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The Novelist as Fortune Hunter

ISSUE:  Summer 1937

It is a commonplace that Sir Walter Scott exerted a wide influence over the novelists of his era in their subject-matter and technique. For a generation, the satiric realism of eighteenth-century fiction was almost totally submerged under the tidal-wave (or should we say, more briefly, “bore”?) of historical romances which gushed from the presses. But less attention has been paid to the fact that Scott was responsible also for an even more profound change in the economic and social status of authorship. Prior to his day, novelists had been either glorified hacks, like Defoe, Smollett, and Goldsmith (glad of sixty pounds for “The Vicar of Wakefield”), or men of substance and assured position, like Fielding, Richardson, and Sterne, who, even when well paid for novels, continued with some other business or profession as proof that they retained their “amateur standing.”

With this precedent in mind, Scott made his persistent efforts to conceal his authorship of the Waverley novels, lest his social ambitions be thwarted by public knowledge that his income was derived from such an undignified trade. But when the baronial towers of Abbotsford rose like an exhalation from his ink-bottle, and a baronetcy was conferred on him, upon the flimsy pretext that the sheriff-de-pute of .Selkirk and Edinburgh Clerk of Sessions had earned it by devotion to duty, Scott and the public both realized that novel writing had suddenly risen to rivalry with the bar, the church, and the services—indeed, that it had transcended them, to invade the sacrosanct realm of the feudal land-holders.

Even his bankruptcy and subsequent labors were on a noble scale that failed to diminish his lustre; and various landless men, who were not making headway in other professions, hastily turned their minds to the craft of authorship as a very pleasant means of acquiring wealth and social advancement. Fascinated by the prospect, they did not profit by the example of Scott’s indiscretions; like him, they seemed to believe that royalties were limitless and that business acumen was beneath their august attention. They indulged themselves in extravagances which could be maintained only by increasing their literary output to a degree that Stakhanov might envy, with the inevitable result of deterioration and premature collapse.

It was a curious company that thus rode forth under the banner of the laird of Abbotsford, the most conspicuous of them being a disappointed minor diplomat, a disappointed naval officer, and a disappointed country doctor. In spite of their diverse antecedents, the later careers of these three men were so remarkably similar that they may well be considered together as exponents of a single fallacy.

Significantly, all three had their origin in much the same social stratum—the bourgeois class which had become prosperous during the preceding century and was now ripe for social advancement. The significance lies in the fact that the acquisition by this class of leisure time, intellectual ambitions, and a yearning to escape from their environment, was directly responsible i’or the vast vogue of Scott’s novels of romantic adventure and gorgeous trappings. The fact was well stated by one of the few contemporaries to retain an ironic detachment, George Borrow:

Their chief characteristic is a rage for grandeur and gentility; everything that’s lofty meets their unqualified approbation; whilst everything humble, or, as they call it, “low,” is scouted by them. They begin to have a vague idea that the religion which they have hitherto professed is low; at any rate that it is not the religion of the mighty ones of the earth, nor was used by the grand personages of whom they have read in their novels and romances, their Ivanhoes, their Marmions, and their Ladies of the Lake. The writings of that man [Scott] have made them greater fools than they were before. All their conversation now is about gallant knights, princesses and cavaliers, with which his pages are stuffed. Why, I know at Birmingham the daughter of an ironmonger, who screeches to the piano the Lady of the Lake’s hymn to the Virgin Mary, always weeps when Mary Queen of Scots is mentioned, and fasts on the anniversary of the death of that very wise martyr, Charles the First.

A natural expression of this “rage for grandeur and gentility” was the claiming of aristocratic ancestry; and so it is amusing to find that two of our three typical authors cherished family traditions of “Norman blood.”

