Joseph Johnson was fourteen when he arrived in London from Everton, Lancashire in 1753. He came to be apprenticed to George Keith, a bookseller in Gracechurch Street in the City. This was Hogarth’s London, a scene of dirty streets and dark alleys in which impressionable young people were met off the coach by an expectant crowd of brothel keepers, cutpurses and card sharps. The stringency of the apprentice’s indentures, which prohibited fornication, dice, marriage, visits to taverns or playhouses and any independent trading, were cast with the awful warning of The Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn in mind. Johnson finished his apprenticeship without mishap in 1761. By 1767 he was in partnership with another bookseller, John Payne, in premises in Paternoster-row by St Paul’s Churchyard, ‘the centre of bookselling’, and he was to settle in the capital for the rest of his life. The profession of bookseller was at that time a capacious one. Johnson not only sold books but published them too. His apprenticeship had been a training that extended from copyright law to the price and quality of different grades of paper. He had to deal with printers, authors, artists and engravers and, after 1788 when he founded and edited a magazine, the Analytical Review, with journalists. He was also a stationer. One of his most successful ventures was the invention of ‘Johnson’s complete pocket-book’, a handy account book cum appointment diary for businessmen to enter ‘all monies received, paid, lent, or expended every day’, with a page for each week of the year. Around him he gathered friends and like-minded acquaintances. His closest friend was the painter Henry Fuseli; his most notable protégés included Wordsworth and Mary Wollstonecraft. For decades, until Johnson’s death in 1809, they came in varying combinations to his weekly dinners, where the vitality of the conversation made up for the dullness of the menu, in which boiled fish and rice pudding loomed large.
If Johnson was anything but idle, he was vulnerable in other ways to the turbulence and brutality of late Georgian London. A Radical in politics and a nonconformist in religion, he and his dinner guests rode the tide of events. The capital was the only place where they could properly function and where they might hope to encounter sympathetic company on a sufficient scale to generate the sociability of Johnson’s dining room. This was especially true for the women of his circle. But debt, scandal, civil disorder and disease were daily hazards and after war with France was declared in 1793 an increasingly repressive regime of censorship saw many of them pushed to the limits of the law and occasionally beyond it. In 1799 the weekly dinners had to move to King’s Bench Prison, where Johnson was serving six months for selling a pamphlet by Gilbert Wakefield attacking Pitt’s government for its suspension of habeas corpus at home and its conduct of the war abroad.
The first disaster to overtake Johnson, however, was another of the endemic dangers of the city. Fire broke out in the back room of his shop in January 1770 and, according to the General Evening Post, ‘spread with the greatest rapidity’. Even in a city used to fires in narrow streets it was a newsworthy catastrophe. Services at St Paul’s were cancelled and the cathedral opened to accommodate those made homeless. Johnson lost everything: not only his stock and personal possessions, which were at that moment uninsured, but his partner Payne, who decided to give up bookselling, and his friend Fuseli, who had been lodging at the house but now left England and remained on the Continent for nine years, establishing himself as an artist. Johnson’s housemaid was unaccounted for. Other smaller losses were recorded in newspaper advertisements requesting their return: ‘A small Red Morocco Pocket-book with a silver lock’, ‘a child’s three tea-spoons’, ‘one pair of stone shoe buckles’.
It’s not known whether any of these items, or the housemaid, were recovered. That isn’t surprising. What is more remarkable is that we know about their loss. Daisy Hay’s book covers a period in the second half of the 18th century when the magnification of the historical record is rapidly increasing. Details are becoming ever sharper. Hogarth’s ‘scenes of furniture’ take posterity through the front door, where we can see the teaspoons and the shoe buckles, while outside the streets fill up with individuals, faces and bodies caricatured but recognisable. Rowlandson and Gilray made the crowd visible just as it became increasingly audible in pamphlets and broadsheets of the kind that Johnson published. The nameless dead of Gray’s country churchyard had come to town and no longer led entirely hidden lives.
