Years passed. And so, as they say, I grew to manhood. By the early part of next decade, I was quite the man about town, and as in love with the city as is any Londoner who was not born there but came in from the provinces.
I was in the prime of my life, and fancied that I cut quite a dash. I dressed well, and like Cruikshank I was a bit of a dandy. My dramatic blue eyes and wild black hair, which I wore rather long and romantic, were always popular with the ladies. Affairs tended to be brief, which suited me perfectly well. This was mostly on account of my moods, which were better than they had been when I left the Marshalsea, but were nonetheless still quite erratic. I could disguise this tendency to swing between reckless optimism and hopeless despair to the casual or professional acquaintance, but anyone with whom I became intimate was likely to encounter my dark side, which was not particularly pleasant, especially if I were on a deadline. Neither had I ever experienced again the same feeling during physical love as I had with Nancy, which was more like the relief of a craving for laudanum (which I had also managed to do without for some years), so I bored easily. People who fancy they love you will also always stop you writing, and that I could not afford.
Egan’s Life in London and Sporting Guide had merged with Bell’s Life in London in 1827. I maintained a freelance association with Bell’s, but the pay was nowhere near as decent or reliable as it had been under Egan’s stewardship. The fashion for jolly journeys to the underworld appeared to have passed, and like many others Egan was no longer the hell-raiser he had been during the Regency. I had also returned to the London Magazine under the editorship of John Taylor, but the man was an idiot and the magazine ceased publication in 1829.
Ainsworth, with whom I had become quite tight, had also put me onto Arliss’s Pocket Magazine and the European, but these were tuppenny-ha’penny outfits which had a poor circulation and paid a pittance. I threw a few gothic tales their way, but could have made more money tailoring. Unfortunately, nothing fired the public imagination in the same way as ‘Wilhelmina the Werewolf Woman.’ The thought of that story still made me very angry; very few experiences feel quite as hideous as that of another stealing your work and then making a fortune out of your labours, although, to be honest, the publishers were almost as bad in this regard as the plagiarists. Egan and Ainsworth had both attempted to be ethical publishers, always a recipe for disaster, and their liberal and gentlemanly principles had made them very little in the way of profit. In commerce, one has to be ruthless, which was the undoing of us all, because we were dreamers by nature, and fundamentally honest, which was a terrible handicap in business.
I was on a better wicket making regular contributions of short fiction, articles and reviews to the New Monthly Magazine and the Quarterly Review. I could also always sell my ‘Horrible Discovery’ articles to the press, and I made quite a bit of money out of Burke and Hare and the Murder at the Red Barn. The Morning Chronicle would always take ’em, and I even managed to flog a few to the ‘Thunderer.’ I was also one of the original ‘Fraserians,’ and regularly attended the literary club which formed itself around the Regent Street premises of Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country.
I could thus never bring myself to write for Blackwood’s, although I doubt they would have given me the time of day on account of my affiliations with their professional rivals, especially Hugh Fraser himself, but also Henry Colburn at the New Monthly. Then there was my association with the European, which was considered positively seditious because of its support of the Catholic cause. I was nevertheless presented to William Blackwood at Prince’s Street by Ainsworth during a visit to Edinburgh, but the encounter was not an agreeable one. I got on much better with Archie Constable at the Edinburgh Magazine, and was soon getting regular work from him, which further made me persona non grata with Blackwood’s.
I also made the acquaintance of Thomas De Quincey in Edinburgh, a small, nervous, rat-like man with a shockingly keen intelligence. ‘We have met before, I fancy,’ said he, taking my hand limply and looking me over with eyes like foxholes in long fallen snow.
‘I have a similar sense of déjà vu, sir,’ I confessed, although we got no further and thus politely concluded that we had formed visual impressions based upon the reading of each other’s work.
Only later did I place him as the opiated imp that had chased me down Camden High Street in 1826. In consequence of this unlikely reunion, I fell off the wagon for a week of which I have no recollection whatsoever. When I recovered my senses I found myself alone in a wrecked hotel room, my body stripped and covered in inexplicable cuts and bruises. De Quincey was long gone, and had left me with the bill, subsequently denying all knowledge of this mysterious sojourn. He was a good friend, and a brilliant man, but a dangerous bastard for all that.
What eluded me now was the achievement of a novel. The financial necessity of producing a near constant stream of short articles left no space to hold a long narrative complete within my mind, or the time to physically write it. This was a frustration, as I was reasonably confident that with my professional connections I could find a good publisher, if only I could apply myself to the task. A book-length romance, if it was taken up by the public, which was, admittedly, largely a matter of luck, also had the potential to make a lot more money than the journalism. A literary success could also get me out of Grub Street and into somewhat better social circles than the ones in which I presently moved.
