decorative initial 'W'

ith Barry Lyndon in progress, "The History of the Next French Revolution" completed, and a multitude of short magazine articles keeping him from trouble with the bankers, Thackeray was still far from any peak in his career. To his mother he wrote, "It seems to me there is no time for anything here—The day occupied with nothings that must be done—and a fresh labor for almost every day—This is not very conducive to fame, nor to money somehow though it ought to be, and there's no reason why with regular labor I shouldn't make 1200—BUT somehow it doesn't go beyond 65 or 70 a month—and in that occasional failures" (Letters 2: 170). Ten days later he still felt that "there's no use in writing about my professional business wh. is very incessant though paltry—I don't do above 20£ a month for the Chronicle instead of 40—but it is my own fault—the fact is I can't write the politics and the literary part is badly paid" (Letters 2: 172).

Consequently, it should strike one with no surprise that Thackeray continued to be willing to try anything that came along. Between interviews and visits to locate a place in England to which he could bring and settle his wife, he agreed to write a biography of Talleyrand. Perhaps [59/60] having forgotten the lesson of the contract for The Irish Sketch-Book in 1840, Thackeray wrote Chapman and Hall on 16 July 1844: "I will engage to write the volume 'the life of Talleyrand, and to have the MS. in your hands by the 1 December—health permitting. and will sign an agreement to that effect if you will have the goodness to prepare one" (Letters 2: 174). The contract, if there was one, is lost, but two weeks later he was rushing off to London from Liège where he had been spending time with his family to find books he needed in his Talleyrand research (Letters 2: 175)

Then on 20 August he had an offer he couldn't refuse—free passage to the Middle East, "I thought the chance so great that Ive accepted," he explained to his mother; "I'm to write a book for 200£ for C&H. [Chapman and Hall] on the East first, or that Cockney part wh. I shall see—then to do Talleyrand" (Letters 2: 176-77). The next day he boarded ship in Southampton, devoting himself to continuing Barry Lyndon for Fraser's, sending periodic travel accounts to Punch from "Our Fat Contributor," and writing the Cockney's Eastern book for Chapman and Hall.

Over two months later, his tour ended at Matta on 28 October, but his return to England was delayed by quarantine and a sojourn in Rome where a mix-up at "the dd dd-dd-ddd-ddd post office" kept him from his mail and his money for, he claimed, thirty-five days (Letters 2: 185-86). By 10 January 1845 he wrote Chapman and Hall to say the book "is all but done," and he promised to "go tooth and nail at Talleyrand directly I reach England" (Letters 2: 185). However, by the end of March, "Talleyrand is put off sine die"—never to be heard of again—and the "Eastern book just going into hand" (Letters 2: 190)- At the same time he hinted at a project, possibly Vanity Fair, "wh. is projected and of prodigious importance, This is a scheme by wh I expect to make a great deal of money it is to be called—but never mind what until it is ready" (Letters 2: 190). A month later he wrote George William Nickisson, at Fraser's, "between ourselves I believe I am in a career of most wonderful money getting" (Letters 2: 191). It is generally supposed that "the commencement of a novel" which Thackeray had earlier sent to Henry Colburn at the New Monthly Magazine and then retrieved from William Harrison Ainsworth who replaced Colburn as editor was an early draft of Vanity Fair. But it would be eight more months before the beginning of that novel was first set in type and eight more after that before it began publication.

In the meantime, A Legend of the Rhine, written as "The Childe of Godesburg" in early 1844, finally saw the light in George Cruikshank's Table Book (June—December 1845). Mrs. Perkins's Ball, begun at least as early as November 1844, projected for Christmas 1845 and nearly [60/61] finished, was eventually delayed till December 1846 (though its imprint says 1847). And in July 1845 the Eastern book still needed work ("I want to fill two blanks in my chapter" [Letters 2: 199]). The delays may account in part for Thackeray's request to Bradbury and Evans on 9 July: "May I ask you for 100?—my funds are getting very low, and I should be very glad of a supply" (Bodleian). It is probable that Bradbury and Evans owed him some of that already and soon would owe the rest, judging from the number of Thackeray's contributions to Punch in that year: eighty-four of which eleven appeared in July. That compares with fifty-four contributions in 1844 and seventy-two in 1846 [cf. Spielman]. However, on the very same day he sent Chapman and Hall £55 they had lent him previously, at the same time trying to sort out the terms of agreement for publishing what he still referred to as "the Eastern Book": "I have been thinking over the bargain regarding the Eastern Book, and think you are rather hard upon me. The trip was a very expensive one. I was offered my own terms elsewhere and I assure you undertook the book for you with the full conviction that it would be paid at the price of the other volume on wh. I am engaged for you—viz two hundred guineas. I shall rely on your justice confidently however" (Letters 2: 201). It is understandable that there was no firm agreement to turn to, since whatever passed between author and publisher on 19 August 1844, when Thackeray decided to go to Egypt, must have taken place hastily.

