The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VI. Caricature and the Literature of Sport

§ 5. Combe

William Combe had begun his literary career with The Diaboliad (1776), a savage satire in verse on a nobleman (said to have been Simon, lord Irnham), whose cast-off mistress he had married on a promise of money, that was not paid. Its successors, The Diabo-lady and The Anti-Diabo-lady, are equally spirited. Combe, as a satirist, is still readable for the vigour and rapidity of his verse; but he had not the temperament nor the talent to achieve greatness. In life and letters alike he was unprincipled; and among his deceptions are the spurious Letters of the late Lord Lyttelton, and the spurious Letters of Sterne to Eliza, in writing which, no doubt, he drew upon the acquaintance with Sterne which he had formed in Italy. As a hack-writer for a publisher he was valuable, and never more so than when he wrote for Ackermann the verses that were to accompany Rowlandson’s drawings of the adventures of Dr. Syntax, as the travelling clergyman was named. The work was done, by both artist and author, under extraordinary conditions. A certain quantity had to be supplied monthly for publication in Ackermann’s Poetical Magazine. One drawing at a time only was sent to Combe, then a man of sixty and confined for debt in the King’s Bench prison. Combe, thereupon, wrote, or dictated, the requisite number of lines (the printer, as the story goes, waiting in Combe’s presence for his “copy” lest the dilatory author should postpone his task). In this disjointed fashion, these two very unsystematic workers produced a poem of nearly ten thousand lines, illustrated by thirty plates and a pictorial frontispiece. It would be juster to say that they produced thirty plates and a pictorial frontispiece illustrated by nearly ten thousand lines. The ideas were Rowlandson’s; Combe, the writer, played the part usually played by the illustrator; and the combination provides a capital early instance of an imaginative work written to fit pictures already drawn. The practice continued. This was the genesis of The Pickwick Papers; and the modern writer of serial stories for illustrated magazines suffers (if he may be said to suffer) in good company.