Dinner with Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age, by Daisy Hay, Vintage, 528 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1784701079
The Garrick Club in the West End of London was founded in 1831, making it one of the oldest gentlemen’s clubs in the world; for almost two hundred years women have been allowed in only as dinner guests. But Michael Beloff KC, the lawyer who pronounced in 2011 that women could continue to be excluded by the Garrick legally, has recently changed his mind. He said that, in his opinion, the word ‘he’ in the original wording of the club’s rules should be understood to include ‘she’ and warned that it was ‘likely to provoke an expensive lawsuit’ if it continued to exclude women from membership. Whether the club will agree to lift its ban on female members remains to be seen.
The Garrick is one of many gentlemen’s clubs that were founded in eighteenth and nineteenth century London. All offered intellectual exchange and conviviality, and several ‑ including the Athenaeum on Pall Mall, Brook’s in Piccadilly and the Savile Club ‑ made enough profit to take over grand premises, charge large membership fees and survive into the twenty-first century. But it’s worth remembering that often the swankiest of these clubs had humble origins as informal dining and debating societies, and ironic that ‘The Literary Society’, founded by William Wordsworth and others in 1807 and described as ‘Britain’s most distinguished and discreet literary dining club’, still meets monthly at the Garrick, even though it elected its first women members in 2000.
‘The evolution of the modern club has been so simple that it can be traced with great ease,’ writes Ralph Nevill in London clubs: their history and treasures (1911):
First the tavern or coffee-house, where a certain number of people met on special evenings for purposes of social conversation, and incidentally consumed a good deal of liquid refreshment; then the beginnings of the club proper ‑ some well-known house of refreshment being taken over from the proprietor by a limited number of clients for their own exclusive use, and the landlord retained as manager; and finally the palatial modern club, not necessarily sociable, but replete with every comfort, and owned by the members themselves. In such places, however, the old spirit of club-life is generally lost.
One of the most famous institutions was the Literary Club, usually simply known as ‘The Club’, which met at the Turk’s Head tavern in Soho. It was started in 1764 by Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds, though another founding member, Edmund Burke, could claim to have had more experience of ‘the old spirit of club-life’. In 1747, while a sixteen-year-old student at Trinity College Dublin, he had started one of the first student discussion societies. In 1770 ‘Burke’s Club’ combined with TCD’s Historical Club to become the College Historical Society, popularly referred to as ‘The Hist’. This year it has been confirmed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest continuously running debating society.
In Samuel Johnson’s club women seem to have been present only to bring in food and clear away the dirty plates, but Daisy Hay’s new book, Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age, draws attention to another equally influential yet informal eighteenth century dining society that met for over thirty years at the home of the publisher Joseph Johnson. ‘All those who dined were connected by a web that spun outwards from Johnson’s house through the medium of paper,’ Hay writes, ‘as conversations begun within the privacy of the dining toom stretched out – often in public view – across the country and over the decades.’ Johnson’s many guests did not come because of the food ‑ usually it was the same ‘citizen’s dinner’ of boiled cod, roast veal and rice pudding – but for the conversation. From the start, women writers contributed to those stimulating discussions and were treated as equals.
It was the time of the Gordon Riots, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the Irish Rebellion, and repressive measures against the press had been introduced by William Pitt the Younger. Yet it was also an exciting, revolutionary period in science, medicine, poetry and education. Johnson was at the forefront of much of this, publishing periodicals, scientific texts and illustrated works for children. He was an advocate for religious and civil liberty and the education of girls and women, as well as an abolitionist and the leading publisher of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) the autobiography of a former slave.
Joseph Johnson was born in 1738 into a Baptist dissenting family in the village of Everton, near Liverpool. As nonconformist Protestants his community rejected the oaths and allegiances of the Church of England, meaning that certain professions and civic offices were closed to them, as well as the possibility of studying at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge. So, at age fourteen, Johnson was sent to the City of London to serve a seven-year apprenticeship to the Baptist bookseller George Keith. It was an education, both in observing the sights of life in the street (as depicted in Hogarth’s Gin Lane) and learning the mechanics of the book trade, as new Baptist tracts rolled off the presses daily, many of them condemning those who sinned to eternal damnation.
In 1761 Johnson was twenty-two and had decided to become a publisher and bookseller in his own right. He rented temporary premises and began looking for new authors to publish and readers who might buy books that were more thought-provoking than religious pamphlets. His first success was in 1764 when he published An Authentic Narrative by John Newton, a former slave-trader who had become a Church of England minister. Ostensibly a moral tale, it combined conversion narrative, romance and seafaring adventure, and, as Hay writes, ‘proved popular with a reading public who were being shown by the new novels flooding the market that their reading could hold them in thrall to a good story even as it improved their morals’.
