James Dodsley (1724–1797)
Note: the 19th-century biography below preserves a historical record. We welcome submissions of new biographies that reflect 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
DODSLEY, JAMES (1724–1797), bookseller, a younger brother of Robert Dodsley [q. v.], was born near Mansfield in Nottinghamshire in 1724. He was probably employed in the shop of his prosperous brother, Robert, by whom he was taken into partnership—the firm trading as R. & J. Dodsley in Pall Mall—and whom he eventually succeeded in 1759. In 1775 he printed 'A Petition and Complaint touching a Piracy of "Letters by the late Earl of Chesterfield,"' 4to. Dr. Joseph Warton told Malone that Spence had sold his 'Anecdotes' to Robert Dodsley for a hundred pounds. Before the matter was finally settled both Spence and Dodsley died. On looking over the papers Spence's executors thought it premature to publish them, and 'James Dodsley relinquished his bargain, though he probably would have gained 400l. or 500l. by it' (Prior, Life of Malone, pp. 184-5). A list of forty-one works published by him is advertised at the end of Hull's 'Select Letters,' 1778, 2 vols. 8vo. In 1780 he produced an improved edition of the 'Collection of Old Plays,' 12 vols. 8vo, edited by Isaac Reed, who also edited for him anew, two years later, the 'Collection of Poems,' 6 vols. 8vo. He was a member of the 'Congeries,' a club of booksellers who produced Johnson's 'Lives of the Poets' and other works. Dodsley was the puzzled referee in the well-known bet about Goldsmith's lines,
For he who fights and runs away
May live to fight another day,
which George Selwyn rightly contended were not to be found in Butler's 'Hudibras' (Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. iv. 61-3). The plan of the tax on receipts was suggested by him to the Rockingham administration in 1782. On 7 June 1787 he lost 2,500l. worth of quirestock, burnt in a warehouse (Nichols, Illustr. vii. 488). He paid the usual fine instead of serving the office of sheriff of London and Middlesex in 1788. Dodsley carried on an extensive business, but does not seem to have possessed all his brother's enterprise and energy. Writing from Woodstock on 26 July 1789 Thomas King refers to his farming and haymaking (Add. MS. in British Museum, No. 15932, ff. 20-2). Eighteen thousand copies of Burke's 'Reflections on the Revolution in France' were sold by him in 1790.
He enjoyed a high character in commercial affairs, but was somewhat eccentric in private life. He always led a reserved and secluded life, and for some years before his death gave up his shop and dealt wholesale in his own publications. The retail business was taken over by George Nicol. 'He kept a carriage many years, but studiously wished that his friends should not know it, nor did he ever use it on the eastern side of Temple Bar' (Gent. Mag. vol. lxvii. pt. i. p. 347). He left the bulk of his fortune, estimated at 70,000l., to nephews and nieces. He died on 19 Feb. 1797 at his house in Pall Mall in his seventy-fourth year, and was buried in St. James's Church, Westminster.
[Chalmers's Life of Robert Dodsley; Gent. Mag. lvii. (pt. ii.) 634, lxvii. (pt. i.) 254, 346-7; Walpole's Letters (Cunningham), vols. vi. vii. viii. and ix.; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. vols. ii. iii. v. and vi.; Boswell's Life of Johnson (G. B. Hill), i. 182, ii. 447; Timperley's Encyclopædia, pp. 746, 793-4, 806, 815, 911; agreements and correspondence with authors in Add. MSS. in British Museum, Nos. 12116, 19022, 28104, 28235, 29960.]
H. R. T.