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.

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