I was finally inspired to put my pen to a large pile of paper through a combination of genuine inspiration and friendly rivalry.
I had remained in touch with Ainsworth, who had married the first girl that came along, and was now saddled with a family in Old Bond Street. He had kept the faith, and had already collaborated on a novel, although no one seemed to have read it, or heard of it, which was largely because he had let his father-in-law act as publisher. I had read the novel though, and thought it fairly good, for a first attempt. Ainsworth was hinting now that he had begun another, this time all of his own creation.
‘This is the one, Jack,’ he would say, but otherwise he quite sensibly kept the subject matter to himself. I did not blame him and took no offence, for there were (and remain) many rogues out there who will steal your idea as soon as look at you, and then swear blind it was theirs all along.
Like me, some of my friend’s short stories had attracted a moderate amount of favourable critical attention, but he had yet to break through professionally. He was desperately ambitious, and reasonably talented, and I must confess that I had no desire to be left behind in this matter. I was equally aware that if Ainsworth was capable of writing a major project around the demands of his nervous wife, her weak and profligate father, and three young daughters, while also practising law (which he loathed), then there was really no excuse for my present state of inertia. I had no such commitments or impediments, and had nought to do when all was said and done but bang out a few column inches every day and a couple of short stories each month.
Despite feeling both shamed and motivated by the industriousness of the local competition, it was Lord Lytton’s Paul Clifford that really set fire to my haystack. The novel was a revelation, and well worth the fiver it cost me for the three volumes. The hero of the title was a chivalrous highwayman (more than a little influenced, I thought, by Schiller), who was driven to a life of crime through poverty. But underneath all the Sturm und Drang, the novel was genuinely revolutionary. Lytton’s tortured protagonist was a radical spokesman who quoted William Godwin from the dock, looking his judge (and us) straight in the eye and proclaiming, ‘I come into the world friendless and poor; I find a body of laws hostile to the friendless and the poor! To those laws hostile to me, then, I acknowledge hostility in my turn. Between us are the conditions of war.’
This was marvellous stuff! I had felt just the same in debtor’s prison, although I had never expressed myself so clearly. But it was not the flash and dash of it all, or even the politics, that so enchanted me. What I loved the most about Paul Clifford was what the author had done with his sources. Like my own reference material during the Marshalsea readings, these had clearly been the chapbooks and broadsheets. Lytton had created a composite fictional highwayman from the pages of the Newgate Calendars, made up of bits of Dick Turpin, Tom King, Claude Duval and the like, but he had parted company with the traditional blend of sanctimony and sensation in favour of the more daring flamboyance of legend. He had dropped his bottle in the third act, however, and Paul Clifford was drearily rehabilitated through love. I would have given him a glorious and unrepentant death. Despite the survival of his protagonist, Lytton’s fundamental formula, I realised, might be adapted and applied to present the outlaws of the last two centuries in a romance, not as the thieves and cutthroats that the originals undoubtedly were, but as heroes of whom Englishmen of all classes might be proud.
It had been eight years since I had allowed myself to think of the Marshalsea, but I realised now that by doing my level best to consciously erase the experience from my memory I had also thrown out the baby with the bathwater, and forgotten all about my old serial. My thoughts turned upon it once more in light of Lytton’s latest, and I began to realise that I might have the novel I so needed half written already.
No writer will ever discard an unpublished piece if he or she can help it, no matter how imperfectly realised it might be, for it may later be required to fill the lacunae of inspiration when the original ideas have dried up and the money run out. I thus began to ransack my lodgings in a feverish excitement, intent on locating my ancient manuscript, which I felt certain was still in my possession somewhere. I was right, for it turned out to be stuffed in a small sack beneath the bed, still in the remains of my prison bible.
I am all in favour of leaving a manuscript to mature. If you are able to resist looking at a piece for a reasonable interval you will, upon your return, surprise yourself with material you had forgotten that you wrote. Horace recommended ten years for a piece to age, which is rarely practical, but I took it to be a good omen as I was only two years off. Although it was well past midnight, I went to my writing table and immediately began to read, straining to interpret the faded handwriting upon the filthy pages by the light of single candle, my body tense with anticipation and anxiety.
