Lies and Litigation, Part One; or, When is a First Edition Not a First Edition?

It’s 1831. You’re a recently-published novelist, and you suspect that your publisher – who has a bit of a dubious reputation in the business – is withholding the proceeds from your book. Worse still, you’ve asked repeatedly for the return of a manuscript, and he’s refused to provide it.

There can only be one solution: the courts!

Engraved illustration of the court of Chancery at Lincoln's Inn, sometime around the year 1800. The room has a high, vaulted ceiling, with a row of tall, stained-glass windows along the back wall. Rows of lawyers are seated, wearing black gowns and white wigs; facing them is a seated judge on a raised stand, leaning on one elbow. A number of clerks are sitting in front of the judge at ground level, taking down notes. One lawyer is standing, addressing the judge, while in the foreground a few more are talking. In the foreground, a stooped old man in a blue coat is walking in, while a man and a woman are standing with linked arms looking anxiously at the judge: he is wearing a powdered wig, a white coat and breeches, while she wears a white petticoat with a pink gown over it. All the faces are drawn in a slightly comical style, a bit like caricatures.
The Court of Chancery at the start of the 19th century, Lincoln’s Inn Old Hall. Engraving from the Microcosm of London, 1808.

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, I’m currently in on the trail of an eccentric and little-known early 19th-century Irish novelist by the name of Miss Crumpe. Over the last few months, I’ve been ransacking the archives of the world – mostly long-distance – in order to try and locate any documents that might relate to her life.

In January 2020, a trawl through the online catalogue of the National Archives at Kew resulted in an intriguing find: a set of legal documents (known as a “Bill and Answer”) which were titled “Crumpe v. Colburn” and dated to 1832. At the time I had no proof that the “Crumpe” in question was my novelist, but the name and date were suggestive, and my hunch turned out to be correct.

In 1829, the prominent London bookseller and legendary purveyor of silver-fork novels, Henry Colburn, had published her second novel, Geraldine of Desmond. Two years later, a second edition which contained exciting new material – some unusual historical engravings – had come out with the same firm. Until this point, things seemed to have been going well, but by 1832, she was taking him to court. Had their business relationship catastrophically broken down?

The Bill: Miss Crumpe goes to court

On the 23rd of June, 1831, the novelist Mary Grace Susanna Crumpe, “Spinster”, stated in Chancery – possibly in person – that her publisher Henry Colburn was up to shenanigans, and she was tired of it.

Her Bill lays out the circumstances by which she and Colburn had entered into a contract:

In or about the beginning of the year one thousand eight hundred and twenty nine, your Oratrix wrote a work called “Geraldine of Desmond”, which she was desirous should be printed and published, and she offered it for that purpose to Henry Colburn of New Burlington Street in the County of Middlesex Bookseller and Publisher. And the said Henry Colburn, thinking favorably of it, agreed with your Oratrix that he would print and publish the aforesaid work at his own cost and would bear all charges relating thereto on receiving in consideration a moiety of the net gains and profits to arise from such publication.

All excerpts come from Crumpe v. Colburn, Bill and Answer, 1832. I’ve added modern punctuation in places, for clarity. Any emphasis is my own.

She would take “a moiety” (a half share) of the book’s profits, and he would take the other part. So far, so good.

An excerpt from Miss Crumpe’s Bill, recorded by a clerk called J. Campbell

According to her description of events, once the thousand copies which had been printed in 1829 were “sold or disposed of”, she and Colburn agreed that he would bring out a second edition, this time of five hundred copies. This version was to include an unusual bonus feature: engravings of the signatures of a number of the famous historical persons that were mentioned in the book. These “Autographs” had been reproduced using lithography, which at the time was a cutting-edge printing technique. Miss Crumpe herself had sourced them and had them lithographed with the assistance of a close friend and lithography expert, the Irish folklorist Thomas Crofton Croker, and she was optimistic about their likelihood of appealing to the public. In an 1830 letter to the publisher John Murray, she had enthused that

I have been furnished from a high official source with fac-similes of the autographs of the principal historical characters that are introduced into my work — Those fac-similes have been
lithographed under the superintendence of my kind friend Mr Crofton Croker and will be annexed to the forthcoming edition — which I hope will invest it with a curious interest.

