Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 23. Curll and Grub Street

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIV. Book Production and Distribution, 1625–1800

§ 23. Curll and Grub Street

If Tonson, Lintot and Dodsley may be accounted among the aristocracy of the publishers of their time, the nadir of the profession is well represented in their contemporary, Edmund Curll, that shameless rascal, in whom even the writer of The Dunciad found his match for scurrility. In the annals of the trade, Curll’s name stands for all that is false, low, dishonest and obscene; indeed, his activity in producing books of an indecent character added a new word—Curlicism—to the language. His many misdeeds brought him varied experiences: from the trick which Pope played upon him at the Swan tavern, and the tossing he received at the hands of the Westminster scholars, up through more than one appearance at the bar of the House of Lords, down to imprisonment, fine and the pillory. But none of these things deterred “the dauntless Curll” from his vicious course. After he had been fined for printing The Nun in her Smock, and had stood in the pillory for publishing The Memoirs of John Ker of Kersland, he continued to advertise these books in his lists, with a note appended to the latter calling attention to the fact that he had suffered fine and corporal punishment on account of it.

At the outset of his career, he put forth as a “second edition, improv’d,” a mere reprint with new title-page—not an unknown deception, it is true; but, with Curll, literary fraud was habitual, and he had no hesitation in suggesting a wellknown writer to be the author of some worthless production by one of his hacks. Elizabeth Montagu, in a letter of 12 November, 1739, writes indignantly:

  • I got at last this morning the poems just published under Prior’s name, brought them home under my arm, locked my door, sat me down by my fireside, and opened the book with great expectation, but to my disappointment found it to be the most wretched trumpery that you can conceive, the production of the meanest of Curl’s band of scribblers.
  • Curll’s connection with the issue of Court Poems (1716) led to his first encounter with Pope, and he afterwards made ignoble appearance in The Dunciad; later, these two were concerned in the talpine proceedings connected with the publication of the 1735 volume of Pope’s Correspondence.

    Curll’s personal appearance, vividly sketched by Amory, was as unprepossessing as his cast of mind. “Edmund Curll,” he says, “was in person very tall and thin, an ungainly, awkward, white-faced man. His eyes were a light-grey, large, projecting, goggle, and pur-blind. He was splay-footed, and baker-kneed.” He adds, however, that “he had a good natural understanding, and was well acquainted with more than the title pages of books.” And, since even a Curll must have his due, it should not be forgotten that he published a number of books of antiquarian, topographical and biographical interest.

    The name of Curll is also closely associated with Grub street, a domain which is wont to be a temptation to indulge in the picturesque—and to figure as a literary hades, inhabited by poor, but worthy, geniuses, with stony-hearted booksellers as exacting demons. Not that the existence of Grub street is to be doubted: it was, indeed, a grim actuality, and many a garreteer realised by experience

  • How unhappy’s the fate
  • To live by one’s pate
  • And be forced to write hackney for bread.
  • But the iniquity was not all on the side of the bookseller, nor did the initiative come from him alone.

    It was in the first half of the eighteenth century, after the expiry of the licensing laws had removed all restraint from the press, that this underworld of letters most flourished, writers and booksellers striving with avid haste to make the most out of the opportunity of the moment. Unscrupulous members of both professions were little troubled by conscience, their common concern being to produce—the one with the minimum of labour, the other at the minimum of expense—anything that would sell. Booksellers were “out” for business, and paid as little as possible. Some of them were hard taskmasters, no doubt, but they had a sorry team to drive, and one may believe that, in general, these Grub street authors got as much as they were worth.

    In his Life of Dr. John North, Roger North speaks of the pickpocket work of demi-booksellers, who “crack their brains to find out selling subjects, and keep hirelings in garrets at hard meat to write and correct by the groat”; and Amory, writing of Curll, says that “his translators in pay lay three in a bed in the Pewter Platter Inn at Holborn, and he and they were for ever at work to deceive the public. John Dunton, a man of many projects, who, in his time, published some six hundred books and himself was the possessor of a ready pen, had considerable experience of hackwriters. As soon as he set up in business, they began to ply him with “specimens”; but he conceived a very poor opinion of the race, and thought their learning very often lay in as little compass as their honesty. Of William Bradshaw, whom he considered to be the best accomplished hackney author he had met, and who wrote for him The Parable of the Magpye, of which many thousands were sold, he says,

  • I had once fixed him upon a very great design, and furnished him both with money and books … but my Gentleman thought fit to remove himself, and I am not sure that I have seen him since.
  • On the other hand, he represents John Shirley, who wrote for him “Lord Jeffreys’s Life,” of which six thousand were sold, as being “true as steel to his word, and would slave off his feet to oblige a bookseller.”

    One of the multifarious occupations of these literary parasites was the abridgment of successful works. Pirate booksellers, like Samuel Lee of Lombard street, “such a pirate, such a cormorant was never before,” or Henry Hills, in Blackfriars, who regularly printed every good poem or sermon that was published, might, at their risk, reprint whole books; but the safer way was to bring out an abridgment, a method of filching against which there was no legal redress. This was the course pursued by Nathaniel Crouch, who

  • melted down the best of our English Histories into twelve-penny books, which are filled with wonders, rarities, and curiosities; for, you must know, his title-pages are a little swelling.
  • The “indefatigable press-mauler,” Shirley, was an adept at this art of collection, as it was called,
  • his great talent lies at Collection, and he will do it for you at six shillings a sheet. He knows how to disguise an Author that you shall not know him, and yet keep the sense and the main scope entire.
  • In his daily task the Grub street denizen lost his own personality in many disguises; and Richard Savage, under the name Iscariot Hackney, thus described, with a bitter cynicism born of experience, the varied rôle of a hireling writer:
  • ’Twas in his [Curll’s] service that I wrote Obscenity and Profaneness, under the names of Pope and Swift. Sometimes I was Mr. Joseph Gay, and at others theory Burnet, or Addison. I abridged histories and travels, translated from the French what they never wrote, and was expert at finding out new titles for old books. When a notorious thief was hanged, I was the Plutarch to preserve his memory; and when a great man died, mine were his Remains, and mine the account of his last will and testament.
  • Occasionally, an author might be an employer of his less fortunate brethren, and the Sunday dinners given by Smollett to his hacks suggest that the conditions of work in his “literary factory” may have been less intolerable than in some other establishments.

    Several of the best writers of the age—Fielding, Johnson, Goldsmith—served some apprenticeship in this lower walk, and the latter, in his Present State of Polite Learning, has feelingly depicted the hardships endured by the “poor pen and ink labourer.” But while many of those who were worthy in due time freed themselves from thraldom, others, like Samuel Boyse, sitting at his writing wrapped in a blanket with arms thrust through two holes in it, found therein a natural habitat.