After the first few pages I began to relax. From time to time I still inwardly winced at some terrible simile and made a correction with a square pencil, or hissed aloud in pain and embarrassment and struck out entire passages. But on several occasions I also felt more or less satisfied with what my younger self had written, impressed even, at its energy and originality. I even laughed at a few of the jokes, and when the story abruptly ceased I was struck by an overwhelming desire to know what would happen next. It was hardly Waverley, but as incomplete first drafts went, this was far from terrible, and I slept very little that night for planning how it might be improved and speedily completed. Like Leviathan, The Shivering of the Timbers was about to rise from the depths.
Having resolved upon a plot, I first set about transcribing the original manuscript, revising as I went along. I had invested in a couple of reams of very good paper for the purpose, and it was a pleasure to feel the nib of a new Mitchell pen scratching and whispering across the page. I had developed an efficient and practical system of production for this project, which was a resolution to work upon it every night, without exception, for a minimum of three hours, upon the conclusion of my daily business, the writing and delivery of short articles and stories.
This was a debt of honour, maintained with a similar fervour to the one I had imposed upon myself a few years previously in order to relieve myself of the pains of opium. The copying of the original manuscript, which translated to about a hundred and fifty printed pages, took me about two months to complete, after which my pace slackened with the grinding commencement of a long literary composition. Some nights it went very well, and I blackened dozens of pages, while others were a slow and tortuous slog to the next scene. But whether the muse was with me or not, I required of myself at least a thousand new words in a sitting before I was allowed to rest. If I had any spare time around the business of life, I worked on my novel, and in six months I had a full first draft. This I then polished for another month, re-copying the final manuscript neatly for two more months after that.
You will remember the story. I retained the original premise, and once more sent the hero, now named ‘Bannockburn’ in honour of my admiration for Sir Walter Scott (I had just read Tales of a Grandfather), and the savage presence from the haunted ship back to the end of the seventeenth century, the golden age of pirates. I took a few minor historical liberties in order to place the likes of Morgan and Kidd in the same period as Blackbeard and Rackham. While there was, in reality, a generation between them, I wanted them all.
I employed a very straightforward plot, inasmuch as the buccaneers either aided Bannockburn (after a few initial misunderstandings), or became adversaries through the possession of the evil spirits. Apart from what I hoped were improvements in setting, character development, pacing, and overall style, I pretty much retained the first half of the tale as it had been originally written and read out in the snuggery.
Captain Kidd was still the hero’s saviour, their paths criss-crossing throughout the narrative, until he saved the day at the end of the second act. ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham, Mary Read and Anne Bonney were Bannockburn’s fellow adventurers, with both the women acting as love interests, often together. The adversary was the possessed revenant of Edward Teach, Blackbeard turned Rottenbeard, and the horribly reanimated crew of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. The main body of the story mostly involved Bannockburn charging about the Caribbean in search of an ancient book of spells, and meeting various famous freebooters along the way. The grimoire was reputedly authored by Zosimos of Panopolis in the third century, and according to a gypsy mystic whose life he had saved, this mythical book held the key to destroying the evil pirate ghosts and returning Bannockburn to his own time. Blackbeard, meanwhile, also desired the book, which he had learned of from a traitor in Kidd’s crew who had jumped ship at Haiti, the undead pirate king’s base of operations. He planned to use the book to raise an armada of drowned souls, bringing about Hell on earth, before destroying it to guarantee the preservation of his unholy existence. Bannockburn finally locates the book in an ancient temple in Imerina, but loses it to Blackbeard soon after in a classic reversal of fortune. The climax of the novel is a prolonged sea battle between the Queen Anne’s Revenge and Rackham’s smaller ship, the Kingston, as Calico Jack fights to save Bannockburn and the ladies, who are imprisoned aboard Blackbeard’s forty-gun galley, and retrieve Zosimos’ book. When all seems hopeless, Kidd arrives in the Adventure Galley and carries the day like Nelson at Trafalgar. The mysterious gypsy is travelling with Kidd, and after Bannockburn has bested Blackbeard on the burning deck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, he employs the book to deport the maleficent dead to an empty dimension.
I wrote the final battle, which is fifty-odd pages in length, in a single, breathless sitting that went on all night and into the better part of the next day. I, too, was possessed. The book concludes with Captain Jack and the ever-ready Mary Read finally pairing off, and Bannockburn and Anne Bonney returned to the present day and wed.
