Lies and Litigation, Part Two: the cost of the Autographs

Part One of this post can be found here.

Last year, I acquired a partial copy of Geraldine of Desmond from John’s Bookshop in Athlone. It was the only original Crumpe novel that I’ve ever seen for sale, and I was keen to own one for myself. It’s not in perfect condition, but this is no reflection on the bookshop, as the damage seems to have been done a long time ago.

My copy is a second edition, which means that it should contain the lithographs that Miss Crumpe was so proud of – the “Autographs”, or signatures of famous historical characters who appear in the book – at the start of the first volume. The third volume should also contain a further special feature, which you can see in the image below (from the copy in the British Library). In this version, the final page of text has been reproduced in the author’s handwriting, and embellished with her signature. However, some vandal has cut out the lithographs from the beginning of my book, and stolen the final volume altogether. (My copy is not the only survivor which is missing its final volume; the one in the University of St. Andrews seems to have suffered a similar fate. At least this vindicates Miss Crumpe’s hope that the lithographs would make the book more appealing!)

In the British Library’s copy, the final page of the third volume has the lithographed text in Miss Crumpe’s own handwriting, with her signature. This is a feature which makes it very attractive to book collectors, and apparently also to thieves.

My copy doesn’t claim to be part of the first edition of 1829, or even the original second edition from 1831: in fact, its title page declares it to be an even later version, dating to 1842. Back in the 1830s, Colburn had told the court that the book was a poor seller and that he had made a loss on it, yet my book stands as evidence that he was still bringing out new copies more than a decade after its original publication. Why?

Although it’s missing all of the fun added extras, my own copy does retain an intriguing feature which provides a clue as to why this edition was created. At the end of each volume, there are ads for other Colburn offerings, in a section titled “POPULAR NOVELS: Just published, or nearly ready for publication”.

An indication of Colburn’s cleverness at marketing is that he has showcased his Irish works on this first page of ads: the pages after this one feature books by his mainstay authors from Britain, including Horace Smith, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Frederick Marryat and Benjamin Disraeli.

Advertising was what Colburn was famous for, so it comes as no surprise that he made use of this space to promote his other works. However, this particular set of ads would have been very out of date by 1842. The books that appear here were all published in or around 1829, when the book first came out. Lady Morgan’s The O’Briens and the O’Flahertys dates to 1827;  The Croppy and The Anglo-Irish (both by the Banim brothers) had come out in 1828, and Corramahon and The Davenels were both published in 1829.

What, precisely, was going on here?

In court, Colburn unblushingly explained that the second edition existed in name only: all he had done was repackage the unsold copies that were languishing in his warehouse. In an attempt to shift the remaining 500 or so copies of the first (and, in truth, only) printing of Geraldine, he had arranged for them to be rebound with the new lithographs, and provided with new title pages which proclaimed that they were part of the work’s “second edition”. (The original ads at the back were left in; perhaps nobody noticed they were still there.)


this Defendant saith that no part of the said work was reprinted except such new title pages as aforesaid. [1]

Surprisingly, Colburn claimed that this last-ditch attempt to break even on the book had been done with Miss Crumpe’s full knowledge and consent. In fact, he professed to have been puzzled by her claim that there were any profits to withhold; according to his account, he had patiently and repeatedly explained to her that her book had actually netted him a loss of 48 pounds, 9 shillings and twopence. Further, he had offered her “or her agents” the opportunity to come and examine his accounts in order to confirm this fact for herself,

which offer however the said Complainant did not think fit to avail herself of, but she continued to express complaints and threats against this Defendant.

This is a fairly damning account of Miss Crumpe’s behaviour. However, other documentary evidence does suggest that she was willing to bend facts when it suited her, and that she could be very single-minded in her attempts to promote the interests of her novels, up to and beyond the point of alienating her business partners. Her relationship with her previous publishers, Constable and Co., had gone badly sour (again, because of a disagreement over whether there should be a second edition) with the result that the Edinburgh firm had angrily washed their hands of responsibility for her book Isabel St. Albe altogether; one letter between Archibald Constable and his partner Robert Cadell refers to her as the “wild Irishwoman”. But would she really go as far as to take Colburn to court over profits if she knew – as he claimed – that there were none?

