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.
Onanism Display’d (1718) lured Defoe into a torrent of denunciation and unguarded free publicity, in which he coined a promotional label that Curll then coolly embraced in his published response, Curlicism Display’d (1718). Writing with unusual loss of control (some Defoe scholars have suspected collusion with Curll, but Baines and Rogers dismiss the suggestion), Defoe rails against the ‘verbal Lewdness’ and ‘printed Bestiality’ of the modern press, and lays responsibility at the door of a vividly described individual:
From him, the Crime takes the just Denomination of Curlicism: The Fellow is a contemptible Wretch a thousand Ways: he is odious in his Person, scandalous in his Fame, he is mark’d by Nature, for he has a bawdy Countenance, and a debauch’d Mein, his Tongue is an Echo of all the beastly Language his Shop is fill’d with, and Filthiness drivels in the very Tone of his Voice.
Defoe misses nothing here except Curll’s notorious squint, which for other commentators was symbolic of a publishing output that looked every way at once.
Other writers had personal reasons for joining the attack, above all Pope, whose decades-long feud with Curll receives its definitive treatment here, and Pope’s fellow Scriblerians Swift and Arbuthnot, whose response to another of Curll’s trademark genres, the instant posthumous biography, was to proclaim the publisher ‘one of the new terrors of Death’. For Pope and his allies at the Grub-Street Journal, Curlism meant not only smut but also hypocrisy, evident in such ruses as denouncing an illicit success to promote and renew it. In 1727, another satirist (possibly Arbuthnot) wrote that ‘every Body is now acquainted with Curlism, or the Tricks which Booksellers put upon the World, in order to raise their Market.’ Pope, in The Dunciad and elsewhere, insistently associates ‘Curll’s chaste Press’ (the irony suggests not only obscene output but also promiscuous origins and prostituted standards) with bodily effluvia and excrescence. He famously slipped Curll an emetic in a tavern and detailed the prank in a gloating pamphlet. With his characteristic ability to bounce back from humiliation, Curll later described the episode himself in The Curliad (1729), a virtuoso display of literary chutzpah written in counter-attack against The Dunciad Variorum.
But Curll was far too mercurial a figure, and far too clever an entrepreneur, to confine himself to a single market. Many of his publications escape the stereotype promoted by Pope, and not only because such a prodigious output could hardly fail to include the occasional respectable item. Curll was a genuinely enthusiastic antiquarian who helped research some of the studies he published (his trenchant notes survive from a tour of Oxfordshire churches, where he met ‘Mr Tuder of Checkendon, Rich Large, Lame, Lecherous and Impertinent’), and he was credited by John Nichols in the 19th century ‘for his Industry in preserving our National Remains’. Curll published good as well as bad scholarship and criticism (the manuscript reference to ‘Home Defended, an intriguing item,’ which Baines and Rogers ‘have not been able to identify’, surely means Homer Defended, an anonymous critique of Pope’s Iliad translation that Curll advertised in 1716). In his preface to The Case of Seduction: Being, An Account of the Late Proceedings . . . against the Reverend Abbée, Claudius Nicholas des Rues, for Committing Rapes upon 133 Virgins (1725), he voices anxiety ‘lest this Factum for Abbée des Rues, and the Revival of Marvell’s Works, should heap more Coals of Fire upon my Head’, and then adds defiantly that ‘as to the Principles of Marvell I will avow them while I have any Being.’ A typical red herring, perhaps, but also a reminder that Curll, by publishing the 1725 Works, did more than anyone before Thomas Hollis in the 1760s to keep alive Marvell’s reputation.
Curll’s intertwining of seduction and sedition was targeted and exploited by the authorities, and his belated prosecution for publishing pornographic titles including Venus in the Cloister: or, The Nun in her Smock (1724) was really a punishment, as Baines and Rogers show, for his publication of politically embarrassing memoirs by John Crawford, alias Ker, a double agent between Walpole’s ministry and the Jacobite court. Part of Curll’s sentence was an hour in the pillory, which he brilliantly stage-managed as a piece of oppositional street theatre:
for being an artful, cunning (though wicked) fellow he had contrived to have printed papers dispersed all about Charing-Cross, telling the people, he stood there for vindicating the memory of queen Anne: which had such an effect on the mob, that it would have been dangerous to have spoken against him: and when he was taken down out of the pillory, the mob carried him off, as it were in triumph, to a neighbouring tavern.