In 1767 Johnson joined forces with a bookseller called John Payne. Together they set up a bookselling and publishing business in Paternoster Row, living in modest quarters above the shop. Johnson became a regular at the nearby Chapter Coffee House, where scientific experimentalists and philosophers often gathered, as well as writers, to make connections and exchange views (Anne and Charlotte Brontë would take modest lodgings there in 1848 while meeting their publisher). His social and business circle was expanding, and he met the hard-up Henry Fuseli and soon became the Swiss-born artist’s lifelong friend and patron. Johnson generously offered him a room in his Paternoster Row house, and Fuseli described himself as ‘blissfully happy with my friend, Johnson, who I pay for my accommodation by means of drawings, and sometimes with writing’.
This peaceful domestic and professional arrangement ended abruptly when a fire broke out in the shop’s back office early one morning in January 1770. The business burned to the ground, and Johnson lost all his possessions and his entire stock. Fuseli lost his books, paintings, manuscripts and clothes and went abroad to train as a full-time painter. Unfortunately, the fire occurred during a period of re-evaluation, when the business was temporarily uninsured. Payne promptly gave up bookselling and moved out of London, and it looked very much as if young Joseph Johnson’s promising career was over too, until his close circle of bookseller and writer friends ‘came about him, and set him up again’. Six months later, he took a lease at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard, facing the west doors of the great cathedral, a lively area of tightly packed streets and flourishing bookshops, printers and taverns. Johnson would live and work there for the rest of his life.
He never married and was looked after by his two Liverpool nieces and a handful of domestic servants. The dining room above his bookshop served by day as his private office, where he would hold discussions with suppliers, tradesmen and authors, but in the evenings (which began at about 3 pm) this ‘little quaintly shaped upstairs room, with walls not at right angles’ hosted gatherings that were unique in literary history. Once a week, from the early 1770s until the end of 1809, Johnson invited a selection of writers, artists, scientists and philosophers of contrasting politics to gather at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard to dine with him. His regular dinner guests had no communal name and did not identify as a group, unlike Jonathan Swift’s Scriblerus Club or the Lunar Society in Birmingham. But there was an agreed way of being nevertheless. ‘Many of those who came to dinner understood that the weekly gatherings at St Paul’s Churchyard were emblematic of a broader interwoven community,’ Hay writes. ‘To dine with Johnson was to acknowledge one’s allegiance both to the bookseller and the network he enabled.’
His circle of friends and authors was, in effect, his family, and over the years included the political activist Thomas Paine, the statistician Thomas Malthus, the chemist Humphry Davy, the doctor and poet Erasmus Darwin, poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the chemist and natural philosopher Joseph Priestley and the scientist and writer Benjamin Franklin. Johnson published Franklin’s collected works just before a warrant was issued for his arrest and he sailed back to America in 1775. ‘He told me in general that he thought he did no good here,’ wrote Priestley, ‘and might do some in America.’ Fuseli had returned to England from Europe after nine years away, and once again became a welcome dinner guest at Johnson’s; by now he had become an established artist, and from 1781 his strange painting The Nightmare hung in pride of place in the publisher’s dining room. It must have looked particularly unsettling by flickering candlelight. William Cowper, who was Johnson’s bestselling author and prolific correspondent, was there only in spirit, as he never came to London or met his publisher in person. By contrast, William Blake lived close by, but was only an occasional guest; he was known simply as ‘Blake the engraver’ who illustrated Johnson’s books. Johnson was in fact Blake’s friend and patron, and encouraged him to display his more unusual illuminated and printed works in the bookshop’s window at St Paul’s Churchyard, giving him access to a wider readership.
From the beginning, Johnson also published the works of women, and included them socially at a time when the dining clubs, literary societies and coffee houses of the printing district were reserved for men. His most celebrated author and friend was Mary Wollstonecraft, whose first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1786), Johnson published while she was still working (unhappily) as a governess for the Kingsborough family in Cork and Dublin. He wrote to her, promising to stand by her if she chose to return to London and forge a path as a writer. This she did, and he simply recorded that ‘Mary came from Ireland in 1787 (Augt) and resided with me having determined to try to live by literary exertions & be independent.’
