Chapter 2 ("The Literary Tradesman") Part 7, of the author's Pegasus in Harness: Victorian Publishing and W. M. Thackeray, which University Press of Virginia published in 1992. It has been included in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author, who of course retains copyright.
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[Decorated initial based on an illustration by W. M. Thackeray for Vanity Fair]
rom January 1847 through June 1848 Thackeray's major work and single largest source of income was Vanity Fair. From October 1848 through November 1850 his major work was Pendennis. Such work would be a full-time occupation for many an author, but in the same four-year period Thackeray produced chapters 44-52 of "The Snobs of England," twenty-one installments of Punch's Prize Novelists, fifteen installments of "Travels in London," six installments of A Little Dinner at Timmins's, a Christmas book called Our Street (December 1847, dated 1848), eighteen installments of Mr. Browns Letters to a Young Man about Town, another Christmas book called Dr. Birch and His Young Friends (December 1848, dated 1849), seven installments of "The Proser," and over one hundred other magazine contributions, primarily to Punch. His primary "employers" were William Bradbury and F. M. Evans, partners in a large printing firm that had begun publishing in the early 1840s and proprietors of Punch, who were for a short time the primary publisher for both Thackeray and Charles Dickens. Bradbury and Evans, riding a rising tide out of the recession of the mid- 1840s, seemed content to let Thackeray write and publish elsewhere as much as he liked, so long as the monthly installment novels continued on schedule and his Punch contributions stayed up.
Thackeray's ship had finally come in. Evidence is seen in the bookform issue in 1848 of Vanity Fair, Dr. Birch, and The Book of Snobs. Plans began in June 1848 for the reissue of The History of Samuel Titmarsh, though a pirated American edition in November or December (by Harper and Brothers) preceded the English edition, which did not come out until January 1849. Cunningham also took advantage of the rising popularity of Vanity Fair to reissue Comic Tales with a new title page. In 1849 the English edition of Samuel Titmarsh made its appearance, sold out, and a second edition was produced; the first volume of Pendennis appeared in England [64/65] and Germany (by Tauchnitz), Vanity Fair appeared in America (pirated by Harper and Brothers) and in Germany (paid for by Tauchnitz); a first volume of Miscellanies appeared in Germany (Tauchnitz); and Rebecca and Rowena (dated 1850) appeared in England and France. In 1850 the second volume of Pendennis was published in England as well as in Germany; The Kickleburys on the Rhine appeared in December (and required a second printing in January); and Stubbs's Calendar was reprinted without authority in New York (by Stringer and Townsend). Throughout these three years Thackeray also contributed occasional drawings and illustrations to works other than his own.
Thackeray said he was "at the top of the tree," and it may appear that that was the case, but somehow he yet felt keenly his precarious economic condition. It took a while for Vanity Fair to catch on with the public. Though Thackeray remarked in a letter in July 1847 that "the publishers are quite contented" (Letters 2: 311), he noted in October that "it does everything but sell, and appears really immensely to increase my reputation if not my income" (Letters 2: 318). In December he reluctantly wrote a dunning letter to Edward Chapman: "Will you send me the remaining 60£ by the bearer if you please. Indeed I'm sorry for everyone's delays and misfortunes" (Letters 2: 326). One month later he lamented to his mother that "on going to the publishers to draw my money tother day I was met with a smiling reference to some old books by wh. it appears I had overdrawn them 120£ 2 years ago - about wh. fatal circumstance I was quite ignorant" (Letters 2: 333).
Although his own finances occasionally caught him by surprise, Thackeray seemed well aware of the risk and venture that publishing involved. He wrote in May 1848 that "the publishers are at this minute several hundred pounds out of pocket by me, that I know for certain - and I try to keep down any elation wh. my friends praises may cause me, by keeping this fact steadily before my eyes" (Letters 2: 378) It was not until August 1848, two months after the appearance of the last installment, that Thackeray could write with real confidence, "Vanity Fair is doing very well commercially I'm happy to say at last. They have sold 1500 volumes wh. is very well in these times of revolution and dismay" (Letters 2: 420).