The wild Irishwoman and the rogue publisher

Colburn’s explanation to the court was backed up by a set of financial records, which you can see below, but certain aspects of his testimony come across as at least mildly suspicious. He offered to show his account books to anyone who was interested in them, but refused to leave them with the court, saying that they were in constant use and that his business couldn’t manage without them. In fact, his having such exact figures on the contents of his warehouse was in itself somewhat strange, because by 1832, the publishing company was in complete disarray.

Colburn’s account of the expenses associated with publishing Geraldine. The list includes one guinea (£1 1s) for printing the new titles, and an impressive £107 4s 2d for advertising the book. The extraordinary sum listed for “alterations in proofs” (more than £11) suggests that either Miss Crumpe was an exhausting author to work with, or that he was attempting to make it look that way. Both are likely to be true.

Colburn’s Answer to Miss Crumpe was only one of several court appearances by the publisher that year. In fact, it was a relatively minor one in the grand scheme of things: his partner, Richard Bentley, was suing him in an attempt to take over the business. The publishing company – and the working relationship between the two men – had descended into chaos after a few disastrous years, and during this time no stocktaking or ledger-balancing had been done. Unsuccessful novels such as Geraldine of Desmond certainly represented a drain on the company’s finances, but to what extent, it was impossible to say. According to Melnyk and Sutherland, by the time Miss Crumpe dragged Colburn into Chancery, “the partners had no idea whether they were in profit or in debt, or what their stock was worth, or how to go forward.” (162) After an acrimonious split, the two publishers went their separate ways later that same year, Colburn signing an indenture stating that he would cease publishing books on Bentley’s turf. (He would later proceed to blithely ignore this agreement.)

Melnyk and Sutherland’s 2018 monograph Rogue Publisher gives an entertaining account of the dissolution of the firm, while also making a valiant attempt to recuperate Colburn’s historical reputation. Arguing that he was a victim of professional jealousy and classism, the book makes the case that Colburn’s unsavoury reputation came about as a result of his being an exceptionally successful and unapologetic marketing genius, while at the same time not being from the same social class as the “gentleman publishers” who dominated the industry at the time. While this is all undoubtedly true, the book undermines its own attempt to rehabilitate Colburn by providing examples of his crooked dealings which make the dubious marketing of Geraldine of Desmond seem blameless by comparison. His shady treatment of John Polidori over the author’s very profitable novella The Vampyre makes for scandalous and fascinating reading; it’s quite possible that Polidori’s early death was at least partly a result of this experience. Shortly before his own death in 1855, Colburn also made an outrageous attempt to defraud Lady Morgan out of the copyright to all of her literary works, by substituting a different contract to the one she thought she was signing, in the hopes that the short-sighted author wouldn’t notice.

A sketch of the writer Lady Morgan in later life, by Daniel Maclise (originally published in Fraser’s Magazine). Her stance in the caricature seems to suggest that she is leaning forward in order to better see herself in the mirror.

Given what we know about Colburn’s general approach to business matters, it seems possible that his testimony about his dealings with Miss Crumpe was not entirely faithful. And as it happens, one of the claims that she had made against him in her Bill would turn out to have been entirely correct:

If the [Autographs] 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.

At first, Colburn had prevaricated on the subject of her treasured documents. He quibbled at the use of the term “valuable” to describe them, insisting that he did not know whether they were valuable; he also spent some time fussing over the question of whether he had or hadn’t promised to return them to her. Worse, though, he implied that they had probably been irrevocably lost (although he disclaimed any responsibility for this), claiming that “when matters of such apparently trifling nature are sent to the Engravers it constantly happens that they are lost or mislaid”.

The case could have dragged on interminably, Dickens-style, had the participants had the funds and energy to continue debating these points. A surprise was in store for the court, however. Towards the end of his long drawn-out testimony, Colburn made an unexpected announcement: not only had the Autographs been found, but he had had them in his possession the whole time!

From the time when he was enabled to collect them [he] has always been ready and willing to deliver them to the said Complainant, on her giving this Defendant a proper receipt for the same.

Again, Colburn appears to be doing his best to make Miss Crumpe seem as unreasonable as possible. (Documentary evidence suggests that she had been asking for the return of the Autographs since at least the summer of 1830, two years previously.)

