hackeray died on 23 December 1863, leaving two unmarried daughters and a mentally ill wife who would survive for thirty more years, dependent on an estate that consisted of one large Queen Anne-style house and contents in Kensington, another house in Brompton, some investments, and his copyrights. As things turned out, the house in Kensington was the most valuable of these commodities, bringing £10,000; the copyrights brought £5,000. In all the correspondence and contracts relating to the copyrights, it was assumed that Thackeray had a half interest only. This was in part because most of the works already published and currently in print were covered by contracts or agreements involving half shares in profits. The contract for Vanity Fair, the only one with Bradbury and Evans that survives, actually ends with the clause "That the Copyright of the said Work shall be the joint Property of the aforesaid William Makepeace Thackeray and William Bradbury and Frederick Mullett Evans." (Ray, Adversity, p. 434; see Appendix A). All of the other surviving contracts have similar clauses. The obvious implication is that no collected edition of Thackeray's works could be arranged by a publisher without dealing with all of Thackeray's partners.
George Smith had always acted the good friend of Thackeray and his family. He seemed to feel responsible for helping the bereaved young ladies conduct their affairs and consolidate their finances. Their neighbor and old friend Sir Henry Cole enlisted in the same cause, and together Cole and Smith engineered a scheme for a collection of Thackeray's works which they did not waste time implementing. On 13 February, just one and a half months after the author's death, Cole wrote to Bradbury and Evans on Smith's behalf:
>It is so obviously for the interests of Mr. Thackeray's daughters that the publication of his works should be with one publisher that I am induced to ask you out of old friendship to We. Thackeray, to let me know at your early convenience if you are disposed to treat for purchasing his other copyrights; to say what you would give for Miss Thackerays interest - or if you will sell your own, with the remaining stock and on what terms for cash. [141/142] Your immediate attention will be a favour & oblige all parties interested. [Beinecke]
The partners gave the matter their immediate and disapproving attention. Though Cole had not mentioned a uniform or collected edition, Bradbury and Evans knew immediately that such a scheme lay somewhere behind the proposal. The first draft of their response, dated 15 February, began bluntly; but trouble composing a suitable conclusion developed:
We do not altogether agree with you as to the obvious advantage to the Miss Thackerays of having their fathers works in the hands of one publisher. - If it were thought expedient (which at present is more than doubtful) reprint an uniform Edition, this might easily be done by a very simple arrangement. - Neither do we think it would be to their interest to part with their share of their father's copyrights; which are becoming more and more valuable.
For ourselves we are content to remain as we are; and whilst we certainly decline to buy; <should prefer not to sell.-> ↑ are equally indisposed to sell.- ↓ <At the same tim> < . Nevertheless if the point is pressed, and an offer should be made us, we shall not refuse to entertain it.> [Beinecke; these major cancellations and insertions are made in pencil in another hand]
A second effort, dated the following day, began more formally and diplomatically but carried the same message:
We are in receipt of yours of the 13th inst. It was hardly necessary, to us, to advert to by-gone days to induce attention; for our relations with Mr. Thackeray — of some thirty years' standing - were ever based on mutual friendship & confidence throughout all engagements, including even those most dear to him -
Fully sharing in the desire to further Miss Thackeray's true interests, we cannot <but express our> ↑ <however> withhold the expressing of our ↓ sincere belief that, for the present, it would be inexpedient on their part to dispose of their share in their father's <works> ↑ copyrights &darr: Whether, hereafter, under different circumstances, ↑ possibly ↓ may be worthy of consideration - but at all events it does not appear to us so "obviously for the interests of Mr. Thackeray's daughters that the publication of his works should be with one publisher," as to require immediate decision - <the daily sales having been considerable-> [142/143]
For ourselves we are content to remain as we are: and whilst disinclined to buy, are equally indisposed to sell. When the time comes - as it will - to publish a handsome Library Edition of Mr. Thackeray's Works complete, a simple customary trade arrangement may ↑ easily ↓ be made. Or in the event of its being then considered desirable to be in the hands of one publisher, we dare say we should not be indisposed to negociate - reducing it to a simple question of terms.
No doubt a fair copy, perhaps revised some more, and omitting the potentially betraying reference to daily sales having been considerable, was sent to Cole, intended for Smith's ears. Bradbury and Evans combined a cautious wisdom, moral high ground, and offhanded nonchalance about ordinary trade agreements to combat what suddenly looked like eager grabbing on Smith's part and perhaps to hide some of their private thoughts on the matter. It is tempting to see in the first drafted response and canceled passages of the second response Bradbury and Evans's own conflicting interests. Unable or unwilling to launch an ambitious publishing campaign with Thackeray's still warm corpus, they also did not want to lose any of their grip on the action. A glance at the firm's ledgers reveals that in the preceding three years, during which it published nothing new, the value of Thackeray's copyrights shared by Bradbury and Evans had yielded £154.19.2 in 1861, £244.13.11 in 1862, and approximately £150 by February 1863. February may have been too early in the year for Bradbury and Evans to know that the company's share of Thackeray's copyrights would profit it £914.16.5 in 1864, but they were experienced in publishing by this time and knew the value of an author's death to his copyrights.