The one who sought to step most directly into Scott’s shoes, George Payne Rainsford James, used to hint that the name had been originally “FitzJames,” and that certain estates and titles were rightfully his, if he were willing to go to the expense of claiming them. Whether this were true or not, there was no doubt that James’s grandfather was a physician whose early career had included more than one term in the debtors’ prison, but who later acquired fame through his “Medical Dictionary” and wealth through his invention of a popular nostrum. “Dr. James’s Powders” were among the first widely-advertised patent medicines, and found their way down many of the most celebrated throats of the eighteenth century, including those of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Horace Walpole, Lord Lyttelton, and Oliver Goldsmith (whose death was hastened by his addiction to them, according to the opinion of the attending physician) .

With the fortune thus acquired, Dr. James gave his sons a good start in life, and the youngest followed the paternal profession so successfully that he eventually became physician to the Prince of Wales, thus originating a legend that his son’s initials stood for “George Prince Regent.” It was perhaps natural that in the third generation of this enterprising family there should be a son with ambitions for a career more picturesque than the gallipots.

From a desultory education young George retained little except a facility in French and German, and his schooling ended when he was hardly more than thirteen. By that time he was already dedicated to adventure and literature: he had participated in a sea-fight at the age of ten, when the ship in which he was travelling home from Scotland was attacked by French privateers; and his literary baptism of fire occurred not many years later, when he was taken by Samuel Rogers to visit Lord Byron. He was disappointed in the poet’s “fat and pasty-faced” appearance; but Byron took such a liking to the lad, whom he nicknamed “Little Devil,” that he wanted to take him abroad as a companion.

This seems to have come to nothing, for when the boy did go to the continent shortly afterwards, he was unaccompanied. In later life he fostered a legend that he went as an ensign to fight at the battle of Waterloo, arrived the day after the main action, and was wounded in a subsequent skirmish. As he was not over fourteen at the time, and as there is no conclusive evidence that he ever held an army commission, it is more likely that he was serving as some sort of messenger, in apprenticeship to a diplomatic career. Probably for the same reason, he remained on the continent, in spite of his youthfulness, and spent several years in wandering over France, Germany, and Spain. The only noteworthy events of this period of his life were a duel with a French officer, whom he wounded, and a meeting with Washington Irving, who became his warm friend.

When he returned tc England, his travels had given him a precocious poise which made him popular in society. He dallied with plans for entering politics, and received a small diplomatic appointment which again took him abroad, until the death of his patron, Lord Liverpool, put an end to these expectations. Meanwhile, he had made some experiments in writing, and at the age of twenty-four commenced an historical romance entitled “Richelieu”; he soon lost interest, and turned to poetry, but an aunt of his persuaded Sir Walter Scott to read the unfinished novel, and Scott’s opinion was so favorable that James completed the book, which was issued in 1829 by Henry Colburn, the most enterprising publisher of the period.

James, who had recently married, immediately rented a handsome chateau in France, and hastened to compose a second novel, “Darnley, or the Field of the Cloth of Gold,” for which Colburn paid him five hundred pounds. For the next twenty years, James’s life was characterized by the prodigious number of books which he wrote and the equally prodigious number of mansions which he occupied. Between 1829 and 1850 he published forty three-volume novels, twelve works of historical research (most of them extending to three or four volumes), and thirteen miscellaneous books, including collections of short stories and essays, children’s tales, and plays.

During the same period he lived in at least fifteen places, in England, Scotland, France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, usually establishing himself in the handsomest house available. After giving up his French chateau, he spent a couple of years at Maxpoffle House, Melrose, close enough to Abbotsford for frequent visits during the closing years of Scott’s life. Thereafter his main residences included the Villa Palmieri in Florence, Fair Oak Lodge at Petersfield (Hampshire), The Shrubbery, Upper Walmer, Kent (convenient for calling on the Duke of Wellington), and Willey House, Farnham, Surrey, as well as Brussels, Baden-Baden, Lyme Regis, and many other places.

All through the ‘thirties fortune was affable. James was appointed Historiographer-Royal, and was permitted to dedicate books to William IV, Princess Victoria (shortly before she became queen), the Empress of Russia, and the King of the Belgians. Liked and respected by his fellowauthors, he was accepted by the public and many of the critics as an authentic successor of Scott.