Thackeray's increasing income seemed, however, insufficient to meet his needs. In 1847 he took a house big enough to accommodate his daughters and parents, and during 1848 he was keenly bent on clearing away his stepfather's debts, thereby enabling his mother to move to England and be with the children. In addition, he had invested and lost over £500 in the railroad mania that year. His efforts to get his parents back to England reached a peak in the summer of 1848, when in June he [65/66] negotiated with Bradbury and Evans for the book publication of The History of Samuel Titmarsh. Before a final agreement was reached, he wrote his mother, "I am to have 100£ for the reprint of The Hoggarty Diamond, perhaps today, (but I don't like to dun) . . . I am to have another 1000 a year for my next story [Pendennis] and with Punch & what not can do very like 700 or 750 more it is good income," and at the end of the same letter he added optimistically, "I have just seen Evans he call not give me all answer about the H. D. for 2 or 3 days but will tell me - indeed you may consider the matter as done and come as soon as you like to us all" (Letters 2: 382-83). At about this same time in an undated letter to Evans, Thackeray pressed his proposal, with particular attention to the money: "If money is scarce could not a bill at 6 weeks be made out bearing your venerated signature? My bankers I believe would let me pay it in as cash and in that time I should have discharged my part of the obligation to you regarding the great Hoggarty Diamond by completing the 10 blocks for that work. How much are you to give me? 100 or 150? You said you would see - Let me have the just sum: and I'm sure you'll see that I ought to have 100 a month for the Pendennis" (Bodleian). And on 18 July he wrote to Chapman asking for "50£ in advance of the Kickleburys abroad" in order to pay a bill for his stepfather (Letters 2: 399). The same day he paid the bill, which came to £30, the last outstanding debt preventing his parents' return to England. The other £20 probably went, at least in part, for the expenses of his birthday party the same day. Although his parents visited London in October and then again on several occasions, including one trying four-month stay in 1857, they did not move to England until 1859, when they set up an establishment of their own.
The rising success of Vanity Fair and the continued popularity of Punch led to two celebrations by publishers and authors. On 20 June 1848 the staff of Punch signed a sort of declaration to William Bradbury calling for the celebration of the seventh year of publication of Punch (Morgan). The celebration itself may have been the dinner given at Greenwich for William Bradbury to which Thackeray referred in all undated letter to one of the Punch illustrators (Letters 2: 396). Apparently there was also a dinner to celebrate the completion of Vanity Fair, and it may have been to it that Thackeray referred in another undated letter to F. M. Evans in the summer of 1848, saying: "Please to send me per bearer the little ready money we spoke about yesterday. The bill for 120 Gnas at 6 weeks. and 1 dozen small knives for the dinner today. I shall look for you at 7+ " (Bodleian).
As is apparent from a variety of letters already cited, Thackeray left the daily accounting of financial obligations between himself and his [66/67] major publishers entirely to the publishers. He did negotiate occasionally for the sale price or profit-sharing percentage, but when it came to second editions and the slow accumulation of profit-sharing dividends, be was, as most authors are, at the mercy of the publisher's accounting. Thus he applied to publishers for money according to his needs rather than according to the goods he had for sale. That is because his back list was beginning quietly to produce small but long-term profits which he had no other way to monitor than by asking for the money.
Thackeray's years of struggle, or "adversity" as Gordon Ray denominated them, would soon end. He had had two golden years of gentlemanly, leisurely pursuit of the Muse, followed by fifteen years of steadily beating the flanks of harnessed art in order to reach a plateau of economic security and restored financial competence. In 1847 Thackeray finally could see real prospects of restoring a fortune for his daughters equal to that he had received and lost.