The first page of the lithographed Autographs, from a complete copy of Geraldine of Desmond which has been preserved by the British Library. Each signature has been labelled, on the right, by Miss Crumpe herself. ©British Library Board, General Reference Collection C.108.dd.13, n.pag.

This turn of events suggests to me that this was never about the money, for either of them. Instead, it was a clash of two strong personalities taken to a very public extreme, with both parties determined to make an example of the other.

Miss Crumpe spent years researching and writing each of her books – her last novel would be twenty years in the making – and she was never satisfied that they had achieved the acclaim that they deserved. In fairness to Colburn, he had put a substantial amount of effort and money into publicity for Geraldine – certainly much more than Constable had bothered with for Isabel St. Albe – but his pragmatic and somewhat deceptive approach to selling off the remaindered copies would have infuriated her. Even worse, however, was his casual attitude toward the historical documents that she had assembled with such painstaking care. By taking Colburn to court, she was optimistically attempting to prove that the book had done better than he claimed. She also, however, wanted to force him to locate and return the Autographs.

Colburn’s response – in which he responded in painstaking and sometimes cruel detail to every allegation that she had made against him – suggests that he was very aggrieved at being challenged in this way. He was willing to make the problem go away by returning her papers, but he was going to have some revenge while he was at it. Undoubtedly, this was a pyrrhic victory for Miss Crumpe. She got her Autographs back, but at the personal cost of hearing in open court that her book was a failure, and that it had only been printed because Colburn’s besotted employee Thomas Campbell had pleaded its case – without having read it in the first place.

My copy of Geraldine of Desmond dates to 1842, which means that Colburn actually rebranded it on two separate occasions. His financial records (above) indicate that the stationery company Magnay had provided paper for the new titles and lithographs in 1831, and that this had cost the substantial sum of £1 10s. When he decided to make a last-ditch attempt at selling off the book, in 1842, he must have had to commission another new title page. It may be because I know they’re different, but the title pages actually have a different feel to the rest of the book; they seem to be of a slightly heavier, perhaps better quality paper stock.

A final clue to the odd, Frankenstein-esque history of my book – which I only spotted after I read Colburn’s Answer – lies in the fact that two different printers have claimed responsibility for the text, in different places. At the back of the original text, from 1829, the name “S. and R. Bentley” appears. The new frontispiece, however, is simply attributed to “Samuel Bentley”. This page, then, specially printed for the “new” edition, dates to after Richard Bentley had sold his share of the family printing business to his brother Samuel and gone on to his ill-fated partnership with Colburn.

The main body of the book was printed in 1829, by S. and R. Bentley – the brothers Samuel and Richard (left image). The Autographs and the new title pages, however, were printed by Samuel Bentley, who managed the company by himself after 1829 (right image).

I have to confess that (like Thomas Campbell) I find the book’s author more interesting than the actual novel. Contemporary reviewers generally said that it had a decent story but was cluttered with too much poorly-integrated historical detail, and I have to agree with them. The material book itself, though, is in some ways like Miss Crumpe’s life story: frustratingly incomplete, but still fascinating when you start looking at the details that remain.

My copy of Geraldine is a book with a complex history; it is part of the first edition of 1829 and the second “edition” of 1831, and it even got a third, final outing in 1842. It’s a testament to an unhappy literary experiment and a financial failure. Still, it holds a certain fascination because of its eccentric life cycle, and for the story it tells about the personalities involved in creating it and the strange, devious workings of the industry that produced it.

[1] Nicholas Mason’s monograph Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism notes that this was a common practice around the end of the 18th century; “[M]any of the most innovative book marketing practices of this era were purposely designed to con the public. Some booksellers capitalized on the craze for novelty by slapping new title pages on decade-old works and promoting them as hot off the press (29).” I’m unsure as to whether the practice was still common in the publishing industry forty years on, but Miss Crumpe does seem to have been surprised by the trick.

Works Cited

Mason, Nicholas. Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013

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

I am grateful to the British Library for permission to include photographs of their copy of the 1831 Geraldine of Desmond, and to the National Archives at Kew for permission to reproduce excerpts from the Crumpe v. Colburn Bill and Answer.

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