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The ‘Moxon Tennyson’ Revisited

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Jim Cheshire

The illustrated edition of the 1842 Poems (often confusingly described as the ‘Moxon Tennyson’) has been widely discussed by scholars of Victorian culture. Published in the late 1850s and circulating widely by the later 1860s, it is the illustrated book most associated with Tennyson’s poetry. Much of the interest has been generated by the inclusion of the Pre-Raphaelite artists J. E. Millais, Holman Hunt and D. G. Rossetti and how their approach to illustration contrasted to the more traditional illustrations of Clarkson Stanfield and Thomas Creswick .1

The proof illustrations in the Tennyson Research Centre

This is certainly true, the illustrated 1842 Poems marks an interesting moment in the development of the relationship between word and image but it also marks the first major disagreement between Tennyson and his publisher.

The book was a commercial failure but this was not primarily a result of poor demand. By October 1858, approximately 17 months after its publication, 2,210 copies had been sold – not a high proportion of the print run of 10,000 but hardly a failure, especially for an expensive book. After being remaindered to Routledge, the first edition had sold out by 1863 and another 5000 copies were printed which appear to have sold by 1869.2 The fact that 15,000 copies sold shows that the book did not lack appeal: the problem was primarily the price. Moxon attempted to sell the book at 31s or £1.11.0, a price about one third more expensive than the usual gift book price tag of 21s.3 The problem of the high price was exacerbated by delays in publishing the book: Moxon missed the intended launch date of December 1856 and the book was published in May 1857.

The lack of commercial success was a great disappointment to Edward Moxon whose situation was made even worse by complaints about the images. When Emily Tennyson expressed her dissatisfaction, he was clearly offended and pointed that in contrast to publishers like Routledge who used out-of-copyright texts, he had to pay an author’s fee:

‘I am sorry to hear that with few exceptions you would not care to have the illustrations “at a gift”. All I can say is that neither labour nor expense has been spared in the getting up of the book – the best artists have been employed, and for the designs and engraving alone I have paid upwards of £1500.

The price of the book will be either 30/- or 31/6. Mr Routledge it is true makes the price of his annual volumes a guinea, but your friends should bear in mind that he pays nothing for copyright.’4

Another crucial factor in the failure of the illustrated 1842 Poems was the early death of Edward Moxon on 3 June 1858. Just when the Moxon firm needed all its experience to make the transition to the gift book era, the firm’s lynchpin died leaving no clear successor. Moxon’s longstanding relationship with Tennyson was a crucial point of stability and considerable mutual trust existed between poet and publisher. In the tense aftermath of the commercial failure of the illustrated 1842 Poems, the absence of this trust fuelled a major disagreement that inflicted lasting damage on the firm.

Although the agreement between Moxon and Tennyson was informal, it was very clear, as a letter from Moxon to Tennyson in July 1857 shows:

‘As the illustrated edition of your poems will I am afraid have a much slower sale than I expected, I beg to make you the following offer: –

I am willing to give you for your interest in the edition the sum which I originally said I should be able to realize for you, namely £2000. You are at present in debt to me £1101-8-3, so that should you accept my proposal you would have to receive £898-11-9…

I may mention that it is to give you the option of relieving yourself from all further anxiety in regard to the book that I make you the above offer.’5

Moxon was clearly very eager not to damage his relationship with Tennyson and to honour his initial agreement, something that was clearly not communicated to his relatives.

