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A guest post by LH Member Margaret Willes.

Review: Dinner with Joseph Johnson: Books & Friendship in a Revolutionary Age by Daisy Hay. 

dinner with johnsonWhen I was researching the booksellers of St Paul’s Churchyard for my book, I found Joseph Johnson perhaps the most attractive and intriguing. I was delighted therefore to discover that Daisy Hay has written about him and his literary dinners.

Joseph Johnson was born in 1738 into a Baptist dissenting family in Everton, just outside Liverpool. His first bookshop was in Paternoster Row, but when this was destroyed by fire in 1770 he moved into a house facing the west doors of the Cathedral. No. 72 St Paul’s Churchyard became a famous address, for Johnson built up a remarkable stable of authors that included scientists Joseph Priestley, Benjamin Franklin and Erasmus Darwin, poets William Wordsworth and William Cowper, the statistician Thomas Malthus, novelists Charlotte Smith and Maria Edgeworth. He was the patron of the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli and of William Blake.

As he never married, Joseph Johnson treated his circle of authors as his family, establishing a custom of 3 o’clock gatherings in the dining room that overlooked St Paul’s. The food apparently was not distinguished, tending to the bland with boiled cod, veal, vegetables and rice pudding, but the company was the thing. In November 1791, for instance, Mary Wollstonecraft, who was looked after by Johnson on her arrival in London, first met William Godwin. He had come to hear Thomas Paine talk about The Rights of Man but instead found himself in disputatious conversation with Mary. In his diary he noted that they were ‘mutually displeased with each other’. After this unpromising start, however, they were to marry in 1797. Mary died days after the birth of their daughter, also Mary, who was to become the wife of the poet Shelley and creator of Frankenstein. By a curious coincidence, a version of Fuseli’s famous and disturbing painting, The Nightmare, hung in the dining room at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard.

p.113 Pt title 3 Wollstonecraft Original Stories_500

William Blake’s frontispiece to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories.

Daisy Hay, who wrote of the Shelleys in The Young Romantics, has now turned her attention to the earlier generation, and hit on the clever idea of looking at the different guests at Johnson’s dinners. The result is a portrait of the culture of the late 18th century, particularly drawing upon the literary scene, but also providing the context for the tumultuous politics of the period. Political tumult is ever with us, but this was the time of the American and French Revolutions, and, particularly pertinent for Johnson and his writers, the repressive measures against the press introduced by Pitt the Younger.

The crackdown on the press caught up with Johnson in 1798 when he was arrested and put on trial, described as  ‘a malicious, seditious and ill-disposed person … greatly disaffected to our said Lord the King’. Found guilty, he was confined in the King’s Bench prison in Southwark. By paying a substantial sum, he was housed in fairly comfortable conditions, dining with some of his friends and authors. Released three months later on surety of good behaviour Johnson returned to St Paul’s Churchyard, and literary dinners resumed, but he ceased his more controversial political activities, and with increasingly poor health, he spent much time at a house that he had purchased in Fulham. When Johnson died on 20 December 1809, William Godwin wrote a short note that appeared the following day in the Morning Chronicle describing Johnson as ‘a man of generous, candid, and liberal mind; he delighted in doing good.’ He went on to point out ‘though he was the very reverse of everything assuming and ostentatious, yet those who knew him best, and were most able to estimate his talents, will readily bear testimony, that they never heard him say a weak or foolish thing’.

For over three decades, Johnson had presided discreetly over both his publishing house, and his dining table. From the very beginning, he published the works of women, and included them socially at a time when the clubs and coffee houses of St Paul’s Churchyard were exclusively for men. Amongst the first women at his table was Anna Aikin, a truly original voice, who argued in an essay for genres that could reach as many as possible: ‘To the writer of fiction alone every ear is open, and every tongue lavish of applause; curiosity sparkles in every eye, and every bosom is throbbing with concern.’ I wonder whether Jane Austen ever read this. In 1772 Anna produced ‘A New Map of the Land of Matrimony’ that Johnson published anonymously. The Land of Matrimony was surrounded by the Ocean of Love, with Rocks of Jealousy, and Calms and violent Tornadoes. Two years later, she married Rochemont Barbauld from the leading dissenter academy in Warrington: this marriage certainly experienced violent Tornadoes, ending when Rochemont tried to stab Anna, and was committed to an asylum.

Although many of Johnson’s authors were dissenters, when in 1788 he began a journal, the Analytical Review, he was careful to find reviewers from across the religious spectrum. One was Alexander Geddes, a Catholic theologian, who at the dinners would argue heatedly with Henry Fuseli. On one occasion they fell out so spectacularly that Geddes stormed out and walked round the Churchyard to calm down.

Discussions at the table must have included debate about the abolition of slavery, with many leading abolitionists among Johnson’s friends, and he headed the list of booksellers publicising Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative. This tells the story of Equiano’s capture as a child by slave traders, and his experience of the Middle Passage in the hull of a slave ship. The author organised his own printing, and I was interested to learn that subscribers included members of the royal family.

Not only does Daisy Hay give us portraits of a myriad of writers, some famous, some not at all well known, but she also shows how a publishing house functioned at this time, and the problems that had to be overcome. When William Cowper published his poems with Johnson, the relationship was often fraught, for they had to work at a distance. At one stage Cowper wrote: ‘Man, especially Man that writes verse, is born to disappointments, as surely as Printers and Booksellers are born to be the most dilatory and tedious of all Creatures’. Johnson bore all this with a saintly patience.

I also note the advice that Johnson gave to the reviewers for his journal: ‘In the judgements given on books, writers will endeavour to conduct themselves with that degree of modesty which is most suitable to their character  … not pretend by the hasty reading of an hour to confute the labour of years’. Daisy Hay writes accessibly and lyrically, and I have no doubt it has indeed been a labour of years.


Dinner with Joseph Johnson: Books & Friendship in a Revolutionary Age (518pp) by Daisy Hay is published in hard back by Chatto & Windus with a cover price of £20. 

Margaret Willes is the author of several works on cultural history. Her most recent book, In the Shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral: the Churchyard that shaped London, was published last March.

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