By MICHAEL CAINES
Publishing in the eighteenth century was meant to be a disreputable business. The standard caricature of Grub Street is of a literary alley-way infested with parasites and plagiarists. Among others lurking there you might find the bookseller Edmund Curll, who regularly ran into trouble with fellow booksellers, authors and the authorities. Curll's reputation has improved as scholars have reassessed his astutely impudent, innovative side; but there is no gainsaying such misfortunes as his hour in the stocks (a potentially fatal punishment, given how the public could treat the condemned), Alexander Pope tricking him into drinking an emetic for publishing his work without permission, and the pupils at Westminster School making him kneel and beg forgiveness, then tossing him in a blanket.
Such associates were not for every aspiring writer, especially those who fancied making their way in the world via polite society, in order to gain the ear of an affluent and free-handed patron. It was better to be seen to be above business altogether, disreputable or not, while exploiting whatever scarce possibilities for personal enrichment publication had to offer. Hence the back-handed compliment Alexander Pope could pay the great Jacob Tonson, as noted in a review by Norma Clarke in the latest TLS – that he was "least a bookseller". . .