Dinner with Joseph Johnson
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A portrait of a radical age via the writers who gather around a publisher's dining table - from William Wordsworth to Mary Wollstonecraft
Once a week, in late eighteenth-century London, writers of contrasting politics and personalities gathered around a dining table. The veal and boiled vegetables on offer at 72 St Pauls Churchyard may have been unappetising but the company was convivial and the conversation was at once brilliant, unpredictable and profound. The host was Joseph Johnson, publisher and bookseller: a man at the heart of literary life.
Johnson was joined at dinner by a shifting constellation of extraordinary people who, during the period he was in business, remade the literary world. His guests included the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, his chief engraver William Blake and scientists Joseph Priestley and Benjamin Franklin. William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge sat beside a group of remarkable women including the poet Anna Barbauld, the novelist Maria Edgeworth and, her voice ringing out above all others, the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft.
Johnson's years as a maker of books, between 1760 and 1809, saw profound political, social, cultural and religious shifts in Britain and abroad. Several of his authors were involved in the struggles for reform: they pioneered revolutions in medical treatment and scientific enquiry; they proclaimed the rights of women and children; they charted the evolution of Britain's relationship first with America and then with Europe.
Number 72 was a refuge for these writers and by continuing to publish their work, Johnson made their voices heard even when external forces conspired to silence them. In this remarkable portrait of a revolutionary age, Daisy Hay captures a changing nation through the connected stories of the men and women who wrote it into being, and whose ideas still influence us today.
© Daisy Hay 2022 (P) Penguin Audio 2022