Puffery, letters and lucre
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.