The annals of nineteenth-century English literature do not sport many comparable tales. Instead, authors like Byron, Irving, Scott, Edward Bulwer Lytton, Edward Fitzgerald, and even Robert Smith Surtees cultivated the role of gentlemen amateurs, hiding their disciplined application to the work behind anonymous publication or romantic tales of tossing off the fruits of inspiration in their spare time. Every one of these men had income from other sources, either inherited estates or government posts or pensions. Thackeray may have aspired to a similar image in his early days, though while still independently wealthy he openly entered the editorship of the National Standard as an investor and educator of public taste. All that was brushed aside by ill fate and necessity; the amateur genius or dilettante became the literary tradesman, proud of his professional accomplishments and disdainful of the pretensions of inspiration. Thackeray did not mind showing that he had to earn his living by the sweat of his brow.
On the other hand, the largely unsung history of nineteenth-century English writing is full of instances of persons with less initial luck and worse continued bad luck, folks with little but their brains and determination to carry them on - men like Douglas Jerrold, Gilbert à Beckett, John Leech, Richard Doyle, and George Augustus Sala (to name a few of Thackeray's colleagues of the Punch staff), or like George Henry Lewes, Leigh Hunt, and William Carleton who died in poverty and left no estate.
Thackeray's story is more akin to that of Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle whose economic competences were also wrong from their writings, though neither of them could look back upon lost patrimonies or [67/68] aspire to a restored level of social acceptance. Matthew Arnold, John Henry Newman, Anthony Trollope, and T. H. Huxley all had income from other work to keep the wolf from the door. It made a difference in one's assessment of the Muse and Pegasus if literature was an add-on rather than the mainstay of livelihood. Yet, Thackeray's view was diametrically opposed to those of Dickens and Carlyle. Dickens's insistence on the dignity of literature seems to me based in part on a romantic view of the artist as aesthete, in greater part of Carlyle's view of the hero as man of letters, and finally but unprovably in part on a realization that the dignity of literature was the only prop he had to lean on for a place in the English social structure. Carlyle, likewise a social outsider, disdained all standards of value outside the morally useful heroic or prophetic, perhaps because he too had no other toehold for approval by a Victorian audience. But Thackeray, equally dependent with Dickens and Carlyle on the proceeds of his writing for economic survival, had other resources for his place in society. Little as Dickens or Carlyle would have envied Thackeray's social graces or manners, the self-confidence these provided Thackeray enabled him to view with less charity or self-interest the romantic and heroic visions of the artist in society. Though his view of writing as a trade was susceptible to the charges laid at his door by John Forster of denigrating his profession to gain status with the "non-literary classes," I choose to think, instead, that his view of the profession was more realistic and less histrionic, as his writing is also more realistic and less histrionic, than that of Dickens or Carlyle.
de Groot, H. B. / Houghton, Walter. "The British and Foreign Review; or, European Quarterly Journal, 1835-1844: Introduction" Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, ed. Walter Houghton / Esther Rhoads Houghton. 5 vols. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1966-89, 3: 62-76.
Fraser, Sir William. Hic et Ubique. 1893, except rpt. Thackeray Interviews and Recollections, ed. Philipp Collins. London: Macmillan, 1983.
Gordan, John. William Makepeace Thackeray: An Exhibition. New York: New York Public Library, 1947.
Gulliver, Harold Strong. Thackeray's Literary Apprenticeship. Valdosta, Ga.: priv. Ptd., 1936.
Harden, Edgar. "Thackeray and the Carlyles: Seven Further Letters" Studies in Scottish Literature 14 (1979), 168-70
Huxley, Leonard. The House of Smith, Elder. London: priv. ptd. 1923.
Monsarrat, Anne. An Uneasy Victorian: Thackeray the Man. London: Casell, 1980.
Patten, Robert. Charles Dickens and His Publishers. Oxford: Clarendon, 1978.
Peters, Catherine. Thackeray's Universe. London: Faber & Faber, 1987.
The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, ed. Gordon N. Ray. 4 vols. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1946.
Ray, Gordon. Thackeray: The Age of Wisdom. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958.
-----, Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955.
Spielman, M. H. Hithero Unidentified Contributions of W. M. Thackeray to Punch. 1900; rpt. New York: Haskell House, 1971.
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Wilson, James Grant. Thackeray in the United State, 1852-3, 1855-6. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1904.
Last modified 20 July 2012