Edward Chapman

Edward Chapman (1804–80)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 22, 257–260.

Edward Chapman, the Brownings’ publisher from 1848 until his retirement in 1864, was born on 13 January 1804 at Richmond, Surrey, third child and son of Thomas Chapman (1771–1833), a Richmond solicitor, and his wife, Sophia (née Barrett, d. 1852, aged 76). Although his brothers pursued careers in law, medicine, surveying, and engineering, Edward had “a taste for books, and a meditative, studious mind, and with books he chose to make his life” (Arthur Waugh, A Hundred Years of Publishing: Being the Story of Chapman & Hall, Ltd., 1930, p. 4). He and William Hall (1800–47) co-founded the bookselling and publishing firm of Chapman and Hall in 1830 at 186 Strand, London. Chapman’s strength was in assessing literary talent, while Hall excelled at handling business. The firm made unremarkable progress in the trade until 1836 when they began issuing monthly installments of Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers. The book was an enormous success and made the fortune and reputation of both writer and publisher. Although Dickens broke away from Chapman and Hall in 1844 to publish with Bradbury and Evans, the first house retained a percentage of the lucrative copyrights of his works. In 1859 Dickens rejoined Chapman and Hall, staying with them until his death in 1870. During the run of The Pickwick Papers, the firm engaged Dickens’s friend John Forster as literary advisor, and through his connections it began publishing works by Thomas Carlyle, the Brownings, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Eventually many other important Victorian authors would be added to the Chapman and Hall stable, including Arthur Hugh Clough, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Anthony Trollope.

On 22 September 1841 at Leeds, Chapman married Mary Whiting (1814–75), of Hitchin, Hertfordshire. The couple had three children: Margaret “Meta” Sophia (afterwards Simpson, later Gaye, 1842–1933), Florence (afterwards Roeder, b. 1845), and Reginald Forster (b. 1849). In the same year of Chapman’s marriage, he hired his eighteen-year-old cousin, Frederic Chapman (1823–95), as a clerk. Frederic would take on greater responsibility in the firm after William Hall’s unexpected death on 7 March 1847, eventually becoming a partner in 1858 and sole proprietor in 1866.[1]

The Brownings’ relationship with Edward Chapman began in 1848 when, like Carlyle and Bulwer-Lytton, RB was brought to the firm by his friend Forster. Recalling the circumstances years later, RB wrote that his publisher Edward Moxon had “printed, on nine occasions, nine poems of mine [i.e., Sordello (1840) and all eight parts of Bells and Pomegranates (1841–46)], wholly at my expense. … When I married, I proposed that he should publish a new edition at his own risk, which he declined,—whereupon I made the same proposal to Chapman & Hall,—or Forster did it for me,—and they accepted” (letter to Frederick Locker, 20 February 1874, ms at ABL). EBB supported RB in his decision to break with Moxon. She wrote to her sister Arabella in March 1848: “Shameful it was, to refuse the risk of Robert’s second edition. … Mere strangers like Chapman & Hall, do that for him, as strangers, which a friend refuses to do– Oh, I have quite been in a passion, .. a good rational passion, that is!” (letter 2722). One month later, again writing to Arabella, EBB indicated her own intention to quit Moxon: “I dont at all like having a different publisher; but as my poems will be out of print in the course of this year … perhaps Chapman & Hall will take my second edition beside .. that is, when I come to ask them” (letter 2728). In December 1848, RB’s first collected edition, Poems (1849), was published by Chapman and Hall. There followed Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day on 1 April 1850 and EBB’s second collected edition, Poems (1850), which was released in mid-December of that year.