By the end of the decade, however, his glory and prosperity were wearing thin. Readers began to recognize the faults of his facile style—its cliches, its redundancy, its Wardour- Street trappings, its dependence on stock situations and puppet characters. His stereotyped opening scene, with “a solitary horseman” or “a party of cavaliers” riding through a picturesque landscape, became a recognized theme of burlesque; and it is a cold statistical fact that he used this opening in no less than seventeen of his novels prior to 1847, when Thackeray’s parody, “Barbazure,” was published in Punch, and effectually cured him of the habit.

As early as 1836 we find the critics condemning him for overproduction. “Dilution has practically its limit,” said the Athenseum, “and Mr. James had reached it long ago. Commonplace in its best day, anything more feeble, vapid —sloppy, in fact, than Mr. James’s manner has become, it were difficult to imagine. Every literary grace has been swamped in the spreading marasmus of his style.”

With such objections in mind, James repeatedly protested to his friends that he could not control this lavish productivity. “Why is it,” he asked, “that I write too fast for that slow beast the Public? Is it because I rise earlier? or because I do it every day and cannot do without it? . . . I cannot write less than five pages in an hour, which gives at the above calculation [four hours a day] six thousand pages in a year of three hundred days.” Ten years later, in the introduction to a collected edition, he asserted: “I am an early riser; and any one who has that habit must know that it is a grand secret for getting through twice as much as lazier men perform. Again, I write and read during some portion of every day, except when travelling, and even then if possible. . . . Then, again, the habit of dictating instead of writing with my own hand, which I first attempted at the suggestion of Sir Walter Scott, relieves me of the manual labour which many authors have to undergo, leaves the mind clear and free to act. I think all these circumstances may account for my being able to produce more than many others, without the works themselves being either better or worse on that account.”

In spite of these somewhat pitiful defiances, there can be little doubt that his Gargantuan output was dictated not so much by choice as by his extravagant way of living. Receiving five or six hundred pounds for each novel, he must have been earning an average of nearly two thousand pounds a year, in addition to the considerable fortune that he inherited, and yet he was sinking steadily into debt. In the hope of gaining some profits from the popularity of his works abroad, he took a leading part in a campaign for stricter copyright, and obtained nothing but the gratitude of his confreres. He resorted to changing publishers with suspicious frequency, and in 1845 we find him negotiating for a rather undignified scheme of having the collected edition of his novels peddled from door to door.

These danger signals did not persuade him to give up his pretensions. In 1843 he unsuccessfully contested a parliamentary election—an expensive way of fulfilling the duties of a country gentleman. Soon afterwards he was reduced to paying his doctor’s bills by means of oil-paintings and other heirlooms; and it seems certain that his next continental tour was undertaken less for pleasure than as an evasion of his creditors. After his return to England, his devotion to the Tory party led him to contribute largely to the anti-Free-Trade campaign; and the final blow to his resources was a bout of litigation over his copyrights, owing to the insolvency of his latest publishers. He could no longer close his eyes to the fact that his type of fiction had lost its paramount place in the public esteem.

Unable to learn retrenchment, he undertook the desperate venture of emigration. In 1850 he removed himself, with his wife and four children, to the United States, where his books had been very popular without bringing him much remuneration. He obtained a pleasant home at Stock-bridge, Massachusetts; played at farming; lectured in Boston, New Haven, and elsewhere; and made friends with the New England authors. He continued to write copiously, and for a while the improved income from his New York publishers compensated for the decline of his fame in England; but within a couple of years he was obliged to accept the appointment of British Consul at Norfolk, Virginia. The growing tension over slavery made his task so difficult that six years later he was glad to accept a transfer to Venice, where he soon afterwards died, at the age of fifty-nine, insolvent, disappointed, and almost forgotten. There was irony in the fact that during his closing years he earned his living in an undistinguished branch of the service in which he had expected, in his youth, to enjoy a brilliant career.

