The House of Smith Elder

George Smith Jnr

George Murray Smith (1824-1901) was a publisher well known to Wilkie Collins. He took over his father firm Smith, Elder in 1846 and published After Dark in 1856. In 1861 he won the bidding war for Wilkie's next novel but one which became Armadale, published in his new Journal The Cornhill Magazine and in two volumes in 1866. In the 1870s he re-published one volume editions of several of Wilkie's books.

In 1899 the Australian writer William Henry Fitchett (1841-1928) visited England and wrote down George Smith's reminiscences. They were never published but this book by family friend Leonard Huxley relied heavily on them. 

In December 1864, overlapping “Denis Duval,” “Armadale” began, a story in twenty numbers from the pen of Wilkie Collins, which in critical estimation upheld the reputation of a skilful weaver of plots which he had won with “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone.” (p92)

George Smith’s introduction to Wilkie Collins came through Ruskin, who must have known Collins’ father, the R.A. Ruskin one day brought George Smith the MS. of Collins’ novel, “Antonina.” But a novel with a classical subject was not tempting, and it was declined. However, when he was writing “The Woman in White,” Smith, Elder wrote that they would like to make an offer for the book, which appeared serially in All the Year Round. In January 1860, Wilkie Collins received an offer from another firm, and wrote to give Smith, Elder their promised opportunity.

George Smith had not read the serial of what was probably the most popular novel issued during the century, and the sequel, as told in his own words, illustrates his remark that “My life was crowded with so many, and such diverse interests, that not seldom in publishing matters I had to decide things in what may be called a happy-go-lucky manner; and sometimes this cost me dearly.”

“On receiving Wilkie Collins’ letter (he writes) I asked three or four of my clerks if they had read the tale, but none of them knew anything about it. Wilkie Collins had asked for an early decision; I had to go out to dinner that night, and I dictated a hasty note, making him an offer of £500, and told my clerk to send the letter off.  

“The lady sitting beside me at dinner that night was a bright and lively talker, and she somewhat startled me by asking, ‘Have you read that wonderful book “The Woman in White”?’ I said, ‘No, have you? ‘ ‘Oh, yes!’ she said, ‘everybody is raving about it. We talk “Woman in White” from morning till night!’ If I had heard that piece of gossip a couple of hours earlier, it would have multiplied my offer to Wilkie Collins fivefold.

“I went to town earlier than usual next morning, and asked directly I reached my office, ‘Have you sent that letter to Mr. Wilkie Collins?’ ‘Yes,’ was the reply; ‘you said you wanted it sent quickly and it was delivered by hand.’ If my offer had been multiplied tenfold I should have made a large sum by the transaction; but my hasty original offer cost me the pleasure and profit of publishing * The Woman in White.’“

However, George Smith published all his later books, and took over Sampson Low’s interest in the books already published by them. “Armadale” was written for the Cornhill, appearing from October 1864 onwards. Wilkie Collins had indeed arranged to contribute to the first number, but though he had “honestly tried” to write Smith, Elder an article, he gave up the attempt because, owing to the pressure of other work, he found it impossible to do justice alike to Smith, Elder and to himself. Subsequently, though Wilkie Collins’ books were selling very fairly,

“their writer believed he might secure a much larger constituency of readers. The books, he was persuaded, would have an enormous sale if published at a very cheap price. Wilkie Collins, in a word, almost—though not quite—anticipated the modern sixpenny editions. He wished to publish his books not exactly at that low rate, but for a shilling or two shillings—I forget which. I did not share Wilkie Collins’ views on the subject, and said I would not have any part in an enterprise which, I believed, would land him in a disappointment. His books were, accordingly, transferred to Messrs. Chatto & Windus, and the experiment of cheap editions was tried. Whether the result quite satisfied Wilkie Collins himself I do not know, but it is possible that my judgment as to the policy of low-priced editions was wrong. (pp152-154)


Leonard Huxley The House of Smith Elder Privately Printed 1923.

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