On the other hand, Bradbury and Evans were probably right that the obviousness of the move on behalf of the Misses Thackeray was not apparent. Smith and Cole's enthusiasm for the project prevailed, nevertheless, and the girls sold out for £5,000. We do not know if Smith told them that their father had earned approximately three times that much in his few years as Smith's writer or that the firm of Bradbury and Evans was about to realize one fifth of that in one year of pumping its half of the old copyrights. Suffice it to say that Anne and Minnie were happy with the transaction and are not known to have ever uttered a word of regret or suspicion about George Smith.
Having purchased Thackeray's share of the copyrights from the estate, Smith did a little homework before turning once again to the other partners. He sent his solicitor to the Stationers' Hall to check the register there concerning the status of Thackeray's copyrights. What he found was [143/144]that Chapman and Hall had never registered anything and that Bradbury and Evans had registered its publications all on the same day in 1857 but had emitted to register The Virginians. A new round of letters, this time omitting any mention of past friendships, went out to the two other firms, Smith claimed full ownership of all unregistered works on the grounds that he had purchased Thackeray's share of all copyrights and the Stationers' Register did not indicate that anyone else had an interest in them.38 Smith asked to see any contracts that might alter his reading of the situation.
Needless to say, Chapman and Hall and Bradbury and Evans did not see the logic of this reasoning. Chapman and Hall pointed out that while it had no contracts, it had maintained a long-standing gentleman's verbal agreement with the author and it had semiannual ledger accounts to prove that the agreements had been carried out. Bradbury and Evans seem to have declined to discuss the matter with Smith who threatened both publishers with legal action. Meanwhile, both publishers found themselves having to deliver semiannual reports and profit shares to Smith, who now owned Thackeray's shares. Finally in July 1865 a negotiated settlement was reached in which Smith paid £400 to Chapman and Hall for all Thackeray copyrights and £95.13.2 for the back stock, which included six books partly in quires, partly bound, and plates, drawings, and woodblocks for all six books. It is not difficult to see why Chapman and Hall would sell so cheaply; the company had earned only £20.17.2 in 1864 because it was unprepared for the sudden demand and had to reprint heavily, but things were already looking better in 1865, for it had netted £190 by July. Chapman and Hall's dealings with Thackeray had always been cautious if not downright niggardly, and the partners never saw the full potential of his works.
Bradbury and Evans was a different case and a harder nut for Smith to crack. That company, too, threw in the towel, selling out for £3,750 for copyrights and back stock. The threat of court action, though it might well have won, was apparently enough to make it negotiate. But why it sold so cheaply is a mystery: not only had it made £915 in 1864; by June 1865 it had made another £428.14.11. Its ledger accounts kept careful record of the fact that in spite of these profits, the two-volume edition of The Virginians was still technically £3,256.12.5 in arrears. One could say that Bradbury and Evans let Smith pay that back "debt" on The Virginians [144/145]in exchange for the whole lot. In a way, it was not untypical of the alternating hot and cold enthusiasms of that firm.
Once in charge of the whole affair, Smith immediately reprinted everything from the stereotypes he had just acquired. His own cheap edition of Esmond had to be reset because he had not ordered stereotypes in 1858. And having set the back stock in order, he turned his attention to a new uniform Library Edition of the works, the first of a long series of collected editions of Thackeray's works that Smith would orchestrate, which included a Cheaper Illustrated Edition, an Edition Deluxe, a Standard Edition, each consisting of twenty-two to twenty-four volumes, and culminated in the Biographical Edition of 1899 in thirteen volumes and the Centenary Biographical Edition of 1910, which came after Smith's own death but still bore his company's name as the imprint.
The power of Thackeray's copyrights is attested not only by Smith's collected editions but by the competing editions published between 1889 and 1908 in Boston by Houghton Mifflin and in London by Macmillan (17 vols.), Dent (30 vols), Caxton (13 vols.), and Oxford (17 vols.) One cannot help wondering if the Misses Thackeray were better off with the £5,000 Smith paid them for their share of the copyrights in 1865, or if they would have done better with a half share in the profits of Smith's enthusiastic publishing campaign that did not even end in 1890 when Vanity Fair entered the public domain or 1905 when the last of the works published in the author's lifetime became public property.
Last modified 20 July 2012