Decorated initial J

ohn Bell, the son of a minister, was apprenticed in 1754, aged eighteen, to the Edinburgh printer Alexander Kincaid and four years later was admitted to partnership with him, succeeding Alexander Donaldson, who set off on his own eventful career. When the partnership with Kincaid was dissolved in 1771, Kincaid joined up with another Scottish printer, William Creech, while John Bell continued in business on his own. The break may have been provoked by one of the copyright issues common at the time. It has been suggested that, after setting up on his own, Bell continued the Scottish custom of printing and selling works still under copyright protection according to the London publishers and the Stationers’ Company and that, because of this, he became embroiled in a dispute with Thomas Cadell, the partner of London Scot William Millar (who had already brought suit, on an earlier occasion, against Kincaid) and a close associate of William Strahan (another London Scot who for several years had been urging Kincaid, his friend and former co-apprentice in Edinburgh, to break with Bell) over publication of a pirated edition of Ferguson's Essay on the History of Civil Society, which Millar and Cadell, in association with Kincaid and Bell as their representatives in Edinburgh, had published in 1767 (with second, third, and fourth corrected editions in 1768 and a fifth in 1782). Bell was certainly no stranger to so-called pirated editions. In 1774, he was sued by the London bookseller and publisher James Dodsley for selling a pirated edition of Chesterfield's Letters and a year later by Becket, Cadell, and Strahan for selling a pirated edition of Sterne's Works. In 1781 he was once again pursued in court by Strahan and Cadell along with Kincaid’s partner Creech for marketing a “pirated edition” of John Gregory's best-selling A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters, originally published by Cadell in 1774.

In 1785, however, Bell scored a coup when, in association with the London publishers G.G.J. and J. Robinson, he outbid Strahan and Cadell for the rights to Thomas Reid's Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, a basic text of the hugely influential “Scottish philosophy of common sense” that was to go through countless editions in the following decades. In 1789 he took his nephew John Bradfute into the business as a partner and the new company of Bell & Bradfute soon made its mark as a prolific publisher of professional books on law, especially Scots law, but also in an expanding market for books in many fields of study – medicine, economics, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, history, travel and exploration, grammars and instruction manuals for the ancient and modern languages (Greek, Latin, French, Italian). The leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment were well represented among the company’s authors in the closing decades of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth by Blair, Ferguson, Hume, Kames, Monboddo, Reid, Smith, and Dugald Stewart.

In literature, The Spectator, reprinted in eight volumes (both octavo and duodecimo), and a 1795 edition of Shakespeare (in 8 duodecimo volumes) were listed in the company’s 1797 catalogue. The Works of Samuel Johnson in fifteen volumes were available in 1806, along with Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. The Works of the British Poets, with Prefaces Biographical and Critical (13 vols. in 1795, 14th vol. added in 1807), published in co-operation with two other publishers, and Gems from English Poets, Chaucer to Moore (1842) may well have been intended to reach a relatively wide – if not yet popular -- readership.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Bell and Bradfute republished fiction by Jane Austen (Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility), William Beckford (Vathek), Henry Fielding (Vathek), William Godwin (Tom Jones), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus) and Tobias Smollett (Peregrine Pickle, with illustrations by Rowlandson). Among new literary works, often in association with the successful but for a time financially troubled London publisher R. Bentley, the firm put out no fewer than eighteen novels by the highly popular American writer James Fenimore Cooper (between 1836 and 1856), Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (1835), several works by Bulwer Lytton including Eugene Aram (1836) and The Last days of Pompeii (text; 1839), and Maria Edgeworth’s Helen (1838).

Foreign language and classical literatures were not neglected: by the end of the eighteenth century Caesar, Sallust, Flavius Josephus, and Cornelius Nepos had been published in convenient duodecimos in Latin, with English translations; the Iliad had appeared in Greek with a Latin translation; and Cicero’s De Officiis in English translation as an Essay on Moral Duty. Fénélon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque (1793) and Le Sage’s Gil Blas (1799) had been published in the original French, along with translations of Rousseau (Julia, or The New Eloisa [1773, by J. Bell alone; 1794 by Bell & Bradfute]), Le Sage (The Devil upon Two Sticks [1774]), Mme de Genlis (The Knights of the Swan, or The Court of Charlemagne [1796], Schiller (The Robbers [1800]). The early decades of the nineteenth century saw the publication of Schiller’s Der Geisterseher, translated as The Ghost-Seer (1831), Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1833), Madame de Staël’s Corinne, or Italy (1833), Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1834), and Chateaubriand’s The Last of the Abencerages (1835).

Spreading the Word: Scottish Publishers and English Literature 1750-1900

Last modified 31 October 2018