decorative initial 'I'

t is perhaps easy to make too much of the tone with which stray remarks are written in casual correspondence, but it is interesting to note an apparent shift in Thackeray's self-portrayal in his letters to Chapman and Hall and Bradbury and Evans in the months following the appearance of The Irish Sketch-Book, on 15 May 1843, from Brighton, he wrote the former, "I came down here to be alone, & avoid good dinners and do some magazine work" (Letters 2: 111).

The letter is otherwise about reviews of, and advertisements for, the Irish book, In August, just before setting out on a tour of the Low Countries, he wrote Chapman and Hall again, lamenting briefly that an article he wrote for the Foreign Quarterly Review did not appear, asking for any money due to him, and devoting the bulk of his letter to proposing a German sketchbook:

I wish I could persuade you to think that Titmarsh in Germany devoting himself to the consideration of the fine arts there, and with a score or two of ballads to decorate the volumes, and plenty, of etchings and a great deal of [52/53] fantastical humour and much nurture of the poetical and the ludicrous - I say I wish you would think such a book popular, and offer me the same terms for it as the Irish book. People (as I hope and trust) have only to become better acquainted with Titmarsh to like him more and the success of a German Sketch Book would help off very likely the few remaining copies of the Irish one. I am also in "the interesting situation" with respect to a novel: but I want to produce a very good one and a good work of art, and such a w[ork] demands a deal of time and thinking. [original in possession of Peter Rhodes, Esq.; transcript supplied by Nicholas Pickwoad].

To Bradbury and Evans he wrote in February 1844:

I do not know whether you pay anything extra for great services (as all wise persons do) but I should not be surprised at hearing that any sum of money had been paid to my bankers as a reward for the astonishing late enclosed.

If you publish it again in a little book there will be a deal of extra profit for all of us. [Bodleian. Possibly "The History of the Next French Revolution" published in Punch, February - April 1844, in nine installments; it was not republished separately.]

In short, Thackeray now fancied himself primarily an author of books who also wrote for the magazines, and he now often thought of the potential book version of his magazine contributions.

Though nothing ever came< of the German sketchbook,32 it is interesting to note Thackeray's warning to the publisher that "such a w[ork] demands a deal of time and thinking" - this from the man who on 10 September 1841 signed a contract to deliver by the end of December a two-volume work which he had not even started. The professional author had learned some things from the fact that serious work on the Irish book took four months of touring and writing in Ireland and four more months of writing, illustrating, and proofreading. His expenses from July 1842 to March 1843 (estimated by himself for an account to his mother and therefore, like Pendennis's accounts of college expenses, probably conservative) were £370, including £110 spent in Ireland. His income, not counting the £120 advance that had long since been spent, came to £110 for magazine work and under £200 for the book, which seems to have sold fairly well. Although for the purpose of the account to his mother Thackeray counted the £120 advance and figured his income on the book to be [53/54] near £300, he did have to admit that the "childrens' nest egg is broken in upon as you say" (Letters 2: 100). The pressure was clearly still on; and while a visible property was accumulating, Thackeray's fortune was still largely in the inkwell.

Another indication that Thackeray's sense of his profession and of his own position in it had come to a turning point after The Irish Sketch-Book and after agreeing with Fraser's for twelve installments of Barry Lyndon comes in a December 1843 letter of advice to his cousin Richard Bedingfield, who recently had published a book called The Miser's Son. It was advice which Thackeray clearly drew from his own experience and which was given as from one "old in the trade now."

nt on Tuesday week last a very pressing note to Jerdan regarding the "Miser's Son," with a little notice which I myself had written so as to save him trouble.

It was, I need not tell you a favourable one as the story deserved; it has a great deal of talent of a great number of kinds, and many a man has made a fortune with a tithe of the merit.

But in spite of this, Jerdan has not inserted my article. Have you ever advertised in his paper or elsewhere? A laudatory paragraph here and there will do you no earthly good, unless the name of your book is perpetually before the public. The best book I ever wrote I published with an unknown publisher, and we got off two hundred and fifty copies of it, and this was after the success of the Paris book, with some thirty pounds of advertisements, and hugely laudatory notices in a score of journals. Shakespeare himself would not get a hearing in Gray's Inn Lane.

Unless your publisher actually offers you money for a future work, I beg you to have nothing to do with him. Write short tales. Make a dash at all the magazines; and at one or two of them I can promise you, as I have said, not an acceptance of your articles, but a favourable hearing. It is, however, a bad trade at the best. The prizes in it are fewer and worse than in any other professional lottery; but I know it's useless damping a man who will be an author whether or no - men are doomed, as it were, to the calling.

