AN 18th CENTURY PUBLISHER TAKES ON A BALL OF FIRE
Joseph Johnson’s rooms were in no. 72 St. Paul’s Churchyard in the literary heart of 18th century London—the book trade had flourished there among the tea shops and coffeehouses from the 17th century to the 20th when enemy bombs devastated the area. A small, unassuming, asthmatic man of fifty, Johnson was the most innovative, open minded English publisher of his time. He was known for his promotion of young writers, male and female, whom he served as editor, banker, and father-confessor. The most celebrated literati of his day attended his five o’clock veal and boiled cod dinners, where one might hear poet Wordsworth arguing with artist William Blake; Anna Barbauld debating female education with writer Mary Hays; a young Coleridge discussing plans for a Utopian adventure in America. Fueled with wine, philosopher Godwin and others would undoubedly break out in a chorus of Ça Ira in support of the French Revolution.
Johnson published inexpensive, accessible books, aimed at middle class readers, and took on controversial subjects like political and religious toleration, rights for slaves, chimney sweeps, and prisoners. Many in his circle were Unitarian Dissenters, who like himself, could neither hold public office nor take a degree at Oxford or Cambridge; in retaliation, they wrote essays and books designed, they said, to reform the world. Pro-revolutionary pamphlets by Thomas Paine and others flew off the press, and when Paine was tried for treason and then arrested for debt, Johnson jumped to his rescue. After Joseph Priestley’s books and laboratories were burnt by the King’s mob, Johnson refinanced him. When he himself was arrested for seditious libel, he rented rooms within the King’s Bench Prison for his weekly soirées, to which his writers loyally flocked.
In 1787 a destitute 28-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft arrived on his doorstep in shabby boots and beaver hat, manuscript in hand and fire in her eye, and he took her in, she wrote, “with tenderness and humanity.” The year before he had published her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, a work that insisted children be taught to think and judge for themselves—a mindset that girls of that day were urged to suppress. Her then employer, Lady Kingsborough, was horrified to think what this governess might teach her children! But a delighted Johnson offered free meals and lodging in the rooms above his shop. In desperate need of support, she accepted, having been rudely dismissed by Lady K, who was jealous of the girls’ affection for their governess. Wollstonecraft got her revenge in Mary: A Fiction, the manuscript she had handed her publisher, in which both Kingsboroughs are drawn with a satirical brush: He hunted in the morning, and after eating an immoderate dinner, generally fell asleep…he would then visit some of his pretty tenants. While Milady ignored her children in favor of her pet dogs who shared her bed and reclined on cushions near her all the day.
“Little Johnson” as Mary often called him—in part to distinguish him from the great Dr. Johnson, whom she also knew—became the parent she never had (her father drank, her mother openly preferred the older brother). Johnson recognized her brilliance and published her work. He paid her creditors, made her editorial assistant of his Analytical Review, and gave her work as a translator, for which, self-educated, she learned French and Italian, on her own. At a time when women writers were viewed with skepticism, even horror at the sacrifice of their native modesty, she vowed to live wholly by her pen—or starve. And of course Johnson wouldn’t allow that: his generous patronage helped her become one of the first professional female authors.
Still, Mary had to live frugally—any extra money she made from her writing went to her siblings. She had few changes of clothing, and wore her curly brown hair plain and unpowdered. For a time she remained quite anonymous except for her book Original Stories, in which a governess introduces two young girls to the harsh realities of poverty—and only then because it was illustrated by William Blake. It was not until A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which she wrote in six weeks and was printed page by page by Johnson in 1792, that her own name appeared on the cover. She became at once famous—and infamous. The work was an impassioned plea in favor of equal education and rights for women, demonstrating how the very protection given women by men made them an inferior class, unable to assert their full humanity. Marriage, she boldly announced, was little more than a “legal prostitition—women were the slaves of man.” Imagine the uproar! Horace Walpole called her a “hyena in petticoats.”
But Little Johnson patted her shoulder and assured her it was a groundbreaking work.
In Midnight Fires, the first in a series of mystery novels featuring Mary Wollstonecraft, the women’s rights controversy was still to come. In 1786, a younger, more naive Mary takes a packet boat to Ireland to be governess to three unruly aristocratic girls and to deal with the pregnancy of a peasant girl, and the death of an illegitimate, roué half-brother. As you can imagine, this rebellious but conflicted woman flings her whole fiery self into the search for a killer—and justice for all concerned.
Nancy Means Wright
Facebook page: “Becoming Mary Wollstonecraft”