142 Strand: a Radical Address in Victorian London, by Rosemary Ashton

A Victorian bohemia
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The Independent Culture

142 Strand, despite its specific title, is a diffuse book, fascinating, capacious, repetitive. Rosemary Ashton sets out to evoke a mid-19th-century editor, John Chapman, his radical milieu, his patrons and authors. She follows him to his death in 1894, but the crucial events occur between 1849 and 1856 and centre on Chapman and Mary Ann Evans, working her way to becoming the novelist George Eliot.

Chapman is 23 when Thomas Carlyle takes his measure, to establish whether he is a suitable publisher for the work of his American friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. The emphatic Scot describes him: "A tall lank youth of five-and-twenty [actually 23]; full of goodwill, but of what other equipment time must yet try."

Chapman was never an intellectual, though he wanted to be. He was slippery and sincere, scheming yet committed. Those that found him useful were the radical classes. He tried their patience, picked their pockets, and strove to shine and to be seen to shine. He was a philanderer: when Evans came to stay at 142, Chapman lived with his wife, two children, and a nanny who doubled as his mistress. Wife and nanny were uncomfortable with Miss Evans's presence, with reason since she was briefly more than Chapman's right hand.

Number 142 was not only a bookshop and publishing house; it was also a boarding house, and through these pages pass Emerson, Horace Greeley, the egregious Rufus Griswold (who damaged Poe's reputation), TH Huxley (who devised the term "agnostic"), Mrs Gaskell, Arthur Hugh Clough, and radical exiles including Mazzini and a Mr Merks (who was to become Karl Marx).

Chapman published and distributed American books, as well as innovative writers from the Continent, and was a key figure in the dismantling of protectionism in bookselling, an achievement that nearly put paid to his own businesses.

At the heart of this book is Chapman's struggle to acquire and maintain the Westminster Review. As editor from 1836, John Stuart Mill opened the pages to Carlyle, Thackeray, Leigh Hunt. Ashton portrays Chapman's takeover as a joint editorial venture, between Chapman and Miss Evans. But she was the brains of the operation.

142 Strand shares nothing of the charmed world of 84 Charing Cross Road. It is a world of commerce in which Miss Evans declares, with wit but without irony, "no expression of satisfaction is so agreeable as that which is conveyed in the eloquence of cheques". In short, it is a world not wholly remote from the one in which we live.

Michael Schmidt's 'The Great Modern Poets' is published by Quercus