Titbits

In Brief

Looking for something to read in the outhouse, Bloom finds "an old number of Titbits" in the drawer of the downstairs table. Tit-Bits was a weekly British magazine founded by the publisher George Newnes, first issued in October 1881. It pioneered modern forms of popular, low-brow journalism, but despite the suggestive title and some sensational elements it was not in the least pornographic. (Photo Bits, on the other hand, certainly was.) Bloom reads a fictional story in the magazine and wishes that he too could publish a story there—as did James Joyce.

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Much later, starting in 1939 and continuing for many decades, Tit-Bits covers often featured pin-up photographs of beautiful women in scanty clothing that revealed bountiful breasts. It seems likely that Victorian and Edwardian male readers would have heard a pun in the magazine's name. As a word for nipple or breast, "tit" is quite old, and Molly thinks of it in Penelope: "yes I think he made them a bit firmer sucking them like that so long he made me thirsty titties he calls them I had to laugh yes this one anyhow stiff the nipple gets for the least thing." But a tit-bit or tid-bit was a tasty morsel of food, the sense that Stephen has in mind in Proteus when he thinks of minnows becoming "fat of a spongy titbit" after chewing on the drowned man's corpse.

According to the lead column in the first issue, the magazine's tasty morsels consisted of "extracts" from "the most interesting papers and books" to be found around the world. The purpose was to entertain as much as to inform: the reader would encounter "interesting incidents, amusing anedcotes, pithy paragraphs," and he would acquire "a stock of smart sayings and a fund of anecdote which will make his society agreeable." The magazine was designed to reach a mass audience, much of which (as Arthur Conan Doyle observed) had only become literate after passage of the Elementary Education Act in 1870. Many of its articles were only a paragraph long, it was printed on cheap paper, and it sold for one penny. Jokes were its chief draw. Kelly Mays observes that by the time represented in Ulysses it had grown to a circulation of over a million copies a week in Britain alone ("The Publishing World," in A Companion to the Victorian Novel, ed. Patrick Brantlinger and William B. Thesing [Blackwell, 2002], 23).

But in addition to its extracts from other publications the paper also published new fiction starting in 1889, and it sponsored well-paying competitions to attract good writers. P. G. Wodehouse published an early humorous piece, "Men Who Missed Their Own Weddings," in the magazine in November 1900. Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence all submitted stories. The issue that Bloom reads on the toilet features "Our prize titbitMatcham's Masterstroke. Written by Mr Philip Beaufoy, Playgoers' Club, London. Payment at the rate of one guinea a column has been made to the writer. Three and a half. Three pounds three. Three pounds, thirteen and six."

In Calypso, kindly envying Mr. Beaufoy his handsome remuneration, Bloom thinks that he too "Might manage a sketch," perhaps inventing a story to illustrate "some proverb," using bits of his wife's conversation. In Nausicaa, having just seen a "nobleman" passing by, he thinks that he could write a "prize titbit story" called The Mystery Man on the Beach, or maybe instead one on "that fellow today at the graveside in the brown macintosh." In Eumaeus he wonders whether he could "meet with anything approaching the same luck as Mr Philip Beaufoy" if he wrote down My Experiences in a Cabman's Shelter.

Emulation of Philip Beaufoy runs through all these meditations, and in Circe Bloom is put on trial as "A plagiarist. A soapy sneak masquerading as a literateur. It's perfectly obvious that with the most inherent baseness he has cribbed some of my bestselling copy, really gorgeous stuff, a perfect gem, the love passages in which are beneath suspicion. The Beaufoy books of love and great possessions, with which your lordship is doubtless familiar, are a household word throughout the kingdom."

All this literary self-referentiality is capped by the supreme joke that Mr. Beaufoy is himself a plagiarist: his Matcham's Masterstroke borrows from a silly story that Joyce, hoping to win a prize, submitted to Tit-Bits when he was a student at Belvedere College in his middle teens, in the late 1890s. In My Brother's Keeper, Stanislaus Joyce remarks that "'That Titbits paper' was the only one my father used to read for general culture" (92). Jim apparently wrote his story mostly as a joke, but like Bloom he would have been happy to receive payment for it.

JH 2017
The first issue of Tit-Bits, from 22 October 1881. Source: www.madameulalie.org.
Issue of Tit-Bits from 23 November 1889. Source: magforum.files.wordpress.com.
Issue of Tit-Bits from 13 May 1961. Source: www.tilleysvintagemagazines.com.