How, asked David Perkins in his 1992 book Is Literary History Possible?, can we reconcile a reader’s desire for coherence with the ‘real heterogeneity’ of the past? His answer: it is both impossible and imperative to do so. ‘We must perceive a past age as relatively unified if we are to write literary history; we must perceive it as highly diverse if what we write is to represent it plausibly.’
Perhaps the group biography offers a somewhat more satisfactory response to this perpetual, irresolvable dilemma than the study of one great man or woman in isolation might. Indeed, it makes little sense to approach a character of such extensive and various connections as the bookseller and publisher Joseph Johnson other than via the clubbable sort of method at which Daisy Hay has already proven herself adept. Her first book, Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives (2010), set out to overturn any lingering conceptions of Romantic writers as isolated geniuses; instead, Hay set their short lives and experimental works in the context of their sustaining friendships, connections, intersections and collaborations. Her second study, Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance (2015), homed in on the domestic life of one famously unlikely couple; now, in Dinner with Joseph Johnson, she has again broadened her scope.
Born into a Baptist family in Liverpool in 1738, Johnson set up shop in London in the 1760s. In the course of a career spanning almost half a century, he forged a group, network, web or circle – take your pick of the many available metaphors – of unparalleled