about the advantages of this offer (I mean the one in the fiddle case) - I want something to do - & wd. be right glad to do this.
[Letters 1: 328-39]
Thackeray obviously was quick to realize that he produced better under the pressure of a sure publication than at leisure on uncommissioned work. This letter was not just a ploy for an advance of £20 (which we do not know if he got) but a deliberate attempt to impose work deadlines, something Thackeray sought for the rest of his life - including during the flush times of his later career - and which he hoped would lift him out of the round of magazinery to the status of an author of books. By December 1839, nearly three years after his first proposal to Macrone, the project was still pending, and Thackeray referred to the Sketch Book as "this horrid book" which would be finished in six weeks and "be tolerably pleasant" Letters 1: 397). But by 3 March 1840, it was still not ready and only "half of Vol. I. is at the printers" Letters 1: 425). In April his book had "not got on much" though he was writing furiously on it and several other projects, particularly the Cruikshank article Letters 1:437). The Paris Sketch Book for which he had wanted a £20 advance and contract in January 1837 was finished (presumably final page proofs read) on 1 June 1840. Thackeray produced such a lot of other material in that, time (including Yellowplush, Gahagan and Catherine that it is probable Macrone had not advanced the £20 Thackeray had requested. Macrone may have done no more than encourage Thackeray, who seems to have worked occasionally for the publisher as a reader and editor as well, reading and recommending extensive changes in a book by Colonel Francis Maceroni (July 1837, Letters 1: 344). The Paris Sketch Book contract offer may have been the experience where Thackeray learned the advice he was later to pass on to another aspiring author: that a writer "must first do the books & then its 5 chances to 1, that he sells them," for publishers do not "buy a pig in a poke" (June 1847, Letters 2: 305).
By the end of July 1840, Thackeray's glee was apparent in a letter to his mother announcing that 400 copies of The Paris Sketch Book had been sold - "Enough to pay all the expenses of authorship printing &c. and to leave 500£ profit to the publisher if the rest are sold" 16 (Letters 1: 459). If, indeed, Thackeray sold the first edition to the publisher for £50, and if Macrone actually stood to earn £500, Thackeray, now the author of his first book, and that a publisher's success, was not about to gripe at his [42/43] share. He knew well enough that the sales figures made him a desirable property for other publishers. Longman, book publisher and proprietor of the Edinburgh Reviewand Chapman and Hall, at the time Dickens's main publisher and proprietor of the Foreign Quarterly Reviewwere reported "very willing to enter into treaty with me" Letters 1: 459). The time would come when the author would make more money than the publisher from each new book, but for the moment what was good for Thackeray's publisher was great news for the author himself. Desperate for cash, Thackeray was happy with the new visibility.
Last modified 18 July 2012