Puffery, letters and lucre

Richard Salmon’s is good on nuance but his book on the Victorian Literary Profession is in need of a grand narrative

Books History
The high priest of letters: Thomas Carlyle, painted by Whistler  (1872-3)

In the 1841 census only 167 individuals listed their profession as author; by 1911, that number had increased to 13,786. This steep rise, as Richard Salmon’s new study of 19th-century authorship suggests, has less to say about the actual numbers of individuals making their living by their pen than about the change in the status of writing as a reputable profession. This process took place by fits and starts and involved much tortured soul-searching — and perhaps opportunistic self-legitimisation — on the part of those such as Dickens who now seem to us to embody establishment Victorian authorship. 

Any understanding of what made Victorian literature what it was has to begin in the 1820s and 1830s. Those ambiguous decades, once described by the historian G.M. Young as a “strange pause” between the Romantics and the Victorians, may not have produced much lasting literature — who, apart from specialists, now reads the then bestselling works of Edward Bulwer-Lytton or Letitia Landon? — yet it formed the background against which the great writers of the subsequent era, from Dickens to George Eliot, defined themselves.

During those decades, two models of literary identity enjoyed a paradoxical coexistence. On the one hand, there was the Romantic ideal of the creative writer as a tortured genius divorced from social convention and the business of bread-winning — an archetype embodied in the public mind by Shelley and Byron, who died in 1822 and 1824 respectively and were in reality insulated from the market because they hailed from the moneyed upper classes. On the other hand, a boom in print culture-fuelled by improvements in printing technology and rising demand from a growing literate middle class — saw literature become more commercialised than it had ever been before, especially in the growing magazine and periodicals sector, where penny-a-liners competed in a Darwinian marketplace, but were often at the mercy of publishers.

The period saw the entry into publishing of a new breed of hard-nosed businessmen such as Henry Colburn, who was credited with inventing “puffery” — a term which spoke more of corruption than our modern “hype”, and included all sorts of unscrupulous publicity techniques, from paying backhanders for good reviews, to falsely marketing new works under famous names (one of Colburn’s most flamboyant early business decisions was to publish John Polidori’s The Vampyre — whose text he had acquired without the author’s consent — as a work by the then superstar Byron). The reform of copyright law, giving writers control over their writings, would be one important staging post on the route to authorship establishing its professional status. 

In 1824, Thomas Carlyle was horrified by the sleaze of the metropolitan literati when he came down to London from Scotland in 1824, full of high-minded ambition to make his way in letters. “Good heavens! I often inwardly exclaim, and is this the Literary World? This rascal rout, this dirty rabble, destitute not only of high feeling or knowledge or intellect, but even of common honesty?” he told his wife, determining not to “degenerate into that wretched thing which calls itself an Author in our Capitals”. He would respond with an attempt to re-sacralise the figure of the man of letters and give a new moral authority to literature as a calling, though his pronouncements on the issue were as gnomic as anything he wrote.

As an early Victorian, Carlyle was not alone in his self-consciousness about authorship. The period saw a rash of novels in which writers projected their own professional identity crisis through fictional characters. In Thackeray’s Pendennis and G.H. Lewes’s Ranthorpe — not to mention novels by Bulwer-Lytton and Letitia Landon — writer characters begin with highflown Byronic notions but are taught by experience to give them up. Some emerge triumphant but others are tested to destruction, as were some real-life authors of the period. One forgotten historical figure whom Salmon briefly resurrects is the tragic Laman Blanchard, a friend of the young Dickens, who found the pressures of freelance writing so great that he committed suicide in 1845 by slitting his throat in front of his young son. In David Copperfield, in contrast, Dickens created an optimistic Bildungsroman for an author hero; David’s ability to combine his calling with bourgeois values represents literary Victorianism par excellence.

As Salmon suggests, this shift involved a simultaneous process of “disenchantment” and re-enchantment. The Romantics’ magical creed of inspiration was jettisoned and replaced with a more prosaic notion of literature as workaday labour. But at the same time that craft-based notion was itself reconfigured as an ennobling ideal. Dickens’s emphasis on the “Dignity of Literature” found expression in a new professional body, the Guild of Literature and Art, which he founded in 1851 with Bulwer-Lytton along the lines of a medieval craft guild. “I do believe,” he wrote, “that this plan, carried, will entirely change the status of the Literary Man in England.”

Dickens, notably, refers to the Literary Man in the masculine. Salmon acknowledges that the issue of professional identity was particularly acute for Victorian women, pointing to the way in which Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë explicitly divides Brontë “the woman” from Brontë “the author” as if the two were radically incompatible. He could have explored further how much the Victorian “professionalisation” of authorship involved its defeminisation. It in fact coincided with the demise of the bluestocking salon, which had been the hub of literary society in the 18th century and survived, if in a somewhat loucher form, into the 1820s and 1830s. In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens mercilessly satirises the literary hostess Mrs Leo Hunter; by the 1840s, literary men preferred to assert their collective identity by meeting in the new gentlemen’s clubs such as the Garrick, which excluded women.

Salmon is good on nuance and at his best when teasing out the mixed messages and anxieties expressed by Victorians about authorship, but one longs for more of a grand narrative, and perhaps for more on the nuts-and-bolts of the changing economic conditions within which writers worked, and on the widening gap between literature and journalism. Although, at the higher echelons, publishing shook off its reputation for sleaze during the course of the 19th century, Dickens’s Guild did not succeed in freeing the lowly freelance from poverty, exploitation or cynicism, as George Gissing’s depressing novel New Grub Street (1891) demonstrates. The Victorians may have rejected the Romantic model of genius as delusive but their professional ideal was also based on wishful thinking.