His rise and fall was by no means unique in the literary annals of his period. In the same year as his “Richelieu,” and published by the same firm, another first novel had inaugurated a literary record which was almost identical with his. The author of “Frank Mildmay” was nine years older than James, but he had been slower to realize that literature might bring him more returns than the profession in which he had been trained, and therefore the two men made their debuts as writers simultaneously. This second adventurer of the pen was Frederick Marryat.

The novels of Marryat differed from those of James in possessing hearty humor and being based on first-hand knowledge of his subject. They were not so directly imitative of Scott’s, but in the last analysis they were actuated by the same motives and appealed to almost the same tastes. In spite of the salty influence of Smollett, Marryat’s stories had many of the heroic and glamorous qualities of Scott, and in theme they were really historical, although the history happened to be very recent. They catered just as much to the romantic desire for escape from commonplace actuality, differing only in providing the escape not to past ages but to foreign scenes and to a specialized, dangerous mode of living.

The ancestry of G. P. R. James and Frederick Marryat was almost identical, both in shadowy claims and in provable facts. The Marryats were said to have come over with the Conqueror, fought in the Crusades, and so forth; but the direct genealogy of the novelist starts with his grandfather, a successful physician, whose book entitled “Therapeutics, or the Art of Healing,” was contemporaneous with Dr. Robert James’s “Medical Dictionary.”

The son of Dr. Thomas Marryat was a wealthy business man, owner of large West Indian property and chairman of the committee at Lloyd’s. He became a Member of Parliament, and being of the Evangelical type of the Macaulays and the Wilberforces, he was active in anti-slavery legislation, even though his own property suffered thereby. He married the daughter of a Boston loyalist, and the second of their fifteen children, Frederick, was born in 1792.

Like James, he did not attend a public school, but received a smattering of education at one of the little private “academies” in the environs of London—James’s was in Putney, Marryat’s in Ponder’s End; and at the same tender age as James—fourteen—he started on his active career by becoming a midshipman.

James missed Waterloo by a day; Marryat missed Trafalgar by eleven months: but during the next twenty years he saw enough active service to make up for his non-participation in any great battle. His first experiences were in the Mediterranean, under Dundonald; he took part in coastal fighting during the Peninsular campaign, after which his brief period as a lieutenant was spent chiefly in American waters. When the war ended, he was a commander at the age of twenty-three.

More varied duties followed: he was in command of the ship patrolling St. Helena when Napoleon died; he then spent some time chasing smugglers in the Channel; and in 1824-5 he distinguished himself in the war in Burmah, receiving the rank of post-captain and the honor of Commander of the Bath.

Meanwhile, he was devoting his spare time to the more theoretical side of his profession. He wrote an important report on smuggling and a pamphlet on recruiting, and worked out a new system of signals which attracted international notice. In spite of all his distinctions, however, he began to find his profession unsatisfactory. Promotion was no longer so rapid as in time of war, and furthermore he suspected that his unorthodox theories and intellectual candor were unpopular at the Admiralty. In 1830, therefore, he retired from active service.

As his chief objection to the Navy had been the inadequacy of his rewards, he had to justify his action by immediate achievements in some more profitable line. During his last two years at sea he had experimented with a vocation which seemed entirely satisfactory in this respect, since his income would be directly commensurate with his originality and his output. The success of his first novel was sufficient to make him feel that out of his accumulated experiences he could go on “spinning yarns” indefinitely.

Like James, he promptly committed himself to an extravagant scale of living. He acquired a thousand-acre estate at Langham, Norfolk; he lived lavishly in Hammersmith and Brighton; he invested in glittering and dangerous securities. In 1833 he stood as a candidate for parliament, and was defeated as decisively as James was ten years later. To maintain these activities, he wrote at top speed, and bullied editors and publishers furiously. Not satisfied with sixteen guineas a sheet from the Metropolitan Magazine, he obtained a part-ownership of it in 1832, and for several years edited it himself; during 1834 no less than three of his novels were serialized in its pages.

