Richard Bentley was born near Fleet Street in London on 24th October 1794. His father, Edward Bentley and maternal uncle John Nichols jointly owned and published the General Evening Post . From 1803 Bentley attended St Paul's School in Barnes.
After leaving school Bentley worked for a time in his uncle's office learning the business of printing. Then in 1819 he joined with his older brother Samuel Bentley (1785–1868) in a printing business, located in Dorset Street. According to his biographer, Robert L. Patten: "This firm, the first to pay artistic attention to wood-engraved illustrations, became arguably the finest printers in London. Established in business, Bentley married Charlotte, daughter of Thomas Botten; their eldest surviving son was George Bentley (1828–1895), afterwards his father's partner and successor."
In August 1829, Bentley joined forces with Henry Colburn to establish a publishing business. In February 1831, Bentley launched Standard Novels, an enormously successful series of monthly one-volume reprints at 6s. each with impressive illustrations. Jane Austen was one of the novelists featured in this series (23, 24, 28 and 30). Other books published by the company were less successful and in their first three years they had 107,070 books printed, exclusive of the Standard Novels, and had 31,845 of these remaindered or pulped.
By 1831 Colburn's debts exceeded £18,000 and the following year Bentley purchased his share of the business for for £6,700. As part of the agreement Colburn was forbidden to publish any new books within 20 miles of London. Bentley had a great deal of success with the novelists, William Harrison Ainsworth and Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
In 1836 Charles Dickens had great success with his serialised Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers. Dickens was now approached by several publishers to handle his next book. John Macrone commissioned Dickens to write a three-volume novel, Gabriel Vardon (renamed Barnaby Rudge), for a payment of £200. Bentley reacted to this by offering Dickens £500 for his next novel. Dickens accepted this proposal and paid off Macrone with £100. Each episode was to consist of about 7,500 words. Bentley also agreed to pay twenty guineas to Dickens in return for becoming editor of his journal, Bentley's Miscellany. The first edition was published in January 1837.
Dickens later explained the reasons why he decided that his next novel would be Oliver Twist. "I wished to show in little Oliver the principle of good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last; and when I considered among what companions I could try him best, having regard to that kind of men into whose hands he would naturally fall... I had read of thieves by scores - seductive fellows (amiable for the most part), faultless in dress, plump in pocket, choice in horse-flesh, bold in bearing, fortunate in gallantry, great at a song, a bottle, pack of cards, or dice-box, and fit companions for the bravest; but I had never met (except in Hogarth) with the miserable reality."
Dickens attempted to do what no novelist had done before. "It appeared to me that to draw a knot of such associates in crime as really do exist; to paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid poverty of their lives; to show them as they really are, for ever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life, with the great, black, ghastly gallows closing up their prospect, turn them where they may - it appeared to me that to do this would be attempting to do something which was greatly needed, and which would be a service to society."
Bentley signed an agreement with George Cruikshank to become the illustrator of Oliver Twist. He was paid £50 for the use of his name as illustrator and 12 guineas for every monthly etching. The first episode appeared in Bentley's Miscellany in February 1837. Each episode consisted of about 7,500 words. Most critics liked the series but Richard Harris Barham disliked the "radicalish tone" of the novel. The Spectator criticised Dickens's use in fiction of the "popular clamour against the New Poor Law". However, he did praise Dickens for his remarkable skill in making use of peculiarities of expression." Queen Victoria read the novel and told her friends that she found it "excessively interesting".
Richard Bentley was pleased with the sales of the journal, and as a way of saying thank you arranged for Dickens to join the Garrick Club. He also presented Dickens with a complete set of his Standard Novels. Dickens responded by inviting Bentley to dine in his new home at 48 Doughty Street. His fellow guests included George Hogarth, John Dickens, Georgina Hogarth and Mary Hogarth. Bentley later recalled that the host sung several songs after dinner: "Dickens was in force and it was a right merry entertainment."
Charles Dickens constantly demanded more money from Bentley for his work being published in his journal. On 21st January, 1839, Dickens wrote to Bentley complaining about their business relationship: "I am conscious that my books are enriching everybody connected with them but myself, and that I, with such a popularity as I have acquired, am struggling in old toils, and wasting my energies in the very height and freshness of my fame, and the best part of my life, to fill the pockets of others, while for those who are nearest and dearest to me I can realise little more than a genteel subsistence."