Hay makes the most of a vivid period in English and especially London history. Her carefully poised study puts Johnson, today an obscure figure, back at the centre of his circle. Once he has re-established himself in a new shop and lodgings at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard with a ‘little quaintly-shaped upstairs’ dining room whose walls were ‘not at right angles’, we see people and events from his point of view. This means, not least, giving full weight to the interplay of politics and religion at a period when there was no meaningful way of separating them. Trinitarianism was as much a subject of division and debate at the dinner table as republicanism. To be a Dissenter was to have a political position. Johnson’s own family were Baptists, prosperous but not rich, and his father had arranged his apprenticeship with religious as much as professional considerations in mind. Keith was also a Baptist and son-in-law of the theologian John Gill, who saw it as his moral duty to publish texts that spread religious knowledge beyond the bounds of the established church. Hay speculates that Johnson’s faith enabled him to endure the loss of all his possessions in the fire and to rebuild his life. All non-conformists, including Catholics, were on the political margins, unable to vote, study at English universities or join many of the professions and so were, to some extent, subversives.
In his business affairs Johnson balanced principles with pragmatism and an eye to the market. His first bestseller was John Newton’s An Authentic Narrative, a conversion memoir of the sort that was popular at the time. This one owed its success less to Newton’s religious awakening than to a lingering and detailed account of his earlier vices. Yet although he had been a captain in command of slave ships, this was not among his principal regrets. The slave trade was, he pointed out, not only legal but generally considered ‘a very genteel employment’ at the time. Fifteen years later he produced a revised edition of his Narrative, which became a central text in the anti-slavery campaign, but his slow awakening, like Boswell’s arguments in favour of the slave trade, rehearsed in his Life of Samuel Johnson, show the complicated reality of moral and cultural change in all its unevenness. Abolition was only one of the campaigns the Radicals were fighting in the name of the Rights of Man and their support did not always advance the cause. Johnson’s friends Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin understood that since the slave trade was ‘embedded in every part of the British economy’, a ‘revolution in national morality’ would be necessary to achieve abolition. This was not a line of argument that would persuade the majority of the commercial middle classes.
Sexual morality and the rights of women were other areas in which Johnson was unafraid to publish opinions at variance with his own. His friend Samuel Paterson’s Joineriana was a miscellany of anecdotes, aphorisms and his own tedious pensées, including his view of homosexuality as a ‘detestable and unmanly lust’. This was not an unusual position at that date, but Paterson was in a minority in recommending that it should be punishable by castration. At times Johnson seems to have been more tender of other people’s consciences than his own. His first dealings with Priestley, the polymathic dissenting theologian and natural philosopher, were in 1764, when he co-published Priestley’s Essay on a Course of Liberal Education. Johnson went on to back Priestley’s campaigning journal, the Theological Repository, until it lost too much money. He also turned down the chance to publish any of Priestley’s other projected works on the no doubt realistic grounds that they were unlikely to make any money for either of them. A year after Johnson withdrew from the Repository, Priestley was offered a position as companion to the earl of Shelburne. It was a sinecure, a lightly disguised offer of patronage that would give Priestley a home for himself and his family, an income, a laboratory and, in between light duties cataloguing the earl’s library, plenty of time for his own work. Johnson was furious when Priestley accepted, complaining that aristocratic patronage would compromise his friend’s integrity. Priestley wondered, reasonably enough, what else he was supposed to do and there was a cooling of relations for some time.
