Meanwhile, having finished his B.A. at King’s, he took instead a clerkship in a government office, where he suffered for four unhappy years. From this he escaped into legal studies at the Inner Temple in London and in the middle 1860s he became a barrister-at-law, or practicing trial attorney. His new calling was a promising one, and gave him a knowledge of both the wonders and absurdity of the law upon which he would draw repeatedly in his theatrical writing and in his practical business dealings. He felt himself handicapped by nervousness and inadequacy as an advocate, however, and he did not prosper in the four years he was officially involved in this work. To fill in dull stretches and to augment his still-meager income, Gilbert almost immediately plunged into literary activity, producing verses and more plays. The creation of the humorous journal, Fun, drew him into the writing of comic articles, illustrated by his own drawings-for which he had shown talent equal to his literary skills. He became a regular contributor, perfecting his skills at witty and satirical writing. He even made a unique venture into political satire in a wickedly nasty verse piece pillorying the French Emperor Napoleon III- “Napoleon the Little”, as he called him-for hypocrisy and deviousness. Entitled The Lie of a Lifetime; or, The Modern Augustus, it was accompanied by his own savage caricature drawings. Gilbert extended his work to such other publications as Punch (with which, though, he developed a life-long feud for its early scorn for him), while also writing theatrical criticism for The Illustrated Times and even serving (1870) as a war-correspondent for The Observer. Meanwhile, the first of his plays to receive London production was staged at the end of 1866: entitled Dulcamara, or The Little Duck and the Great Quack, it was a riotous parody of the plot of Donizetti’s opera, L’elisir d’amore, and initiated Gilbert’s lifelong propensity for spoofing the operatic repertoire of his day.
In August of 1867 Gilbert signaled the gradual improvement in his condition by taking a wife. He had known Lucy Agnes Turner-daughter of an officer who had served in India-as a family neighbor for some years. He was then thirty-one, she only twenty, but her knowing and sympathetic and good-humored temperament was to make her a supportive partner for a long, warm (though childless) married life. (She never showed jealousy for his admiring but harmless cultivation of female friends or associates, and he remained enduringly affectionate with her.) He called her “Kitten” and then “Kits,” resulting in the nickname “Kitty” by which she came to be known in their circle. They settled into a series of rented households in Kensington, as Gilbert achieved growing recognition. A collection of his short stories (some of them later expanded into plays) was published in 1869.
The same year saw the launching of what became one of his most successful sidelines: comic verses illustrated by his own amusing drawings. As a child he had been known by the nickname of “Bab” (for “Baby”), and he used this signature for the drawings. These “Bab Ballads” attracted increasing attention, and so he made a series of collections of them for publication. The first set, The Bab Ballads, was issued in 1869, and was followed four years later by More Bab Ballads. He made a new selection taken from both the earlier collections, and prepared new illustrations, published in 1876 as Fifty Bab Ballads; and then, in 1898, he revised some of these verses anew, with yet new illustrations, mingling them with selected lyrics from the operettas, as the anthology Songs of a Savoyard. In various forms, the “Bab Ballads” were the first vehicle of Gilbert’s success and a continuing dimension of his popularity.
Along the way, however, Gilbert was establishing himself as a new force in London’s theatrical world. His initial ventures were in the form of burlesques-free-wheeling parodies of existing plays or operas, their texts written in verse. One of these was a dramatization (1870) of Tennyson’s poem The Princess, about a university for ladies, a subject to which he would return later. In another, La Vivandière (1868), Gilbert transferred the witty style of the “Bab Ballads” to scenes spoofing English chauvinism and insularity. And in 1870 Gilbert was at work on another parody, an adaptation of a French comedy to be called The Palace of Truth, when a composer named Frederic Clay, who was writing music for some of Gilbert’s plays, introduced him to one of Clay’s own friends, a budding young musician who had been contributing music to one of the same theaters they all served-a certain Arthur S. Sullivan. Puzzled over a technical question of musical theory he had to discuss in his new play, Gilbert on the spot asked Sullivan’s advice, phrasing the question with probably deliberate obscurity. The befuddled Sullivan was not sure how to answer and begged off. The encounter had not been a propitious one and when, a little later, Sullivan was asked to write music for an operetta text Gilbert was writing, he declined. Indeed, such was the good work that Gilbert was doing with Clay, it was only a failure of projects to materialize that prevented a Gilbertandclay pairing from heading off the Gilbertandsullivan of the future.