Perhaps Curll’s triumphant showmanship here owed something to his antagonist Defoe, who had pulled off a similar trick when punished for The Shortest Way with the Dissenters a quarter of a century earlier.
Curll’s culminating succès de scandale was A New Description of Merryland (1740), the first in a quickfire series of ribald, innuendo-laden publications about the lush topography of a fantasy island, all playing relentlessly on a sexual sense of merry that was standard early modern slang. (Rochester famously wrote of Charles II, with no implication that the king was cheerful: ‘Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,/A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.’) Curll’s obscene publication, flogging a single schoolboy joke to death, apparently also won an avid readership and a reputation for daring wit. A hostile commentary called Merryland Display’d alleged that the whole enterprise began when one of Curll’s hackney authors, working his way through a geography textbook by Patrick Gordon, chanced on an inadvertent double entendre in Gordon’s survey of the Netherlands: ‘viz. “the Country lying very low, its Soil is naturally very wet and fenny.” Ha! said he, the same may be said of a **** as well as of Holland; this Whim having once entered his Noddle, he resolved to pursue the Hint, and try how far he could run the Parallel.’
This versatile hack was the otherwise unknown Thomas Stretzer, whose signature survives on manuscript receipts acknowledging that Curll had given him ‘full Satisfaction for the sole right and title to the copy’ of both Merryland and Merryland Display’d. The satisfying sum involved is not specified, but no doubt it was Curll, not Stretzer, who made the real money from this venture. (‘Missing from the annals,’ as Baines and Rogers note elsewhere, ‘is any record of a writer who got rich through his labours for Curll.’) This was Curlism at its most efficient and impudent, maximising the pay-off from a limited resource and fanning the lucrative flames of scandal under cover of an effort to douse them.
Merryland is presented as a tittering burlesque of voyage narrative, lingering on the hidden contours of an eroticised female bodyscape, a mysterious world of opulent labial inlets and luxuriant vaginal creeks. We have only Curll’s word for it that this teasing exercise in veiled obscenity was successful enough to reach ten editions in two years: not all of the supposed editions survive, and it was one of his favourite techniques to freshen up yellowing remainders with new title pages. But Merryland certainly made a splash, and Baines and Rogers’s account of the whole murky episode, which has become a standard point of reference in the burgeoning scholarship on early pornography and its suppression, leaves things clearer than before.
That said, there are some strange loose ends. Although they eventually reject the attribution, they for some reason take seriously a preface in which Stretzer claims to have inherited the work in manuscript from a recently deceased Irishman called ‘Roger Pheuquewell’, and their analysis of Stretzer’s preface ends in the guarded conclusion that ‘Pheuquewell emerges more as a representative type than as the portrait of a real individual.’ But we learn from Stretzer that the Pheuquewell family are ‘remarkable for their being Red-Headed . . . and of long standing in that Country,’ and it is hard not to suspect that we are in the territory of what linguists call a coincidental homophone. Curll even seems to have had his printer use a damaged ‘e’ in some editions, so that the surname looks more like ‘Phfuquewell’. And he would certainly have admired his 21st-century heirs at Universal Studios for spinning a whole series of deadpan movies from much the same gag: not only Meet the Parents, with its hapless hero Gaylord Focker, but also Meet the Fockers and the projected Little Fockers. As for ‘Roger’, this was soon to become the trademark verb of Boswell’s London journal, as in his famous vow of abstinence after falling under Johnson’s good influence: ‘Swear to have no more rogering before you leave England except Mrs. —— in chambers.’
The blatancy of Merryland’s innuendos notwithstanding, the ghost of Roger Pheuquewell continues to pheuque up the bibliographical record. He even invades the English Short Title Catalogue, the definitive online resource, as the alter ego or pseudonym of Stretzer himself, who is listed as ‘Stretzer, Thomas, d.1738’, presumably by confusion with the fictional Pheuquewell’s vital dates. For 1738 is the year in which, as Stretzer mournfully reports, Pheuquewell at last dies from exhaustion brought on by his addiction to rogering in Merryland, where he has been ‘almost continually going and coming, and spent so much’. Stretzer himself was alive and well more than three years later, writing the sequel to his bestselling work and still signing on to the payroll at Curll’s literatory.
