Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Of Des Maizeaux, and the Secret History of
Anthony Collins’s Manuscripts.

Des Maizeaux was an active literary man of his day, whose connexions with Bayle, St. Evremond, Locke, and Toland, and his name being set off by an F.R.S., have occasioned the dictionary-biographers to place him prominently among their “hommes illustres.” Of his private history nothing seems known. Having something important to communicate respecting one of his friends, a far greater character, with whose fate he stands connected, even Des Maizeaux becomes an object of our inquiry.

He was one of those French refugees whom political madness or despair of intolerance had driven to our shores. The proscription of Louis XIV., which supplied us with our skilful workers in silk, also produced a race of the unemployed, who proved not to be as exquisite in the handicraft of book-making; such were Motteux, La Coste, Ozell, Durand, and others. Our author had come over in that tender state of youth, just in time to become half an Englishman: and he was so ambidextrous in the languages of the two great literary nations of Europe, that whenever he took up his pen, it is evident by his manuscripts, which I have examined, that it was mere accident which determined him to write in French or in English. Composing without genius, or even taste, without vivacity or force, the simplicity and fluency of his style were sufficient for the purposes of a ready dealer in all the minutiæ literariæ; literary anecdotes, curious quotations, notices of obscure books, and all that supellex which must enter into the history of literature, without forming a history. These little things, which did so well of themselves, without any connexion with anything else, became trivial when they assumed the form of voluminous minuteness; and Des Maizeaux at length imagined that nothing but anecdotes were necessary to compose the lives of men of genius! With this sort of talent he produced a copious life of Bayle, in which he told everything he possibly could; and nothing can be more tedious, and more curious: for though it be a grievous fault to omit nothing, and marks the writer to be deficient in the development of character, and that sympathy which throws inspiration over the vivifying page of biography, yet, to admit everything, has this merit — that we are sure to find what we want! Warburton poignantly describes our Des Maizeaux, in one of those letters to Dr. Birch which he wrote in the fervid age of study, and with the impatient vivacity of his genius, “Almost all the life-writers we have had before Toland and Des Maizeaux are indeed strange, insipid creatures; and yet I had rather read the worst of them, than be obliged to go through with this of Milton’s, or the other’s life of Boileau; where there is such a dull, heavy succession of long quotations of uninteresting passages, that it makes their method quite nauseous. But the verbose, tasteless Frenchman seems to lay it down as a principle, that every life must be a book — and, what is worse, it seems a book without a life; for what do we know of Boileau after all his tedious stuff?”

Des Maizeaux was much in the employ of the Dutch booksellers, then the great monopolisers in the literary mart of Europe. He supplied their “nouvelles littéraires” from England; but the work-sheet price was very mean in those days. I have seen annual accounts of Des Maizeaux settled to a line for four or five pounds; and yet he sent the “Novelties” as fresh as the post could carry them! He held a confidential correspondence with these great Dutch booksellers, who consulted him in their distresses; and he seems rather to have relieved them than himself. But if he got only a few florins at Rotterdam, the same “nouvelles littéraires” sometimes secured him valuable friends at London; for in those days, which perhaps are returning on us, an English author would often appeal to a foreign journal for the commendation he might fail in obtaining at home; and I have discovered, in more cases than one, that, like other smuggled commodities, the foreign article was often of home manufactory!

I give one of these curious bibliopolical distresses. Sauzet, a bookseller at Rotterdam, who judged too critically for the repose of his authors, seems to have been always fond of projecting a new “Journal;” tormented by the ideal excellence which he had conceived of such a work, it vexed him that he could never find the workmen! Once disappointed of the assistance he expected from a writer of talents, he was fain to put up with one he was ashamed of; but warily stipulated on very singular terms. He confided this precious literary secret to Des Maizeaux. I translate from his manuscript letter.

“I send you, my dear Sir, four sheets of the continuation of my journal, and I hope this second part will turn out better than the former. The author thinks himself a very able person; but I must tell you frankly, that he is a man without erudition, and without any critical discrimination; he writes pretty well, and turns passably what he says; but that is all! Monsieur Van Effen having failed in his promises to realise my hopes on this occasion, necessity compelled me to have recourse to him; but for six months only, and on condition that he should not, on any account whatever, allow any one to know that he is the author of the journal; for his name alone would be sufficient to make even a passable book discreditable. As you are among my friends, I will confide to you in secrecy the name of this author; it is Mons. De Limiers.1 You see how much my interest is concerned that the author should not be known!” This anecdote is gratuitously presented to the editors of certain reviews, as a serviceable hint to enter into the same engagement with some of their own writers: for it is usually the De Limiers who expend their last puff in blowing their own name about the town.

