Saturday, 25 October 2014

Harriette Wilson and John Murray: Surviving the Brutal Rejection

In July I wrote a blog about bad reviews and how they have always been an occupational hazard for writers. (July 2014, Dismal Trash: The Time-Honoured Art of the Bad Review).  This time I’m looking at another literary tradition: the brutal rejection.

Harriette Wilson (1786–1845) was the daughter of a clockmaker in Marylebone who went on to carve out a career for herself as a courtesan. Her clients included some of the most rich and famous men in the land, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, amongst them. Harriette also fancied herself something of a writer. She set about writing her memoirs, but found it a “tiresome” occupation and “a few pages” in grew tired of it. She did not give up her ambition, however. With the encouragement of her friends, she decided to find out if her memoirs were worth publishing. She took her few pages to John Murray, Byron’s publisher. 

Harriette approached Murray “in much fear and trembling”. She explained that she had little confidence in her work, and sought his opinion as to whether she should continue with it. Alas, like many a beginner she was to receive a crushing response. Murray “looked on me with as much contempt as though Ass had been written on my countenance”. He said, “with much rudeness”, that she could leave her manuscript if she liked. She did so, although she was convinced that he had already made up his mind not to look at it. The manuscript was duly returned to her without comment, which confirmed her suspicion that Murray had not even read it.  

She thought it “really cruel to thus damp a beginner” and says she lost whatever shred of confidence she had in her work. She was sure it was “trash” and felt nothing but contempt for it. However, like many a writer before and since, in spite of these protestations she did not quite believe it as bad as all that and she did not give up. Unable to face admitting that the work was her own, she submitted it anonymously to another publisher. She insisted that she did so only to obtain confirmation that it was no good in order to stop herself from again falling prey “to the mania of scribbling”. Four days later she received a letter telling her that he wanted to publish her memoirs. Author and publisher would share the expenses and the profits.  

The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, Written By Herself was published in four volumes in 1825. The book was an immediate success. Thirty editions were printed in its first year, and the publisher’s office was besieged by members of the public wishing to buy a copy.  

And again like many a writer before and since, Harriette dreamed of getting her revenge on the publisher who had so cruelly rejected her. If she had been capable of writing poetry, she declared, she would have sent Murray some verses thanking him for being so rude to her. The man she had thought would be wiser than anyone else, whose decree “I will stand by”, became “old, purblind Murray” as soon as he failed to see the merit in her work.  

Was Harriette’s writing any good? Sir Walter Scott did not think so: “the wit is poor, but the style of the interlocutors exactly imitated”. Harriette’s biographer K D Reynolds describes a subsequent novel (Clara Gazul, 1830), as “weak”.  

I think the truth is that Harriette really did not care all that much about the quality of her work. Her goal – and one she spectacularly met – was to make money. She ensured her book’s profitability even if it did not sell by charging former clients £200 apiece to be left out of it. She kept this lucrative blackmail racket going until 1830. Interestingly, a friend of Harriette’s had advised her to use her own name in the Memoirs as this would ensure it sold – making it an early example of a celebrity best-seller. In the event Harriette was able to retire comfortably on the profits from book sales. 

I can’t help suspecting that John Murray was not so “purblind” to the book’s literary merit after all – though he did miss out on a commercial opportunity!*


* Or perhaps not – I was amused to notice that the paperback edition I have was originally published by John Murray in 1957!


K D Reynolds, ‘Wilson , Harriette (1786–1845)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 [] 

Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, ed Lesley Blanch, (London: Phoenix Press, 2003)