Only a few weeks after Edward Moxon’s death, Tennyson moved with indecent speed and wrote to William Moxon (Edward’s younger brother) in order to renegotiate his affairs with the firm.6 Significantly he no longer chose to do this himself, instead employing his brother in law Charles Weld, a trained lawyer.7 As he admitted to Weld in a letter these meetings were not just about continuity: ‘I have written today to William Moxon the barrister, urging him to appoint an early meeting with yourself and arrange or rather rearrange my relations with the house of Moxon.’8 From this point the financial agreements were negotiated between Weld and William Moxon, while Charles Moxon, son of Edward and aged only 16 seems to have taken over operational responsibility for publishing. In October 1858, William Moxon unwisely attempted to recover the losses from the illustrated 1842 Poems from Tennyson which Weld reported back to Tennyson on 27 October:

‘At length I have seen W. Moxon. The result of the interview is most unsatisfactory for when I stated that you and your friends were desirous to enter into a new arrangement which, while being more equitable should at the same time be advantageous to young Moxon – he pulled out of his pocket a piece of paper and informed me that any arrangement different to that already existing as premature as the estate of the late Mr Moxon had claims on you to the amount of £8886.8.4 –

On my demanding how this could possibly be he proceeded to tell me that in consequence of your earnest solicitations his late brother has embarked in the unfortunate speculation of publishing an illustrated edition of your Poems of which he printed 10,000 copies and that 7790 copies remained unsold.’9

William Moxon was wrong in making this claim but the conflict between publisher and poet was not just about the illustrated edition. William Moxon was clearly offended by the fact that the firm’s profits were being reduced: Tennyson seems to have seized on the opportunity offered by Edward Moxon’s death in order to renegotiate his basic agreement with the firm.10 In response, William Moxon threatened Tennyson with unresolved losses, which he had no right to do, as these were the responsibility of the firm. The Moxon family may well have been deeply offended that Tennyson had proposed this less lucrative arrangement only days after death of Edward Moxon but William Moxon had also misunderstood the terms upon which his brother had set up the financing of the illustrated 1842 Poems.

Two days later Tennyson wrote to Bradbury and Evans: ‘After very weary waiting for months and rejecting splendid offers from first rate publishers because I chose to stick by the house of Moxon, I am treated at last discourteously and untruthfully by William Moxon. I decline entering into any business till all this is explained and apologized for.’11 By March 1859, Charles Moxon was writing apologetically to Tennyson but no letters from Tennyson to Charles or William Moxon later than the disagreement have survived, suggesting that from autumn 1858 the poet’s relations with the firm were always conducted through a proxy.

Tennyson’s popularity peaked in the 1860s but in the same decade his relationship with the Moxon firm was unravelling. In 1869 he left his publisher amid some very negative publicity: arguments over illustrated books were a major factor in creating this damaging rift.

[The above passage is adapted from the author’s Tennyson and Mid-Victorian Publishing, which Palgrave Macmillan published in 2017. It has been included with the permission of the author who retains copyright.]

1 Kooistra, Poetry, Pictures and Popular Publishing, pp. 40-64; Julia Thomas, ‘”Always another poem”: Victorian Illustrations of Tennyson’, Tennyson Transformed: Alfred Lord Tennyson and Visual Culture, ed. by Jim Cheshire (London: Lund Humphries, 2009), pp. 20-31.
2 Routledge sold the book at 21s from which Tennyson received a royalty of 5s per copy: Letters of Tennyson, II, p. 379 note.
3 Kooistra, Poetry, Pictures and Popular Publishing, p. 39.
4 TRC/LETTERS/7887.
5 TRC/LETTERS/7873.
6 Alfred Tennyson, The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, ed. by Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon Jr. 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982-1990), II, p. 203.
7 Anita McConnell, ‘Weld, Charles Richard (1813–1869)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [online] http://www.oxforddnb.com./article/28982 [accessed 23 July 2015].
8 Letters of Tennyson, II, p. 203.
9 TRC/LETTERS/2419.
10 TRC/LETTERS/7339, a letter from Thomas Nettleship to Charles Field contested the claim of Moxon’s trustees, he claimed that they owned unsold copies of Tennyson’s work and confirms that the firm’s share was now just 10% of sales. This letter implies that this agreement had been in place since 1 October 1858.
11 Letters of Tennyson, II, p. 209.
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