In England, Des Maizeaux, as a literary man, made himself very useful to other men of letters, and particularly to persons of rank: and he found patronage and a pension — like his talents, very moderate! A friend to literary men, he lived amongst them, from “Orator” Henley, up to Addison, Lord Halifax, and Anthony Collins. I find a curious character of our Des Maizeaux in the handwriting of Edward, Earl of Oxford, to whose father (Pope’s Earl of Oxford) and himself the nation owes the Harleian treasures. His lordship is a critic with high Tory principles, and high-church notions. “This Des Maizeaux is a great man with those who are pleased to be called Freethinkers, particularly with Mr. Anthony Collins, collects passages out of books for their writings. His Life of Chillingworth is wrote to please that set of men.” The secret history I am to unfold relates to Anthony Collins and Des Maizeaux. Some curious book-lovers will be interested in the personal history of an author they are well acquainted with, yet which has hitherto remained unknown. He tells his own story in a sort of epistolary petition he addressed to a noble friend, characteristic of an author, who cannot be deemed unpatronised, yet whose name, after all his painful labours, might be inserted in my “Calamities of Authors.”

In this letter he announces his intention of publishing a Dictionary like Bayle; having written the life of Bayle, the next step was to become himself a Bayle; so short is the passage of literary delusion! He had published, as a specimen, the lives of Hales and Chillingworth. He complains that his circumstances have not allowed him to forward that work, nor digest the materials he had collected.

A work of that nature requires a steady application, free from the cares and avocations incident to all persons obliged to seek for their maintenance. I have had the misfortune to be in the case of those persons, and am now reduced to a pension on the Irish establishment, which, deducting the tax of four shillings in the pound, and other charges, brings me in about 40l. a year of our English money.2 This pension was granted to me in 1710, and I owe it chiefly to the friendship of Mr. Addison, who was then secretary to the Earl of Wharton, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. In 1711, 12, and 14, I was appointed one of the Commissioners of the Lottery by the interest of Lord Halifax.

And this is all I ever received from the Government, though I had some claim to the royal favour; for in 1710, when the enemies to our constitution were contriving its ruin, I wrote a pamphlet entitled “Lethe,” which was published in Holland, and afterwards translated into English, and twice printed in London; and being reprinted in Dublin, proved so offensive to the ministry in Ireland, that it was burnt by the hands of the hangman. But so it is, that after having showed on all occasions my zeal for the royal family, and endeavoured to make myself serviceable to the public by several books published; after forty years’ stay in England, and in an advanced age, I find myself and family destitute of a sufficient livelihood, and suffering from complaints in the head and impaired sight by constant application to my studies.

I am confident, my lord, he adds, that if the queen, to whom I was made known on occasion of Thuanus’s French translation, were acquainted with my present distress, she would be pleased to afford me some relief.3

Among the confidential literary friends of Des Maizeaux, he had the honour of ranking Anthony Collins, a great lover of literature, and a man of fine genius, and who, in a continued correspondence with our Des Maizeaux, treated him as his friend, and employed him as his agent in his literary concerns. These, in the formation of an extensive library, were in a state of perpetual activity, and Collins was such a true lover of his books, that he drew up the catalogue with his own pen.4 Anthony Collins wrote several well-known works without prefixing his name; but having pushed too far his curious inquiries on some obscure and polemical points, he incurred the odium of a freethinker, — a term which then began to be in vogue, and which the French adopted by translating it, in their way, a strong thinker, or esprit fort. Whatever tendency to “liberalise” the mind from dogmas and creeds prevails in these works, the talents and learning of Collins were of the first class. His morals were immaculate, and his personal character independent; but the odium theologicum of those days contrived every means to stab in the dark, till the taste became hereditary with some. I shall mention a fact of this cruel bigotry, which occurred within my own observation, on one of the most polished men of the age. The late Mr. Cumberland, in the romance entitled his “Life,” gave this extraordinary fact, that Dr. Bentley, who so ably replied by his “Remarks,” under the name of Phileleutherus Lipsiensis, to Collins’s “Discourse on Free-thinking,” when, many years after, he discovered him fallen into great distress, conceiving that by having ruined Collins’s character as a writer for ever, he had been the occasion of his personal misery, he liberally contributed to his maintenance. In vain I mentioned to that elegant writer, who was not curious about facts, that this person could never have been Anthony Collins, who had always a plentiful fortune; and when it was suggested to him that this “A. Collins,” as he printed it, must have been Arthur Collins, the historical compiler, who was often in pecuniary difficulties, still he persisted in sending the lie down to posterity, totidem verbis, without alteration in his second edition, observing to a friend of mine, that “the story, while it told well, might serve as a striking instance of his great relative’s generosity; and that it should stand, because it could do no harm to any but to Anthony Collins, whom he considered as little short of an atheist.” So much for this pious fraud! but be it recollected that this Anthony Collins was the confidential friend of Locke, of whom Locke said, on his dying bed, that “Collins was a man whom he valued in the first rank of those that he left behind him.” And the last words of Collins on his own death-bed were, that “he was persuaded he was going to that place which God had designed for them that love him.” The cause of true religion will never be assisted by using such leaky vessels as Cumberland’s wilful calumnies, which in the end must run out, and be found, like the present, mere empty fictions!

