All in pawn

Richard Altick

  • The Common Writer: Life in 19th-century Grub Street by Nigel Cross
    Cambridge, 265 pp, £25.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 521 24564 8

Of the thousands of men and women whose pens turned words into (someone’s) wealth in 19th-century England, only a few are remembered today – the novelists, poets and essayists preserved in the amber of literary histories, reprint series and school syllabi. Not that these writers were necessarily the superstars of their own day. Some of them were, but the majority of the authors who were most widely read and respected by their contemporaries have all but disappeared from critical view. Often assisted by income from other professions or from inheritances, some made good livings. At a great economic and social distance from them were the wretched hacks who sought to keep starvation at bay by composing doggerel advertisements for E. Moses and Sons’ ready-made clothing and Warren’s boot blacking, and their equally shabby colleagues who ground out urban ballads, sensational broadsides and last dying speeches of executed criminals for the street trade described in the pages of Henry Mayhew.

Between these occupants of the darkest literary limbo and the comparatively prosperous and established writers of serial fiction and ‘think pieces’ for middle-class magazines and reviews lay the large underclass of book-writers who are the subject of Nigel Cross’s illuminating study. Hovering perilously between the lower slopes of Parnassus and the surrounding flat with its quicksands, they were the victims of the whimsical assumption, happily less common today, that anybody who can hold a pen can live by it. Since ‘professional’ implies a degree of competence they normally did not possess, and ‘amateur’ fails to do justice to their dogged aspiration, Cross calls them ‘persistent’ – the best possible word to describe a motley company of scribbling Micawbers who, either through misguided confidence in themselves or through urgent necessity, ‘attempted to sustain their literary activity over a number of years’ with little to show for their efforts in the end.

The ‘Grub Street’ in Cross’s subtitle is mildly anachronistic. During most of the 19th century the term was not the topographical metaphor for the current poverty-stricken race of writers-for-hire that it had been in Swift’s and Pope’s time and was to become again in Gissing’s. (London’s actual Grub Street was renamed Milton Street in 1830, and its site is now lost beneath the Barbican Centre, between the Moorgate and Aldersgate stations of the Underground.) To Victorian readers, ‘Grub Street’ had a historical rather than a timely reference. As Pat Rogers brilliantly demonstrated in his Grub Street: Studies in a Subculture (1972), it then meant primarily the squalid milieu of the hacks whom Pope had skewered with malicious wit in the Dunciad. Their archetype was Richard Savage, whose profligate life Dr Johnson – himself an industrious, ill-paid hack in his earlier years in London – had narrated in 1744. The Grub Street the Victorians knew was the far-off one described by Smollett in his novels and, in their own day, in Macaulay’s celebrated essay on Johnson in the Edinburgh Review in 1831. The 19th-century Grub Streeters and their Augustan precursors were, for the most part, different breeds. What they had in common was their dependence on exploitative publishers (though the exploitation was not so blatant in the Victorian period) and its allegedly natural consequence, the poverty that formed part of the very definition of ‘Grub Street’. But hacks were no longer the servile voices of warring political parties, and no longer did they spend considerable stretches of time in prison except for debt. (Between 1800 and 1838, over a hundred authors dated their appeals for Royal Literary Fund grants from debtors’ prison.) And, though the riotousness and plague fever Swift and Pope incorporated into their mythic metaphor of 18th-century Grub Street probably exceeded the actuality, the new breed’s way of life was far less lurid. Whatever immorality they practised was never flagrant, as in the old model. Coming chiefly from the lower middle class, they aspired above all to the respectability that a steady inflow of money would buy.

