By Pat Rogers

Reaktion Books. 470 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-78914-416-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

London in the early years of the eighteenth century. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had seen William of Orange bring a Dutch army to England to overthrow the Catholic–inclined James the Second. James’s daughter, Anne, was now Queen and Protestantism was the established religion. Catholics were looked on with suspicion and deprived of certain civil rights that everyone else took for granted. There were still fears that the exiled James Stuart (son of James the Second), the “Old Pretender” as he was called, could lead a French-backed uprising which would challenge the new government.

It was a turbulent time and conspiracy theories abounded. And it wasn’t only in the political world that rivalries existed. Poets and publishers readily fell out and clashed with each other in ways that make contemporary literary spats look like mere bad-tempered exchanges at a tea-party. The arguments were often as much about personalities as they were about politics or poetry, though a combination of all three could make the fire blaze more brightly. 

One of the more-famous feuds was that between Alexander Pope and Edmund Curll. It’s most likely remembered now for Pope’s part in it. He was, even at the time when he was locked in combat with Curll, widely-known and respected for his poetry and his translations of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey. Edmund Curll, on the other hand, probably owes his fame, if that’s the right word, to the fact of the long-running war with Pope. Curll was never one to give up easily. 

A bookseller, publisher, and occasional versifier, he might otherwise have been just one of  the many “dunces” satirised in Pope’s epic The Dunciad, which mocked a whole gallery of hack writers, booksellers, printers, publishers, and others. They were all seen as having a place in Grub Street, even if they weren’t necessarily based there. It was an actual street, but the name had become synonymous with the activities of all the struggling and often starving authors who, usually for a price, would produce a poem or a pamphlet to order. It might champion a cause, or lampoon a rival of whoever had paid for it. And be hawked around the town in bookshops or on the streets.

Why did the disputes between Pope and Curll develop? It may be necessary to consider both the copyright laws, or lack of their firm application, and the character of Edmund Curll. Pat Rogers says that he had a reputation as “a rascally publisher who had spent his career dodging prosecutions for various scandalous breaches of the law”. There is no doubt about the fact that Curll blithely ignored copyright when it suited him, and cheerfully published poems and other works without seeking permission from the authors.

Pope wasn’t the only one who suffered at his hands (Jonathan Swift, Matthew Prior, and John Gay, composer of The Beggar’s Opera, were also victims), and Curll wasn’t the only publisher practising deception of one sort or another. In the case of Pope and Curll it is necessary to add that there was something of a political aspect to it. Pope was a Catholic and suspected of having sympathies for the Jacobite cause. Curll was a supporter of the Hanoverian monarchy (George the First had come to the throne when Queen Anne died), and wasn’t averse to smearing Pope with references to his religious affiliations and alleged political leanings. The very name Pope led to hints of Popish plots and the like.

I’m not being precise when I place the start of the friction in 1714. These matters rarely have a simple explanation. However, Pope was increasingly annoyed by various attacks on him in publications that Curll was involved with. A work by Charles Gildon,  A New Rehearsal, contained a scene where “an easily identifiable young poet” suggests that a lack of knowledge of Greek was not a hindrance to translating Homer, an obvious comment on Pope’s alleged shortcomings in that line. On the face of it someone called John Roberts was the publisher, but Pope “undoubtedly believed Curll was the responsible party”. And Gildon was one of “a small army of professional authors…….who slaved away for Curll”. There appears to have been any number of hack writers who, for one reason or another, were more than happy to snipe at Pope. Leaving politics and money aside, was it just envy of an established poet who made money from his writing? Or a way of attracting attention by attacking someone famous?  

In 1715 there was an attempt by the “Old Pretender” to invade England and re-establish the Stuart monarchy. The rebels reached Preston, but were then defeated and dispersed. It gave Curll an opportunity to attack people like Lord Lansdowne and Sir William Windham, Jacobite activists and friends of Pope. His Achilles Heel was that he “could not deny that he was a Catholic, or that many of his closest friends were loyal adherents of the faith and maintained contact with their co-religionists in hated France”.

A year or so later Curll published what were known as the Court Poems and attributed them to Pope. They had, in fact, been written by Lady Wortley Montagu, then a friend of the poet. It was bad enough that Curll would happily publish Pope’s work without his permission, but to claim that he was the author of poems he had no hand in was a step too far. As Rogers puts it: “From now open hostilities were declared”. Pope’s revenge took the form of an emetic slipped into Curll’s glass of sack when they encountered each other in a London tavern. He then followed up by publishing a pamphlet which “turned the methods of Grub Street back against their usual perpetrators”.

In it Pope took great delight in describing the colour of Curll’s vomit, and a “plentiful foetid Stool” which drove everyone else out of the room when he arrived home. All this while Curll, convinced he was dying, made his Will in which he confessed to his past sins in relation to publishing unlawful and sometimes obscene material.  It was known that Curll traded in pornography. Like others of his kind when challenged by the authorities he would claim that publishing such works had a socially-useful application by enlightening people to the dangers of deviant sexual practices. Pope’s pamphlet quickly circulated among the London poets and journalists and the ridicule he experienced no doubt prompted Curll to continue even more energetically with his campaign against the poet.

