Manuscripts and Books
IT would be no uninteresting literary speculation to describe the difficulties which some of our most favourite works encountered in their manuscript state, and even after they had passed through the press. Sterne, when he had finished his first and second volumes of Tristram Shandy, offered them to a bookseller at York for fifty pounds; but was refused: he came to town with his MSS.; and he and Robert Dodsley agreed in a manner of which neither repented.
The Rosciad, with all its merit, lay for a considerable time in a dormant state, till Churchill and his publisher became impatient, and almost hopeless of success. Burn’s Justice was disposed of by its author, who was weary of soliciting booksellers to purchase the MS., for a trifle, and which now yields an annual income. Collins burnt his Odes before the door of his publisher. The publication of Dr. Blair’s Sermons was refused by Strahan, and the “Essay on the Immutability of Truth,” by Dr. Beattie, could find no publisher, and was printed by two friends of the author, at their joint expense.
“The Sermon in Tristram Shandy” (says Sterne in his preface to his Sermons) “was printed by itself some years ago, but could find neither purchasers nor readers.” When it was inserted in his eccentric work, it met with a most favourable reception, and occasioned the others to be collected.
Joseph Warton writes, “When Gray published his exquisite ode on Eton College, his first publication, little notice was taken of it.” The Polyeucte of Corneille, which is now accounted to be his masterpiece, when he read it to the literary assembly held at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, was not approved. Voiture came the neat day, and in gentle terms acquainted him with the unfavourable opinion of the critics. Such ill judges were then the most fashionable wits of France.
It was with great difficulty that Mrs. Centlivre could get her “Busy Body” performed. Wilks threw down his part with an oath of detestation.—Our comic authoress fell on her knees and wept.—Her tears, and not her wit, prevailed.
A pamphlet published in the year 1738, entitled “A Letter to the Society of Booksellers, on the Method of forming a true Judgment of the Manuscripts of Authors,” contains some curious literary intelligence, and is as follows:
“We have known books,” says our writer, “that in the MS. have been damned, as well as others which seem to be so, since, after their appearance in the world, they have often lain by neglected. Witness the ‘Paradise Lost’ of the famous Milton, and the Optics of Sir Isaac Newton, which last, ’tis said, had no character or credit here till noticed in France. ‘The Historical Connection of the Old and New Testament,’ by Shuckford, is also reported to have been seldom inquired after for about a twelvemonth’s time; however it made a shift, though not without some difficulty, to creep up to a second edition, and afterwards even to a third. And, which is another remarkable instance, the manuscript of Dr. Prideaux’s ‘Connection’ is well known to have been bandied about from hand to hand, among several, at least five or six of the most eminent booksellers, during the space of at least two years, to no purpose, none of them undertaking to print that excellent work. It lay in obscurity, till Archdeacon Echard, the author’s friend, strongly recommended it to Tonson. It was purchased, and the publication was very successful. Robinson Crusoe’s manuscript also ran through the whole trade, nor would any one print it, though the writer, De Foe, was in good repute as an author. One bookseller at last, not remarkable for his discernment, but for his speculative turn, engaged in this publication. This bookseller got above a thousand guineas by it; and the booksellers are accumulating money every hour by editions of this work in all shapes. The undertaker of the translation of Rapin, after a very considerable part of the work had been published, was not a little curious of its success, and was strongly inclined to drop the design. It proved at last to be a most profitable literary adventure.” It is, perhaps, useful to record, that while the fine compositions of genius and the elaborate labours of erudition are doomed to encounter these obstacles to fame, and never are but slightly remunerated, works of another description are rewarded in the most princely manner: at the recent sale of a bookseller, the copyright of “Vyse’s Spelling-book” was sold at the enormous price Of 2,200l.; with an annuity of 50 guineas to the author!
¶ This article is revised and expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities.