Mastering the Art of Understating Your Wealth

Thomas Keymer

  • The Literary Correspondences of the Tonsons edited by Stephen Bernard
    Oxford, 386 pp, £95.00, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 870085 2

Who invented English literature? English literature, that is, as a conceptual category defined by canon and tradition? The 18th century has provided most of the candidates. There were opinion formers like Joseph Addison, who airbrushed out Milton’s regicidal politics, or David Garrick, who turned Shakespeare from upstart crow into national bard; there were theoreticians of ‘original composition’ like Edward Young, who set a premium on the rejection of classical models; there were book-trade entrepreneurs whose huge poetry anthologies cashed in on the landmark case of Donaldson v. Becket, which more or less destroyed copyright law; there were the pioneering academics of Enlightenment Scotland, among them Adam Smith, who made ‘rhetoric and belles lettres’ a university discipline and exported it to North America.

As good a claimant as any is the London bookseller Jacob Tonson (1656-1736). With his hard-nosed nephew Jacob the younger (1682-1735), Tonson dominated the publishing business of his day and died a landed gentleman worth a reported £40,000 – though he was also an early master in the art of understating wealth. The younger Jacob, who predeceased his uncle, left £100,000, a prodigious sum. Some of the money came from shrewd speculation on the rollercoaster stock markets of the 1710s and 1720s, the first golden age of dodgy financial dealings. But the seed capital came from Tonson’s patient strategy, also followed by his nephew, of securing the rights to the works of writers such as Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden, and endowing them with the prestige of a national canon. His anthologies of new verse, launched in 1684 as Miscellany Poems … by the Most Eminent Hands, continued for decades and made him an arbiter of modern writing: Alexander Pope made his print debut in the 1709 miscellany, which also contained work by rising names like Anne Finch and Jonathan Swift. His sumptuous editions of classical poets in Latin or English (Catullus, Horace, Juvenal, Lucretius, Ovid, Virgil) cast reflected glory on his vernacular list. When an ambitious Oxford graduate called Basil Kennett told Tonson in 1696 that he felt ‘a higher respect than ever for Poetry and You’, it was as though poetry were now embodied by Tonson himself. At this point Tonson was preparing his most imposing publication to date, Dryden’s translation of Virgil. On its appearance, Kennett went on, ‘’twill be as impossible to think of Virgil without Mr Dryden, as of either without Mr Tonson.’ The flattery did nothing for Kennett, who never appeared in Tonson’s miscellany, but it was certainly the sort of praise Tonson encouraged. The Augustan canon was his creation, and he was everywhere in it.

Tonson’s command of Latin implies a good education, but his origins were humdrum. His father was a barber surgeon in Cromwellian London, and he himself was apprenticed at 14 to a master stationer, following a family tradition on his mother’s side. By 1678 he was in business on his own, publishing everything from the high-minded Contemplations upon the Remarkable Passages in the New Testament … Written by the Bishop of Exeter to the tawdry Ten Tragical Histories, Containing Gods Revenge against the Sin of Adultery, Illustrated with Cuts. He also sought out drama, printing several of Aphra Behn’s best-known comedies: The Feign’d Curtizans, Sir Patient Fancy, part two of The Rover. His first big success came when, after borrowing money to buy the copyright in Dryden’s 1679 version of Troilus and Cressida, he started publishing his new work, notably the incendiary long poem Absalom and Achitophel (1681), which satirised the conspiratorial politics of the Exclusion Crisis. Dryden was not only poet laureate but as shrewd a reader of the market as Tonson himself, and the two were soon collaborating on ventures that married prestige with profit: multi-author translations of Ovid’s Epistles and Plutarch’s Lives; deftly promoted anthologies and miscellanies (Tonson was among the first booksellers to advertise in newspapers) in which every aspiring poet had to be seen. By 1690 he had cornered the rights to Paradise Lost, the book he clutches in Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of 1717, now in the NPG. This was the most lucrative poem, Tonson said, of his publishing career. Yet his luxurious folio edition of Milton was more than just a commodity. Tonson consulted all prior editions as well as Milton’s manuscript, and presented the poem handsomely on the page. For the great bibliographer D.F. McKenzie, Tonson’s Works of Mr William Congreve (1710) is a masterpiece in which all aspects of the book’s physical appearance contribute to literary meaning.

Tonson adapted better than Dryden to the consequences of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 that brought William of Orange and his Whig handlers to power. The regime change caused Dryden to be fired as poet laureate and retreat into the apolitical, or seemingly apolitical, realm of translation. The pair continued to collaborate on high-end literary ventures, but Tonson increasingly aligned himself with the cultural politics of the new Whig ascendancy – for example, in a sumptuous edition of Julius Caesar dedicated to the Duke of Marlborough, champion of Blenheim (1712), an eye-catching edition of Shakespeare by the future Whig laureate Nicholas Rowe (1709) and Addison’s heavily ideological tragedy Cato (1713), for which he paid more than £100 before the play was even performed.

