Literature and the Stage



ENGLAND was throbbing if not with literature at least with print. Not only had population grown, especially in the towns and above all in London, but literacy had spread as a necessity of commerce and industry and city life. The burgeoning bourgeoisie took to books as a distinction and a relief; women took to books and thereby gave audience and motives to Richardson and the novel. The reading public was further expanded by circulating libraries, of which the first on record was set up in 1740; soon there were twenty-two in London alone. The collective middle class began to replace the individual aristocrat as the patron of literature; so Johnson could flout Chesterfield. Government subsidies no longer—as formerly with Addison, Swift, and Defoe—commanded superior pens through political plums.

The bitter conflicts of Whigs and Tories, of Hanoverians and Jacobites, and the increasing involvement of England in Continental and colonial affairs whetted the appetite for news, and made the newspaper a force in British history. In 1714 there were eleven newspapers regularly published in London, most of them weekly; in 1733 there were seventeen, in 1776 fifty-three. Many of them were subsidized by political factions; for as demos raised its voice moneyed minorities bought newspapers to dictate its thoughts. Nearly all newspapers contained advertisements. The Daily Advertiser, founded in 1730, was at first given over entirely to advertisements; but soon, like our morning Leviathans, it added a fillip of news to bolster its circulation and raise its advertising fees. Some historic magazines were born in this period: The Craftsman (1726), Bolingbroke’s scourge of Walpole; The Grub Street Journal (1730–37), the sharp tongue of Pope; The Gentleman’s Magazine (1731), which gave Johnson a berth; and The Edinburgh Review(1755), which died only temporarily in 1756. Many English newspapers and journals are still alive after two hundred years of publication.

All these periodicals—daily, weekly, or monthly—gave the press a power that added something to the perils and vitality of British life. Robert Walpole, while forbidding the publication of parliamentary debates, allowed journalists to attack him with all the virulence of eighteenth-century literature. Montesquieu, coming from censored France, marveled at the liberty with which Grub Street pelted Downing Street with poisoned ink.1 A member of Parliament complained to the Commons in 1738 that

the people of Great Britain are governed by a power that never was heard of, as a supreme authority, in any age or country before. This power, Sir, does not consist in the absolute will of the prince, in the direction of Parliament, in the strength of an army, in the influence of the clergy; it is the government of the press. The stuff which our weekly newspapers are filled with is received with greater reverence than Acts of Parliament; and the sentiments of these scribblers have more weight with the multitude than the opinion of the best politicians in the Kingdom.2

Printers worked with new fury to meet the widened demand. In London there were 150, in all England three hundred; two of them in this age, William Caslon and John Baskerville, left their names on fonts of type. Printing, publishing, and bookselling were still in most cases united in the same firm. One living firm, Longmans, was born in 1724. The word publisher usually denoted the author; the man who brought out the book was the bookseller. Some booksellers, like Johnson’s father, carried their wares to the fairs, or peddled them from town to town, opening a stall on market days. Their charge for a bound volume varied from two to five shillings; but a shilling in 1750 was worth approximately $1.25. Parliament had passed a copyright act in 1710, which secured to an author or his assigns the property rights to his book for fourteen years, with an extension to twenty-eight years if he survived the first period. This law, however, protected him only in the United Kingdom; printers in Ireland and Holland could publish piratical editions and (till 1739) sell them in England in competition with the bookseller who had paid for the book.

Under these conditions of risk the booksellers drove hard bargains with authors. Usually the writer sold his copyright for a flat sum; if the volume went unexpectedly well, the bookseller might give the author an added sum, but this was not obligatory. For a book by a known author the fee ranged from one hundred to two hundred pounds; Hume received the exceptionally high price of five hundred pounds per volume for his History of England. An author might take subscriptions for his work, as Pope did for his translation of the Iliad; usually in such cases the subscriber paid half the purchase price in advance and the other half on delivery, and the author paid the printer.

The great majority of authors lived in a galling poverty. Simon Ockley, after working for a decade on his History of the Saracens (1708–57), had to complete it in a debtors’ prison; Richard Savage used to tramp the streets at night for lack of a lodging; Johnson was poor for thirty years before he became the sovereign of English letters. Grub (now Milton) Street was the historic habitat of “poetry and poverty” (Johnson’s phrase), where hack writers—journalists, translators, compilers, proofreaders, magazine contributors, editors—sometimes slept three in a bed and dressed in a blanket for want of other clothes. This poverty was due not so much to the tightness of booksellers and the indifference of Walpole as to the unprecedented glutting of the literary market by mediocre talents underselling one another. The predominance of failures over successes in the “word business” shared with the divorce of literature from aristocratic patronage in debasing the social status of authors. At the same time when in France poets, philosophers, and historians were being welcomed into the fanciest homes and bosoms, in England—with two or three exceptions—they were excluded from “polite society” as unwashed bohemians. Perhaps that was why Congreve begged Voltaire not to class him as a writer. Alexander Pope challenged the prejudices of his time by claiming to be both a poet and a gentleman. By the latter word he meant a man of “gentle birth,” not a man of gentle ways. On the contrary!

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