The bookshop diners were united in their support for the American colonists against the British government. Johnson published the first edition of Benjamin Franklin’s Collected Works. Hay recounts the slowly creeping horror of the passing weeks and months, felt not only by Radicals and Dissenters but by many people in Britain, as Lord North’s administration bungled the American situation until it appeared to be ‘knowingly exploding its most valuable trading relationship’ and war had become inevitable. Theophilus Lindsey, a former Anglican clergyman turned Dissenter, who became one of Johnson’s closest friends, watched with dismay as the troops drilled in Hyde Park. The government, it seemed, was anticipating a short expedition to put down an insurrection. As Lindsey and others who had contacts in America realised, this would not be the case and while they might all rejoice that ‘there will be a place in the globe where Englishmen may be free’ they saw that it came at a terrible price. Franklin was driven out of London. Britain was isolated internationally, trade suffered and men died. The anti-war writers were divided between those like the Radical Richard Price, who saw in America only a beacon of liberation from monarchist and colonial oppression, and those who questioned the meaning of liberty in a society where slavery was still legal. Among the pamphlets and essays Johnson published was an early poem by Mary Robinson –who later became famous as the actress Perdita, but was at this point in prison for debt – titled Elegiac Verses to a Young Lady, on the death of her brother who was slain at the late engagement at Boston.
Robinson was one of many women who were published by Johnson and who enjoyed the intellectual freedom of his dining room. Unlike Paterson, who devoted only one of his pensées in Joineriana to women (a short, mansplaining description of cosmetics followed by an earnest appeal for women to turn their efforts to ‘nobler purposes’), Johnson saw their potential both as writers and as an underserved market of readers. Most of his female authors were from modest backgrounds and most were Dissenters. Many of them addressed the injustice of their position. Mary Scott’s long poem The Female Advocate celebrated women of different times and places, from Catherine Parr to the poet Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman in America, arguing that all were excluded from agency in their societies. Another of Johnson’s poets, Charlotte Smith, had managed to escape her violent husband, but struggled to survive because her earnings legally belonged to her spouse. In 1772 Johnson published New Map of the Land of Matrimony by Anna Aikin (later Barbauld), a Swiftian metaphorical atlas in which the Land of Matrimony lies at the centre and has both a Slave Coast and a Gold Coast. Surrounded by an Ocean of Love, it can only be reached from Singletown in Friesland by way of many hazards and even when it is gained, there is a clear view of the offshore island of Divorce. Johnson stood by his female authors, or ‘literary vixens’ as the critic of the Monthly Review called them, and treated them on a par with his male authors – not least by paying them only what he considered their work was worth commercially.
Anatural extension of the women’s market was the still novel phenomenon of books for children. Most, though not all, of their authors were women. Barbauld’s Lessons for Children from Two to Three appeared in 1778, the fruit of an experiment on a young nephew whom she had more or less forced her brother and sister-in-law to let her adopt. Johnson was quick to accept her argument that children’s books should be printed on good paper with large well-spaced print. For the same readership, Maria Edgeworth published stories, Evenings at Home and The Parent’s Assistant (a title she disliked but which Johnson thought more likely to sell). Sarah Trimmer, the mother of ten surviving children, pioneered illustrated books, using a family of robins to tell Fabulous Histories. Trimmer came into Johnson’s orbit at about the same time as Wollstonecraft, and on at least one occasion they came to dinner together. They seem to have been on friendly terms until the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which left Trimmer disconcerted, having herself ‘found so much happiness’ in marriage to a husband who had taken on ‘the chief labour’ of supporting their large family. Wollstonecraft was the younger by eighteen years and when she met Trimmer had yet to make her name. The failure of the school she had tried to establish in Newington Green had left her with no alternative but to take a post as a governess in Ireland. She had, however, managed to write a book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, and the manuscript was brought to Johnson by John Hewlett, a young Anglican clergyman who was part of the loose association of thinkers and writers Wollstonecraft had met at Newington Green. Johnson agreed at once to publish it and so began one of the central and most unusual relationships within the group. Wollstonecraft, the daughter of a violent father, who had good reason to mistrust men in general, seems to have felt an instant rapport with Johnson. When she left her job with Lord and Lady Kingsborough, unable to bear any longer the ‘many vexations’ of an intolerable ‘state of dependence’, she made straight for St Paul’s Churchyard, where Johnson put her up. He then offered to find a house for her and a servant and to pay for both if she paid him back with writing. It would be, even today, an unusual arrangement on such short acquaintance, especially if there were no sexual element in the relationship, which clearly there was not.
