Rogering in Merryland

Thomas Keymer

  • Edmund Curll, Bookseller by Paul Baines and Pat Rogers
    Oxford, 388 pp, £30.00, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 927898 5

Samuel Johnson would not have had the term ‘Curlism’ in mind when he expressed regret that, even as his dictionary was being printed, ‘some words are budding, and some falling away.’ Yet it is a good enough instance of the shifts that Johnson deplored. ‘Bowdlerism’ still survives in the vocabulary of publishing to denote prudish expurgation; Curlism, which meant the opposite (and more besides), was already fading from the language when the figure who inspired the term, the flamboyant bookseller Edmund Curll, had been dead for less than a decade. Chatterton was still using it a generation later (‘I know the art of Curlism, pretty well,’ his persona Harry Wildfire boasts), and the phenomenon still flourishes in the media today, though without the ingenious, gleeful panache of its first and greatest exponent. But you won’t find ‘Curlism’ in Johnson’s or more recent English dictionaries, including even the inhibition-free OED online (which cites Curll himself just twice, as the earliest source for two entirely characteristic locutions, ‘onanism’ and ‘onanist’).

For Pope, Swift and lesser critics of commercial modernity in the 18th century, Curll’s brazen professional practices epitomised everything that was morally deplorable and culturally corrosive in the thriving book trade of the day. By his own account (a reason, perhaps, for distrusting it), Curll was born in the West Country in 1683, and in an early publication he implicitly claimed descent from Walter Curll, the Royalist Bishop of Winchester before the city fell to Cromwell in 1645. The truth may have been more prosaic, but like much else Curll’s background remains obscure. The main source for his early life is a malevolent biography by an unidentified ‘J.H.’, which offers copious back-handed praise (he ‘shew’d an early Inclination to Letters, and Plagiarism’) and details various Shandean misadventures, including a botched circumcision.

Curll entered the London book trade at an opportune moment, a few years after the system of pre-censorship that had unevenly regulated the 17th-century press at last collapsed in 1695, and a decade or so before the first effective copyright statute was passed in 1710. He never became a member of the Worshipful Company of Stationers, a prestigious body in decline, which had lost its monopoly power; nor was he ever a member of any of the ‘congers’, the more or less stable consortia of leading booksellers who would pool resources in major ventures. They were called congers, a contemporary alleged, because ‘as a large conger eel is said to devour the small fry, so this united body overpowers young and single traders.’ But sometimes the single traders bit back, and Curll’s great skill was to operate as both predator and parasite, always for his own purposes, though often in short-term tactical alliances that spread the cost of new projects and, where necessary, deflected attention away from himself. By 1706 he was working as an independent bookseller, and several of his early successes involved piracy of previously printed material, unauthorised publication of stolen manuscripts and false attribution of unrelated material to marketable names – though sometimes the authors and booksellers concerned could use Curll’s attacks as pretexts to bring out new authorised editions. As his business position strengthened, Curll relied less on partnerships, though he collaborated with at least forty others before Queen Anne’s death in 1714. Paul Baines and Pat Rogers track the process statistically in their biography, the first since 1927, cutting their way with expert vigilance through the maze of obscure, misleading and often downright fraudulent imprints that have hitherto shrouded their subject. They promise a follow-up volume in due course, ‘a full analytic bibliography of more than a thousand books associated with Curll’.

Though Baines and Rogers add caveats to the identification, Bookweight in Fielding’s comedy The Author’s Farce (1730) is a useful guide to Curll’s character, and Bookweight’s hack-filled establishment was widely recognised as a satire on Curll’s notorious ‘Literatory’, a sweatshop for the mass production of worthless textual commodities. Ignorant scribblers and penniless dunces translate Virgil out of prior translations, thrash tedious verses out of dictionaries of rhyme, and manufacture and prolong pointless controversies simply to sell more print. But Fielding’s mockery ignores the relentless and increasingly imaginative obscenity that had been at the core of Curll’s output since such early publications as The Case of Sodomy, in the Tryal of Mervin Lord Audley, Earl of Castlehaven and The Case of John Atherton, Bishop of Waterford in Ireland; who was Convicted of the Sin of Uncleanness with a Cow, and other Creatures (both 1710); Fielding also misses the transparent pose of righteous indignation that Curll typically adopted to veil, and at the same time to promote, his most lubricious publications.

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