To apply a Classical archetype, the narrative was one of ‘Voyage and Return,’ in which the protagonist had to undertake a difficult and dangerous journey, facing obstacles and forces arranged against him, and ultimately gaining a deeper understanding of himself and the world. I certainly put Bannockburn through some trials, while also humorously playing upon his anachronistic qualities by having him apply his modern intelligence and experience to seventeenth century problems. I was not clever enough at that point to write the kind of political allegory that Lytton had in Paul Clifford, but I felt that I had surpassed His Lordship in terms of social realism, especially in my depiction of the criminal classes. Drawing on my experiences of the Marshalsea and the Fancy, I made liberal use of the slang in dialogue, so whereas Lytton’s outlaws tended to speak like Oxford debaters, my characters really did swear like wounded pirates.
With the manuscript completed, redrafted and copied, the easy part of the process was now concluded. The real work then began. Now I had to sell the bastard.
Colburn and Bentley had published Paul Clifford, but they were no longer in partnership. As I had a previous association with Colburn through the New Monthly, I took my manuscript to his office at Great Marlborough Street in the hope of making a deal. He and Bentley had done well out of Lytton’s highwayman after all, so why not my pirates?
‘I have written a romance,’ said I, trying to sound casual about it.
‘Oh aye,’ says Colburn, equally if not more coolly, ‘what’s it about?’
‘Pirates,’ said I, ‘it is a piratical romance.’
‘Is it, by God,’ said he, for pirates were still popular in the theatres just then, although what I had written was a far cry from nautical melodramas like Black Ralph. ‘Leave it with me, and I’ll see what I can do.’
This was good. This was not a rejection. I was past the first gatekeeper, as it were, having not been immediately told that my work did not fit the publisher’s needs at the present time. A week later I received a note from him which said: ‘I read your novel in one sitting. It is utterly chuckle-headed and preposterous from start to finish, and impossible to put down. Let us talk terms at the earliest opportunity.’
Colburn could always smell a bestseller, and his nose was definitely twitching in anticipation when next we met. I should have been wary of how quickly he produced a contract, especially after the ‘Wilhelmina’ fiasco, but I was young and hungry and he was offering me five hundred quid, which was a king’s ransom as far as I was concerned. (In those days I did not realise that fixed-fee contracts were just a long way of saying, ‘Close your eyes and bend over.’) For this he required all rights to my novel, with a further undertaking that I would produce two more romances within the next five years. I did not know it then, but he was also in a hurry because his spies had brought him word of Bentley’s latest project, and he was desperate to publish first. Cruikshank was engaged to illustrate, and the only conditions imposed upon me were the removal of a scene in which a captured civil servant is forced to eat his own toes, and a subplot in which Teach uses the book of spells to open up a portal to the infernal regions between Anne Bonney’s legs. (The latter episode was later restored in full in the French edition of 1835.)
Cruikshank worked at astonishing speed, and within two months he had produced a set of twelve beautiful engravings, his style by then much darker than it had been in Life in London, and perfectly suited the gothic tone of the novel. My favourite illustrations are of the two women, Bonney and Read, who he depicts as gorgeous Restoration beauties in plate five, and, in plate eight, wild warrior women. I fondly remembered the Whitechapel girls on whom he based these portraits, and the fine time we had together in the days of Tom and Jerry.
Whether through zeitgeist or simple coincidence, Bentley’s secret weapon turned out to be Ainsworth’s Rookwood, which was destined to re-launch heavily romanticised highwaymen in much the same way as I was pirates and parrots, through his canny inclusion of Dick Turpin as a central character in a gothic romance. Lytton may have got there first, but Rookwood was just so much more fun to read, a mad and energetic page-turner that included thirty-odd Flash songs of great jauntiness. (I wished that I had thought of that, although Ainsworth cribbed all his slang from Vaux’s Memoirs of a Transport and his plot, sans the Turpin episodes, from Scott’s St. Ronan’s Well. But nothing’s new these days, is it?) While our publishers raced to the presses like suicidal squires on a steeplechase, we remained the firmest of friends, and it was Ainsworth rather than Colburn who first told me how well my novel was actually doing when the reviews began to appear.
‘I awoke one morning,’ he later liked to joke at banquets, ‘and found Jack and I both famous.’
As was to be expected, the Fraserians supported us both to the hilt, while also taking a fair few shots at Lytton, who had depicted the Fraser’s editor William Maginn as the intellectual charlatan ‘MacGrawler’ in Paul Clifford. ‘With Mr. Ainsworth and Mr. Vincent, all is natural, free, and joyous,’ wrote Jack Churchill, while, ‘with Mr. Lytton all is forced, constrained and cold. Ainsworth and Vincent are always thinking of their heroes and their readers, while Lytton is always thinking only of himself.’ Ainsworth’s songs were quoted and hailed as the most original feature of his book, while I was praised for my linguistic verisimilitude, again at poor old Lytton’s expense. Thackeray celebrated the return of the ‘true picaresque’ in my novel, and called me ‘the new Defoe,’ while Ainsworth was ‘the English Victor Hugo.’ Lytton, he said, ‘had no sense of humour.’
