Books and their covers

Posted by Jenny Batt on Sunday, November 25, 2012 with No comments
According to The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, the proverbial warning about judging books by their covers dates from the first half of the twentieth century, but as a couple of miscellanies that we've recently been working on show, it's a piece of advice that eighteenth century book-buyers might have been grateful for.

Browsers picking up a copy of The Muse's Mirrour (1783), for example, would have thought they'd be getting a collection of works by the century's most significant authors, the title page boasting pieces by Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Gray, David Garrick, Laurence Sterne, Edward Young, Samuel Johnson, Charles Churchill, together with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More, and many others.

But it seems likely that any purchaser tempted by such a title page could only have felt cheated on getting the book home and settling down to read it. The two volume collection does include verse by (most of) this dazzling array of authors but those pieces are typically short, fragmentary, and inconsequential. Instead of the panopoly of literary talent that readers might have expected, this collection is actually dominated by verse attributed variously to 'Capt. Thompson', 'E. Thompson', 'E. T.' and 'Capt. E. T--n'. Edward Thompson was a naval officer and poet, contributor to the London Magazine and Westminster Magazine, and author of a two-volume account of life in the navy, Sailor's Letters (1766). Thompson's a very interesting figure, but in the opinion of the booksellers Debrett, Richardson and Urquhart, not sufficiently interesting to generate sales. So, though Capt. Thompson's name is mentioned on the title page, it does get rather lost amongst the hordes of better-known authors who crowd around him, and no reader picking up the collection and judging it on its title page could have expected to have found it so dominated by the sailor's work.

There's a further piece of deception on this title page. The collection is announced as the 'second edition', from which, potential purchasers might be expected to conclude they'd be getting a tried and tested work, one which had proved so popular that its first edition had sold out and a reprint been demanded. On closer inspection, however, it appears that this is not at all the case. This collection is not a reprint of the first edition of The Muse's Mirrour: it is a reissue of that first edition with a new title page. The first edition, published in 1778, had not sold out: five years later, as a way of getting rid of unsold stock, a new title page had been printed and the old book repackaged as a new one. Misleading customers by repackaging old books in this way and claiming that books were new editions when they were nothing of the sort was a fairly common procedure used by booksellers for trying to get rid of stock that hadn't sold.

The title page of a different miscellany, The British Poets (1777), misled readers in yet another way. This also boasted works by a stellar array of poets, but unlike The Muse's Mirrour, the miscellany did actually make good on this promise, delivering Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, Swift's Baucis and Philemon, Pope's Eloisa to Abelard, and Gray's Elegy on a Country Churchyard alongside popular verse from Thomson, Prior, Shenstone and others. No, where the title page of this miscellany is misleading is in the imprint - the bit of text on the titlepage that informs readers who published the book and where they could buy it from. The title page of The British Poets declares that it is 'sold by B. Lintot, A. Millar, R. Tonson, D. Midwinter, and M. Cooper', and at first glance, such an imprint is impressive: Lintot, Millar, Tonson, Midwinter and Cooper are all major eighteenth century publishers and booksellers. But on closer inspection, this imprint becomes impossible: by 1777 Lintot, Millar, Tonson, Midwinter and Cooper were all dead - and in some cases, had been dead for several decades.

Why such a curious imprint? It may simply have been a bid for prestige, designed to align the collection with illustrious publishing firms. But a more intriguing suggestion is that might be a reaction to the change in copyright law that took place in 1774 which did away with the notion of perpetual copyright,wresting the control of major literary works from the hands of these establishment figures and enabling an explosion of cheap reprints. In previous years, with the exception of pirated editions, the only place to buy the works of Milton, Swift, Pope, Thomson et al had been from those booksellers who owned the copyright of their works, and who had fiercely fought to retain that monopoly: now, however, the market was opened up, and once the statutory period of copyright had expired these booksellers were no longer the only ones with the legal right to publish them. The improbable imprint declaring The British Poets to be available from Lintot, Millar, Tonson, Midwinter and Cooper might be intended as a sly dig at the waning power of establishment booksellers. But whatever the motivation for this curious imprint, it must have proved a puzzle for eighteenth century readers: if they wanted to get hold of a copy of this book, where on earth were they to buy it?