During her stay in his house, after the other dinner guests had left, Johnson made Wollstonecraft a remarkable offer. He would find her a house and a servant and pay for both, and in return, she would write original works and act as his reviewer and translator. It made her, as she proudly explained to her sister, ‘the first of a new genus’: the professional woman writer. ‘You would respect him,’ she told Everina, ‘and his sensible conversation would soon wear away the impression, that of formality ‑ or rather stiffness of manners, first makes to his disadvantage ‑ I am sure you would love him did you know with what tenderness and humanity he has behaved to me.’
Johnson was indeed a good and loyal friend to Wollstonecraft, and he was also a canny publisher who knew that she was a hard worker and that her writing would sell. She wrote her pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Men in immediate response to Burke’s hugely popular Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790); a few months later Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791) would echo Wollstonecraft’s title and arguments. It was in Johnson’s dining room that year that Wollstonecraft first met her future husband, William Godwin. He had come to hear Paine talk, but instead found himself arguing with Mary, and noted in his diary that they were ‘mutually displeased with each other’. Johnson published the first volume of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, which concluded ‘Let women share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man.’
Wollstonecraft was not the only notable women writer among Johnson’s dinner guests. ‘Our evenings, particularly at Johnson’s, were so truly social and lively, that we protracted them sometimes till …’ the poet, essayist and writer Anna Laetitia Barbauld recalled. ‘But I am not telling tales.’ Barbauld was already a commercially successful author by the time Johnson published the first volume of her Lessons for Children from Two to Three Years Old in 1778. It grew into four volumes and went through many subsequent editions. It was the first book to be based on the idea that young children deserved good literature as much as adults did. Its innovative style was designed to appeal; it was printed on good paper, with a maximum of nine lines of type to a page. Its popularity was a testament to Johnson’s belief in a more liberal education for young children, and that books should reflect their experience and perspective.
Barbauld was a member of the Bluestockings, a circle of nine intellectual women who, in the second half of the eighteenth century, supported female education and promoted literary opportunities for women denied access to formal clubs, societies and universities (a precursor to the Cambridge ‘Ladies’ Dining Society’ that met from 1890-1914, which I write about in my blog: see details below). Barbauld’s literary achievements and concern with human rights greatly influenced Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Coleridge was so impressed by Barbauld’s poetry that he walked from Nether Stowey to Bristol to meet her and ask for advice. Charlotte Turner Smith was another prominent novelist and poet at the end of the eighteenth century who dined with Joseph Johnson. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge greatly admired her Elegiac Sonnets (1784), which went into eleven editions. ‘My beloved William is turning over the leaves of Charlotte Smith’s sonnets,’ Dorothy Wordsworth wrote in her Grasmere Journal on Christmas Eve 1802, ‘but he keeps his hand to his poor chest, pushing aside his breastplate.’
Charlotte Smith’s poetry ‘influenced a new generation of young male poets in its presentation of nature as a source of emotional and mental strength during times of difficulty’, Hay writes. But she found it difficult to make a living as a writer, having to pay her estranged and violent husband’s debts. Johnson tried to help, advising her that ‘perhaps you cannot employ your time and extraordinary talents more usefully for the public & yourself than in composing books for children and young people, but I am very sensible it is extreamly difficult to acquire that simplicity of style which is their great recommendation.’ He published her children’s books and later her influential narrative poem Beachy Head posthumously in 1807.
The prolific Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth was frequently at Johnson’s dining table, at first accompanied by her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Influenced by Barbauld’s writing, Maria Edgeworth’s Letters for Literary Ladies was published by Johnson in 1795. She became his correspondent and lifelong friend, even visiting him in prison after he was targeted by the Anti-Jacobin Review and convicted in 1798 of spreading anti-government propaganda through his publications. Her stepmother, Frances, clearly disapproved, writing in her Memoir that ‘it was afterwards a disadvantage to Maria that her works were published by the printer of what were considered seditious and sectarian books’.
There was intellectual diversity among the women writers published by Johnson; in 1804 Barbauld robustly turned down Edgeworth’s suggestion of a journal written by and for literary ladies, telling her that ‘there is no bond of union among literary women, any more than among literary men’. As well as being spirited members of Johnson’s disputatious dining club, Charlotte Smith and Anna Barbauld were both generous poetic mentors to Wordsworth and Coleridge among others. Yet, as the fame of the male Romantic poets grew in the early nineteenth century, it seems that the voices of these eminent women writers increasingly were no longer heard. Mary Wollstonecraft still speaks to us, but most of the Johnson’s other women dinner guests have been erased retrospectively from what became the gentlemen’s dining club of British Romanticism.
Dr Ann Kennedy Smith is a writer and researcher based in Cambridge. She writes a blog called ‘The Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society’ (https://akennedysmith.com/) and her articles and reviews have been published in the TLS, English Review and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.