Tonson’s Tonic

The bookseller Jacob Tonson the Elder was perhaps the greatest of English literary entrepreneurs, and a pivotal figure at an important moment in English literary culture.  He was also an enthusiastic pioneer of English wine.

Tonson was born in 1655 or 1656 into a bookselling family; although his father was a barber surgeon, his uncle on his mother’s side, Matthew Walbancke, was a bookseller. Initially Tonson published books jointly with his elder brother Richard. However, his bookselling career took off when he became Dryden’s publisher. As well as publishing all Dryden’s original compositions from Absalom and Achitophel onwards, Tonson and Dryden began to enrich English literature with a series of translations from the classics. Simply to review the list of their authors is to see how much of the literature of ancient Greece and Rome Tonson was responsible for introducing into English, either for the first time or in updated and more reliable translations: Ovid, Plutarch, Juvenal, Persius, Virgil, Caesar, Catullus, Horace, Lucan, Lucretius, Terence, Sallust, Aesop.  In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, for many English men and women Tonson was the prime gatekeeper to the classics.  

Tonson also built up a dominant position in the copyrights of earlier English literature. From 1681 he published all Dryden’s work. But he also began to buy up the copyrights on Dryden’s earlier poems and plays. This allowed him to publish in 1695 the first collected edition of Dryden’s Works. He went on to acquire a controlling interest in the plays of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher. Reaching yet farther back into the literary past, Tonson published editions of Chaucer and Spenser.  

But most significantly, Tonson played a crucial part in transmitting the poetry of Miltonand principally Paradise Lost—to later generations. If Tonson had not safeguarded Paradise Lost through decades hostile to its literary and political values, later generations might have been denied easy access to the most important single poem in English. It was not a wholly disinterested gesture. Asked in later life to name the author from whom he had made most money, Tonson unhesitatingly replied “Milton”. Even so, it had been a brave gamble. Tonson had bought half the rights to Paradise Lost in 1683, with the Stuart dynasty apparently secure upon the throne, and popular literary preferences set firmly in favour of rhymed couplets, sex comedy and bawdy lyric, rather than blank verse and lofty epic.  

Tonson’s other English copyrights show how astutely he harvested the rising generation of literary talent: Congreve, Creech, Thomas Hughes, Matthew Prior, Rochester, Rowe, Vanbrugh, all were published by Tonson. This shrewd man of ordinary birth and vague education (though he clearly had competence in Latin) had achieved a degree of monopoly in polite literature of which our modern press barons cannot even dream.

However, the next phase of Tonson’s life was even more extraordinary. In 1718, and dominant in the literary world of London, Tonson retired from active bookselling (while nevertheless still acting as an agent for well-heeled clients such as the Earl of Macclesfield). He sold his copyrights to his nephew, Jacob Tonson the Younger, and moved to Paris.  

But Tonson was not distracted from his own advantage by the pursuit of pleasure. His two years’ residence in the French capital was an extraordinary financial success. With impeccable timing, Tonson invested in the French Mississippi bubble, and got out at the top with a stupendous fortune of 40,000 livres sterling (as an aghast and presumably envious Robert Arbuthnot reported to Matthew Prior). What did he do next?

In one sense, Tonson’s next move was entirely predictable and ordinary. Having made his fortune, he invested much of it in land. He bought an estate, The Hazels, near Ledbury in Herefordshire, and set up as a landed gentleman. However, one of his particular enthusiasms in this new identity was tending and improving an established but neglected vineyard which formed part of the estate. In the very last letter of his life (and with his usual idiosyncratic spelling), the octogenarian Tonson told his nephew that “I am now pleasing my Self as much as I can in any thing in taking care of & improving my house & the Vyneard there, & indeed tis ye best amusement I am capable of.”

Tonson cared for and improved his vineyard in a number of ways. First, he travelled to other English vineyards, particularly to the Paragon Vineyard, just north of Bath, in quest of tips and hints. Secondly, he tried to enrich the soil: “I beleive I have now 200 Load of Excellent Muck upon ye ground & it is now Spreading in baskets on ye roots of ye Vines: there has nevour yet but a very litle muck been laid on it.” Thirdly, he was eager to import superior vines from France: “I shal want a good many new Stocks to plant in my Vyneard.” He asked his nephew to seek out and import one hundred each of three different kinds: “Burgundy Viens”, “Early ffrench sweet Water Vines”, and “White Muscandine Vines”. With these he restocked the neglected old vineyard, but also turned over new land to vines: “I have found such advantage in my improvemt at the Vyneard that I have retrieved one other quarter let to be overun wth wild plants, to above ye quantity of one Acre, & am by very good advise resolved to plant it with Young Vines; I have already in every thing prepared ye ground.”

The results were (at least according to Tonson) impressive: “Amey was with me & uppon tasting agreed they [some imported French wines] were extraordinary good, & yet after drinking a Bottle of my English wine he declared he had rather drink that. I am not of his opinion, yet I must say it is to me as agreeable this Season & more pleasant.” He was confident enough to offer his wines to even the greatest in the land, such as the Duke of Newcastle: “let me know if his grace wil accept of a tast of the wine I made last Yeare. I think it is very good & drinks as wel as the wines about Paris.” And, like many proud winegrowers, Tonson claimed health benefits for his product: “the 3 Hogsheads I made this Yeare are . . . fine & of a milder & more pleasing tast than Port, & does not bind or heat ye Body as I find Port does.”

A thread of continuity connected Tonson’s bucolic retirement to the metropolitan world of bookselling he had left behind. Common to both phases of Tonson’s career was a determination to enrich his native land with the best productions of distant times and countries, whether wine or literature. One may be mildly sceptical about the quality of the drink Tonson produced at The Hazels, and yet still see that the commitment he brought to winemaking was similar to the commitment with which as a young man he had set about enlarging, refining and marketing English literature.

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