Wednesday 1 May 2024

Review: Sketches of Some Booksellers in the Time of Doctor Johnson by Edward Marston


It feels odd to call a book cute, but Edward Marston’s Sketches of Some Booksellers in the Time of Doctor Johnson is just that. It’s a dinky little volume with a clumsily large title that tries to do little else but give the reader some biographical sketches of a number of booksellers. The main sources for the book are Boswell’s Life, and John Nichols’s Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century.

It starts with the bookseller closest to Samuel Johnson, his father. Most of the information about him is taken from Boswell, so it presents him as a melancholy man who struggled his whole life as a provincial bookseller. It also quotes Michael’s own sales copy, where Micheal wishes his public ‘to be pleased’ and himself ‘a good sale’. The most interesting part of this chapter was the fact this book came out in 1902, and Johnson’s birthplace had become a public museum in 1901. There’s obviously a lot of hope and pride at this opening, and a wish that Lichfield will become the new Stratford-Upon-Avon, full of literary tourists. Birkbeck Hill (of Miscellanies fame) dedicated the museum, which was opened on 6th July - the day before my birthday. One speech given on the day hoped that Johnson’s “works, character and genius would be as well known 117 years hence.” That year was 2019, and although Samuel Johnson may not be as widely known as he was in 1901, there are still many that know of him, and those that do love him a little more.

The next is Andrew Millar, who Johnson said “raised the price of literature.” He clearly had a good eye, publishing Thompson’s Seasons, as well as all of Henry Fielding’s novels, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones and Amelia. for the Johnsonian, he may be best known as the printer who uttered a sigh of relief when The Dictionary was finally gone and thanked God he was done with Samuel Johnson. When Johnson heard this, he said he was glad Millar thanked God for something.

The next bookseller was Thomas Davies. He owned the bookshop near Covent Garden where Johnson and Boswell met, and most of the chapter is taken up with Boswell’s description of the event. He seems an interesting sort of person, described as less a bookseller than “a gentleman who dealt with books”. He had also dabbled in writing himself and for much of his career had been a mediocre actor. Marston says that;

  “In none of these callings was he particularly successful in a commercial sense … but he always retained the esteem and affection of his many friends.” - and his wife was apparently quite the looker.

Thomas Osbourne was the man most famous for being beaten up by Samuel Johnson. Described by Marston as arrogant, ignorant and insolent, he used to boast that he’d made £40,000 from his bookselling endeavours. He had the business practice of paying eye-watering sums for whole libraries and then selling them off piecemeal using a catalogue, which cost 5 shillings in itself. He said that book lovers would either pay the 5 shillings or they would miss out. He paid £13,000 for the Earl of Oxford’s book collection, saying that the binding alone was worth £18,000. Then he put two anonymous hacks on the job of creating the catalogue, one of them Samuel Johnson. When he berated Samuel about the speed of his work, Samuel picked up a large folio, knocked him to the floor and then trod on him and told him exactly what he thought of his employer. Most wonderfully, the book in question was noted down, it was Biblio Graeca Septuaginta (aka, a large, Greek Old Testament) printed in 1594 in Frankfurt. 

The book goes on, talking a bit about the Lintots, father and son, and a number of other booksellers. There’s a particularly nice chapter about Dodders, Robert Dodsley. Originally a stocking weaver, he became a footman and then parlayed his leaving bonus into setting up as bookseller. He was never ashamed of his working class roots and sometimes gave literary anecdotes about famous writers from the point-of-view of below stairs. 

I also learnt that Edward Cave, Johnson’s first employer on The Gentleman’s Magazine was the son of a cobbler and kicked out of his free place at Rugby School after he was accused of stealing a chicken. Despite going to London and putting together the first magazine, he was still known as ‘Ned the Cobbler’ in his home town. Rugby, incidentally was where my train suddenly stopped when I was trying to get home to London from Lichfield. Cave was a stickler for details, and even when his magazine was selling 10,000 copies a month, worried if he lost one subscriber. He’s encourage his writers to give it their all and ‘put something good in next month.”

This is a little book, and fairly limited in it’s scope, there’s not much original research but what is there is packaged nicely and told well. It’s also notably missing any women booksellers, of which there were many, except a mention of Sarah, Samuel Johnson’s mother not being allowed to mind the shop on cold days because her family didn’t want her to get cold. The book is charming, enjoyable and most of all … cute. 

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