Ready Money Mortiboy by Walter Besant

image not available NOT the very first. That, after causing its writer labour infinite, hope exaggerated, and disappointment dire, was consigned, while still in manuscript, to the flames. My little experience, however, with this work of Art, which never saw the light, may help others to believe, what is so constantly denied, that publishers do consider MSS. sent to them. My MS. was sent anonymously, without any introduction, through a friend. It was not only read—and refused—but it was read very conscientiously and right through. So much was proved by the reader's opinion, which not only showed the reasons—good and sufficient reasons—why he could not recommend the manuscript to be published, but also contained, indirectly, certain hints and suggestions, which opened up new ideas as to the Art of Fiction, and helped to put a strayed sheep in the right way. Now it is quite obvious that what was done for me must be constantly and consistently done for others. My very first novel, therefore, was read and refused. Would that candidates for literary honours could be made to understand that refusal is too often the very best thing that can happen to them! But the gods sometimes punish man by granting his prayers. How heavy may be the burden laid upon the writer by his first work! If anyone, for instance, should light upon the first novels written by Richard Jefferies, he will understand the weight of that burden.

My first MS., therefore, was destined to get burned or somehow destroyed. For some years it lay in a corner—say, sprawled in a corner—occupying much space. At dusk I used to see a strange, wobbling, amorphous creature in that corner among those papers. His body seemed not made for his limbs, nor did these agree with each other, and his head was out of proportion to the rest of him. He sat upon the pile of papers, and he wept, wringing his hands. 'Alas!' he said: 'Not another like me. Don't make another like me. I could not endure another like myself.' Finally, the creature's reproaches grew intolerable; so I threw the bundle of papers behind the fire, and he vanished. One had discovered by this time that for the making even of a tolerable novel it is necessary to leave off copying other people, to observe on your own account, to study realities, to get out of the conventional groove, to rely upon one or other of the great emotions of human nature, and to try to hold the reader by dramatic presentation rather than by talk. I do not say that this discovery came all at once, but it came gradually, and it proved valuable.

One more point. A second assertion is continually being heard concerning editors. It is said that they do not read contributions offered to them. When editors publicly advertise that they do not invite contributions, or that they will not return contributions, it is reasonable to suppose that they do not read them. Well, you have heard my first experience with a publisher. Hear next an experience with editors. It is, first, to the fact that contributions are read by editors that I owe my introduction to James Rice and my subsequent collaboration with him. It was, next, to an unsolicited contribution that I owed a connection of many years with a certain monthly magazine. It was, lastly, through an unsolicited contribution that I became and continued for some time a writer of leading articles for a great London daily. Therefore, when I hear that editors will not read contributions, I ask if things have changed in twenty years—and why?

drawing signed: Yours faithfully
James Rice

I sent a paper, then, unasked, and without introduction, to the editor of Once a Week. The editor read it, accepted it, and sent it to the press. Immediately afterwards he left the journal because it was sold to Rice, then a young man, not long from Cambridge, and just called to the Bar. He became editor as well as proprietor. The former editor forgot to tell his successor anything about my article. Rice, finding it in type, and not knowing who had written it, inserted it shortly after he took over the journal, so that the first notice that I received that the paper was accepted was when I saw it in the magazine, bristling with printer's errors. Of course I wrote indignantly to the editor. I received a courteous reply begging me to call. I did so, and the matter was explained. Then for a year or two I continued to send things to Once a Week. But the paper was anything but prosperous. Indeed, I believe there was never any time during its existence of twenty years when it could be called prosperous. After three years of gallant struggle, Rice concluded to give it up. He sold the paper. He would never confess how much he lost over it; but the ambition to become proprietor and editor of a popular weekly existed no longer in his bosom, and he was wont to grow thoughtful in after years when this episode was recalled to his memory. During this period, however, I saw a great deal of the management, and was admitted behind the scenes, and saw several remarkable and interesting people. For instance, there was a certain literary hack, a pure and simple hack, who was engaged at a salary to furnish so many columns a week to order. He was clever, something of a scholar, something of a poet, and could write a very readable paper on almost any subject. In fact, he was not in the least proud, and would undertake anything that was proposed. It was not his duty to suggest, nor did he show the least interest in his work, nor had he the least desire to advance himself. In most cases, I believe, he simply 'conveyed' the matter; and if the thing was found out, he would be the first to deplore that he had 'forgotten the quotes.' He was a thirsty soul; he had no enthusiasm except for drink; he lived, in fact, only for drink; in order to get more money for drink he lived in one squalid room, and went in rags. One day he dismissed himself after an incident over which we may drop a veil. Some time after it was reported that he was attempting the stage as a pantomime super. But fate fell upon him; he became ill; he was carried to a hospital; and pneumonia opened for him the gates of the other world. He was made for better things.


