The Temple of the Muses where Frankenstein was first offered for sale.
On the cover page of the first printing of “Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus”, the publisher is listed as Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and Jones of Finsbury Square. Percy Shelley’s correspondence regarding the publishing was usually addressed to Lackington & Allen & Co.. But who were they?
The original founder of the firm, James Lackington had passed away by the time of the publishing of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel. Lackington, who once advertised himself as the “Cheapest Bookseller in the World”, was an early proponent of the “book emporium” with the business philosophy of discount books sold in volume (sound familiar). A self-made man who rose from selling meat pies at the age of ten and an apprenticeship at a shoemaker, he went to London in 1773 to make his fortune, and began selling books as Lackington & Co. in 1774 from his circulating library on Chiswell Street in London. He focused on selling books to all classes of society.
In 1791 Lackington had become so successful he built a great store and shopping mall on the corner of Finsbury Square he called the “Temple of the Muses”, designed by George Dance, the London city architect who also designed Newgate Prison and London’s Guildhall. The building housed a collection of publishers and assorted shops. An advertisement of the time reported that the bookseller had a half million volumes for sale at any one time and by 1803, the printed catalogue listed 800,000 works available. Its scale was demonstrated at its grand opened by a mail coach and four horses driving around underneath its central dome. It was called “the most extraordinary library in the world”.
Intended to represent a temple to reading, the poet John Keats recalled visiting the Temple of the Muses as a schoolboy to wonder at the towering shelves of books and read for free in the lounges, and eventually met his publishers among the stacks. In a clever bit of self-marketing, customers could pay for books with a token coin with Lackington’s portrait on one side and Greek classical goddess on the reverse.
A trusted employee, Robin Allen, who was said to be an “excellent judge of old books” had risen to partner and the firm was then known as Lackington, Allen & Co. for several years. James Lackington retired in 1798, the year Mary Godwin was born. George Lackington, a third cousin to James, who had worked in the shop as an apprentice since the age of 13, borrowed funds from his successful merchant father to buy a share in the company. Then, through a series of deaths or life misfortunes, the partners changed over the next years. Robin Allen died in 1815 and it took a succession of partners to replace him. Richard Hughes, Joseph Harding, A. Kirkman, and William Mavor, (the son of William Fordyce Mavor who invented shorthand stenography). George Lackington expanded from publishing to real estate and acquired the Egyptian Hall at Picadilly, which he rented out as an exhibition space, (it was torn down in 1905) while his partner, Richard Hughes was a lessor of Sadler’s Wells Theater.
James Lackington wrote an autobiography, or rather a “a biography written by himself”, where he revealed his secrets of bookselling, opined on authors publishing their own works, and on the improving state of knowledge and literature among ladies, which would seem to come into play as the philosophy which led to the publishing of Mary Shelley’s work. The Temple of the Muses at Finsbury Square burned down in 1841 and the business moved to a location on Pall Mall East as Harding and Lepard after George Lackington’s retirement.
“Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus” was first offered to the public by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and & Jones on New Year’s Day of 1818. It was supposed to be published on December 30 of 1817, but the printing was late. The three volumes sold poorly, blamed on the late delivery and mix up in advertising. The novel was re-published officially on March 11, 1818.