From certain angles, despite Hay’s best endeavours, Johnson remains opaque. He never married. His most intimate and enduring relationship was with Fuseli who, when he returned from the Continent, came back to live with Johnson. Even after he was married Fuseli was a constant presence in Johnson’s life and at his table, and his complicated entanglement with Wollstonecraft, of which Hay gives a cautiously balanced account, seems to have had almost no effect on his closeness to their mutual friend. Hay discounts Claire Tomalin’s suggestion that Johnson and Fuseli may have been lovers. It seems unlikely. At one point the young John Murray, founder of the publishing dynasty who was now established in the Strand and was a friend of Johnson, reported to a correspondent that Johnson had got over a spot of bother with venereal disease – ‘I hear nothing of his I-ch nor the bountifull Lady who bestowed it upon him’ – and Hay extrapolates from this that Johnson was an habitué of ‘the brothels (or the Molly houses) of the streets running north and east from his house’.
That may have been the case, or it may have been an isolated incident. He may well have got the Itch from a woman, but if he had got it from a man or a boy he might not have confided that to Murray. What seems certain is that there was no overtly sexual aspect to any of his closest personal relationships and perhaps it is not unreasonable to think that the many women who frequented his shop and dining room did so the more comfortably knowing that he had no such interest in them. The mutual devotion of Johnson and Fuseli is from this distance in time touching but baffling. Fuseli was sometimes a difficult and always a domineering presence in the dining room. One friend of Johnson’s from Liverpool, William Roscoe, enjoyed the conversational rough and tumble more than his wife, Jane, who resented having to tiptoe round Fuseli’s vanity and did not think that his ‘merit as an artist’ was enough to justify his behaviour. For Johnson, who was often described as being quiet at his own table, Fuseli perhaps fulfilled that social role best described as ‘the unacceptable friend’, saying what Johnson could or would not say himself. The thought that he represented the bookseller’s Id is not perhaps too fanciful, given that on one of the crooked walls of the dining room Johnson hung Fuseli’s The Nightmare. In that small and slanting room the art must have been as overpowering as the artist.
Hay divides her book into chronological sections. These begin as decades and then shorten as the French Revolution approaches. The central chapters cover three years, 1789-91, a crisis in many of the lives she describes. Johnson and his friends were not young, like Wordsworth, whom Johnson first published in 1792, but for the most part they shared his sense of a blissful new dawn and were enthusiastic about ‘affairs in France’. ‘Now is the time,’ Priestley wrote, ‘to speak out without any fear, both on civil and religious subjects, while the advocates for tyranny are overawed.’ They hoped that the ideals of the revolutionaries would spread across the Channel. Johnson’s Analytical Review was looking forward to the French becoming ‘a free and commercial people’, even if this was not to England’s economic advantage.
Within months it was apparent that the optimism was misplaced as yet another attempt to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts came before Parliament. The last had been only narrowly defeated; this one was lost by 189 votes after Edmund Burke read extracts from Priestley’s works to the House. The quotations had been put together by anti-Dissenters and were highly selective, but Priestley had surely been unwise to compare the spread of Enlightenment ideals to a trail of gunpowder. He was denounced across the press. At first he found his characterisation as ‘Gunpowder Joe’, the incendiary chemist, amusing. He and his daughter collected cartoons showing Priestley as the Devil and Lindsey as his lackey. When the Radicals held celebratory dinners in London and Birmingham two years after the storming of the Bastille, Priestley realised it would be a bad idea to attend. Nothing, however, prepared him or his fellow Dissenters for the violence that broke out that night in and around Birmingham and which continued over the following days. Priestley and his family only just escaped with their lives. His library, his scientific apparatus and his house were all destroyed and he fled with his family to London and ultimately to permanent exile in America.
