Guest Post: John Bugg, ‘The Generosity of Joseph Johnson’

JosephJohnsonJoseph Johnson’s bookshop at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard, London, served as a hub for some of the most important writers and artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. William Godwin’s diary records his attendance at Johnson’s monthly dinners from the mid-1790s to around 1810. (The tradition was continued, after Johnson’s death in 1809, by his great-nephew Rowland Hunter, who inherited a half-share of the business.)

Perhaps this is not surprising, given Johnson’s close personal and professional association with Godwin’s first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft. Her tragic early death brought Godwin and Johnson closer together. Johnson, we know, helped Godwin with the funeral arrangements and supplied him with biographical notes on Wollstonecraft’s early years for his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, co-published by Johnson and G. G. and J. Robinson in 1798.

What might be more surprising is that about a decade after Wollstonecraft’s death, Johnson became not only Godwin’s friend but also his vocational adviser, as Godwin worked to get his own publishing venture up and running. Together with his second wife, Mary Jane Godwin, he launched a publishing imprint and bookstore dedicated to children’s and educational books, a subspecialty of Johnson’s and a lucrative market. The Godwins’ ‘Juvenile Library’ was located first in Hanway Street, a few blocks from the British Museum’s original Montagu House site, and later at 41 Skinner Street (near the present-day Holborn Viaduct), very close – perhaps too close – to Newgate Prison.

The market for children’s books was strong (and expanding), but Godwin was a first-time bookseller and publisher, and had not served a formal apprenticeship. He had understandable difficulties in the trade. His friends and acquaintances supported him, however, and, three years into his venture, in spring 1808, they rallied to provide him with a capital fund. Johnson was involved with this plan from the beginning, helping to sketch out a strategy for Godwin to move forward as a publisher and bookseller on a stronger footing.

A surviving letter from Johnson’s newly published correspondence gives us a window onto these plans. On 21 March 1808, prompted by a visit from Godwin, Johnson wrote to Richard ‘Conversation’ Sharp, a politically, and, as his nickname suggests, socially active London merchant and dissenter. Johnson explained that Godwin had just received a friendly enquiry from Whig MP William Smith about his financial situation. ‘This has brought him to me’, Johnson wrote to Sharp, ‘with a statement of his affairs & desiring my opinion, a very unpleasant office but I cannot refuse him’.

Johnson’s letter to Sharp addresses two issues: Godwin’s current stock and some practical actions that might now be taken to stabilize his finances. The first, Johnson noted, ‘consists principally of books composed by himself & a friend [i.e. Mary Jane Godwin] which have been well received, & bid fair to become stock books for children & young people’. Godwin published children’s books by other writers, perhaps most notably Tales from Shakespear (1807), by Charles and Mary Lamb, but Johnson had in mind Godwin’s own volumes, written under the pseudonym Edward Baldwin, Esq. These included Fables Ancient and Modern (1805), The Pantheon: or Ancient History of the Gods of Greece and Rome (1806), and The History of England (1806) – books that received positive reviews from the British Critic, the Monthly Mirror, and even the Anti-Jacobin Review.

So much for Godwin’s assets, but what to do next? Johnson proposed a three-part plan to help to continue and expand the business. The current stock of books should first of all be advertised, and with ‘common attention’ Godwin could anticipate £300 per year from the sale of these and subsequent children’s books. The other facets of Johnson’s plan were more challenging. Godwin at this time stood £1500 in debt and Johnson was one of those who had already lent him money. Johnson wrote that, should Godwin’s other creditors agree, ‘I will put my bond into the fire’. But even with all of these debts cancelled, Godwin would still require fresh capital to move forward: Johnson estimated that ‘there should be raised from £1500 to 2000£ either as gifts or loans without interest for, say 10 years’.

The plan went ahead with the opening of a public subscription. The Whig peers Lord Holland and Lord Lauderdale took the lead, and Johnson made the arrangements. Promised contributions totalled £1,220 even before the lists were formally opened. There is no record of the total collected, but it was a very large sum.

Johnson clearly wished to see his old friend succeed in the book trade, where he might find a steady income, support his growing family (including Wollstonecraft’s two young daughters), and help to educate young readers. But Johnson’s intervention in the spring of 1808 was one of his last opportunities to help Godwin navigate the contemporary book trade. When Johnson died in 1809, Godwin was bereft of a loyal friend and a valuable guiding hand.

The rescue plan that Johnson outlined in his letter to Sharp is representative of his lifelong endeavours both to assist his friends and to promote the work of writers in whom he believed. This cocktail of common sense, kindness, and business acumen is on display throughout the letters published in The Joseph Johnson Letterbook.

John Bugg is Associate Professor of English at Fordham University, and the editor of The Joseph Johnson Letterbook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), from which all quotations are taken.

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