Godfrey Kneller’s Kit Cat Club portraits, clockwise from top left: Jacob Tonson (1717); Robert Walpole (c.1712); William Congreve (1709); Joseph Addison (c.1710).
Godfrey Kneller’s Kit Cat Club portraits, clockwise from top left: Jacob Tonson (1717); Robert Walpole (c.1712); William Congreve (1709); Joseph Addison (c.1710).

Around this time Tonson founded the Kit-Cat Club, whimsically named after a fancy pastry merchant called Christopher Cat, but in practice the engine-room of Whig politics during the fraught reign of Queen Anne, which saw a resurgence of Tory power. Numbering about forty members at any one time, it was where Addison and Congreve met Whig grandees from both Houses. There was also a sybaritic side to proceedings. Tonson later recalled of its members that ‘he had been drunk with every one of them.’ But the club, with its intertwined cultural and political agendas, can also be seen as a way of promoting a common purpose with extraordinary subtlety and reach. On the one hand, in broadsheets like the Tatler and the Spectator, its members advanced Whig cultural ideals of urbanity and politeness. On the other, they worked to support the settlement of 1689 (contract-theory government, Low-Church principles, the convergence of landed and moneyed interests), resist the revival of Jacobite sentiment and defend the Hanoverian Protestant succession. Though ‘generally mentioned as a set of Wits’, Horace Walpole wrote long after the threat of Stuart restoration had passed, the Kit-Cats were ‘the Patriots that saved Britain’. The veneer of apolitical languor was their trump card. Kneller’s 48 Kit-Cat portraits, commissioned by Tonson, express the club’s official ideals of tolerance, moderation and easy civility: that quality best cultivated, as the Earl of Shaftesbury put it, by the ‘amicable collision’ of sociability. To modern eyes, the portraits reveal the complacency of the new Whig elite: an aristocracy of the polite whose entitlement to govern was a matter of good manners and exquisite breeding.

When Whig interests were secured by the accession of George I in 1714, the Kit-Cat Club went into decline, its goal achieved. Several key members entered high office; others retired or died. In a letter addressed to Tonson in 1721, the Duke of Newcastle laments ‘the loss of the Best Friend I ever had’, his ministerial colleague Lord Stanhope; urbane as ever, Newcastle neglects to mention the circumstances of Stanhope’s death – he had collapsed in the Lords following an all-night bender at Newcastle House. Tonson’s most obvious reward for his loyalty was a lucrative forty-year patent as king’s stationer, conferred in 1720. But he too now hankered for retirement, and began delegating more and more to his energetic nephew. After two years spent travelling in France (he made a killing on the Paris bourse before the Mississippi Bubble burst), he settled in 1722 on an estate near Ledbury in Herefordshire. There, in a Whig idyll, Tonson lived out a virtuous, Horatian retirement, looking after his tenants and tending his crops, while continuing to play the stock market.He got out of the South Sea scheme just in time, again at a handsome profit, unlike less canny speculators. ‘The vast inundation of S. Sea has drowned all, except a few unrighteous men (contrary to the deluge),’ Pope, who lost money himself, was to write. John Gay was ruined, and in a letter written weeks after prices crashed, explains that he can’t settle his book-buying bill ‘at a time when it is impractible to sell out of the Stocks in which my fortune is engag’d’. How Tonson must have chuckled.

He could now concentrate on his orchards, using copious shipments of Ledbury cider to lubricate his London interests. Half Westminster became hooked: the lord chamberlain (‘Your Cyder is very good’); the secretary at war (‘the best Cyder that ever I drank in my life’); the secretary of state for the southern department (‘Your Cyder was the best that ever was drank’). In John Philips’s poem ‘Cyder’, a patriotic Georgic brought out by Tonson in 1708, the West Country’s ‘mellow Liquor’ connotes an uncontaminated native virtue. For Tonson it reflected a new pose of rustic benevolence (‘A Dwelling that produces such Liquor, must mean well to Mankind,’ Vanbrugh said); recipients were certainly eager for more from his little piece of Siluria: ‘My Lord Sommers loved Perry,’ Newcastle wrote with heavy underlining.

