John Frederick Smith, the popular author of the serial “Minnigrey,” published in the London Journal, was born in Norfolk in 1804. He published his first 3 volume novel, “The Jesuit,” before he was twenty and then wandered through Europe, Russia and the Holy Land, supporting himself by contributing articles to English and European periodicals as well as authoring dramas.
One of these articles was the “Death of the Mother of Napoleon,” from the Freemason’s Quarterly, 1836. He lived in France until 1848 then fled from the Revolution back home to England where he began his association with the London Journal. His historical romances were for the most part illustrated by John Gilbert, (later Sir John Gilbert, R. A.,) who drew his pictures without preliminary sketches, directly onto the woodblock, which was then cut away by a talented “woodpecker.”
The sensational serial “Minnigrey,” commenced on October 11, 1851, and made J. F. Smith a famous author. “Only Odysseus could bend the bow of Ulysses; and only J. F. Smith can handle as it deserves to be handled the immense intrigue devised by the author of Minnigrey,” gushed an anonymous critic at The Saturday Review in 1886.
Henry Viztelly said that the serial caused circulation of the London Journal to reach half-a-million copies. The story was translated into a dozen languages and was a sensation in the Dominion and America. Smith’s dramatic character driven romances matched the taste of the penny public, and in 1853 melodramas based on “The Will and the Way,” and “Women and Her Master,” thrilled crowds at both the City of London and the Victoria theatres.
Ralph Thomas recalled in Notes & Queries that in 1853 he searched mixed piles of dated penny periodicals outside the Holywell street booksellers for back numbers of “Minnigrey” and “The Will and the Way,” at four for a penny. The illustrations were more important to his collection than the text. Thomas recalled that the “individuality of each character in Gilbert’s illustrations was always recognizable without the slightest doubt. If a new person was brought in, we wondered, from the drawing, what part he (or she) was going to play in the story.”
Smith transferred his pen from the London Journal to Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper and may have moonlighted for Reynolds’s Miscellany at that time as well, “The Lamplighter,” an 1854 serial adapted from a hit melodrama of the Little Nell type, seems to be in his remarkable style. A critic for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine noticed his work in Cassell’s in 1858 and was suitably impressed. (The Byways of Literature, Aug. 1858):
“We, for our own part, had supposed ourselves aware of the names at least of all the English lights of literature -- but our recent investigations have undeceived us. Here is one personage, for instance, whom rival publications vie for the possession of, and whom the happy successful competitor advertises with all the glow and effusion of conscious triumph, -- J. F. ; nay, let us be particular, -- John Frederick Smith, Esq. This gentleman is a great author, though nobody (who is anybody) ever was aware of it. We have no doubt that nothing but a conspiracy of spiteful critics could have kept his name so long veiled under this envious obscurity. He is “the author of ‘Dick Tarleton,’ ‘Phases of Life,’ ‘The Soldier of Fortune,’ ‘The Young Pretender,’ ”&c. ; yet we protest we never read a word of his writings, nor heard a word of his existence, until we spread out our sixpenny budget of light literature upon the June daisies. What matter? His portrait, from a photograph by Mayall, may be had in all those regions where his sway is acknowledged; and the everybody, who is nobody, bestows upon him that deep-rolling subterraneous universal applause which is fame. And we never knew of it! - with humiliation we own the limited and imperfect boundaries of our information; yet at the same time, by this public confession, exonerate ourselves from all share in the guilt of putting down or covering over the acknowledged genius of John Frederick Smith, Esquire.”
The Montreal Family Herald and Star Weekly, “Canada’s National Farm Newspaper,” ran serials from the London Journal and the British Family Herald story papers. One serial with the sensational title “The Hidden Ring; or, Satan Outwitted,” was begun on July 28, 1881. This had embarrassing consequences for the Family Herald, who did not realize that, just then, the celebrated J. F. Smith was residing across the border at Plattsburg, N. Y. On October 5, 1881 a headline blared
“MINNIGREY! By J. Frederick Smith. The story was commenced in the Star under the title of “The Hidden Ring,” and the original title of “Minnigrey” has been restored as the author was suffering injustice by the change.”
On re-issue of “Minnigrey” by Bradley & Co. in 1886, a reviewer for the Saturday Review stated erroneously that Smith was already dead. Smith was very much alive at the time. He died on or near May 7, 1890 in Plattsburg, New York at the ripe old age of 86. The Quarterly Review said in December of that year, Smith “founded a school of romance (begun by G. W. M. Reynolds) which is with us today.”
A writer for the New London Journal in 1906, on the paper’s reprinting of “Minnigrey,” said; “The present writer was in communication with him shortly before his death. His last days were happy and peaceful, and mainly occupied by pleasant talk about the old days when he lived the Bohemian life with such men as Douglas Jerrold, Charles Dickens, Sheridan Knowles, Bulwer Lytton, Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Sue.”
Anecdotes about Smith, “the most popular novelist in the world,” have a mythical quality and were repeated on both sides of the ocean whenever the subject of the eccentric “penny-a-liner” came up in a newspaper column. While in Rome, it was reported a church dignitary was seen leaving a house of ill repute. Smith suggested to the proper authorities that a reward be posted for the discovery of the true identity of the imposter in cardinal’s dress who had been observed leaving the premises and was made a Papal count.