Again, it was in the editor's small back room that I made the acquaintance of a young lady named Julia, whose biography I afterwards related. She was a bookbinder's accountant all the day, and in the evening she was a figurante at one of the theatres. I think she was not a very pretty girl, but she had good eyes—of the soft, sad kind, which seem to belong to those destined to die young; and in the evening, when she was dressed, she looked very well indeed, and was placed in the front.

To the editor's office came in multitudes seedy and poverty-stricken literary men; there were not, twenty-four years ago, so many literary women as at present, but there were many more seedy literary men, because in those days the great doors of journalism were neither so wide nor so wide open as they are now. Every one, I remember, wanted to write a series of articles. Each in turn proposed a series as if it was a new and striking idea. A certain airy, rollicking, red-nosed person, who had once walked the hospitals, proposed, I remember, to 'catch science on the Wing—on the Wing, sir'—in a series of articles; a heavy, conscientious person, also red-nosed, proposed, in a series of articles, to set the world right in Economics; an irresponsible, fluttering, elderly gentleman, with a white waistcoat and a red nose, thought that a series of articles on—say the Vestries of our Native Land, would prove enormously popular; if not the Vestries, then the Question of Education, or of Emigration, or—or—something else. The main point with all was not the subject, but the series. As it happened, nobody ever was allowed to contribute a series at all. Then there were the people who sent up articles, and especially the poor ladies who were on the point of starving. Would the editor only—only take their article? Heavens! what has become of all these ladies? It was twenty-four years ago; these particular ladies must have perished long since; but there are more—and more—and more—still starving, as every editor knows full well.


Sometimes, sitting in that sanctum, I looked through their MSS. for them. Sometimes the writers called in person, and the editor had to see them, and if they were women, they went away crying, though he was always as kind as possible. Poor things! Yet what could one do? Their stuff was too—too terrible.

Another word as to the contributions. In most cases a glance at the first page was sufficient. The MS. was self-condemned. 'Oh!' says the contributor; 'if the editor would only tell me what is wrong, I would alter it.' Dear contributor, no editor has time for teaching. You must send him the paper complete, finished, and ready for press; else it either goes back or lies on the shelf. When Rice handed over the paper to his successor, there were piles of MSS. lying on all the shelves. Where are those MSS. now? To be sure, I do not believe there was one among them all worth having.

Rice wrote a novel by himself, for his own paper. It was a work which he did not reproduce, because there were certain chapters which he wished to re-write. He was always going to re-write these chapters, but never did, and the work remains still in the columns of Once a Week, where it may be hunted out by those who are curious. One day, when he was lamenting the haste with which he had been compelled to send off a certain instalment, he told me that he had an idea of another novel, which seemed to him not only possible, but hopeful. He proposed that we should take up this idea together, work it out, if it approved itself to me as it did to him, and write a novel upon it together.

His idea, in the first crude form, was simple—so simple that I wonder it had never occurred to anybody before. The prodigal son was to come home again—apparently repentant—really with the single intention of feigning repentance and getting what he could out of the old man and then going back to his old companions. That was the first germ.

