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Bentley's Miscellany

Source:
Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens
Author(s):
Kathryn ChittickKathryn Chittick

Bentley's Miscellany 

A monthly magazine (1837–68) was started in January 1837 by the publisher Richard bentley, who asked Dickens to be its first editor. In October 1836 Bentley approached Dickens about becoming the editor of a new miscellany intended to rival Colburn's New Monthly Magazine, just a few months after he had signed a contract with the young author for his first two novels. On the verge of purchasing the ‘old’ Monthly Magazine begun in 1796, Bentley had been persuaded by his clerk Edward S. Morgan (whose ‘Brief Retrospect’ of 4 July 1873 in the Bentley archive provides most of what is known about the origins of the Miscellany) to start an entirely new monthly publication, a ‘Wits' Miscellany’ of humorous papers. There was to be no mere reprinting of extracts: the miscellany was to consist entirely of original articles by commercial authors. It was to begin on 1 January 1837 and to be illustrated by George cruikshank, who had just done Sketches by Boz. Cruikshank's appeal as a satirist was established, and ‘Boz’ was rising fast as a humorous commodity. Apparently, Dickens suggested the change from the ‘Wits'’ miscellany to ‘Bentley's’ (‘But why go to the other extreme?’ quipped Richard Harris barham). The style of the new name drew obviously upon a resemblance to other ‘flash’ magazines of the day, Fraser's and Blackwood's, and such a reputation was important to Bentley's designs for this new property. William maginn, the editor of Fraser's, was engaged to write the first half of the new magazine's introductory Prologue.

The second part of the Prologue, perhaps written by Dickens, represents the new post-Regency consciousness: the disavowal of political topics (‘we have nothing to do with politics’) and the attempt to conciliate both Tory and Whig is not in the early-19th-century style of magazine-writing. Dickens's journalism, unlike that of Maginn, never depended on party-political slanging, and Bentley's humour was to be gentle and without rancorous ‘personality’—the precise ingredient Fraser's and Blackwood's were notorious for. The Miscellany was not a social gathering of tavern ‘wits’ but a commercial collection of all Bentley's most profitable authors, most of whom were only respectably talented. Bentley could not have coped with a wayward Maginn or Lockhart, whose antics required strong nerves and deep pockets in a publisher.

If Bentley, in buying a new property and hiring a young editor, self-consciously tried to do the opposite of Colburn, still a number of their contributors overlapped. Theodore hook, appointed editor of the New Monthly Magazine by Colburn, was a ‘Bentley author’, and his piece on the playwright George Colman was the first article in the Miscellany. Frugal Bentley did not throw away so easily the contracts he had made while in partnership with Colburn: as such, the magazine was more of a publisher's list than a coterie of congenial authors. Seventeen of the 22 contributors advertised in December 1836 were Bentley authors, and so were ten of the fifteen contributors to the first issue. Blackwood's and Fraser's had been known for the outrageousness of their ‘personality’; Bentley's had little or none of this: its contents for the first issues are merely a dilute solution of Regency facetiousness: approximately a hundred pages of comic verse, sentimental songs, travelogues, essays on topics from dentistry to theatre history, and short fiction.

Dickens's own contribution to the first issue of Bentley's (January 1837) consisted of a short satirical tale, ‘The Public Life of Mr Tulrumble, Once Mayor of Mudfog’, set in the village of Mudfog (later the ‘Mudfog Papers’, satirizing scientific associations, appeared in October 1837 and September 1838, when Oliver Twist was not appearing). In March 1837 he also published ‘The Pantomime of Life’ (a satire of London street-life and parliamentary antics), and in May 1837 ‘Some Particulars Concerning a Lion’ (literary lionism). In both issues, these articles were published under the general heading ‘Stray Chapters by Boz’, showing the humorous expectations still invoked by his pseudonym. Oliver Twist also began in February 1837 as a short satirical piece (‘The Progress of a Parish Boy’) set in the town of Mudfog—which by now represented an England where modern Malthusian and Whig reforms held sway. The success of the story's continuation showed what direction the readers preferred to see in a magazine. What the Miscellany began to offer was a very Victorian commodity: long runs of popular fiction like Oliver Twist, Samuel Lover's Handy Andy, and William Harrison ainsworth's Jack Sheppard. The successes of Bentley's Standard Novels list were redeployed in his magazine. But this economical recycling of publisher's property meant that Dickens's possibilities for shaping a new magazine were in fact limited. Most of the authors advertised were names now obscure: William Hamilton Maxwell, Charles Whitehead, Charles Ollier, Francis Mahony, John harley, Thomas Haynes Bayly, Gilbert à Beckett, James Sheridan knowles, John Hamilton Reynolds, and Richard Harris Barham.

With some of these Dickens enjoyed a briefly convivial acquaintance of sociable outings; for others he had nothing but a young man's scorn. During the period of his editorship (January 1837–January 1839), he and Bentley did hold a number of dinners and small parties, but even before nine months had passed, Dickens had begun to leave the Miscellany's affairs to Bentley. They had fallen out during the summer of 1837 over Bentley's refusal to accept Oliver Twist, then running as a serial in the magazine, in lieu of the ‘second novel’ of Dickens's personal contract with him. Dickens was also offended by Bentley's insertion of articles that he had never seen in the September 1837 issue, and he declared: ‘By these proceedings I have been actually superseded in my office as Editor of the Miscellany’ (16 September 1837).

In this month, when relations between publisher and writer were suspended, Dickens withheld the instalment of Oliver Twist (hence the ‘Mudfog’ satire on the British Association for the Advancement of Science, called ‘Full Report of the First Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything’ in October 1837), and threatened to resign but was persuaded to stay on, till the final break came in January 1839. In the short time between October 1836 and September 1837 Dickens had become too distinctive a commodity for Bentley's list, and in the development of his friendship with John forster during this time also, he became aware of his commercial value to publishers.

Dickens bade farewell to his readers in his ‘Familiar Epistle From a Parent to a Child Aged Two Years and Two Months’ (February 1839), in which he hinted at his frustration with Bentley's interference. To Bentley, he recommended William Harrison Ainsworth as the next editor. Ainsworth was taken up by Bentley reluctantly, but in the same month his serial Jack Sheppard, widely seen as a second Oliver Twist, became the next great hit of the Miscellany. The sales of the magazine even rose to a high of 8,500 copies. But during 1841–2 they began to decline, and Ainsworth, who was as frustrated with Bentley as Dickens, resigned in December 1841. Bentley then became sole editor. Sales declined to a fraction of what they had been in 1839, and the lack of a strong serial at the front of the Miscellany in 1852 now made it seriously out of step with the trend that it had established. In November 1854 Bentley sold the magazine to Ainsworth, who became editor and proprietor until December 1868. Under Ainsworth it jogged on respectably enough with a mixture of serial fiction and serious political articles. However, the final twist came when Bentley's son then repurchased it from Ainsworth (sales had fallen to 500) and extinguished it in his other property, Temple Bar.

Kathryn Chittick

Bibliography

Gettmann, Royal A., A Victorian Publisher: A Study of the Bentley Papers (1960).Find this resource:

    Morgan, Edward S., ‘Brief Retrospect’ (4 July 1873), in Publishers' Archives: Richard Bentley & Son 1829–98 (1976; Microfilm).Find this resource: