Monthly Archives: November 2019

Following the footnotes

Erdman's "Commerce des lumie?res"

I wrote recently about a claim that appears in David V. Erdman’s book, Commerce des lumières: John Oswald and the British in Paris, 1790–1793. In that book, Erdman attributes the 1786 French translation of Travels to William Thomson (rather than to Jacques-Pierre Brissot). Because I was reading Erdman’s book on Google Books at that stage, I wasn’t able to fully interrogate the basis to his claim, but now that I have a physical copy to hand I have been able to consult his footnotes in more detail.

Erdman lists a number of the titles (including the 1782 English edition for Travels) that Thomson is thought to have edited. The accompanying footnote gives his sources as “Gentlemans [sic] Magazine, 87: I: 647–48, collated with entries in the Bibliothèque Nationale and DNB“. The first reference is to Thomson’s obituary, which appears in a supplement to volume 87, part 1, of the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1817. The obituary notes that Thomson’s “other publications, as far as they can be ascertained, were…’Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa,’ 1782, 8vo” (p. 648).

While it is not possible to know whether the current entries in the catalogue of the BNF are the same ones that Erdman consulted, they are nevertheless instructive. The 1782 edition of Travels is attributed both to Thomson (as “polygraphe”) and Macintosh. The catalogue notes its source for its attribution thus: “Attribué à William Macintosh par Halkett et Laing dans leur première édition, et à William Thomson par l’édition suivante de Halkett et Laing et par le ‘Dictionary of national biography'”. Here, the catalogue reflects changes in thinking evident in the Dictionary of National Biography. Indeed, the entry for Thomson in the 1898 edition of the DNB (written by Thomas Wilson Bayne) states “Of the numerous works written or edited by Thomson the chief are: 1. ‘Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa,’ 1782”. Bayne lists as one of his sources (surprise, surprise) “Gent. Mag. 1817, i. 279, 647”. So, as far as I can see, the attribution of Travels to Thomson (wherever it appears) can always be traced back to his 1817 obituary.

The BNF’s copies of the French edition of Travels list Macintosh (as Makintosh) as the sole author for some copies (see here and here), but list Brissot (as “Traducteur”) for another—see here. Erdman’s later claim that Brissot “arranged with Thomson for the publication of…the ‘Mackintosh’ Travels” (p. 73) is not supported by a footnote and I cannot immediately identify the basis to that suggestion. As ever, the refrain is a familiar one: I have more digging to do!

That Thomson had a role in the production of Travels is not in question; John Murray admitted such in 1790. What is less obvious from the surviving sources is what role Thomson had (if any) in the French translation of the book. I have not been able, thus far, to corroborate Erdman’s claim, despite the apparent certainty with which it is made.

More on the library of Sir Robert Palk

Palk by Joshua Reynolds (c. 1761)
Palk by Joshua Reynolds (c. 1761)

I have written before about the identification of Sir Robert Palk as one of the owners of Macintosh’s Travels (Palk’s own copy of the book is now held by the Huntington Library in California). Travels was one of about 400 titles that formed Palk’s private library at Haldon House in Devon. I was contacted today by Iain Fraser, author of The Palk family of Haldon House and Torquay (2008), who was kind enough to pass along extracts of his book, detailing the collections (of art, objects, and books) that once existed at Haldon House. According to Fraser, Palk’s library contained, among much else, “books on Persian, European and British history, religions, philosophy, travel, poetry, heraldry, society, languages etc.” (p. 35).

Having now checked the Report on the Palk manuscripts in the possession of Mrs. Bannatyne, of Haldon, Devon (1922), I can see that Macintosh cropped up at least once in Palk’s own correspondence: in a letter from Abraham Welland, Palk’s nephew, sent from
Guttaul (now Ghatal) in India on 13 December 1785. In that letter, Welland writes

Our petition to the House of Commons against certain clauses of Mr. Pitt’s Act of Parliament [the 1784 India Act] will be ready to be sent home by the last ship of the season. A committee of fifteen gentlemen have been sitting for these six months past…The petition has been framed, and signed by most of the people here. Old [Joseph] Price, who wrote so virulently against Mr. Macintosh and Mr. Francis, has, under the feigned name of An Inhabitant of Calcutta, given every support in his power to the Bill. No person on its first arrival could say more against it than he did, and I am very certain that he was one of the party who at a drinking bout burnt it.

Welland to Palk, 13 December 1785. In Report on the Palk manuscripts, p. 377.

Welland’s letter offers an interesting insight into Price’s apparent hypocrisy on the issue of
Pitt’s India Act—a matter that will require further digging on my part. As chance would have it, a portrait of Palk by Joshua Reynolds will be shortly going under the hammer at Sotheby’s. The estimate? £20–30,000. A snip!

A further French reader

My recent return to thinking about Brissot’s role in the French publication of Macintosh’s book
encouraged me to look again at Gallica, the excellent digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. In particular, I was interested in any specific references I could find to the ownership of Macintosh’s book in its French edition. As ever, the library threw up some interesting mentions. In addition to some owners I had known about before, Gallica revealed that a copy of the first edition was owned, for a short time before his death in 1787, by Charles de Rohan, Prince of Soubise. See Catalogue des livres imprimés et manuscrits de la bibliothèque de feu monseigneur le prince de Soubise (1789).

Charles, Prince of Soubise (undated, unattributed)
Charles, Prince of Soubise (undated, unattributed)

Brissot and Thomson: a literary partnership?

To date, I have tended to refer to Jacques Pierre Brissot as the “translator” of the French edition of Macintosh’s book. As with all aspects of this project, the reality of the situation looks to be more complicated still: there is reason to suspect that the translation may have been undertaken by the Grub-Street hack William Thomson (who had earlier provided editorial assistance to Macintosh and Murray in the publication of the original English-language edition of the book). In his 1986 book, Commerce des lumieres: John Oswald and the British in Paris, 1790–93, David V. Erdman notes

A Thomson project of 1786, a translation into French (later said to be by Brissot) of Travels in Europe…first attributed to William Mackintosh, later to Thomson, may have benefited from some editorial help from [John] Oswald. Oswald’s own “Voyage to the East Indies in 1781, with some Account of the Manners, Customs, History, Religion, Philosophy, &c. of Hindostan,” announced in his British Mercury of 1787 (197) as “a Work intended for the Press,” apparently never got into it.

Erdman (1986), p. 36, n. 4.

Erdman (1986, p. 73) further claims that “he [Brissot] arranged with Thomson for the publication of several books and pamphlets he was writing, or translating, or editing—including the ‘Mackintosh’ Travels published by Thomson in 1786″. While it is clear that Macintosh’s book had been on Brissot’s radar for some time, since he wrote to the Société typographique de Neuchâtel on the subject as early as 1784, the working relationship he had with Thomson over the book is less obvious. In a letter dated 4 April 1786 to Charles Alexandre de Calonne, Brissot states simply that “Ja’i publié et fait publier différents ouvrages utiles pour la France
— Voyages de Makintosh [I have published and have had published various useful books for France — Makintosh’s Travels]”.

Extract of a letter from Brissot to de Calonne, 4 April 1786. Papiers du ministre ROLAND, NAF 9534, fol. 328v, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

It is clear that I have more digging to do in order to reveal fully how (and, indeed, whether) Brissot and Thomson worked together in shaping the French translation of Travels. As ever, the historical record serves to reveal the fact that texts were never the work of isolated individuals: they required many pairs of eyes and hands working in collaboration.