His earnings were very considerable. For his first novel he had received four hundred pounds, and the rate rose so rapidly that for the book-rights of “Mr. Midshipman Easy” (one of the three serials of 1834) he was paid fourteen hundred. Nevertheless, he could not keep up with his expenditure, and in 1835 he and his family removed hastily to the continent, where they tried to live more cheaply in Brussels and Spa. More than a year later he returned to England, sold his share of the Metropolitan for 1050, and became a contributor to the New Monthly because it offered him the exceptional rate of twenty guineas a sheet. At the same time he parted from his previous publishers because they refused to pay him in advance for unwritten work.

Having become aware, as James did, that the United States was an unexploited source of literary income, Marryat made a voyage across the Atlantic, to visit his Boston cousins, to protect his rights in his own works from piracy, and to collect material for a book on contemporary American life. Several recent books on the subject had been bestsellers, and had aroused so much controversy that Marryat saw an opportunity to capitalize on the excitement.

His visit, occupying almost two years, was not devoid of incident. He arrived in the midst of the panic of 1837, which made the American press unusually sensitive to foreign opinion; and relations with England were being further irritated by guerilla escapades on the Canadian frontier. Again Marryat’s experiences are strangely parallel with those of James; the slavery disputes which bedeviled James’s consulate in Virginia twenty years later were very similar, as a source of international tension, to the Canadian uprising of 1837-38. With his seaman’s bluntness, Marryat made an after-dinner speech in Toronto praising the Canadian volunteers who had “cut out” the filibustering ship Caroline under the American guns of Fort Schlosser. The yellower news- j papers in the United States raised a great uproar over his remarks, and the controversy did not subside till his return to England.

Nevertheless, his visit was in many respects successful. He lobbied manfully at Washington for international copyright, and although he achieved nothing in the way of legislation, he improved his personal finances by having a play staged in New York and by selling the American rights to his next story for $2500. Always a hopeful speculator, he bought six hundred acres on the Canadian side, opposite Detroit, confident that it would “more than double its value in five or six years.” His love of adventure was gratified by a canoe journey into the wilderness of Lake Superior, and by participation in a battle during the later stages of the Canadian insurrection. When he went back to England he had plenty of material for a six-volume book, for which he was paid sixteen hundred pounds.

During the next four years he occupied four different houses in London, consorted with the most convivial literary circle, and wrote until his eyes grew dim and his health was shattered. Economic worries were rapidly increasing: the collapse of West Indian trade had obliterated his patrimony, and continual trouble with tenants had made his Norfolk estate a heavy liability. In 1842 his total receipts from that source were 154, while his expenditure on it was 1637, and so the next year he went to live on the estate, full of grandiose schemes for making it profitable. By 1846 he had managed to increase the income to 898, but in the same year the operating expenses had risen to 2023. His two sons, who were now in the navy, carried on his extravagant habits to such an extent that their creditors brought suits against him for payment of their bills. Worst of all, his literary productivity was wearing thin: as early as the time of his American visit, he had exhausted his supply of personal experience, and was trying to make a fresh start with historical material. Soon afterwards he tacitly admitted the impoverishment of his resources by foregoing his adult audience; for the remaining eight or nine years of his life he wrote almost entirely for boys.

As a last desperate venture, he applied for reappointment to active service, and the humiliation of his rejection, acting on broken health and exacerbated nerves, caused him to begin bursting blood-vessels. In spite of his powerful physique, he died at the age of fifty-six, obviously the victim of prolonged overwork.

His stories have an exuberant virility which raises them far above James’s ornate fustian; but even in the best of them there are faults of structure and taste to prove that he had never taken the time to learn the fundamentals of his art. They remain the work of an improvising amateur, the glorification of smoking-room reminiscences.