The peculiar ethos of an age characterised in equal measure by picturesque beauty, casual violence and a booming print culture was epitomised in Johnson’s response. He published a commemorative set of aquatints in quarto. Views of the Ruins of the Principal Houses Destroyed during the Riots at Birmingham has a text in English and French that gives ‘a most ample account’ of the sequence of events, the work of provocateurs and the drunkenness of the rioters, after which come the plates, presented in the usual form of books of polite views. Baskerville House, the ‘spacious’ and ‘elegant’ home of John Ryland, a friend of Priestley who helped him escape, appears with its avenue bordered by pleached hedges and little neoclassical urns on the pediment. On the lawn a young woman in a fashionable bonnet holds a child by the hand and surveys the scene with apparent impassivity. It takes a second to notice that the house is a ruin, its windows blank, its façade blackened by smoke.
Johnson and his London friends escaped the riots, but the law was closing in on them. He considered publishing the second part of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, the publisher of the first part having declined, and consulted John Bonnycastle, a mathematician friend and dinner table regular, noted for sparring with Fuseli, ‘goggling’ over his plate and eating ‘like a horse’. Bonnycastle suggested Johnson shouldn’t publish Paine unless he wished ‘to be hanged, or immured in a prison all your life’. At this point the government was making use of the 1351 Treason Act, which made it an offence to ‘compass and imagine’ the death of a monarch. It argued, with some sophistry, that this meant merely to think of the king’s death – there need be no intention of planning it. Among those tried on this preposterous basis was John Horne Tooke, a regular at Johnson’s table, while his fellow diner William Godwin was writing powerfully in the Morning Chronicle to denounce Pitt’s regime. Tooke stood accused, among other things, of distributing the works of Paine as well as Joel Barlow’s Advice to the Privileged Orders, which Johnson had printed. The bookseller was cross-examined on oath but not charged and Tooke was acquitted, the jury having perhaps been influenced by Godwin’s journalism. But they were all now under surveillance.
Johnson was careful but in 1798 John Hancock, a government agent, browsing with intent in the shop, found Wakefield’s pamphlet. Johnson was charged and eventually sentenced. At King’s Bench, with the help of friends, he took the best lodgings money could buy. A Georgian prison was not a bad place to be if you had money, indeed some of the cells had very nice views. Johnson kept up his dinners and continued to work, correcting proofs for a revised edition of Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden. Hay suggests Johnson’s detention was not only comfortable, but to some extent a rest cure. By the time he emerged, though, it was apparent that he had aged. He was still taking on new writers, Coleridge, Hazlitt and the chemist Humphry Davy among them, but his friends noticed that he was frail and that his mind was turning towards putting his affairs in order.
In the later sections of the book, Hay zooms out again to consider longer spans of time. The final part covers Johnson’s last decade, when he took a house at Fulham, then still a village outside London, where the air was better for his asthma and where he could retreat when necessary. Fuseli, now professor at the Royal Academy with an apartment in Somerset House, left his wife there and moved in with Johnson, walking into town each day to give his lectures. There were ever more gaps around the dinner table and in the wider orbit of Johnson’s professional world. Publication of Darwin’s Temple of Nature was delayed while Johnson waited for the price of paper to be fixed and in the interval Darwin died suddenly of a stroke. Priestley, who was lonely in America, isolated by deafness and the death of his wife, and frantic with frustration at the difficulties of correcting proofs across such distances, quarrelled with an exasperated Johnson. Johnson wrote to make peace but the letter arrived two weeks after Priestley’s death. Wollstonecraft died in 1797, and Johnson continued to advise Godwin on how best to support his daughter and stepdaughter.
He remained pragmatic, however, in his dealings with writers. Death was no excuse for inflated expense claims, as the executors of Gabriel Stedman, mercenary soldier and author of Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, discovered when Johnson wrote to them demanding £94 18s 6d wrongly claimed for London accommodation and author’s corrections. By the turn of the century, he was as much an editor as a publisher. Authors in turn voiced the traditional complaints about being badly paid, having their texts mutilated and their best ideas turned down. When Johnson died his friend John Aikin wrote unsentimentally that he was ‘of a temper the reverse of sanguine’, though his intimate friends knew his value and never heard him say ‘a weak or a foolish thing’, and that he ‘ushered to the world’ many of the ‘most distinguished names in Science and Literature’ of his day.