When we came to hammer this out together, a great many modifications became necessary. The profligate, stained with vice, the companion of scoundrels, his conscience hardened and battered and reckless, had yet left, hitherto undiscovered, some human weakness. By this weakness he had to be led back to the better life. Perhaps you have read the story, dear reader. One may say without boasting that it attracted some attention from the outset I even believe that it gave an upward turn—a last gasp—to the circulation of the dying paper.

When—to anticipate a little—the time came for publishing it, we were faced with the fact that a new and anonymous novel is naturally regarded with doubt by publishers. Nothing seems more risky than such a venture. On the other hand, we were perfectly satisfied that there was no risk in our novel at all. This, of course, we had found out, not only from the assurances of Vanity, but also from the reception the work had met with during its progress through the magazine. Therefore, we had it printed and bound at our own expense, and we placed the book, ready for publication, in the hands of Mr. William Tinsley. We so arranged the business that the printer's bill was not due till the first returns came from the publisher. By this artful plan we avoided paying anything at all. We had only printed a modest edition of 600, and these all went off, leaving, of course, a very encouraging margin. The cheap edition was sold to Henry S. King & Co. for a period of five years. Then the novel was purchased outright by Chatto & Windus, who still continue to publish it—and, I believe, to sell it. As things go, a novelist has reason to be satisfied with an immortality which stretches beyond the twenty-first year.

In another place I am continually exhorting young writers never to pay for production. It may be said that I broke my own rule.

But it will be observed that this case was not one in which production was 'paid for,' in the ordinary sense of the term—it was one of publication on commission of a book concerning which, we were quite certain, there was neither doubt nor risk. And this is a very good way indeed to publish, provided you have such a book, and provided your publisher will push the book with as much vigour as his own.

Now, since the origin of the story cannot be claimed as my own, I may be allowed to express an opinion upon it.


The profligate, with his dreadful past behind him, dragging him down; the low woman whom he has married; the gambler, his associate; the memory of robbery and of prison; and with the new influences around him—the girl he loves, pure and sweet, and innocent; the boy whom he picks out of the gutter; the wreck of his old father—form together a group which I have always thought to be commanding, strong, attractive, interesting, much beyond any in the ordinary run of fiction. The central figure, which, I repeat, is not my own, but my partner's initial conception, has been imitated since—in fiction and on the stage—which shows how strong he is. I do not venture to give an opinion upon the actual presentment or working out of that story. No doubt it might have been better told. But I wish I was five-and-twenty years younger, sitting once more in that dingy little office where we wrangled over this headstrong hero of ours, and had to suppress so many—oh! so very many—of the rows and troubles and fights into which he fell even after he became respectable. The office was handy for Rule's and oysters. We would adjourn for the 'delicious mollusc,' and then go back again to the editor's room to resume the wrangle. Here we would be interrupted by Julia, who brought the bookbinder's account; or by the interesting but thirsty hack, who brought his copy, and with it an aroma of rum; or by the airy gentleman who wanted to catch science on the Wing, sir—on the Wing; or by the Economic man; or by the irresponsible man, ready for anything. In the evening we would dine together, or go to a theatre, or sit in my chambers and play cards before resuming the wrangle—we used to take an hour of Vingt-un, by way of relaxation. And always during that period, whatever we did, wherever we went, Dick Mortiboy sat between us. Dear old Dick grew quiet towards the end. The wrangling was finished. The inevitable was before him; he must pay for the past. Love could not be his, nor honour, such as comes to most men, nor the quiet vie de famille, which is all that life really has to give worth having. His cousin Frank might have love and honour. For him—Dick's brave eyes looked straight before—he had no illusions; for him, the end that belongs to the nineteenth-century ruffler, the man of the West, the sportsman and the gambler, the only end—the bullet from the revolver of his accomplice, was certain and inevitable. So it ended. Dick died. The novel was finished.


Dick died; our friend died; he had his faults—but he was Dick; and he died. And alas! his history was all told and done with; the manuscript finished; the last wrangle over; the fatal word, the melancholy word, Finis, written below the last line.