Miss Crumpe, letter to John Murray, quoted in “A Bookish History of Irish Romanticism”, Claire Connolly

In the very long term, she was correct about this. The lithographs are a rare feature in a book of this age, and consequently make it quite desirable to modern rare-book collectors – and thieves, as I discovered when I acquired my own copy. Unfortunately, as would come out in court, they did not do much for the book’s fortunes in the short term.

In the meantime, however, one of the Oratrix’s primary complaints to the court was that Colburn was still in possession of her original lithographs, and was refusing to return them.

Your Oratrix intrusted to the said Henry Colburn a valuable Collection of facsimiles of Autographs of various distinguished personages of the Age and Court of Queen Elizabeth, which your Oratrix was possessed of […] And the said Henry Colburn undertook and faithfully promised to preserve the aforesaid collection with the utmost care and to return the same to your Oratrix, when the printing of the said second edition should be completed.

Reading between the lines, Miss Crumpe seems to have been angrier about the retention of the Autographs than the profits. Despite herself and her agents applying repeatedly to Colburn on the subject (“in a friendly manner”), he had failed to cough up either.

He hath refused or declined to deliver unto your Oratrix the aforesaid valuable collection of Autographs, although he hath been thereunto often requested and he sometimes pretends that such collection hath been lost.

Miss Crumpe, evidently, did not believe that this was the case.

If the same be no longer in his possession, custody, or power, he knows what is become thereof and where and with whom the same is deposited, and he is able to find or discover the same.

The Answer: Henry Colburn responds

The following March, Colburn appeared in court in order to make his formal response to Miss Crumpe’s Bill. As anyone who’s read Bleak House will be aware, legal proceedings in Chancery were notoriously slow and cumbersome, and the general advice was to avoid it wherever possible. Colburn, however, was no stranger to court proceedings – this was not even his first time being sued by one of his authors, that year – and he appears to have been unfazed by Miss Crumpe’s accusations.

I’m not entirely sure whether the format of the proceedings required Colburn to respond in detail to each individual point made in Miss Crumpe’s lengthy Bill, or whether he was just feeling vindictive. Either way, she cannot have been happy with what she heard in court.

Colburn pointed out in great detail that there were certain errors in Miss Crumpe’s original Bill, and the first of these was that he had ever “thought favorably” of the novel in the first place:

In or about the beginning of the year one thousand eight hundred and twenty nine [Miss Crumpe] applied to [Henry Colburn] who carried on an extensive business as a Publisher of Literary Works, to publish a certain Work called “Geraldine of Desmond” (which she represented as having been written by herself) which, however, this Defendant for some time hesitated to do because as the fact was, he did not think favorably of the said Work.

It was especially petty of Colburn to imply that he didn’t know for certain that she was the book’s author, but there was worse to come. Colburn’s only reason for eventually accepting the work for publication, he claimed, was that it had been recommended to him by a “distinguished author and Poet”, Thomas Campbell, who at the time also happened to be on his payroll as the editor of the New Monthly Magazine.

At the time, Campbell had been Miss Crumpe’s devoted admirer, and the two had even been very briefly engaged. In what appears to have been characteristic form[1], though, the Scottish literary celebrity had not done his homework. At the outset of their relationship he had been assiduous in supporting her literary endeavours, going so far as to commission a positive review of the book for the New Monthly, and writing beseechingly to other editors to do the same. However, it would seem that his heartfelt efforts to promote her novel did not extend as far as actually reading it.[2]

This Defendant believes [Campbell] gave such recommendation out of kindness to the said Complainant though as this Defendant has since discovered, he had never read the said Work and regrets much that he had been instrumental in advising the publication.

