Recovering Gabriel Alexander: Changing Bylines and the Transatlantic Circulation of William Wallace
I worked with Justin Gilbert to present at the 2020/2021 Research Society for Victorian Periodicals conference “Revolution(s), Evolution(s), Circulation(s)”, held virtually September 8-11, 2021 at Temple University, Philadelphia.
Last year, we presented a Twitter taster since the conference had been postponed. This year, we were assigned the podcast format.
Many thanks to my cousin Dan St-Jean for the audio editing and to Tom Clark for his guest appearance. All photographs below are from Justin Gilbert’s private collection.
I am William Wallace, and I see a whole army of my countrymen, here, in defiance of tyranny. […] but they’ll never take our freedom!
Before being portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart, the 13th-century Scottish rebel William Wallace had been immortalized in print. Robert Burns celebrated him in song. Jane Porter told his story in her greatest success, the historical novel The Scottish Chiefs, published in 1810. Sir Walter Scott spoke of him in his Tales of a Grandfather, which appeared in 1828.
Burns and Scott are some of the most famous Scottish literary figures. Jane Porter, whose novel was the most influential telling of the tale, grew up in Edinburgh before her family moved to London in her teens. It might therefore be surprising to find that George W. M. Reynolds wrote Wallace: The Hero of Scotland, published by Stringer & Townsend in New York in 1849.
Reynolds was an Englishman, a brand name all the way to the U.S. thanks to his incredibly successful penny weekly serial The Mysteries of London launched five years earlier. The American publishers Stringer & Townsend divided the best-seller into two parts retitled Life in London and Ellen Munroe. With Wallace: The Hero of Scotland, they had kept the title of the reprinted novel intact, but they had changed the byline.
Indeed, Reynolds was not the author of Wallace. Someone at the firm had decided that splashing Reynolds’s name over the advertisements and title page would sell more copies of their reprint. That person had erased the actual author, Gabriel Alexander, from Scotland like his literary predecessors tackling William Wallace.
This podcast sheds light on issues of professional identity and authorship in the cheaper end of the early Victorian market for fiction.
Wallace began serialization early in 1847. It was released over 34 weeks in penny weekly numbers and sixpenny monthly parts by Reynolds’s publisher, John Dicks. It was also advertised in their penny weekly magazine, Reynolds’s Miscellany.
The full title in the first advertisement was “Wallace: The Hero of Scotland; or, The Scottish Chiefs. An Original Tale”. It placed the work in a direct lineage with Jane Porter’s novel, by then more than a generation old. The ad was run before the first number was distributed. On the actual sheets, no mention of The Scottish Chiefs.
Advertisements are thus useful when no other evidence is available, but they do not necessarily reflect an edition’s peritext accurately. Nor does that peritext reflect actual authorship, as we see with American reprints.
Surprisingly, in the end papers of the Harvard copy of another Stringer & Townsend reprint, sandwiched between full-page advertisements for The Shakespeare Novels and a translation of Alexandre Dumas, there is a full page dedicated to Wallace, a “New Scottish Romance”, this time correctly attributed to Gabriel Alexander. This advertisement must have been crafted before the decision was made to change the byline to Reynolds.
Much care was given to the ad with the creation of fake British reviews of the novel purported to have been extracted from The Scotsman in Edinburgh as well as the Examiner, the Weekly Dispatch, and The Times in London. The last one states: “The author is evidently a young writer”. The marketing department in New York conjuring up a fake Times review was wrong.
Gabriel Alexander was no young up-and-coming author. When Wallace was released in London, he was 54 years old while both Reynolds and their publisher, John Dicks, had not yet reached 33.
Alexander started writing in Edinburgh for the periodical press. In his late thirties, he moved to London, still a writer, or at least enough to quality for financial assistance from the Royal Literary Fund in 1834. Seven years later, in the first census ever held in England, Gabriel Alexander is listed as a “writer”, living among printers in Southwark, the borough south of the Thames across from the City.
I believe it is around this time that Alexander met Reynolds, in the tumultuous years between his Pickwick Abroad and the major success of The Mysteries of London. I think he reviewed three of Reynolds’s books in The Monthly Review and contributed to Reynolds’s twopence weekly, The Teetotaler, two periodicals published at the same time by the same man, George Henderson.
