In 1843, the London publishers Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans furnished Lucy Aikin’s Life of Joseph Addison with the following “Notice to Booksellers, Proprietors of Circulating Libraries, and the Public” to establish its copyright:
The Publishers of this work give notice that it is Copyright, and that in case of infringement they will avail themselves of the Protection now granted by Parliament to English Literature. Any person having in his possession for sale or for hire a Foreign edition of an English Copyright is liable to a penalty, which the Publishers of this work intend to enforce. It is necessary also to inform the Public generally, that single Copies of such works imported by travellers for their own reading are now prohibited, and the Custom-house officers in all our ports have strict orders to this effect. The above regulations are equally in force in our Dependencies and Colonial Possessions.
Nevertheless, the notice that referred to the 1842 Copyright Act Bill did not prevent the foreign publishers from making alterations to Aikin’s book without consulting her about the revisions.
The introduction of copyright legislation during the eighteenth century defined books as content and a physical object granting an author the ownership of the former. The 1842 Copyright Bill Act guaranteed, first, copyright to authors for 42 years from publishing and for seven years post-mortem for their families. This was a significant improvement: for the first time protection was provided also to a writer’s family. Second, the law made a modest attempt to tackle the issue of illegal international reprints by imposing heavy fines for anyone importing foreign copies of English books to Britain. The 1838 International Copyright Act had enabled reciprocal copyright agreements with individual nations. This, however, was easier said than done and the law had very little impact on the flourishing market of illegal reprints. The 1842 Act did not do much to improve the situation. It was not until the international copyright Berne Convention in 1886 that the matter was tackled with some level of seriousness. In the case of the United States, the 1891 Chase Act guaranteed some protection to British titles there. Until these improvements, British authors discovered time and again how their books were both illegally reprinted abroad and revised without their consent to make them more appealing to local markets. Lucy Aikin’s Addison joined the ranks of British history books that appeared in an altered shape in North America.
The American version of Lucy Aikin’s Life of Joseph Addison was published in 1846 in Philadelphia by Carey and Hart. The publishers furnished the front matter with an “Advertisement by the American Publisher” promoting Aikin as an “accomplished authoress” whose previous productions had enjoyed wide “celebrity.” This rendered the “republishing” of her latest work the most appropriate thing to do. Yet, the “intended re-print” had to be postponed because the acclaimed English historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, had written a lengthy review of the book “pointing out a number of errors into which Miss Aikin has fallen.” Thus, in order to avoid publishing a deficient history, Carey and Hart decided to carefully re-examine the book and after their detailed investigation in the matter, they were pleased to inform the readers that “most of these drawbacks” were not quite as serious as Macaulay had implied and rather “referred to matters of collateral interest.” Nonetheless, since such a “distinguished a source” had identified numerous defects in the original version, the publishers had seen it best to correct the mistakes by “availing themselves of Mr. Macaulay’s suggestions” before releasing the book.
Without any legal impediments or, as it seems, consideration to Aikin and her moral right to the text, the publishers set to work guided by Macaulay’s review. According to the announcement, they had carefully corrected every mistake the eminent English historian had indicated. Enthusiastically they either made silent alterations to the text or cited and referred to Macaulay in footnotes. In the latter case, they added eleven footnotes credited to Macaulay. For instance, the footnotes stipulated that “Mr. Boyle was not afterwards “Lord Orrery,” but “Lord Carleton,” according to Mr. Macaulay,” “‘Miss Aikin says that Epistle was written before Halifax was justified by the Lords. This is a mistake…Macaulay,” and that “‘Miss Aikin attributes the unpopularity of the Whigs, and the change of government to the surrender of Stanhope’s army: the fact is, that the ministry was changes, and the new House of Commons elected, before the surrender took place.’ – Macaulay.” Consequently, Aikin’s narrative and paratexts were mutated into something that contained ingredients that derived from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s book review and were fused into the text by a publishing house in Philadelphia.
Acknowledging the alterations – and the mistakes in the original version – in the front matter was, for sure, a calculated marketing trick and an attempt to ward off any suspicions Macaulay’s review might have aroused in American readers. While the “Advertisement” and the inserted footnotes conveyed Aikin’s mistakes, incorrect interpretations, and confusion of names, dates, and events, the same paratexts explained the actions publishers had taken to fix these vices. Accuracy was, after all, a core scholarly virtue and selling point in history books and it was crucial to show how the publishers had remedied the vice of inaccuracy in the original version. Thanks to this action, the book was not, by any degree, inferior or “deficient in value to Miss Aikin’s former biographies.”
Moreover, the advertisement served as a precaution. Macaulay was widely admired in America and everything he wrote was carefully perused by the American audience (both in legal and in illegal format). Doubtless, the audience was familiar with his review about Aikin’s Addison, a book which he privately judged to contain “a great number of blunders of any which singly was discreditable, and all of which united were certain to be fatal to the book.” Although Macaulay had mentioned to Macvey Napier that he was going to be “as civil to Miss Aikin as I well can,” he was not going to “let her off without a little gentle correction.” It was his duty as a historian to rescue the book from “utter ruin” by pointing out the “numerous and gross” mistakes “as courteously as the case will bear” – even if it was against his feelings “to censure any woman even with the greatest lenity.” Such gentlemanly generosity was an insincere display of Macaulay’s notions about women historians whom he patronized and disdained. He scorned every woman who dared to venture to the masculine province of history. Thus, taking into account the author’s gender and Macaulay’s general dislike of Joseph Addison, it is not surprising that his review on The Life of Joseph Addison might have appeared to a general reader rather critical and to a publisher a threat to the book’s success. Revising the original text and inserting a note loudly promoting the corrections were used for securing the book’s commercial viability.
Lucy Aikin’s The Life of Joseph Addison is but one of the many history books that were released in America without authorial consent during the nineteenth century. John Richard Green was astonished to discover that the pirated copy of his Short History of the English People was more “gorgeous in form, and margin, and type” than the original was. Charles Oman, for his part, was furious about the illegal copy of his History of Ancient Greece and at least equally furious about the fake facsimile copy of his autograph falsely sanctioning the piracy in the front matter. The lack of international copyright legislation enabled the publishing houses to treat books as free game to be profited of. Without legal constraints, the matter rested on publishers’ moral and although there were many publishers who treated English writers with respect and offered them compensation, there were too many who were indifferent about the immorality of illegal copies. Of course the same applied to American authors in the English literary marketplace: in similar fashion they were taken an advantage of by less scrupulous publishing houses in Britain. Regardless the nationality, every pirated book was a nuisance and insult to its author and a violation of what today is called intellectual property. The pirated copies bear witness to the complicated state of the nineteenth-century publishing business and the challenges the rapidly growing transnational literary market place imposed on existing copyright legislation.
Aikin Lucy, The Life of Joseph Addison, vol. I (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1843).
Aikin Lucy, The Life of Joseph Addison (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1846).
Le Breton Hemrey Philip, Memoirs, Miscellanies and Letters of the Late Lucy Aikin (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1864).
Pinney Thomas (ed.), The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, vol. IV (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
Stephen Leslie (ed.), Letters of John Richard Green (London: Macmillan and Co, 1902)
Eliot, Simon, “The business of Victorian publishing”, in Deirdre David (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 37-60.
Feather John, A History of British Publishing (London, New York, Sydney: Croom Helm, 1988).
Seville Catherine. “Copyright”, in David McKitterick (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol. VI (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 214-237.