Make up your mind to this, my dear fellow, that the "Miser's Son" will never succeed - not from want of merit, but from want of a publisher. Shut it up without delay, and turn to some work that will pay you. Eschew poetry above all (you've had too much of it), and read all the history you can. Don't mind this patriarchal tone from me. I'm old in the trade now, and have lived so much with all sorts of people in the world that I plume myself on my experience.
[Letters 2: 136-37] [54/55]

Bedingfield followed Thackeray's advice, but a new work eighteen months later fared no better than the first with Thackeray, who wrote, "I can suit the magazines (but I can't hit the public, be hanged to them), and, from my knowledge of the former, I should say you will never get a good sale for commodities like these ... your system may be the right one and mine wrong, but I'm sure I'm right as to the state of the market" (Letters 2: 193).

In mid-1843 Thackeray's literary accounts stood thus: two substantial travel books (the Paris and Irish sketchbooks - the second an actual success); one collection of novellas and short stories (Comic Tales - not a success); three ephemeral pamphlets (Fiore et Zéphyr, An Essay on the Genius of George Cruikshank, and The Second Funeral of Napoleon - all of greater critical than financial note). Catherine and The History of Samuel Titmarsh had been written with book publication in mind, but the former never got beyond magazine publication, and the latter was not published at all until after Vanity Fair. The odious magazine work was still the mainstay of his professional income. Within three years he would be the author of Vanity Fair; but for the present art criticism, travel, and observations on manners, dished out periodically, seemed his forte. The latter two veins of his genius would be extended in From Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1845-46) and "The Snobs of England" (1846-47). But at the same time Thackeray was gearing up for greater things. Catherine (1839) and Barry Lyndon (1844) develop the satiric fiction; A Shabby Genteel Story (1840), Samuel Titmarsh (1841), and A Legend of the Rhine (1845) develop the sentimental pathetic line. All these elements would find their way into Vanity Fair.

Though Thackeray had not produced a best-seller, he was steadily gaining attention. The Irish Sketch-Book was reprinted in America, the pirate being J. Winchester of New York.33 It became, in 1844, Thackeray's second American book, but like the first, it added nothing to Thackeray's coffers. The most substantial property to come front Thackeray's pen in the remaining months of 1843 was the serial form of Men's Wives by George Fitzboodle in Fraser's. And in January 1844 the first installment of Barry Lyndon under the same pseudonym appeared in the same magazine. Though Men's Wives seems to have grown in response to favorable reactions to Fitzboodle's Confessions of late 1842, Barry Lyndon was a deliberate [55/56] attempt to write a novel for eventual book publication. Despite the success of The Irish Sketch-Book, however, Wives and Lyndon both finally became books with no help from, and no immediate benefit to, Thackeray when in 1852 they became parts of a series of small books pirated by Appleton and Company of New York to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the author's first lecture tour of America. In the short term, however, Barry Lyndon gave Thackeray a steadiness of income he was not used to: "it is a comfort to think that there is a decent income arranged for 1844 (please God my health hold good) and actually a prospect of saving money at the year's end.... I have begun a story wh. is to last through the year in Fraser, and am to have my own way with the worthy Mr. Punch, whose pay is more than double of that I get anywhere else" (Letters 2: 134-35).

It was with the confidence instilled by this financial prospect, as well as the assurance in his "experience," of which he had written Bedingfield, that one month later he declined to sign a contract for £108 per year with an American periodical publisher (a man named Henry Wikoff whose periodical has yet to be identified) because it required that Thackeray stay in Paris to write two articles a month on Paris and France. Unwilling to "sacrifice my liberty," Thackeray offered instead that "as I take your word for the payment of the articles you must please to take mine for supplying them." He outlined a plan for the American to pay a monthly salary and for himself to submit the two monthly articles, concluding: "I am a bad man of business, and only settle with you as I would with any other publisher. If I don't hear from you I shall conclude the negociation at an end" (Letters 2: 158-59). Thackeray's account book for 1844 shows receipts of £4 and £3.10 for "India& American letters" in January and February and 4. 10 for an American letter in February; none of these has been identified. We hear no more of the American publisher but need not conclude Thackeray was right to characterize himself as a bad businessman. True, he did not close a deal with Wikoff, but neither did he commit himself to a course he could not or would not follow. Though Thackeray was still in a sense "writing for his life" and still occasionally had to remind friends that he was a "poor day-laborer in the vineyard and must work often when I would like to be taking my diversion" (Letters 2: 138), he was not clutching desperately at every chance of work as he had been only a year earlier.