Whether or not I’m right about these earlier connections between Reynolds and Alexander, the latter’s byline starts appearing in 1847 on short stories in Reynolds’s Miscellany. It disappears from the magazine and from title pages for more than two years, but reappears in the periodical’s pages in May 1850 with short stories and the illustrated nine-part series “Sketches in the Great Metropolis”, featured on the front page.
That “Great Metropolis” was of course London. Alexander would return to Scottish subjects with Robert Bruce, the sequel to Wallace. It was the second in a string of four novels that saw Alexander’s writings distributed in weekly eight-page numbers in a nearly uninterrupted streak until his death three years later.
A periodical writer for most of his life, Gabriel Alexander thus finished it as a novelist, a move he did not seem to foresee. Age 58, he told the 1851 census enumerator that he was an advocate, pointing to his first career. An advocate is the Scottish equivalent to the English barrister, a type of lawyer opposed to the solicitor in British legal systems.
The streak of four novels started with Madalene Lisle; or, the maid of Kent, issued by Samuel Yeoman Collins, a publisher in his mid-twenties who regularly advertised in Reynolds’s Miscellany. The novel ran for two thirds of 1851.
|Madalene Lisle; or the Maid of Kent (London: S. Y. Collins, 1851)|
|Robert Bruce, the Hero-King of Scotland (London: John Dicks, 1852)|
|Lilias, the Milliner’s Apprentice (London: John Dicks, 1853-54)|
The next year, John Dicks issued Robert Bruce, the hero-king of Scotland, a novel about William Wallace’s successor. It ran for 56 weekly numbers, a whole year plus an additional month. Afterwards, Lilias, the milliner’s apprentice ran for a year and Adelaide; or, the trials of a governess had to be wrapped up in 20 weekly numbers because of Alexander’s death.
When that last one, Adelaide, was reprinted for 50 cents in the United States by Theophilus Beasley Peterson, better known as T. B. Peterson, it was attributed to John Frederick Smith, a.k.a. “J. F. Smith”, a growing name in English popular literature that was much more likely to attract readers than the little known Scotsman Gabriel Alexander.
He was not the only victim of the American reprinters’ reattributions. They sold the works of lesser-known French authors under the byline of Eugène Sue, the popular author of romans-feuilletons whose Mystères de Paris set off the Mysterymania of the 1840s on which Reynolds capitalized.
Reynolds did not deem it necessary to celebrate his lesser known colleague, 20 years his senior. Alexander published over 50 articles and short stories in Reynolds’s Miscellany over seven years. His last, “The Promised Kiss”, appeared in the issue dated November 25th, 1854. He died on the 26th and was buried two days later.
A short two-sentence obituary appeared in The Athenæum dated December 9. It did not mention Wallace or any of Alexander’s other novels. However, that is where we learn he edited the Monthly Review. As I said earlier, Reynolds and Alexander might have crossed path there as early as 1839, which would mean they would have known each other for twice the time they spent collaborating on Reynolds’s Miscellany.
Two months after he had passed away, Alexander’s obituary was reprinted in the New York publishing trade weekly, Norton’s Literary Gazette. Alexander’s name thus crossed the Atlantic in death. During his lifetime, it had only appeared in New York in an advertisement for a reprint that would not bear his name after all.
The Athenæum obituary was also quoted in Reynolds’s Miscellany, in the “Notices to Correspondents” section on the very last page of volume 13. The editor adds:
Mr. Alexander was the author of “Wallace,” “Robert Bruce,” “Lilias, the Milliner’s Apprentice,” &c., which works were published at our office. Mr. Alexander was likewise a constant contributor to the Miscellany. He was in his earlier days a member of the Scotch bar, and an intimate friend of Sir Walter Scott.
As the name of the section indicates, the “Notices to Correspondents” section was used to answer the questions mailed in by readers. Fake reviews are nothing new, and the section was also used for “native advertising” —to use a 21st-century term— puffing one’s own publications or those of a partner in a setting meant to answer reader questions.
The unreliability of the “Notices to Correspondents” section casts doubt on the fact that a reader with the initials O. Y. really did notice the Athenæum obituary and wrote in to Reynolds’s Miscellany enquiring whether this was the same Gabriel Alexander as the one whose writings it published.
I can forgive American publishers’ decision to reprint Alexander’s first and last novels under the bigger names of George W. M. Reynolds and J. F. Smith. I cannot however forgive Reynolds who did not deem it necessary to celebrate in the main pages of his magazine its “constant contributor” for close to a decade.