Jack Vincent’s private papers came to light three years ago, rescued in the somewhat distressing circumstances outlined in detail in Finding the Manuscript. Apparently undisturbed since the Second World War, the collected hand-written manuscripts include personal correspondence, drafts of original fiction, and a series of unpublished memoirs. As a literary historian specialising in this period, I have no doubt as to the authenticity of this material. The paper on which it is written, the ink used, and the entire external aspect of the documents put their date beyond the reach of question. Even allowing for the inevitable issues surrounding truth and memory in life writing, when Vincent refers to the historical record he is consistently accurate and easily cross-referenced.
Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner (Vincent’s original title) is the first volume of the autobiographical papers, although it might be more adequately described as a ‘bio-novel,’ foreshadowing as it does the New Journalism of the 1960s as much as it reflects the more conventional Victorian ‘triple-decker’ serial romance. Vincent’s memoirs therefore eschew the more traditional form of autobiography in favour of the devices of literary fiction: there is scenic framing and dialogue, the plot is non-linear, and the author casts himself as the protagonist and point of view narrator. The present narrative is of particular historical significance as it includes the most complete eyewitness account of the final voyage of the troopship Birkenhead ever discovered. It is also of almost equal importance because of Vincent’s close association with many of the major writers, artists and publishers of his day, most notably Pierce Egan, Henry Colburn, George Cruikshank, W.M. Thackeray, Henry Mayhew, G.W.M. Reynolds and, of course, Charles Dickens.
Aside from the correction of a few minor spelling and grammatical errors, I have left the manuscript as I found it. I have therefore restricted myself to the account of its discovery, and a few explanatory notes when the passage of time has rendered the reference obscure and the context fails to clarify. I continue to transcribe and edit these papers, and in common with my other academic research I am sharing this work online without charge. In the spirit of the Victorian serial romance, I am releasing Shark Alley in weekly instalments, although readers of a more impatient disposition can buy the book. It is my hope that all of these fascinating works of fiction, and the even more compelling autobiography that frames them, will once more see print, shedding as they do so much new light on English popular fiction, publishing and politics in the age of Dickens and Victoria.