In the Victorian Bohemia that was Thackeray’s expurgated and sentimentalised version of Grub Street, there were no hardships. Its inhabitants, as portrayed in Pendennis, were firmly attached to the solid middle class, and life proceeded quite equably in an agreeable haze of cigar smoke, refillable glasses of wine, workaday commissions from publishers and art patrons, and sporadic attempts at true creativity. Possession of cash was not a serious problem: Thackeray’s casually dressed writers and artists are not seen making desperate bargains under the sign of the three golden balls. But in the real Victorian Grub Street, including the shabby-genteel one in Gissing’s novel which revived the term’s application to contemporary life (New Grub Street, 1891), the overriding fact of life remained the need of money, and this is the theme of Cross’s book. The subtitle notwithstanding, he provides fewer particulars than he could of the underclass’s occupational and personal lives: their threadbare dress, squalid lodgings, importunate creditors, large and usually ailing families, the demeaning necessity of keeping on the right side of potential employers, and the pains of writing under pressure whenever some crumbs did fall from editors’ and publishers’ tables. Though such details abound in the writers’ fictional accounts, based on their own experience, and in their occasional desultory reminiscences, they are seen in this book only by refraction, through Cross’s compact case-histories of a score or so of typical Grub Streeters. But Cross does not profess to have written a complete social history of the literary disadvantaged. He addresses himself to a single question: if chronic poverty was the Grub Street lot, how was it alleviated?

With the expansion of the reading public, the demand for words in print was growing at an exponential rate, and so were the means of supplying it. The proceeds of publishing and bookselling could be considerable, but somehow the generated wealth was never fairly distributed. The filter-down process, so highly regarded in economic theory, barely reached the porous pockets of most of the toilers who produced the wealth. Until the middle of the 18th century, the patronage system had taken up some of the slack, but as the number of practising writers increased and Dr Johnson, having gone through the mill, asserted the proud independence of the profession, that unreliable source of support dried up except for the occasional selective bounty bestowed by such notably successful authors as Byron and Dickens on their less fortunate or less gifted fellows.

Beginning about 1830, Grub Street became an outpost of Fleet Street. Day-to-day journalism, not to be confused with the ‘higher’ variety, was an honest way of making a living, but until late in the century it had a social stigma that rubbed off on all but a few masters of the craft, and in any case it offered little scope for writers ambitious to produce respectable, book-length works of literature. An alternative was comic journalism: skits, squibs, facetious or satirical articles, jokes, paid for at space rates. Such a poet as Thomas Hood had already squeezed a precarious living from writing or editing ‘comic annuals’, and Punch and its imitators bought the work of innumerable freelances whose hunger enabled them to summon up humour on demand. A third possible source of income was the popular theatre, whose managers were as voracious for new scripts as television is today. Each theatre had its resident hack who hastily stitched together plays that were either barefaced steals from the unprotected French drama or clumsy adaptations of current novels, notably Dickens’s. The rewards of this kind of writing to order were as little as ten shillings per act.

Included in the Grub Street population were two minority groups, women and working men. During most of the century, writing for the press was the only respectable occupation accessible to women apart from the ill-paid and socially degrading one of governess or schoolmistress. It was nearly always men whose well-earned successes the preachers of the Victorian self-help ethic borrowed for their exempla, but they could have cited instances of female authors who not only staved off destitution as portionless spinsters or unprovided-for orphans but through heroic labours paid off the debts of spendthrift, incompetent or simply unfortunate fathers or husbands (Mary Mitford, Frances Trollope) and supported large families. For every such triumph over adversity, however, there were hundreds of pathetic failures. In the catalogues of misery Cross’s case-histories present, no cry from the edge of the abyss is more heart-rending than this, uttered in 1875 by a modestly popular novelist in Manchester:

Since last October I have been working unremittingly until 3,4,5,6 in a morning. Have had my household cares in the day and a fearful load of domestic anxieties. – Have lost my aged mother by sudden death, have seen my eldest daughter fading day by day, and to crown all have had my husband come home half-killed, to need constant tendance for six weeks, and during that time was myself suffering from a painful disease joined to the consciousness that I was ‘breaking down’. – I wrote my last monthly instalment for Cassell’s with vinegar to my head and ice to my throat; with the close railway trains whizzing and shrieking past the study window every 5 minutes.