Before long, the Brownings found reasons to criticize their new publisher. Soon after the publication of EBB’s Poems (1850), the author expressed what would become a recurring theme in the Brownings’ correspondence with Chapman: “We have heard nothing from Chapman & Hall this Christmas– Perhaps we shall, & I am sure I hope so” (letter 2899). Similarly, a year later RB wrote to Chapman to remind him of his obligation to furnish the Brownings at Christmas with accounts of their books’ sales: “I shall be much obliged by a prompt attention to this request” (letter 2995). But when the Brownings were still waiting on 2 February 1852 for Chapman to respond, EBB told her brother George: “As to booksellers they dont condescend to send us an account, & they must have money in hand for us .. that’s certain” (letter 3001). EBB had been understanding when Chapman delayed the release of Poems (1850) because he wished to “inaugurate them” from the firm’s new offices at 193 Piccadilly (see letter 2881). She and her husband were less tolerant of delays, however, when it came to the publication of EBB’s third edition of her collected works, Poems (1853). Sending Chapman corrections on 5 March 1853, RB wrote, “You can begin at once, I suppose,—indeed it would be a pity to keep such judicious book-buyers waiting a minute more than must needs be” (letter 3175). But Chapman did keep the public and the Brownings waiting. One month later, on 12 April, EBB wrote to Arabella asking her to review the proofs, which, it was assumed Chapman would have taken upon himself, “but no, not he” (letter 3190). By late August, the new edition was still not out. EBB complained to Sarianna: “Is’nt it too bad of Chapman & Hall?” (letter 3259). EBB’s Poems (1853) was finally published on 12 October.

Chapman had disappointed the Brownings in a different way earlier in 1853. RB’s verse drama Colombe’s Birthday, with Helena Faucit Martin in the title role, opened at the Haymarket Theatre on 25 April for a run of seven performances, and both Brownings thought it would be a perfect time to advertise RB’s Poems (1849), which included the play. In a letter to Chapman on 5 March 1853, RB wrote that if the play proved a success, “it would help the poems to fetch up their lee-way, I suppose. Hadn’t you better advertise, in that case? You know best, of course” (letter 3175). For whatever reason, Chapman chose not to advertise before, during, or after the play’s brief but not wholly unsuccessful run. In a letter of 16 May [1853] to John Kenyon, EBB wrote: “Why did’nt Mr. Chapman advertise? Ask Mr. Forster why Chapman did’nt advertise? It was the stranger omission that Robert suggested the propriety of it, in reference to this circumstance, long & long ago. Mr. Chapman is not an energetic publisher, I must say & think. We complained of Moxon, yet Moxon did the better of the two” (letter 3202).

Although Chapman continued to be dilatory in keeping the Brownings informed about their accounts, not all of their letters to him contained nagging reminders. As their son Pen grew older, his parents scrambled to keep him supplied with appropriate children’s books, and they turned to Chapman to provide them. He proved himself much more responsive as a bookseller than as a publisher. In a letter of 11 January 1855 RB thanked him “for attending to our commissions so promptly—the last packet came as duly to hand as the former one. Shall I, in the next place, wear your kindness to rags by giving you a fresh list?” (letter 3509).

When Chapman and Hall issued RB’s Men and Women on 10 November 1855, the author was understandably anxious for news from his publisher about the sales of and critical response to the book that he hoped would secure him a wider readership. Once again, Chapman disappointed. On 19 January [1856], RB wrote, “I received your letter of letters yesterday—all about nothing or next to it,” and he complained of being “left … these two months without a word about the well or ill doing of my poems” (letter 3715). RB’s bitterness was further evident by his unfavorably comparing Chapman to James Thomas Fields, publisher of the American edition of Men and Women, who had written on 3 December, enclosing early reviews. Fields’s letter and the reviews had been mailed to RB via Chapman, who waited a month to forward them. In concluding his letter, RB begged Chapman to make amends by sending the end-of-the-year accounts. When word did not immediately come, RB wrote again on 6 February: “I begin to think that I must have missed getting some letter of yours in reply to my last: the Post is at fault sometimes” (letter 3730). RB also took the opportunity in this letter to scold Chapman for not offering encouragement to EBB while she struggled to complete Aurora Leigh. It was a criticism he would level at Chapman again after Aurora Leigh was published in November 1856: “I receive by to-day’s post ‘Aurora Leigh’—from you or yours, I conjecture—but no word of comment: there is always such a thing to fear in these parts as a letter’s miscarrying—has that been so? If not, it’s a shame of you, black and burning, not to have been at that trouble” (2 December 1856, ms at Morgan).

