George Canning Is My Son

By Julian Crowe

A new biography of the remarkable Mary Ann Hunn.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Publishing by subscription

Many thanks to all who have subscribed to George Canning Is My Son and helped it to reach its funding target.  It is hoped to bring it out before the end of 2020, which happens to be George's 250th anniversary year.

When George Canning was born his parents had a house at the eastern end of Queen Anne Street. It was not the fashionable, more expensive end, but still they were living beyond their means and were harried by creditors.  George's father, George Canning senior, hoped to make money by publishing the love letters that he and Mary Ann exchanged during their courtship, together with an account of the injustices done to him by his parents.  Both Mary Ann and his sister Molly opposed the plan. It is possible that he was using the threat of exposure as a way of extracting money from his father, but he seems to have been determined to proceed, and there is even a suspicion that his side of the correspondence had been written with half an eye to eventual publication.  He sent out a proposal calling for subscriptions, offering both a standard edition and a more expensive one on royal paper.  His friends subscribed willingly, although some begged him to choose a less private and painful subject.

A difference between the 18th century practice of publishing by subscription and Unbound's 21st century business model is that back then it was not necessary to pay in advance. Some of George senior's friends did send money with their subscription form, treating it, perhaps, as an opportunity to subsidise the impoverished couple without hurting the Canning pride, but for others the subscription was a promise to buy later.  Following publication in 1767 of his translation of the Anti-Lucretius, George had complained that the subscribers were slow to pay, admitting that this was possibly because he had completed only five of the original nine books.

Desperate following the birth of his son, Canning senior went out knocking on friends' doors to raise money. He called on one friend, an Irishman named Robert Crowe, telling him that Mary Ann had been brought to bed that very morning, and begging him to pay now for his copy of the proposed book of love letters. When Crowe immediately handed over five guineas, Canning burst into tears.  Forty-six years later Crowe recounted the story, somewhat inaccurately, to the younger Canning in a letter asking for a political favour. 'It is not impossible,' he added, 'but you who have done so much honour to the Country of your father, was the child he then alluded to.'

While he himself was in such desperate poverty, Canning senior received a circular from another author, Catherine Jemmat, soliciting subscriptions for a book of her own.  She had lost the use of both her legs and one arm from rheumatism, she said.  George Canning is indeed listed among the subscribers to the 1771 edition of Jemmat's Miscellanies, though whether he actually paid is not certain.


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