My regular readers (Hi, Paul!), will know that I am keen on dipping into books, but even I was rather dismayed at the prospect of the nine-volume Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, Comprizing Biographical Memoirs of William Boywer, Printer, F.S.A., and Many of His Learned Friends, published between 1812 and 1815 by the author and publisher John Nichols (1745–1826).
The first part of Volume 1 consists of ‘Typographical Anecdotes of Mr Bowyer’s Press’, but the rest is ‘essays and illustrations’ on Dr William Nicholls, Rev. William Whiston, Rev. Francis Peck, Archdeacon Taylor, etc., etc. Who are these guys, as Robert Redford asked Paul Newman (or vice versa?) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? As it turns out, it doesn’t matter a great deal – they were all literary divines, and the sets of books will be of enormous use to anyone interested in the lesser writers of the eighteenth century. But the anecdotal aspect is immensely appealing.
A row over the copyright of Robinson Crusoe; ‘A sermon preached … before the captives redeemed [from the Barbary pirates] by the late Treaty with the Emperor of Morocco’ in 1721; notes about Bishop Burnet, described by Swift as ‘in most particulars the worst qualified for an Historian that I ever met with’; a forgery in the Paris Bible at Cambridge University Library…
The Rev. John Jones, gloomily stuck in a small Bedfordshire parish, wants to get out. He writes to his patron in 1755, that a secular job would be acceptable if nothing ecclesiastical is available, though he rather fancies the role of Catechist ‘in such an airy place as the Foundling Hospital’, or the Charter-house ‘but then I know not the terms of admission there’. Or was there a possibility of a post as an open-air preacher ‘for the mountainous parts of Lancashire, in the summer months? I am told the salary is pretty good. Such exercise of riding would be agreeable and useful to me…’.
The Rev. Dr Gloster Ridley, a descendant of the Protestant martyr, got his first name from being born aboard the Gloucester East Indiaman in 1702. He was an enthusiastic amateur actor in his youth, and his friend Theophilus Cibber (son of the more famous Colley), a fellow Wykhamist, urged him to quit the Church for acting, observing that ‘it usually paid the larger salaries of the two’. Aged 64, ‘he drudged on in the labour of a copyist, by transcribing the Syriac New Testament from one Syriac character into another’. Why?
The Rev. Dr Thomas Morrell was a friend of Hogarth at Chiswick, then went as chaplain to the Garrison at Portsmouth, and ‘he several years preached Mr Fairchild’s anniversary Botanical Sermon on Whitsun Tuesday, at St Leonard’s Shoreditch. (Thomas Fairchild, gardener, pioneering hybridist (at a time when creating new forms of plants could be though blasphemous) and nurseryman of Hoxton, left £25 for the endowment of an annual Whitsun sermon on either the ‘Wonderful Works of God in the Creation, or on the Certainty of the Resurrection of the Dead proved by the Certain Changes of the Animal and Vegetable parts of the Creation.’ This tradition happily continues, albeit at St Giles Cripplegate.) ‘Dr Morrell also wrote the words to Handel’s Oratorios; in which he has very great merit.’ (Judas Maccabaeus, Alexander Balus, Theodora, Jephtha, and the English version of Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno. Handel left Morrell £200.)
And the Rev. Dr William Cole noted in his diary for 27 March 1766, ‘I sent my two French wigs to my London barber to alter them, they being made so miserably I could not wear them.’ Here is Cole in 1768, by which time the wigs were presumably fixed to his satisfaction.
All this from just one volume: and I’m sure that the other eight are just as full of similar plums. (There are of course also anecdotes of better known writers such as Henry Fielding (above), and his sister Sarah – the clever one, by Fielding’s own account – Horace Walpole, John and Charles Wesley, and Stukeley the antiquarian.) By the way, we have just reissued (in its 1774 version, compiled with the assistance of his then apprentice, John Nichols), The Origin of Printing, by William Bowyer (1699–1777). Master and man between them spanned the entire eighteenth century.