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Many of the letters in Stephen Bernard’s meticulous edition owe their survival to Tonson’s Victorian heirs, who began auctioning off the most saleable manuscripts in the 1870s, as the family fortune dwindled. The rump of the archive was pulped for newsprint during World War Two, as though enacting a standard Tonson-era joke: ‘From dusty shops neglected Authors come,/Martyrs of Pies, and Reliques of the Bum,’ Dryden wrote in Mac Flecknoe. What remains has little of the reciprocity of correspondence, and less is heard from Tonson himself (more from his nephew) than from his interlocutors. But the interlocutors are in good voice, and they show a seamier side to literary life than Bernard allows in his introduction, which characterises the Tonsons as a new kind of patron, one foot in the coteries of the 17th century, one in the marketplace of the 18th, who brought about the ‘conditions for the creation of great literature’. This thought wasn’t uppermost in the minds of their authors. Back-handed compliments – the art of ‘damning with faint praise’ as Pope put it – run through the volume: ‘Upon triall I find all of your trade are Sharpers & you not more than others,’ Dryden tells Tonson who underpaid for his Aeneid; ‘I know this will seem Romantick to a Bookseller, even to You that are least a Bookseller,’ Pope told Tonson’s nephew when forfeiting editorial rights 25 years later. For decades before the cider started to flow, the dominant theme in Tonson’s correspondence is late, grudging or niggardly payment, and sometimes all three at once.

One letter specifies his standard rate, 1½ pence per line of verse, but even this could be hard to extract. The earliest surviving letter to Tonson is from Aphra Behn, frustrated by their negotiations and ‘unwilling to loose my time in such low gettings’. This was water off a duck’s back for Tonson, who later claimed to be the author of a slightly cheesy eulogy to Behn (‘Oh, wonder of thy Sex! Where can we see,/Beauty and Knowledge join’d except in thee?’). John Oldmixon tried to joke about the rigours of Grub Street: ‘my Business to London is not about Poetry nor Press Work tho like an Old Carter I love still the Smash of the Whip.’ When this failed, he changed tack, reminding Tonson that ‘punctual Payment is the Soul of all Business.’ Dryden sometimes loftily declared that Tonson must have meant guineas when offering £50, sometimes furiously protested about being paid in dud currency. At one point, he even sent the kind of lampoon he might publish if he really lost patience with Tonson: ‘With leering Looks, Bull-fac’d and Freckled fair;/With two left Legs and Judas-coloured Hair,/With Frowzy Pores, that taint the ambient Air’. It’s a ferocious triplet, among the most concentrated sallies anywhere in Dryden, bristling with accusations: bestiality, deformity, treachery, pollution. It’s a long way from Pope’s view of Tonson in his Herefordshire retirement, ‘a Phaenomenon worth seeing & hearing, Old Jacob Tonson, who is the perfect Image & Likeness of Bayle’s Dictionary’. Yet even here the compliment is barbed: as Bayle’s Dictionary was not only massively erudite but bloated, gossipy and impious. The last letter in this collection is a note sent by Pope to Tonson days after his nephew’s death which moves with offensive fluency from formulaic sympathy to demands: ‘I condole with you in the first place for the death of your Nephew, between whom & me, a matter passed a short time before, which gave me Concern …’

At such moments, Bernard’s cheery view of the Tonsons as patrons doesn’t tell quite the whole story. Perhaps the Tory libeller Ned Ward gets it right in calling Tonson ‘an Amphibeous Mortal, Chief Merchant to the Muses’: a man successfully inhabiting quite separate spheres, deftly mediating between Mammon and Parnassus, always with an eye to the main chance. That’s what Tonson saw in the Kit-Cat Club, Ward says: a way of getting in early on a rising generation of university poets, who ‘having more Wit than Experience, put but a slender Value, as yet, upon their Maiden Performances’. In this light Tonson wasn’t Maecenas – an epithet Ward tries out once and then discards – but a ‘Grand Monopoliser’ of wit.

That may be too cynical, and it happened that Tonson’s most virulent critics in his lifetime were also his political enemies: diehard Tories like Ward or William Shippen, who first published Dryden’s nasty epigram, and portrayed the Kit-Cats in Faction Display’d (1704) as oligarchic conspirators against the public weal. Yet even Tonson’s Whiggism gets exaggerated. The most significant writers associated with him before 1689, like Behn and Dryden, were aggressively Tory, and on one occasion Tonson published a work that Dryden feared might expose them to a prosecution of seditious libel. His reputation as a taste-maker didn’t stop him having a tin ear, so he may not have realised how comprehensively Dryden was lacing their translation projects of the 1690s with Jacobite innuendo. But even Tonson can’t have missed the point of Dryden’s preface to Juvenal, which spends pages worrying that readers might find ‘some kind of analogy’ between the corruption of Juvenal’s Rome and England under the Whigs – but what could the mere translator do? While in France in 1713, Tonson spied on the suspected Jacobite Matthew Prior, who was arrested by the Whigs for treason a year later, but that didn’t stop him publishing Prior’s Poems on Several Occasions (1718), one of the most lucrative subscription editions on record. Nowhere did Tonson voice reservations about the Tories on his list. In the end, the most Whiggish thing about him wasn’t his political beliefs but his financial sense. Money came first, and when the money was enough for a country estate, even the cultural project ceased to matter. As Robert Arbuthnot told Prior when the South Sea Bubble burst, ‘the Whigs are those who have run away with the “roast”. Jacob Tonson has got 40,000 l… . riches will make people forget their trade as well as themselves.’