It would be impossible for me to outline all the carryings-on over the years as Curll continued to make money by somehow obtaining material by Pope and making it available to the public. He caused him particular distress when he published “A Roman Catholick Version of the First Psalm; for the Use of a Young Lady”, a poem by Pope that, Rogers asserts, Curll somehow stole. He describes it as “a skilful but blasphemous parody of scripture……Pope supplies a close line-by-line burlesque, sometimes citing phrases from the original to turn them to obscene purposes”. It was clearly not an item that Pope wanted to see in print, especially at a time when anti-Catholic feeling was running high. Rogers says that it being widely circulated “was to cause him lifelong distress”. But for Curll it was one of his “greatest hits”, and he reprinted it several times.

A key work by Pope in relation to his standing in the London literary world was The Dunciad (1728) which, Rogers states, “was more than a work of literature”. It was meant to shock, and its impact was felt for “more than a generation”. There are books that can be usefully read in connection with it. Rogers’ own Grub Street: Studies in a Subculture (Methuen, London, 1972) is one that immediately comes to mind, and Grub Street Stripped Bare: The scandalous lives and pornographic works by the original Grub St. writers by Philip Pinkus (Constable, London, 1968) is given a favourable mention by Rogers in his bibliography.

Curll had a place in The Dunciad alongside numerous other “dunces” (of which there was a “confederacy”) and he, like many of them, responded to Pope by publishing pamphlets and assorted items challenging what he had said. Rogers provides a provocative account of the skirmishes that erupted when The Dunciad first appeared and continued as later editions were revised and expanded. There is a kind of irony involved when one considers that, had it not been for The Dunciad, most of the people mentioned in it would have been completely forgotten, or at least known only to scholars pursuing research into the “subculture” of Grub Street. Would John Dunton and Ned Ward be remembered otherwise?

Curll’s continuing clashes with Pope no doubt assured him of a place in literary history. But he may also have left a mark because of his problems with the authorities. Pope in a tongue-in-cheek- footnote in The Dunciad says that Curll was not only famous among the writers he exploited, but was also “taken notice of by the State, the Church, and the Law, and received particular marks of distinction from each”.

There were several examples of Curll publishing books and pamphlets that led to investigation and prosecution. He was sentenced to “a stint of one hour in the pillory at Charing Cross”, when he was convicted of bringing out John Ker’s Memoirs. Ker was a one-time Government spy, and it was thought that what he had to say might reflect badly on some powerful people. At the same time Curll was also convicted of handling obscene publications. Unlike unlucky people who were pelted with garbage, and sometimes badly injured while pilloried, Curll seems to have been treated almost as a hero, and when released was carried away to a public house by an enthusiastic crowd.

In another case Curll fell foul of the authorities when he brought out a pamphlet by Robert Loggin, a young man who worked for the Customs service. He alleged there was fraudulent activity in its operations. When hauled before the commissioners who represented this branch of government revenue, Curll came up with a “grovelling” apology. But, as Rogers remarks of a different occasion when he was in trouble, “No one surpassed Curll in appearing to grovel while advancing his own interests. Uriah Heep could have learned from him”.

The war between Pope and Curll perhaps reached its peak when the bookseller contrived to distribute Mr Pope’s Literary Correspondence, a selection of letters to a variety of the poet’s friends and acquaintances. It’s intriguing to read Rogers’ detailed account of how the letters came into Curll’s possession, and to take note of the suggestion that Pope himself may have had a hand in facilitating their delivery to the bookseller. His aim was for Curll to be caught handling possibly purloined material and breaking copyright law by publishing it without permission.

Rogers says that “The Chancery case of Pope v. Curll was heard in the summer of 1741”, and he stresses its importance in relation to establishing rules about “copyright in personal letters”.  The court found in Pope’s favour, and Curll was ordered to stop advertising the book for sale. But no order was made “for the physical destruction of the book”. Whether “he ceased to sell it is quite another matter”. There were no major clashes between Pope and Curll following the court case and Pope died in 1744, and so just missed the failed 1745 attempt by the “Young Pretender” to regain the throne for the Stuarts and Catholicism. Curll  died in 1747.

The Poet and the Publisher is a splendidly detailed work of scholarship that is highly entertaining to read. It isn’t necessary to be an expert in eighteenth century literature or politics to follow its well-written story of personal rivalries, skulduggery and shady dealings. Pat Rogers uses contemporary documents, some of them previously unpublished, to great effect. And he demonstrates how a level of personal abuse was often a part of literary arguments. Poor Pope was singled out due to his physical appearance, a result of childhood illnesses. History has tended to treat him kindly, because of his skills as a poet, though it has been suggested that, as a person, he was capable of “double-dealing”. And some have seen Curll as a “lovable rogue”, despite the damage he probably did in terms of denying writers their rightful earnings and attempting to destroy their reputations. Whatever their true characters the narrative of the feuding, with its background of political intrigue and corruption, princes and pretenders,  coffee house cliques, and rogues, rascals, and hacks, is never less than fascinating.