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A week-long trip to London and British Library was once more an enjoyable journey to the world of late-Victorian historians and their publishers. Their captivating debates, discussions and daily concerns about their correspondence provide a fascinating panorama of the realities of scholarly publishing. To unveil some of these realities, let me introduce two popular characters that frequently appear in the letters: the jack-of-all-trades publisher and the ever so reckless printer.

The watch of John Richard Green and the jack-of-all-trades publisher

When John Richard Green and Alice Stopford married in 1877, Alexander Macmillan gave the groom a precious watch as a wedding gift. Green was the author of the immensely popular Short History of the English People, trusted adviser in questions about publishing history, and above all, a dear friend to the entire Macmillan family. Indeed, such a friend deserved a handsome wedding present and all the available support Macmillan could give him in his scholarly pursuits. The Green-Macmillan friendship indicates that in the late-Victorian publishing world the professional and private relations overlapped, and although Green always had a special place in the Macmillan family, his amiable relationship with Alexander Macmillan was not exceptional. Mr. Macmillan befriended with numerous of his authors, including many historians.

In spite of the joyful dinner parties and summer visits authors and publishers paid to each other, not to mention the shared trips to France and Italy, the charge against a publisher as a heartless capitalist is a common trope in the correspondence of nineteenth-century literary celebrities: publishers are depicted as only interested in profits and margins, and incapable to understand culture or the artistic inclinations of their authors during the publishing process. Historians, of course, complained similarly about the terms publishers offered to them, their lack of comprehension of the specificities of historical publications, or the limited care and interest they invested in preparing and promoting historical literature. Still, lasting and loyal friendships were established between historians and publishers. Macmillan showed admirable forbearance in his dealings with his authors. Even when the temperamental historian Edward Freeman many times tested Macmillan’s patience, he was quick to forgive his friend his momentary tantrums. Similarly, Freeman and a host of other thin-skinned historians put aside their misgivings when they needed help and friendship from their ever-reliable publisher friends. This help covered a wide spectrum of assistance from lending money and practical publishing advice to moral support when ignorant reviewers were exceptionally brutal in their criticism. Nineteenth-century publishers were in many ways like today’s ideal thesis supervisors: they were always available for historians. They listened to their anxieties and worries and comforted in the moments of disappointment and frustration, as well as, eagerly shared a drink and rejoiced the success of their protégés. Yet, the services the gentlemanly publishers provided for their author-friends exceeds the responsibilities of a modern day professor. Let’s return to the watch of J. R. Green.

When Green passed away in 1883, Alice Stopford Green kept the watch as a memory of her dear late-husband. When Mrs. Green later on moved to her native Ireland, the watch began to go irregularly. Unfortunately no one in Dublin seemed to be able to fix it. The watch was too dear to be given to incompetent hands and Mrs. Green – historian and Macmillan’s author herself – saw it best to send it to her publisher in London hoping that he would get it properly fixed there. There seemed to be nothing strange in asking such help from a publisher. In London Macmillan took care of the matter and the watch was fixed and returned to its grateful owner in Dublin. Of course taking care of this kind of errands was not core business for publishers, but sending a clerk to a watchmaker was one way to show appreciation and strengthen the friendly ties with an author who might then be more willing to make compromises when the next book was to be published.

Rats, Edward Freeman’s essays and reckless printers

The printing of the third volume of Edward Freeman’s historical essays was reaching the finish line when Frederick Macmillan received alarming news from the printing house. Frederick had no other option than to deliver the bad news to Freeman. There had been an accident at the Clowes printing office: rats had invaded the printer’s premises and eaten a copy of one essay and part of another one that had been waiting to be put into type. Perez the MouseFrederick was careful in writing his letter, for he knew that Freeman despised the “wretched” trade of printers and feared that this incident could give him a reason to launch another campaign against the printers. Freeman’s antipathies towards printers were not entirely unheard. Publishers were well aware of the tensions between authors and printers. Historians always found fault entirely on printers, but publishers were not so sure about this. They realized that usually there was blame in both historians and printers. A publisher’s responsibility was, then, to balance in between the bickering scholars and printers diplomatically keeping everyone happy to ensure that eventually the book would get published. This difficult task required the skills of persuasion and delicacy.

Publishers learned from historians, for instance, that printers were a wholly unreliable lot and unable to work according to agreed schedules. Historians were anxious to see the results of their arduous research in print as soon as possible and consequently had unfounded expectations about the printer’s ability to work with their manuscripts – or about their working hours. Alice Stopford Green complained to George Macmillan about delays in receiving proofs from the printers. George Macmillan replied explaining that there was not any delay, but because the printing office closed at one on Saturday and the printers did not work on Sundays, the progress during the weekend was slower than during the week. To make sure that Green understood him, Macmillan added that it surely could not be expected that printers worked on Saturday afternoons or Sundays.

Another matter that irritated historians was the carelessness of printers. John Lingard, for instance, warned his friend not to trust in dates in histories, because printers were prone to make mistakes in those, and Freeman concluded that due to printers’ neglect, his proofs were always full of slips and errors. He was utterly ignorant about the fact that his messy manuscripts with difficult foreign words, old-English names, complicated footnote apparatus as well as the numerous last minute additions and corrections he had made to his sheets, might have something to do with the mistakes printers made when deciphering his illegible text. Publishers were again needed to assure historians that printers were doing their best. They were also needed to calm down agitated printers who were doing their best with cryptic manuscripts and still received angry messages from historians who were not happy with the results. If historians were blind to the problems their confusing manuscripts caused, the printers were not fully without a fault either. Historians had a good reason to complain when the editor of a printing office “improved” the text by modernizing the spelling of names and old-English words or otherwise altering the text and punctuation. Freeman frequently received slips with such improvements, and Edith Thompson was disheartened to discover how the editor had altered the spelling in the press sheets and her History of England was released with numerous inconsistently spelled common words. When mistakes like these occurred, publishers interfered and demanded printers to rectify the errors in the next edition, but this was hardly a consolation to historians who strove to utmost accuracy in their publications.

Then, what about those hungry rats at Clowes printing office? In line with the publisher’s role as a lightning rod, Frederick Macmillan informed Freeman about the incident, but reminded him that this was not a total disaster. The essays were reprints of Freeman’s earlier published articles in journals, so printers could easily obtain new copies and finish their job with only a minor delay. And finally, if rats were so eager to consume Freeman’s text, Macmillan was certain that the public would devour the book with equal voracity.

The episodes with rats and a broken watch point to the various roles and duties publishers had. Publishing historical literature was always a financial transaction, but the relationships between historians and publishers indicate that this is only part of the picture. Financial interests, scholarly ambitions and personal affinities were neatly intertwined, creating bonds that were tested over and over again whenever a historical manuscript was turned into a publication. Research interests, the demands of the literary marketplace, technical and legal details of a publishing process and emotional attachments guided the production of historical literature. Publishers and historians endeavored to navigate in the complex networks of social relations which were challenged by opposing commercial and scholarly expectations and notions. The close friendships helped to overcome many conflicts and find compromises to bridge the evitable gaps when historians and publishers tried to put together a historical book that was at the same time a scholarly and commercial success. The mix of personal and private, business and culture made publishing histories a very human business – and an engaging and current research topic still today.

The Macmillan Papers in the British Library
Edwin Jones, John Lingard and the Pursuit of Historical Truth. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2001.

The image: Perez the Mouse / Internet Archive