Marryat was the first novelist to make effective use of the naval adventures which occurred copiously during the Napoleonic wars, and yet the wars had been over for nearly fifteen years when he published his first book. More strangely still, six or seven more years had to elapse before anyone depicted the sister service with comparable vividness, and this was finally achieved by a man who had no personal experience of the life he drew. Charles Lever had been only nine years old when Waterloo was fought, and as the son of a prosperous architect and contractor in Dublin he spent his boyhood far from military scenes. An adventurous disposition, however, which during his days as a medical student at Trinity College expressed itself in wild and ludicrous pranks, soon sent him out to see the world. Travelling to Canada as an unqualified surgeon on an emigrant ship, he penetrated into the wilderness as far as Marryat did a little later, was adopted into an Indian tribe, and nearly lost his life in escaping from them. After his return to Europe he wandered from one German university to another, completing his medical training and fully enjoying the beer-drinking, lieder-singing, and duelling which prevailed there.

After these exploits, he found it very dull to settle down as a dispensary doctor in a remote Irish district, especially when his attempts to stir up some amusement were condemned by the authorities. In the hope of earning a little money, he strung together a series of his comical anecdotes of college and army life into a picaresque narrative, “The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer,” which in 1837 began to appear serially in the Dublin University Magazine, a periodical recently established by a group of his friends. To his surprise, the tale became so popular that it sold well in book form, and he was delighted to have found such an easy source of income. “If this sort of thing amuses them,” he remarked, “I can go on for ever.”

By this time he had realized, like both James and Marryat, that the state and prestige of an English gentleman could be maintained more economically on the Continent, and so he established a practice in Brussels, where a large colony of half-pay officers supplied him with inexhaustible anecdotes of the Great War. Four years later he followed Marryat’s example in another respect by deciding that he might as well earn the editorial salary of the magazine which was chiefly supported by his contributions: he leased a handsome house at Templeogue, near Dublin, filled the stables with horses, and entertained all his friends on the grand scale of a country gentleman.

Three years of editorial wrangles all day, whiskey and cards all night, and a long novel per annum in his spare time, proved to be as much as his ambition could endure, and he retired again to the Continent, to begin a nomadic existence even more restless than those of Marryat and James. With his wife and children he roved over Europe by coach and on horseback, renting some dilapidated castle for a few months whenever a remittance arrived from his publisher and dazzling the local foreign colonies with gay parties and his droll conversation. Germany, Switzerland, Italy—wherever he went his menage became more gypsy-like, and whether in inn-parlors or dank palaces, he had to keep up the desperate flow of “spontaneous” Irish humor and dashing military heroism, at twenty guineas a sheet. Finally, like James, he was driven to accept the uncongenial appointment of a British consulate—first at Spezia and later at Trieste—a safe income but a depressing surrender of all his dreams of growing old as a Galway squire.

That he lived ten years longer than Marryat is to be attributed less to a stronger constitution than to his Irish irresponsibility, which was less inflexible to the pressure of debt, disappointment, and family duty. For the same reason, his novels are more enjoyable, and less powerful, than those of the English sea-dog. They have the same faults of loose structure and wooden love-stories, the same merits of hearty farcical humor and vigorous characterization; but in Marryat’s work there are startling unassimilated glimpses of grim horror and ugly cruelty, whereas Lever maintains a good-humored bantering tone which is agreeable even when running most dangerously shallow. Both authors, if they could have written far less hastily, and if they could have studied the technique of their art, instead of relying on the fecundity of the raconteur, might have produced masterpieces of fiction. But to do so, they would have had to realize that novel-writing was something more than a gentlemanly short-cut to opulence.

These three careers of frustration unite to form a chapter in the unwritten history of literature from the economic and sociological angle. A new type of publisher had recently developed, using high-pressure advertising and mass production, whereby he was enabled to pay higher prices to authors. The literary profession suddenly emerged from its century of serfdom, and the undue optimism of those who exploit any new business opportunity tempted the more ambitious to make the removal from Grub Street to Park Lane in a single stride. In contrast with their bankruptcies, both material and mental, there soon followed the more sober and solid establishments of Dickens and Trollope, of Charles Reade and Wilkie Collins, who were content to be business men instead of paladins.


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