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Jacob Tonson the elder, international spy and businessman

Few have heard of him today, but Jacob Tonson the elder (1656?-1736) was undoubtedly one of the most important booksellers in the history of English literature. He numbered Addison, Behn, Congreve, Dryden, Echard, Oldmixon, Prior, Steele, and Vanbrugh among those canonical authors whom he published. His reputation was international, and the quality and range of his classical editions remained a benchmark throughout the eighteenth century. Having a reputation outside of England was an extremely rare thing for the time, and this was remarkably brought to light by a letter from Johann Rudolf Holzer (1678–1736).

Holzer was a politician and bibliophile of minor Swiss aristocracy, also a member of the Grand Council and a Provincial Governor of County Büren. He wrote, on 11 November 1730 (originally in French):

Every day such excellent books come from the press in England & you stand out to such advantage among your colleagues through the admirable editions for which the public is in your debt, that it is enough that a book comes from your press for one to be assured that it will be equally good and attractive […] Since I was born curious and our bookshops have not the wherewithal to satisfy my curiosity, I have [MS illegible], Sir, been unable to do better than to apply directly to you to satisfy my desires, persuading myself that a man who has made himself so useful to the public would certainly want to help me hunt out good books which are available in your country…

– Manuscript: British Library, Add. MSS., 28,275, fol. 266.

Dated from 1730 (after Tonson the elder had retired from publishing), this letter is evidently addressed to him, given the references to his earlier publications. Holzer may not even have known of the existence of Jacob Tonson the younger (1682-1735), Tonson’s business partner and heir, who by this time would have been the recipient of this letter.

Image Credit: 'Jacob Tonson' (1717) by Sir Godfrey Kneller, from the National Portrait Gallery. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: ‘Jacob Tonson’ (1717) by Sir Godfrey Kneller, from the National Portrait Gallery. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the confusion over recipients, the letter is exceptional among Tonson’s correspondence, in that it was originally in French. This is particularly telling, as Tonson could speak and read French, having possibly been a spy in France, reporting on the ‘Plenipotentiary-Extraordinary Matthew Prior’ when he was ostensibly on ‘business in Europe’ on behalf of his press. The preliminaries for the Treaty of Utrecht (April 1713), which had ended the War of the Spanish Succession, had been negotiated by Prior. He was treated with considerable suspicion by the Whigs (a British political party), and, after the fall of the Tory ministry (1714), was arrested for treason. If Tonson had been a spy however, he has been dismissed by his most recent biographer (Ophelia Field) as ‘inept.’

Having said this, it is also of interest that the letter comes from such a high up European official. Tonson’s reputation in Great Britain was high, as can be seen from his association with men, including politicians and authors, who became members of the ‘Whig Kit Cat Club’ (an esteemed London literary and political group), which he founded. This example of his reputation in Europe was not without precedent however, as his edition of Dryden’s translation of The Works of Virgil (1697) was hotly anticipated by royalty and elites both in England, as well as on the continent. Addison even wrote to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that “this Edition of this Book … will probably be the noblest volume that ever came from the English Press.”

Cumulatively, the correspondence surrounding the Tonsons sheds substantial light on the editorial and publishing practices of the most important and successful publishing house at the time. They show the level of connections and discourse going on in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century – revealing a thoroughly cosmopolitan and intellectual elite. As such, letters like these offer an important and timely window on the ‘history of the book’ at a significant moment in English and European literary history.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Old Books’ by Tom Woodward. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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