Chapter 2 ("The Literary Tradesman"), Part 1, 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.
[Decorated initial based "Mr. Jos's Hookahbadar" --one of W. M. Thackeray's illustrations for Vanity Fair]Authors — W. M. Thackeray]
ow Thackeray became a writer has been the subject of many books and articles,Authors —
W. M. Thackeray]
ow Thackeray became a writer has been the subject of many books and articles,Authors — W. M. Thackeray]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]Authors — W. M. Thackeray]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, Authors — W. M. Thackeray]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] Authors — W. M. Thackeray]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]Authors — W. M. Thackeray]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, Authors — W. M. Thackeray]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]Authors — W. M. Thackeray] 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.
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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.
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Harden, Edgar. "Thackeray and the Carlyles: Seven Further Letters" Studies in Scottish Literature 14 (1979), 168-70
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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: 9 April 2001