Thackeray's conception of himself as a bad businessman stemmed in large part from his sense of his own lack of steady, disciplined, organized work habits. Capable of enormous work binges, he thought himself lazy for procrastinating. And he could not shake the effects of the unfortunate [56/57] experiences with the National Standard and the Constitutional. His "failure" to close with Wikoff may have contributed to that sense, as perhaps did also his failure four days later to get the publisher Giraldon to pay for his translation of Eugene Sue's Mystères de Paris, a work he threw over because he was not paid.34 But the same evidence shows a businessman who knew, perhaps from bitter experience, when to cut his losses and who had a clear sense of himself, his profession, and what he was and was not willing to do. The letters to Wikoff and Giraldon were not written in financial complacency; in spite of the steady work on Barry Lyndon and the Punch contributions, Thackeray wrote the same month offering Fraser a burlesque originally titled "The Childe of Godesberg";35 he proposed substantial reviews for Chapman and Hall's Foreign Quarterly Review (only one of which was accepted) and asked if they would "send me to any other country to travel" (Letters 2: 161-62); and he wrote Bradbury and Evans proposing a collection of his shorter pieces (Letters 2: 162-63). He was prompted to write to Bradbury and Evans under the mistaken notion that Comic Tales had been sold out, though in fact the 1848 reissue of Comic Tales was an attempt to sell off remaining copies of the 1840 impression with a new title page. At the same time he offered to edit a new gentleman's journal with "a decided air of white kid gloves ... I know of no man in Europe who would handle <it better>" (Letters 2: 163; The angle brackets indicate a conjectural reading by Ray).

The tone of these proposals has changed: the appeals with side references to family obligations and friendship that suggested an undercurrent of desperate need are gone. The letters now have an air of "take it if you will; don't if you won't," suggesting perfect willingness on the author's part to face reality with equanimity. He was grateful, it is true, that Bradbury and Evans approved of his latest Punch contribution, "The History of the Next French Revolution," and he thanked the firm for its remittance, but at the same time his friendly and familiar relations with the publisher are revealed in his mock serious tone when, on reading the first [57/58] installment in print, he complained: "Having confided to you a few chapters of my forthcoming work on the next French revolution - you are bound in justice to print my words fairly - and I protest in the most solemn manner against several liberties which have been taken with my text. What is a historian without accuracy? A mere romancer and I hold such a creature in the utmost contempt" (Letters 2: 163). He pointed out three specific errors, which because "The Next French Revolution" was never reprinted in Thackeray's lifetime have never been corrected.37

While Thackeray began as an enthusiastic amateur, a gentleman/author, and had become, because of financial and domestic disasters, a desperate literary hack dependent on the largess of relatively powerful publishers, nevertheless the relations between author and publisher by 1844 had become those between equals, literary tradesmen in the best meaning of the term as Thackeray had redefined it. This relationship did not characterize only Thackeray's dealings with Bradbury and Evans; he wrote in the same tone to Henry Colburn on 15 May, "Here is a very little article but in revenge I think a very good one" (Letters 2: 169), and Colburn printed it.

The point is worth emphasizing, for it contradicts another misapprehension that has grown up about Thackeray's relations with publishers. Sir William Fraser, recollecting Thackeray years after the author's death, wrote:

Thackeray's resentment towards the trade of Publishers was deeply rooted. I believe that sixteen publishers refused him the pittance required to print his immortal work, Vanity Fair. Not one of them was capable intellectually of appreciating it.

He pours out the vials of his wrath upon them in Pendennis: painting them to the world as the most stupid, the most selfish, and the most vulgar, class of tradesmen....

Calling on a publisher Thackeray waited with a friend, who told me the story: the carpet of the drawing-room was of a gaudy design of red and white: on the host appearing, the author of Vanity Fair said, "We [58/59] have been admiring your carpet: it is most appropriate! You wade it, the blood and brains of authors,"< [Fraser, excerpt rpt. in Collins, 1: 140].

Aside from the exaggeration represented by sixteen publishers without the brains to appreciate Vanity Fair and the distorted overstatement of Warrington's characterization of publishers, both of which reveal more about Sir William than about Thackeray, the final anecdote can be seen as typical of Thackeray's ironic humor rather than as the bitter commentary Fraser obviously took it for. Other commentators refer to Thackeray's haughty attitude toward publishers and usually point to the portraits of Bacon and Bungay in Pendennis as indications of Thackeray's general attitude. But if one can see Bentley and Colburn in these two portraits, one cannot see Chapman and Hall, Bradbury and Evans, or George Smith in them. I doubt if one can see James Fraser, John Macrone, or Hugh Cunningham there either, though there is precious little factual material with which to build a picture of Thackeray's personal relations with these three publishers.

Last modified 25 November 2021