The relationship between Campbell and Miss Crumpe seems to have already run its course by 1832, but this deposition cannot have helped matters; there is certainly no evidence of a continued “kindness” between the two after this point. However, there was a more important matter to attend to: money.

As a man of business, even one with a sketchy reputation, Colburn needed to refute the accusation that he was refusing to pay one of his authors what she was owed. In order to do so, he had come armed with figures. The author had received none of the revenues accruing from the book’s sales, Colburn explains, because there were none to be had. In fact, the book had made a loss.

This Defendant saith that the aforesaid Work was a decided failure and well known to be so by all Booksellers. And this Defendant denies that the said publication was attended with considerable or any success, inasmuch as the amount of the sale did not cover the expences.

Disastrously, it appeared that out of the original 1000 copies which had been printed, only 354 copies had been sold; another 45 copies had been taken by the author “for her own use”, and another 27 had been “delivered to the Authors friends”, alongside the copies that were to be deposited at the Stationer’s Hall, university libraries, and reviewers.

Excerpt from Colburn's accounts presented to the court, showing the publisher's signature at the top. According to the publisher, 305 copies of the book had been sold, resulting in revenues of £409 14s 2d, and a loss of £48 9s 2d.
Excerpt from the accounts provided to the court by Colburn, showing what had happened to the 1000 copies and how much they had brought in. His signature can be seen at the top of the page, in the centre.

Twenty-seven books delivered to the authors’ friends (minus the copies for deposit and to reviewers, of course) sounds like a substantial perk, but what Colburn neglected to tell the court was that it was actually his firm’s standard practice to distribute copies to any influential persons that happened to be friends with the author . A letter in the Sadleir collection provides instructions to Colburn’s former partner Richard Bentley on how this was to be done:

Authors – q[uer]y, have they any influential friends to whom it would be worthwhile sending copies? In case of ½ profits, charge copies to authors.

Sutherland and Melnyk, Rogue Publisher, p154

Miss Crumpe, in fact, was very well connected, and had a large number of well-placed friends and acquaintances who could have made themselves useful by reviewing the book positively; a couple of them even did so. More importantly, this practice cost the firm nothing, since she was an author on half profits and would have been charged for their copies. (She had sent one of these copies, as it happens, to the famous historical novelist Sir Walter Scott, in the hopes that he would write her a positive review for it. He did not.)

Either way, by 1831 the book had been in print for two years and yet the publisher’s warehouse was still cluttered up with more than half of the original first edition. What possible reason could Colburn have had, under the circumstances, for printing a second edition of this novel – especially since it was widely known to be “a decided failure”?

Colburn’s explanation would provide an enlightening glimpse into the early 19th-century publishing industry and its more ingenious – and unethical – practices.

In Part Two, my own copy of Geraldine of Desmond reveals some secrets, and we find out what Colburn was up to.

[1] A number of accounts by Campbell’s contemporaries at the New Monthly Magazine indicate that his editorial work was slapdash at the best of times and non-existent at others. Samuel Carter Hall described the poet’s study as “a mass of confusion” and stated that he frequently lost contributions, while Campbell himself proclaimed that the job involved “interminable scrapes, and a law-suit now and then”.

[2] On the one hand, Miss Crumpe seems to have only had a single manuscript of the work, and was perhaps understandably reluctant to share it. On the other hand, she seems to have allowed Thomas Moore to read it, and she even appears to have taken some of Moore’s editorial advice.

I am grateful to Professor Connolly for generously sharing her research notes on the Murray correspondence, and to the National Archives at Kew for kindly providing permission to reproduce the images of legal documents from their archives.

Works Cited:

Connolly, Claire. ‘A Bookish History of Irish Romanticism’. Rethinking British Romantic History, 1770-1845, edited by Porscha Fermanis and John Regan, Oxford University Press, 2014.

Sutherland, John, and Veronica Melnyk. Rogue Publisher: The ’Prince of Puffers’ : The Life and Works of the Publisher Henry Colburn. Edward Everett Root, 2018.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Calmgrove says:

    Fascinating! Looking forward to part 2 now.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s