Dickens then went on to say he was resigning as editor of the Bentley's Miscellany: "I do most solemnly declare that mortally, before God and man, I hold myself released from such hard bargains as these, after I have done so much for those who drove them. This net that has been wound about me, so chafes me, so exasperates and irritates my mind, that to break it at whatever cost... is my constant impulse." Bentley's son George later argued that these negotiations was a "brick in the building of Dickens's character... Dickens was a very clever, but he was not an honest man."
Bentley tried to get Dickens to change his mind but eventually accepted defeat and appointed William Harrison Ainsworth as editor of the journal. Bentley considered taking Dickens to court for breach of contract. He probably would have won his case but it was not considered a good idea for a publisher to sue an author. Dickens described Bentley in a letter to a friend as an "infernal, rich, plundering, thundering old Jew". In doing so he was quoting the comments of Bill Sikes on Fagin in Chapter 13 of Oliver Twist.
Claire Tomalin , the author of Dickens: A Life (2011) has pointed out: "If Dickens is to be believed, each publisher started well and then turned into a villain; but the truth is that, while they were businessmen and drove hard bargains, Dickens was often demonstrably in the wrong in his dealings with them. He realized that selling copyrights had been a mistake: he was understandably aggrieved to think that all his hard work was making them rich while he was sweating and struggling, and he began to think of publishers as men who made profits from his work and failed to reward him as they should. Chapman & Hall kept on good terms with him largely by topping up what they had initially agreed with frequent extra payments."
Bentley also had problems with William Harrison Ainsworth and George Cruikshank. As his biographer, Robert L. Patten, has pointed out: "Within a few years Ainsworth and Cruikshank too had severed relations with Bentley because of editorial and financial disputes, partly stemming from the very success of their enterprises, which were governed by contracts that did not allow sufficiently for additional remuneration and enhanced editorial control.
Bentley continued to make money from his publishing ventures. His authors included Benjamin Disraeli, Frances Trollope, Caroline Norton and Theodore Hook. He also had virtually a monopoly on American authors: the Standard Novels eventually printed twenty-one by James Fenimore Cooper. However, he now faced competition from other publishers and he was forced to reduce the price of his Standard Novels to unprofitable levels.
The Bookseller argued that Bentley's "judgment was at times warped by his predilections, and he frequently over-estimated the value of works offered him". Facing bankruptcy, he sold Bentley's Miscellany to Ainsworth for £1700 in October 1854. The firm's debts to family members, authors, and suppliers were so great that its stock, copyrights, stereo plates, steel etchings, and bound volumes were sold in three auctions in February 1856, July 1856 and July 1857.
Bentley continued to publish books and had considerable success with the controversial novel, East Lynne, by Ellen Wood, that went through four editions in six months in 1861. On 27th January 1866 Bentley purchased Temple Bar from George Augustus Sala for £2,750 and persuaded Edmund Yates to become its editor. Bentley was forced to retire from the business after having a serious accident at Chepstow Railway Station.
Richard Bentley died at Ramsgate on 10th September, 1871.
I am conscious that my books are enriching everybody connected with them but myself, and that I, with such a popularity as I have acquired, am struggling in old toils, and wasting my energies in the very height and freshness of my fame, and the best part of my life, to fill the pockets of others, while for those who are nearest and dearest to me I can realise little more than a genteel subsistence.... I do most solemnly declare that mortally, before God and man, I hold myself released from such hard bargains as these, after I have done so much for those who drove them. This net that has been wound about me, so chafes me, so exasperates and irritates my mind, that to break it at whatever cost... is my constant impulse.
If Dickens is to be believed, each publisher started well and then turned into a villain; but the truth is that, while they were businessmen and drove hard bargains, Dickens was often demonstrably in the wrong in his dealings with them. He realized that selling copyrights had been a mistake: he was understandably aggrieved to think that all his hard work was making them rich while he was sweating and struggling, and he began to think of publishers as men who made profits from his work and failed to reward him as they should. Chapman & Hall kept on good terms with him largely by topping up what they had initially agreed with frequent extra payments.
© John Simkin, March 2013