The Struggle for Fame: An Interview with Charlotte Riddell

[Melissa Edmundson, editor of our new edition of Charlotte Riddell’s The Uninhabited House (1875), shares the following excerpt from Helen C. Black’s interview with Riddell, published in Notable Women Authors of the Day (1893).]

Helen C. Black’s interview with Charlotte Riddell provides a fascinating insight into the author’s private life and professional career. Black visited Riddell at her home in Upper Halliford, Middlesex, England, and their conversation includes details about Riddell’s early years in Ireland and her struggles to become a published author after moving to London with her mother in the mid-1850s. Riddell takes Black on a tour of her home, including the garden, which is complete with many flowers, trees, and the author’s prized chickens. Toward the end of the visit, Riddell shares the following anecdote about a visit to the publisher Thomas Cautley Newby at his offices in London, years after she attained fame with her bestseller George Geith of Fen Court (1864). As was common for many women authors of the Victorian period, Riddell used pseudonyms throughout her career. These include “R.V.M. Sparling,” “Rainey Hawthorne,” “F.G. Trafford,” and “Mrs. J.H. Riddell.” Riddell’s description of Newby’s surprise—and disbelief—that she was indeed “the author of George Geith” showcases her characteristic humor and gift for storytelling.   

But it is getting dark, and tea is ordered as a preparation for your cold journey; whilst sipping it, she says that as you are so much interested in her own early “struggle for fame,” she will mention one more anecdote à propos of Mr. Newby, as it is amusing, and she relates it thus: “In those early days he—Mr. Newby—was good enough to take a book of mine. Of course he only knew me by my maiden name, because after my mother’s death Welbeck Street lay quite out of my way, and I fear I ungratefully forgot the cheerful fire, and the talks about authors, which were once so pleasant.

“For this reason he knew nothing of my doings. The years came and the years went, till after the crash came in our affairs; when I was looking about me for every five-pound note I could get, I bethought me of this and another old book, which I can never sufficiently regret republishing. Well, I found I could sell both of them, and forthwith repaired, after all that time, to Mr. Newby’s, where nothing looked much changed, and no one seemed much older, except myself, who had lived many lives in the interval.

“Of course both Mr. Newby and Miss Springett had a vague memory of me, when I reminded the former that he had published Zuriel’s Grandchild. What I wanted was a copy of the book. He feared he had not one, but promised to ascertain. I can see them both now in that warm, comfortable back room, into which, as a girl, I had often gone shivering.

“He took a seat on one side of a large table, she on the other. I sat facing Mr. Newby—a most anxious woman, yet amused.

“‘Have you,’ he said delicately, ‘gone on at all with literature?’

“‘Oh, yes,’ I answered.

“‘Have you—published anything?’ with great caution, so as not to hurt my feelings.

“‘Several books,’ I replied.

“‘Indeed!!!’ amazed. ‘Might I ask the names?’—tentatively.

“‘Well, amongst others, George Geith.’

“A dead silence ensued, during which I had the comfort of feeling that they both felt sure I was saying what was not true. I sat quite quiet, and so did they. If I had not been so burdened with care I must have laughed out loud. As it happened, I comported myself, as I have often done since, in many difficult and humorous positions, with decent gravity, and then this came from Mr. Newby, the while the ribbons on Miss Springett’s cap were tremulous:

“‘If—you really wrote George Geith, then indeed you have achieved a success!’”

Posted on June 7, 2022