It is worth digressing to follow the fortunes of Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo and the continued negotiations between Thackeray and Chapman and Hall; for in the next surviving reference to it, Thackeray equated the original agreement for the book with the agreement for The Irish Sketch-Book: "I ... am glad to hear that at last I am to have the fortune of a second edition. Our bargain for the first edition was made upon the notion that it was a half guinea book on the same terms as the Irish book—I certainly ought to have my share of the 1400 odd shillings wh. the book has brought in and suggest accordingly that division." But a look back through surviving letters shows that Thackeray skipped over the intervening negotiations for the biography of Talleyrand and that that was the book agreed upon with reference to the Irish book. Thackeray, in the rush of embarking for the Orient, had understood that Chapman and Hall would take the Eastern book on the same terms as Talleyrand. Now, in the latter half of 1846, operating on that understanding, he couched his [61/62] demand for fair treatment in the self-deprecatory language so characteristic of his relations with publishers. "But I was always a bad hand at accounts," he continued, "and put myself honestly into your hands as men of business to deal fairly with me." He did not stop there: "We will ask Forster tomorrow whether or no I am right in my claim to the 1400 sixpences" (Letters 2: 258-59). The Talleyrand book was not finished, and there is no record of Thackeray's income from the Eastern book.

In August 1845, because of remonstrances by his mother, he "cancelled" the chapter on Jerusalem, which he found very difficult to replace, partly for lack of time, partly for trying to tread lightly between a heterodoxy that might offend the public and a hypocrisy that would offend himself. Work on it dragged through the autumn and into December—mostly neglected while he wrote for Punch (Jeames's Diary began appearing in November), but on 22 December he sent in the dedication and preface, and Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo finally appeared in February 1846.

Another small episode, beginning a new stage in Thackeray's relations with his publishers, occurred at this time. Thomas Fraser, foreign correspondent in Paris for the Morning Chronicle, wrote asking him to act as go-between for another author and the firm of Chapman and Hall. From this time on, such letters became frequent. In those days before literary agents, well-known authors were constantly being asked by unknown authors to act as agents. In the same letter in which Thackeray fulfilled this task to Hall, he submitted an article on behalf of Mrs. Colmache, which he seems finally to have succeeded in placing with Ainsworth's New Monthly Magazine (Letters 2: 219, 230, 232). Like other informal agents he was frequently unsuccessful; he explained to one friend that not only could he not help with the Morning Chronicle but was himself not helped there by a letter of reference from Arthur Buller (Letters 2: 252). Over the years Thackeray did what he could as literary agent, though he sometimes refused for lack of time or for lack of belief in the marketability of the writings sent to him. He expressed himself perhaps most frankly to his mother, who sometime in 1847 sent him one of her own compositions to place:

I will send your wonderful story to Chapman & to Smith & Elder who will send it back again. It may be from an angels pen and I doubt if you will get a publisher to bring it out except at the author's charges. As for getting money by it it is a vain hope—and to suppose it will succeed because it will do people good—is as green almost as my horse-dealings. [62/63]

The publishers don't care a straw for a friend of mine, but for what will put money in their pockets—and consider, will your tale cover an outlay of 60 or 70£ and give them a return for their risk and trouble? say 100£ of a half crown book sold at 1/6d to the trade, costing 6d let us say to produce. they would require to sell 2000 to pay £100—& how many books do you think sell 2000? not one in as many 100.
[Letters 2: 330]

American interest in Thackeray's work continued to grow. In addition to its London appearance in two genuine editions in 1846, the Eastern book was pirated by Wiley and Putman in Philadelphia. The same year saw another of his books issued in America with no economic benefit to the author: Jeames's Diary was lifted from Punch by William Taylor and Company of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. At home Mrs. Perkins's Ball, dated 1847, actually appeared in time for the 1846 Christmas trade, published by Chapman and Hall. Unlike the other books, however, Mrs. Perkins's was "a great success—the greatest I have had." On 23 December he reported that it was selling "very fast near 1500 are gone out of 2000 already—and this is a great success for the likes of me" (Letters 2: 258). At the end of May the next year, finding himself pressed for money to pay for railway shares gone sour, he wrote Chapman a plea for cash he hoped was resulting front the second edition of Mrs. Perkins's Ball.

In 1846 Thackeray was quite busy contributing on a regular basis to Punch (seventy-two articles) and to the Morning Chronicle (eighteen articles). He had time for only five Fraser's pieces that year. The most memorable work of the year was "The Snobs of England" in Punch, a series which "hit the public," not only as a social satire but as a popular success.

His projections for 1846 had been "so good, that I calculate on laying by at least 500 next year. I am engaged to write a monthly story at 60£ a number [Vanity Fair]—I have besides 70£ between Punch & the Chronicle: though I don't calculate on the latter beyond the year as I am a very weak & poor politician only good for outside articles and occasional jeux-d'esprit—The 400 may subside possibly into 2 or 300 but you see there will be enough and to spare." [Letter to his stepfather, Letters 2: 225]. His resignation from the Morning Chronicle in February, before anything he may have written for it that year was [63/64] published, was short-lived and may have been, like his striking for wages against Fraser's in 1837, part of a negotiation. From March through October his work appeared in the Morning Chronicle regularly. Or his brief resignation may have been connected with the proposed commencement of Vanity Fair on the first of May. However, work on that great book could not have occupied much of his time since he clearly had not progressed beyond the five chapters that Bradbury and Evans set in type in April. And, in any case, the serial publication of the novel was delayed until January 1847.


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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.

Last modified 25 November 2021