On 12 August 1803, William Blake left his cottage in Felpham, West Sussex, and discovered a soldier leaning against the garden wall. The soldier, John Scofield, was one of hundreds stationed along the coast in anticipation of a French invasion. The French not having invaded, Scofield was looking for work, and had come inside the gate to see if he might find some there. Blake did not care for the explanation. He ordered Scofield to leave; Scofield refused and then took a swing at Blake and missed. Blake pinned Scofield’s arms behind his back and dragged him to the local inn. Scofield later filed a complaint against Blake—not for assault but sedition, which carried the potential of a death sentence. According to the trial records, Blake was accused of having said that ‘the people of England’
were like a parcel of Children, that the[y] wo.d play with themselves ‘till they wo.d get scalded and burnt[,] that the French knew our strength very well and if Buonapart wo.d come he wo.d be master of Europe in an hour’s time . . . [Blake] Damned the King of England—his Country and his Subjects—[and said] that his soldiers were all bound for Slaves and all the poor people in general[.]
Blake’s wife Catherine got in on the action. ‘Although she was but a Woman,’ Catherine is alleged to have sworn that ‘she wo.d fight as long as she had a Drop of Blood in her’—not for England but ‘for Buonaparte.’ This was a joke but one with a serious meaning: the nation was in such dire straits it would be better to scrap it and begin from scratch.
It took a full year for Blake to be acquitted. He was almost certainly guilty, but none of his neighbours would bear witness against him, which gives some idea of the general sentiment in Felpham during the early years of the Napoleonic Wars. (Blake also tossed off a highly idealized painting of Admiral Nelson in 1805—perhaps to cover his tracks.) The act under which Blake might have been tried—the Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act, passed in 1795—was wildly unpopular even among people who did not think Napoleon a fine alternative to George III. It was a time of widespread state surveillance and espionage, but it was also a time of exceptional solidarity.
Daisy Hay’s Dinner with Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age is at one level a book about solidarity, and about the daily work of holding a group of radical intellectuals together. Its protagonist is an unassuming and—to modern readers—little known London bookseller whose name appears on the frontispiece of nearly every major work of political and social philosophy from the Romantic period. Johnson’s list was all bigwigs: Joseph Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Malthus, Anna Barbauld, William Cowper, Maria Edgeworth, William Wordsworth, Henry Fuseli, and the man whom one of Johnson’s guests referred to as ‘Blake, the Engraver’. With the exception of Blake, his authors embodied a mainstream version of Enlightenment thought. They were against slavery, monarchy, religious intolerance, and state corruption; they supported the rights of women, a better electoral system, secular governance, and perhaps some version of a united Europe. They were, in other words, reformers who countered the reactionary retrenchment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Johnson didn’t just sell their books but paid them, fed them, put roofs over their heads. Eventually, he would go to prison for the privilege.
Born in Liverpool in 1738, Johnson was raised in a Baptist family that identified strongly with the Dissenting tradition (though Johnson would later renounce his Baptist upbringing in favour of Unitarianism). A series of Test Acts passed in the later seventeenth century handily excluded Roman Catholics, Protestant Dissenters, and Jews from all civil or military offices as well as from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (Oxford’s prohibition against non-Anglicans, which began in 1581, was not overturned until nearly three hundred years later). In Johnson’s time, public feeling was less openly hostile toward Dissenters than it had been when Daniel Defoe wrote—maybe with his tongue in his cheek, maybe not—that Anglican Britain had no intention of being ‘wheedl’d and canted into Peace and Toleration’ by a group of subversives who had ‘once requited us with a civil War, and once with an intolerable and unrighteous Persecution for our former Civility.’ Nonetheless, a suspicion of nonconformity could, and did, easily boil over into violence.
To call Johnson a bookseller is somewhat misleading. His trade, as Hay explains, ‘bears a good deal of resemblance to modern publishing’. Out of his storefront at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard—in a neighbourhood where every second shop was involved in some aspect of the business, from paper-making and printing to book-binding and engraving—Johnson not only sold books but commissioned writers, took on the financial risks of production, and did a good bit of editing (too much, if you asked Cowper). He had learned the ropes from a Baptist bookseller named George Keith after moving to London in 1753 at the age of fourteen. At the end of his seven-year apprenticeship, during which he was initiated into the intricacies of copyright law and investing, Johnson established his own bookselling business, moving between various premises in and around the City before settling at number 72 after his previous shop at Paternoster Row burned down in 1770. In his early years, he made an effort to publish fellow Dissenters, from Theophilus Lindsey—who resigned his vicarage in 1773 and founded the first Unitarian church—to Priestley, the kind-hearted polymath who would narrowly escape death at the hands of the Birmingham mob, to Barbauld, whose do-it-yourself guides to early childhood education were based on her experience running Palgrave Academy, a Dissenting school that shunned corporal punishment and taught modern along with classical languages.