The odds against devotees of ‘the Labouring Muse’ were even longer. From time to time, a versifying autodidact who had traded the plough or the tailor’s needle for the pen enjoyed momentary celebrity solely by virtue of being a freak in a society whose literature was thoroughly middle-class in source as well as interest. If he was lucky, he found a patron moved by condescending sentiment or by the less altruistic hope of attracting attention to himself. If he was, typically, less lucky, he wrote in vain. If he was, also typically, a radical, say a Chartist, so much the worse for him. When men and women of any occupation, or none, were in acute need of money, one resource open to them in an age when much philanthropy was still exercised privately was the begging letter, a cheeky stratagem that turned Dickens, a particular target, livid with rage. ‘Authors,’ Cross says, ‘were undoubtedly the most successful begging-letter writers. Not only were they professional storytellers, the tools of whose trade were literacy and imagination, but it was a truism that theirs was a hand-to-mouth existence, littered with bankruptcies and small debts’ – a popular assumption that theoretically made their appeal more plausible. The prince of begging-letter writers was, aptly enough, a son of Leigh Hunt, who used his father’s name to such good effect that he was able to live by the mendicant pen. The elder Hunt’s chronic distress was legendary in literary circles, and it is likely that recipients of the son’s appeals contributed in the belief that they were once more called upon to throw out a lifeline to the father.

The begging-letter industry flourished even as Victorian philanthropy was becoming more institutionalised, shifting the burden of decision from the individual benefactor to a committee. Charitable organisations, 500 of them at mid-century, existed to relieve almost every kind of personal misfortune. There were societies to succour penniless widows of clergymen, orphans of ‘respectable’ parents (the rest could fend for themsleves, or go to the workhouse), waterlogged people pulled from the Serpentine, ‘the ruptured poor’ for whom the National Truss Society was founded. And in time Grub Street had its own consortium of welfare agencies, of which the oldest (founded in 1790, chartered in 1818) was, and is, the Royal Literary Fund, the recent opening of whose archives to researchers has been the occasion of Cross’s book. From them he has drawn much of his raw material concerning appeals and grants.

The ‘Society to Support Men of Genius and Learning in Distress’, as it was originally called, announced early on that it did ‘not wish, by any means, to excite or encourage those to commence as Authors, who may happen to fancy that they possess the necessary qualifications’ – a sensible precaution which in the ensuing century had no deterrent effect whatsoever on the swelling crowd of hopeful but totally unqualified littérateurs. The bulk of the fund’s income was derived from private subscriptions and bequests. Its first beneficiary was a Dissenting minister, the author of, among other works, Cheerful Thoughts on the Happiness of a Religious Life, who had been paralysed and bedridden for eight years. ‘I should at this time in my life,’ he wrote in his application, ‘have been a rich Rector but the Athanasian Creed was a bitter pill I could never swallow ... If I had a little assistance in my deplorable condition it would enable me to purchase a little wine, which would cheer my spirit.’ The fund granted him a total of 35 guineas up to his death four years later.

The fund quickly became a major charity, its 200 annual subscribers including 20 peers, many baronets and knights, and several important publishers, whose enthusiasm for the enterprise may not have been wholly disinterested. Until the middle of the century, however, the leading authors of the day chose to distribute their largesse privately, and declined invitations to be honorary guests or act as stewards at the fund’s annual dinners. Dickens at the very beginning of his career was among those who accepted; at the 1837 dinner he delivered his first public speech in response to the toast ‘Mr Dickens and the rising Authors of the Day’. As a member of the committee two years later he helped adjudicate 35 separate appeals, including one from a self-styled ‘Head of Oriental and Classical Literature in the Kingdom’ who, after his claim was rejected, published a poster assailing the committee for keeping ‘a seraglio of 82 women at that harem at No 4 Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields’, apparently the fund’s current headquarters, and wasting its substance ‘in gluttony and inebriation, at the Free Mason’s and other Taverns’. As Dickens grew richer and channelled some of his reformist energies into propagandising for ‘the dignity of the profession’, he grew increasingly critical of the fund’s organisation and management and waged a protracted but fruitless campaign for a new charter.

