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Whig literary culture and the canon: the legacy of the Tonsons

Jacob Tonson the elder (1656-1736) was, as has long been recognized, one of the most influential and pioneering booksellers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and, as such, is the subject of four major biographies of the past hundred years. The leading publisher of his day, Tonson published writers such as Joseph Addison, Aphra Behn, William Congreve, John Dryden, Laurence Echard, John Gay, John Oldmixon, Alexander Pope, Matthew Prior, Nicholas Rowe, Richard Steele, George Stepney, and John Vanbrugh. He was, it can forcefully be argued, the creator of the Renaissance and early eighteenth-century English literary canons, being the publisher of the first critical edition of Shakespeare’s Works, 6 vols. edited by Rowe (1709), the sumptuous folio subscription edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1688), and Edmund Spenser’s Works, 6 vols. edited by John Hughes (1715). He was the publisher of the English literary canon — albeit predominantly male — as it is studied today. He was the founder of one of the most important publishing houses in the United Kingdom of the eighteenth century, although his reputation was international and there are letters to him from all over Europe. He was, says Abigail Williams, the architect of “Whig literary culture”. What does this mean though and how did he do it? The evidence is in both his publications and his life.

Tonson published like-minded, Whiggish authors, such as Addison, Congreve, and Steele. He founded and was the first secretary of the famous Whig Kit-Cat Club, where prominent Whig Men of State, such as the Dukes of Marlborough, Newcastle, and Somerset, and Lord Somers, who drafted the Act of Union (1707) which established the United Kingdom, mixed with the rising and established Whig Men of Letters whom Tonson published. The members of this Club were immortalized by Sir Godfrey Kneller in the Kit-Cat portraits of each member which were painted over twenty years and donated to Tonson and which hang in the National Portrait Gallery today.

Jacob Tonson
Portrait of Jacob Tonson. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

To take an example of how this worked: Somers was responsible for ensuring that Tonson published his edition of Spenser in 1715, Spenser being a favorite author of his. In Kneller’s Kit-Cat portrait of him, Somers is shown holding a copy of Spenser’s Works. Without such promotion, and the patronage of John Hughes which Somers secured, Spenser studies today might be very different. You might say the same about Shakespeare or Milton studies. However, in practice, Tonson, the Kit-Cats, and the Whigs wanted to shore up support and legitimize the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in any way they could. They were willing to make many things part of their culture and our literary heritage which we would not expect: we only have to think of fellow Kit-Cat Charles Halifax’s payment for and arranging of the reburial of the impoverished Tory — maybe even dangerously Jacobite — ex-Poet Laureate and Historiographer Royal John Dryden in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in 1700 to see that. Tonson had published Dryden since the 1670s and stuck by him after he lost his royal appointments at the “Glorious Revolution”. He recognized quality above all, even in one whose politics and religion he despised (Tonson and Dryden had a fractious relationship as can be seen in their letters) but he made sure he profited from it. He brought out the first collected edition of Dryden’s Works in 1693; they have remained in print ever since.

However, Tonson said when asked that, of all the poets whom he had published, Milton had made him “rich”. This was a fortunate coincidence. Milton was central to “Whig literary culture” with his epic view of an ordered creation. But even before Tonson published him, he had been an admirer of Milton, going with a friend when he was only an apprentice bookseller to see the poet’s house and library in London. In the event, he could only go on a Sunday and Milton was out at church. Tonson didn’t forget Milton though, and bought the copyrights to Paradise Lost as soon as he had the chance. His beautifully illustrated and finely printed edition of Milton in 1688 established Tonson as a leading bookseller — in Kneller’s Kit-Cat portrait of Tonson he is shown holding a copy of this folio edition — but Patrick Hume’s Annotations on Milton’s Paradise Lost, which he published in 1695, established Milton as an English author worthy of being treated in the same manner as the Classics.

To be published by Tonson and his nephew and partner, Jacob Tonson the younger (1682-1735) was to have the imprimatur of great literature on your work, but it must always be remembered that it is down to Tonson’s business acumen as much as his literary taste and politics that we owe much of what we as students of seventeenth and eighteenth century English literature study. The profitability of the authors whom he published was a mark of their success in their day. That was the impetus for the creation of “Whig literary culture”. However, it is their quality — think of them: Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton — that makes them canonical even today.

Feature image credit: ‘A Block for the Wigs’ cartoon by James Gillray. Public domain from the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division via Wikimedia Commons.

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