- Adventures in the Marketplace with H. Rider Haggard:Author-Publisher Relations in Mr. Meeson’s Will
In An Essay written in 1893 for a series in the Idler called “My First Book,” a certain author recounts his humble beginnings in the world of professional letters.1 He acknowledges his recent success, but in keeping with the series theme he expands on his early struggles, emphasizing his ignorance of publishers, contracts, and the entire business of literature. In fact, he closes the essay with a story about a disadvantageous contract he had signed in terms that contrast the author’s innocence with the publisher’s guile. The anecdote begins rather melodramatically: “I will tell a moving tale, that it may be a warning to young authors forever.”2 The author then goes on to describe the contract he signed which would allow the publisher to republish in cheap form all his future work for a five-year period. Referring to the contract as an “artful document” and a “fatal agreement,” the author explains that such an agreement would prevent his selling work to other publishers and so placed him in “bondage” and “servitude” to the designing publisher. We learn that new authors are all too likely to fall into such traps, since they “are proverbially guileless when they are anxious to publish their books, and a piece of printed paper with a few additions written in a neat hand looks innocent enough.”3 This author was fortunate in having a diplomatic literary agent who renegotiated his contract and saved him from ruin, but not all new authors are so lucky. The tale, then, serves as a cautionary lesson for future authors, recounted in the hope that “If it saves one beginner so inexperienced and unfriended as I was in those days from putting his hand to a ‘hanging’ agreement … it will not have been set out in vain.”4
If pressed to identify the victim of this lamentable tale, one might suggest George Gissing, who profited from his books (when they were [End Page 497] profitable) less than his publishers, or Thomas Hardy, who struggled to break into the fiction market.5 But not so. Rider Haggard’s is the voice of the aggrieved author. Given the popularity of his adventure stories and professional success, Haggard would seem to be an unlikely candidate for the role of victimized author. This unexpected discrepancy serves as the starting point for an examination of author-publisher relations in the early part of Haggard’s career represented in Mr. Meeson’s Will (1888).
It is a novel in the vein of New Grub Street, an insider’s dramatization of the life of a struggling author whose chief obstacle to success is an avaricious publisher. Haggard, being Haggard, enlivens the Grub Street tale with a voyage to Australia, a shipwreck on an island in the South Indian Ocean, a voyeuristic tattooing incident, a contested will, and a marriage at the end. But of chief interest in the novel is Haggard’s representation of the conflict between author Augusta Smithers and the villainous publisher Meeson and that conflict’s resolution. Mr. Meeson’s Will has received its fair share of critical attention recently, owing chiefly to the curious incident of the tattooed will (Meeson’s will in fact), which by a strange turn of events is tattooed upon the heroine’s back. Garrett Stewart, LeeAnne Richardson, and Patricia Murphy have all brought feminist interpretations to bear on the novel, focusing on the significance of the tattooed heroine’s transformation from writer to textual object.6 Such an objectification, even punishment, of the female author is linked to the male author’s anxiety over the perceived dominance of women writers in the latter decades of the century. What is missing from these otherwise persuasive discussions, however, is a sustained focus on the business of authorship as it is represented in the text. The feminization of letters, while an important context for Mr. Meeson’s Will, has been overemphasized at the expense of the biographical context—that is, Haggard’s experience of authorship from his early publishing successes and missteps to his later years as a...