Perhaps in this penultimate chapter Baines and Rogers have tired of detecting Curll in all his wiles, stunts and decoys. But in handling the Merryland pamphlets they are unusually trusting about publication as well as authorship issues. A New Description of Merryland begins by announcing the first edition as a Bath publication, ‘printed for W. Jones, and sold by W. Lobb there, and by the booksellers of London and Westminster’. Other early editions name Jones and/or Lobb alongside the strategically vague London retailers, and there was also a piracy under the fictitious and in context rather predictable imprint of ‘J. Wagstaff’. Curll shows himself on the title page only from the fifth edition, still maintaining the fiction that the book emanates from Bath and presenting himself as junior partner in the enterprise of the leading Bath bookseller James Leake, whose prestigious establishment on Terrace Walk had just been described in the most recent update of Defoe’s Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain as ‘one of the finest Bookseller’s Shops in Europe’. Leake then appears as the sole named publisher of Merryland Display’d. Only when enough time for any attempt at prosecution has elapsed does Curll present himself as the lead or sole publisher of any book in the series, as he finally does in the ‘tenth’ edition (1742) of Merryland and in a tired second sequel of 1743.
There are various rats to be smelled here, above all Curll’s implication of Leake, a senior and distinguished figure with no other traceable connection to Curll throughout his long career. Yet Baines and Rogers conduct a largely fruitless search for Joneses and Lobbs in the book trade at Bath, express regret that Leake had sullied his prestige by associating with Curll, and even conclude by identifying Leake as Curll’s ‘spiritual descendant in the trade’. But why assume that any detail on Curll’s playful, pragmatic title pages is accurate or true, other than the belated revelation of his own name? It is much more likely that Curll chose to attribute these scandalous pamphlets to his fashionable West Country colleague out of malice or mischief. Perhaps a simple coincidence of names prompted the idea, for he seems to have had some of the Merryland printing done by a small-time printer in London called John Leake, who was not, as Baines and Rogers say, the eminent James Leake’s son, and probably had no connection with him at all. This shadowy namesake was eventually prosecuted in 1745 for printing several other pornographic works, at which point he also asked for Merryland to be taken into account.
Could it be, however, that Curll was really attacking Leake of Bath as a way of getting at Samuel Richardson, the influential printer and pillar of the Stationers’ Company, who was now, with his novel Pamela, also rising to prominence as a major author? Richardson had printed for Curll when starting out in business, but enmity had set in by 1728, when Curll tried to fit Richardson up for seditious libel by fingering him to the authorities as the printer of a dissident periodical, Mist’s Weekly Journal. If Richardson was the ultimate target, several oddities of Merryland fall into place. It may be no more than coincidence that the first edition of Merryland came out just four days after Pamela, but if Curll was aiming to mock and discredit the novelist’s circle in Bath, he could not have done a better job. Leake was Richardson’s brother-in-law and regular business partner (this explains the hyperbole in Defoe’s Tour, which Richardson was editing and printing). Also among Richardson’s friends in Bath were Samuel Lobb and his son William; Lobb had been a Bath bookseller ten years earlier, but was now in holy orders, and cannot conceivably have had anything to do with publishing Merryland.
Probably the funniest part of the work comes in its dedication to George Cheyne, the celebrated physician, mystic and crash slimmer (he once weighed 32 stone), which deftly parodies the physician’s unwieldy medical jargon. Richardson was Cheyne’s patient, and printed several of his works for publication by Leake. The two corresponded extensively, and when Cheyne was not urging on Richardson a rigorous daily regime of puking and farting (‘Vomits are the best Preservatives from Apoplexies after little Phlebotomies,’ he advised Richardson, who should also ‘break Wind plentifully’), he was complaining about Leake’s deficiencies in marketing. He reserved his severest strictures for Curll, however, as the worst of a bad lot. ‘All Booksellers I fear are Curls by Profession,’ he told Richardson, dismissing the whole trade as ‘specious Curls’.
They were not, of course. They were more, yet also less. By operating so flamboyantly on or beyond the margins of respectability, Curll became a convenient point of reference for anyone with a vested interest in tarring the book trade as corrupt and corrupting in whatever sense: aesthetic, cultural, financial, moral, or all these things at once. His disreputable energies placed him personally, and bookselling generally, at the heart of the Scriblerian vision of cultural decay, even as the Leakes and Richardsons all around him were steadily pursuing, and collectively achieving, the massive 18th-century expansion of print and reading that was so necessary a component of Enlightenment progress. Yet Curll’s single-minded search for reliable profits and market openings also illustrates the entrepreneurial motivations and commercial techniques that, in a more muted form, galvanised the whole bookselling operation as practised by his innumerable enemies and rivals. For sheer brio and bravado in pursuit of his trade, he eclipses them all.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.