“Those who worked in the offices of these two journals have many stories of him. Imagine a florid Bohemian, genial, red-cheeked, with thick curly hair, a loud, happy-go-lucky creature wearing a baggy blue overcoat. He would appear at the office in the morning when his salary fell due - never before ; would send out for a bottle of port and call for a boy to bring him writing-paper, blotting-paper and last week’s copy of the journal in which his novel was running. Hastily glancing over it, he satisfied himself as to the exact predicament in which he had last left his lovely heroine, and then unbuttoning his overcoat and choosing one from a pocketful of stubby quill pens, he wrote like a madman for two or three hours. At the end of this time he had completed another installment of the exciting story which was thrilling the souls of literally a million readers.
It was not always so. Publishers sometimes have had to follow him as far as to Jersey, and mount guard over the gifted author until the necessary “copy” was extracted; but we speak of ordinary days, when, tossing his uncorrected copy to the boy in attendance, he received his weekly stipend, and sending one boy for a good cigar and another to see that no dun haunted the front doorstep, the most popular author in the world stepped out upon the pavement and vanished for another week into some region where creditors, who vex the lives of Bohemians, could never discover him.”
J. F. McR. Was an acquaintance of Smith’s and added the following to his legend;
“Having handled Smith’s MS., I can appreciate the observation that he “wrote like a madman,” and used villainous quills. He was indeed the scourge of all such as set up types and emend the impressions thereof. His handwriting was exquisitely small. He would carefully loop all his t’s, cross all his l’s, dot everything possible except his i’s. Then, having fully indulged every darling vice of the slovenly penman, he would “mak siccar” by smearing the whole of each ink-wet page, apparently with his coat-sleeve. Naturally he was worshipped by the printers. Hence it was, that in an after-dinner speech at a wayze-goose, his press-corrector boldly laid claim to the joint-authorship of “Minnigrey,” on the ground that he (the corrector) and the compositors had been able to decipher barely one quarter of the words in that masterpiece, had “fudged for” another quarter, while the remaining half was entirely the fruit of the said corrector’s own ingenious vamping.
“Smith, like Thackeray, wrote with the devil ever at his elbow. The imp was one day startled by the sudden and unprecedented cessation of Mr. Smith’s pen. It was as if the sun had stood still. Still more was the boy amazed when this readiest of writers began to nibble his stodgy quill, gaze abstractedly at the grimy ceiling, take dreamy pulls at the port-wine, and, in fact, give every symptom of mental bankruptcy. When at length his ideas began again to flow, he gave them oral expression; but they were then totally unfit for publication. The devil by a laugh reminded the author of his presence. Turning upon him fiercely, Smith demanded, “Boy! Your name -- quick!” “George Markham, sir.” Never a word responded Smith, but, frowning portentously, at once resumed his fierce scribbling. The devil trembled lest suspension should follow naming. His mind was set at rest, however, when, in devouring the next installment of Mr. Smith’s novel, he found that his own name - George Markham - had been given to a new character in the tale. Thus did this lofty genius fling fame and immortality to the devil.”
The devil’s story was later used by J. M. Barry in his novel Tommy and Grizel, the penny author of the book (named Pym) was obviously based on stories about Smith.
Another story was related by Frank Jay in Peeps into the Past;
“John Cassell enticed J. F. Smith away from the LONDON JOURNAL, on to some publication of his own (‘Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper’), and the pair kept the affair a profound secret. Smith, who always wrote his weekly installment of ‘copy’ at the LONDON JOURNAL office, chanced to be in the middle of a story for Stiff at the moment he had chosen for abandoning him. In this dilemma he had decided upon bringing the tale to a sudden close and to accomplish this artistically he blew up all the principal characters on board a Mississippi steamboat, and handed the “copy” to a boy in waiting. Thus, proud of having solved a troublesome difficulty, he descended the stairs, drew his payment for the installment, and directed his steps to La Belle Sauvage Yard, to take service under his new employers.
“When Stiff saw the number after it was printed off, and recognized how completely he had been tricked, he was thunderstruck: but he speedily secured a new novelist, Pierce Egan, the younger, I believe, who ingeniously brought about a resurrection of such of the characters as it was advisable to resuscitate, and continued the marvelous story in the LONDON JOURNAL for several months after.”
The only problem with this story is that it appears to have been a fantasy, the story referred to is “Masks and Faces,” commencing in the London Journal (Vol. 21, No. 539,) in 1856, Smith quit after the 12th chapter and the serial was concluded by Miss Emma Robinson, not Egan. No such incident as the explosion on the Mississippi steamboat occurs in the chapters attributed to Smith, but a similar story is mentioned by Ambrose Bierce in the Devil’s Dictionary under “Penny-A-Liner,” where the original story is attributed to an American author.
In later days Smith’s stories were often reprinted, “Amy Laurence; or, The Freemason’s Daughter,” (London Journal Vol. XIV No. 346, January 25, 1851,) was re-issued in 104 penny numbers by Henry Lea in 1860.
Frank Jay relates in Notes & Queries, April 8, 1922;
“Smith was a pure Bohemian, and it is related of him that whilst in the height of his popularity and enjoying the income of an Under-Secretary of State, he lived in seclusion in a boarding-house in Bloomsbury and would not associate himself with his fellow writers, one reason for this exclusiveness being his deafness, which prevented him from entering into profitable conversation with others.”
The Saturday Review notice, (Nov. 13, 1886,) after his (supposed) death, had this to say of Smith;
“What is certain is that J. F. Smith was a hard-working man of letters of the type (let us say) of Ponson du Terrail; that, if his English was elaborate and his sentiment a trifle obvious, he had a prodigious fund of invention; and that in his time he amused the toiling millions as much as anybody who has ever worked for them, the poet of Rocambole not excepted.”
*All illustrations by Sir John Gilbert R.A. from the John Dicks edition of Minnigrey.