A few months ago, I went to see historian of London Jerry White, (author of London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing) at Samuel Johnson's house for a talk about the notion of Grub Street. I liked his style of presentation, he was very amusing and had a slinking cat-like quality which was more interesting then the slightly stodgy nature of some speakers.
The first part of the talk was to illustrate why it began to be possible for people to make money from words. Although I was aware of the rise of literacy before and during the eighteenth century, Jerry White put it into figures. He estimates that in the 1750s, 60% of all males and 40% of all females in London were literate to some level. He even pointed to parish records of the very poor requesting charity and found at least half the males had the literacy needed to sign their name.
Not that a writer needed literacy to get people hearing their words, newspapers and journals were read out in the coffee houses where old copies were bound in together to be looked in at leisure. There were so many newspapers being published in the capital in a month that publications like 'The Gentleman's Magazine' were published, which had the unique selling point of digesting news that would be interesting and suitable to aspiring gentlemen.
One of the interesting features of this print explosion was that it was primarily centred in a number of cities, particularly London. Regional newspapers were far, far fewer and tended to recycle stories from the capital. Indeed, it makes sense that the street used to 'house' all these writers in popular imagination was a London one. He talked about how foreign tourists would travel to Grub Street to find the writers and be disappointed that it was full of cobblers.
He then went on to an interesting side note about the dubious veracity of some of these newspapers. I already knew that 'The Grub Street Journal’ (not published on Grub Street) used to run a regular feature in which lying reports were exposed but I wasn't aware that the 'Town and Country Magazine' specialised in sex scandals and may have received a good share of it's income through blackmail. Nor was I aware that 'The Flying Post' was also known as 'The Lying Post.' Finally, I don't ever recall hearing the story of Samuel Johnson putting bad news into his reports just to incense Hester Thrale's Mother-in-Law. Nor am I certain this happened, Johnson had left the journal and magazine world by the time he met the Thrales and Johnson's morals would never have let him print an outright lie in a public medium. Maybe Jerry White was spinning some of his own tales in the style of 'The Flying Post'.
He then went on to talk a little about books and emphasised how they were popular culture. He talked about Dudley Rider (a diarist) making sure he was reading the books that everyone was talking about so he had a subject when he next met some pretty ladies. He also quoted a bit of Lord Formal, a character in Henry Fielding's 'Love in Several Masques' where the Lord complains that he tried to read but the effort had been very tiresome for his eyes and that he 'lost my direct ogle', a true tragedy for any Lord.
Then Jerry Hall talked about the authors themselves. The fact was that as much as the London printing machine needed copy, there were more writers then could profit from it. He was very amusing about how 'the travails of the hackney writer was always very effectively and evocatively pitied; by the hackney writer.'
For a writer to survive Grub Street or to ascend any higher in the literary world, they had to be versatile. Think of Goldsmith, who did everything from writer comic plays to popular science, novels, essays and poems. Or Samuel Johnson, who’s description on the statue at the end of Fleet Street read; ‘critic, essayist, philologist, biographer, wit, poet, moralist, dramatist, political writer, talker.’
Writers came from three main areas; actors, medics and lawyers. They were all part of a middle class but it was possible in the republic of letters to move through the social hierarchy to a surprising degree. There were people like Johnson who were invited to all the best houses; or Pope who managed to overcome is Catholic upbringing, deformity and general grumpiness to be something of a secular saint of letters. Of course it could also go the other way, like Samuel Boyce who frequently pawned all his clothes and turned his blanket into a sort of poncho so he could keep on writing.
Finally, the talk turned to the booksellers, paying particular regard to their charity. I was less convinced by this part of the talk, the stories of Newbery and Christopher Smart still ringing in my ears.
What I went away with more than anything, was Jerry White’s enthusiasm for the society of the marginalised writers. He delighted in their conviviality, their clubbability and the way in which people of all walks of life seemed to mingle around the Grub Street milieu, whether they were drinking coffee in Paternoster row or something stronger down at Tom’s. He represented the society of Grub Street as a place where people could always share a book, a drink or a bit of gossip, a tradition I’d be more than happy to continue.