Daniel Maclise drew our portraits in Fraser’s ‘Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters’ (Numbers fifty and fifty-one), putting Ainsworth on horseback in the rig of an eighteenth century highwayman, and dressing me as a pirate with the Jolly Rodger (reputedly designed by Calico Jack Rackham) fluttering behind me. The accompanying caption, written by Maginn, said, ‘You see what pretty fellows are the young Novelists of the Season, and we commend Mrs. Ainsworth for her choice of such a dashing husband. Mr. Vincent, we gather, is as yet unattached, and given how exactly, it must be said, he resembles one of the most classically handsome and brilliant lady-killers of our age’ (he meant Byron, who I supposedly looked like), ‘that if he escapes scot-free during the first month of the blaze of his romance, he is a lucky as well as a well-grown lad.’
The Shivering of the Timbers was doing famously across the board for that matter. Even the reviews in the Tory rags were surprisingly favourable. ‘This story is one that never flags,’ wrote Southey in the Quarterly Review, for example, adding, ‘we expect much from this writer.’ There was even a Bon Gaultier Ballad devoted to me in Tait’s which began, ‘Kidd! Thou should’st be living at this hour: England hath need of thee,’ while Lockhart, in a review for Blackwood’s, begrudgingly admitted that, ‘Some of the later scenes at sea are quite engaging.’ I had respectfully dedicated the book to the memory of Sir Walter Scott, then not long passed, so it would have been disrespectful to ignore or criticise, especially as Lockhart was the son-in-law of the late Enchanter of the North.
All these lovely critical accolades were not quite unanimous. That insufferable and sanctimonious ass John Forster could not resist protesting the success of his contemporaries—he never could—and thus gave us a right kicking in the Examiner.
‘Turpin, Rackham, and Kidd,’ he wrote, ‘whom the writers are pleased with loving familiarity to call “Dick, Jack and Will,” are the heroes of these tales. Doubtless we shall soon see Thurtell and Corder presented in sublime guise, and the drive to Gad’s Hill or the interior of the Red Barn described with all pomp and circumstance. These young authors have, we suspect, been misled by the example of more worthy literary outlaws. But while the words and deeds of Karl von Moor and Rob Roy serve for moral instruction, in Rookwood and The Shivering of the Timbers the highwayman, the pirate and their vulgar, if not obscene, talk are presented as if in themselves they had some claim to admiration.’ He concluded that, ‘There are people who may like this sort of thing, but we are not of that number.’
But this did us no harm. As Ainsworth was fond of saying, there was no such thing as bad publicity, or so it seemed back then, and despite the very occasional suggestions of vulgarity from the likes of Forster, our books outsold everything else published that year, aside from each other.
Even though the Fraserians had used my work as an excuse to fire several broadsides at Lytton, he was extremely gracious in his praise in return. He edited Colburn’s magazine, the New Monthly, so he was hardly likely to undermine a fellow contributor, but he seemed to genuinely like the book. Neither had I in any way stolen his thunder, as had Ainsworth, by writing about highwaymen, and when interviewed by the popular press, I was also free with my praise of Paul Clifford, which I cited as an influence. This naiveté cost me later, for my stated ‘support’ for Lytton put me on the wrong side of his many enemies, most notably Thackeray. I was still very innocent in those days, and thought literary talk was about literature, whereas I now know that it is all about personality, politics and profits.
Lytton also sent me a most flattering letter, and it was his patronage rather than my sales or the quality of my writing that really launched me into the exclusive world of London Letters, because through him I was introduced to Lady Blessington, and thus admitted to her famous literary soirées at Seamore Place on Park Lane, which was, as Nancy would have put it, where all the big nobs hung out.
I was out of my depth, and I knew it, and in that knowledge I should have been safe, but I wanted access to that world very much, and was thus willing to do anything, which is always far more than one should ever be willing to do under any circumstances.
‘They eat their own young up there,’ said Egan of the d’Orsay set, on one of the last occasions I saw him.
I assured him I would be very careful, and thus walked up the scaffold of my own volition, with the invitation to my new friends implicit. Any one of them could pull the lever whenever they chose.
Click here to read Chapter XV