Meanwhile he and Bulwer-Lytton cooked up a new scheme, the Guild of Literature and Art, initially funded from the proceeds of the amateur theatricals Dickens produced at Knebworth and Devonshire House. The guild’s main practical objects were to provide health and life insurance for its members and an almshouse for decrepit pensioners. But in the course of its 48-year history it appointed only three pensioners, and the retirement home it built at Stevenage had a hard time attracting tenants, eligible ones complaining that it was too far from London and too obviously sited so that Lord Lytton could drive by with his fashionable guests and point out the evidence of his concern for other writers.

There was also the alternative, initiated by the Queen herself, of a nomination to the company of poor brethren at the Charterhouse. Some fifty failed writers took advantage of the opportunity, but once there they complained they were the wards of ‘a heavy-handed and authoritarian charity which was an affront to their dignity’. The most dignified of these several means of relieving the deserving literary poor was the Civil List Pension, funded from hereditary Crown revenues that had been relinquished to the state. From the inception of the specifically literary pension in 1838, writers, much more than public servants and scientists, were the chief beneficiaries of the annual grant of £1200. Among them were several distinctly uncommon writers – Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Matthew Arnold. But the grounds on which awards were made were erratic. Disraeli pensioned the widow of Byron’s gondolier (it did not hurt that she had once been the elder Disraeli’s housekeeper), and one administrator of the fund had a pronounced bias against novelists, whose object, he said, ‘is in most cases either personal profit or the mere amusement of the public’.

By Gissing’s time late in the century, the conditions of authorship had markedly improved. ‘The world of publishing and journalism,’ as Cross sums up the situation, ‘underwent a radical transformation: the introduction of syndication, the expansion of the popular press, the founding of the Society of Authors, the rise of the literary agent, the relaxing of Mid-Victorian pruderies in fiction, the triumph of the adventure story and of the gossip column – all led to the climate of change and controversy that pervades New Grub Street.’ Journalism was paying a living wage, and qualified authors who wished to do so could look forward to lasting, prosperous careers in Fleet Street, with no sacrifice of respectability as the old, socially-prejudicial borderline between book-writing and contributing to popular papers and magazines faded. It was even possible to make a living from writing nothing but book reviews. The making and makers of books – privileged insights into a famous author’s manner of working, gossipy but innocuous glimpses of his private life – became a staple subject of illustrated articles in shilling and even in twopenny periodicals. Among authors there was a new dichotomy, between the ‘tradesmen’ in Gissing’s novel and ‘artists’ like Henry James and some of the characters in the series of short stories he wrote to define the author’s place in a society that was cultivating the habit of regarding literature as a fine art: the writer as artist and respected public figure, not a lowly stringer-together of sentences, fighting to survive.

More people were making money by the pen than ever before. The author’s position vis-à-vis his natural enemy, the publisher, was immeasurably strengthened, thanks particularly to the exertions of the Society of Authors. Yet the need for the Royal Literary Fund persisted, as the presence in its records of applications from Conrad, Joyce and D.H. Lawrence testifies. There were still self-destructive authors, or simply authors down on their luck, to be rescued. From the outbreak of the First World War to 1930, when he died from a fall on a London pavement, Edwin Pugh, a novelist of fair promise in his youth, was saved from the workhouse only by the charity of friends and the fund’s timely response to his cries of desperation: ‘I am practically penniless, my clothes are mostly things of shreds and patches’ (1922); ‘Last Saturday we were literally destitute ... We have had to sell up our home, and are now living in a bed-sitting room. Our few small personal belongings are all in pawn’ (1927).

By then, some three thousand persons had appealed to the fund. From the paralysed Dissenting minister to the alcoholic Pugh, their letters of application had had a single theme, which was not Cheerful Thoughts or, for that matter, The Optimist, the title of a work by Gissing’s character Edwin Reardon. They are the depressing record of an underclass that, to hard-working and successful writers like Anthony Trollope, who served on the fund’s committee for 18 years, must have seemed to be composed entirely of chronic losers in the battle of life. But, however troubled and futile their careers as writers may have been, they were indispensable in the Darwinian literary marketplace of 19th-century England. ‘As major writers are one in a thousand,’ says Cross, ‘999 people had to find ways and means of surviving as writers to enable a Dickens or a George Eliot to emerge from their ranks. Without the common writer there would be no literature at all.’