The Brownings were pleased when Chapman agreed to publish Poems Before Congress (1860), with its forthright support for the cause of Italian independence and Napoleon III (at the time volunteer rifle brigades were forming in England to counter a possible French invasion). Referring to Chapman and the book, RB wrote to Isa Blagden: “I dare say he is a rifleman, sees thro’ our astute ally, & so on—& swallows these potions of notions with a wry face” ([28 January 1860], ms at ABL). But when Poems Before Congress was released in March 1860, EBB was unhappy that Chapman “meant to charge 4s on it– Perfectly ridiculously, I say, & probably fatally, for the sale– Two shillings & sixpence would have been ample—too much even” (letter to Isa Blagden, [19 March 1860], ms at Fitzwilliam). This was nothing new; EBB had thought that Chapman’s retail prices for her books, beginning with Poems (1850), were set “too high” (letter 3216). She protested that the price of Aurora Leigh (1857), twelve shillings, was “far too much. How can people be expected to buy a book at such a price?” (letter to Arabella, 23 November [1856], ms with GM-B).

In spite of these and the aforementioned criticisms the Brownings directed at Chapman, there is no record of their looking for another publisher. In fact, there is one strong indication that the poets were more than content to stay with him. In a letter to Alfred Tennyson dated 5 April 1859, RB recommended Chapman and Hall as a publisher. He began by quoting a letter he had received from Frederic Chapman: “‘I hear that Moxon’s business is about to be sold & consequently broken up [Moxon being Tennyson’s publisher]: to publish Mr Tennyson’s Poems would be a wonderful thing for me, & I think it might be done if you would write to Mr Tennyson a good word for us, as to our punctuality &c’– I leave out all but what is necessary to mention—& am quite ready to bear witness to the fairness and good feeling of [Edward] Chapman in his dealings with my wife & myself: I believe others think & report of them as I do. Should you be disposed, therefore, to make arrangements with the Chapman’s, you would, at all events find them faithful to their engagement, whatever it might be … I suppose you will hardly obtain more favorable terms elsewhere” (ms at Tennyson Centre).

After Frederic was made a partner in 1858, Edward remained the Brownings’ principal contact in the firm during the publication of EBB’s fourth edition of Aurora Leigh (1859) and her Poems Before Congress (1860), all business correspondence being addressed to him. But following Frederic’s visit to the Brownings at Florence in the summer of 1860, it would seem the younger partner took over the Browning account. When RB broke away from Chapman and Hall in the autumn of 1867, Frederic had been running the firm for over a year and probably dealing personally with the poet for six.

In what may have been his last letter to Edward Chapman, dated 21 May 1861, RB strikes an ironic chord in regard to the income generated by his and his wife’s books: “I never answered your last letter, I think, except by a draft on you for the two pence halfpenny which my wife gets by her books and the odd farthing which when times are particularly lucky comes to my share. I suppose you were not inconvenienced by such a drain on your Exchequer. Upon my word, I for my part must consider a little what I do with my next Men & Women, which I can sell for twenty guineas a piece to an American newspapaer & be praised into the bargain. You won’t care where I go with my unsaleables, that’s one comfort” (ms at Leeds Univ).

After Edward Chapman retired from publishing in 1866, he travelled for a time before settling at Tunbridge Wells and later at Elm Lodge, Hitchin, where he died on 20 February 1880. In RB’s later correspondence there are no remarks concerning Chapman’s retirement or death. But those to whom he would have written such remarks were people he saw frequently in London.

1. Although it has often been repeated that Edward Chapman retired from the firm in 1864, there are two letters indicating he remained an active partner until early 1866. In a 19 January 1866 letter to Frederic Ouvry, Dickens wrote: “I saw Edward Chapman, the retiring partner this morning. ... I pointed out to him the objections that I had to his cousin’s remaining in the business alone” (Dickens, 11, 142). On 5 February 1866 Forster wrote to Robert Bulwer Lytton that “Fredric Chapman ... is about to buy out the elder Chapman, and to conduct the business alone” (ms with Cobbold).


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