An extraordinary circumstance occurred on the death of Anthony Collins. He left behind him a considerable number of his own manuscripts, there was one collection formed into eight octavo volumes; and that they might be secured from the common fate of manuscripts, he bequeathed them all, and confided them to the care of our Des Maizeaux. The choice of Collins reflects honour on the character of Des Maizeaux, yet he proved unworthy of it! He suffered himself to betray his trust, practised on by the earnest desire of the widow, and perhaps by the arts of a Mr. Tomlinson, who appears to have been introduced into the family by the recommendation of Dean Sykes, whom at length he supplanted, and whom the widow, to save her reputation, was afterwards obliged to discard.5 In an unguarded moment he relinquished this precious legacy of the manuscripts, and accepted fifty guineas as a present. But if Des Maizeaux lost his honour in this transaction, he was at heart an honest man, who had swerved for a single moment; his conscience was soon awakened, and he experienced the most violent compunctions. It was in a paroxysm of this nature that he addressed the following letter to a mutual friend of the late Anthony Collins and himself.


I am very glad to hear you are come to town, and as you are my best friend, now I have lost Mr. Collins, give me leave to open my heart to you, and to beg your assistance in an affair which highly concerns both Mr. Collins’s (your friend) and my own honour and reputation. The case, in few words, stands thus:— Mr. Collins by his last will and testament left me his manuscripts. Mr. Tomlinson, who first acquainted me with it, told me that Mrs. Collins should be glad to have them, and I made them over to her; whereupon she was pleased to present me with fifty guineas. I desired her at the same time to take care they should be kept safe and unhurt, which she promised to do. This was done the 25th of last month. Mr. Tomlinson, who managed all this affair, was present.

Now, having further considered that matter, I find that I have done a most wicked thing. I am persuaded that I have betrayed the trust of a person who, for twenty-six years, had given me continual instances of his friendship and confidence. I am convinced that I have acted contrary to the will and intention of my dear deceased friend; showed a disregard to the particular mark of esteem he gave me on that occasion; in short, that I have forfeited what is dearer to me than my own life — honour and reputation.

These melancholy thoughts have made so great an impression upon me, that I protest to you I can enjoy no rest; they haunt me everywhere, day and night. I earnestly beseech you, sir, to represent my unhappy case to Mrs. Collins. I acted with all the simplicity and uprightness of my heart; I considered that the MSS. would be as safe in Mrs. Collins’s hands as in mine; that she was no less obliged to preserve them than myself; and that, as the library was left to her, they might naturally go along with it. Besides, I thought I could not too much comply with the desire of a lady to whom I have so many obligations. But I see now clearly that this is not fulfilling Mr. Collins’s will, and that the duties of our conscience are superior to all other regards. But it is in her power to forgive and mend what I have done imprudently, but with a good intention. Her high sense of virtue and generosity will not, I am sure, let her take any advantage of my weakness; and the tender regard she has for the memory of the best of men, and the tenderest of husbands, will not suffer that his intentions should be frustrated, and that she should be the instrument of violating what is most sacred. If our late friend had designed that his MSS. should remain in her hands, he would certainly have left them to her by his last will and testament; his acting otherwise is an evident proof that it was not his intention.

All this I proposed to represent to her in the most respectful manner; but you will do it infinitely better than I can in this present distraction of mind; and I flatter myself that the mutual esteem and friendship which has continued so many years between Mr. Collins and you, will make you readily embrace whatever tends to honour his memory.

I send you the fifty guineas I received, which I do now look upon as the wages of iniquity; and I desire you to return them to Mrs. Collins, who, as I hope it of her justice, equity, and regard to Mr. Collins’s intentions, will be pleased to cancel my paper.

I am, &c.,

P. Des Maizeaux.

The manuscripts were never returned to Des Maizeaux; for seven years afterwards Mrs. Collins, who appears to have been a very spirited lady, addressed to him the following letter on the subject of a report, that she had permitted transcripts of these very manuscripts to get abroad. This occasioned an animated correspondence from both sides.


I have thus long waited in expectation that you would ere this have called on Dean Sykes, as Sir B. Lucy said you intended, that I might have had some satisfaction in relation to a very unjust reproach — viz., that I, or somebody that I had trusted, had betrayed some of the transcripts, or MSS., of Mr. Collins into the Bishop of London’s hands. I cannot, therefore, since you have not been with the dean as was desired, but call on you in this manner, to know what authority you had for such a reflection; or on what grounds you went for saying that these transcripts are in the Bishop of London’s hands. I am determined to trace out the grounds of such a report; and you can be no friend of mine, no friend of Mr. Collins, no friend to common justice, if you refuse to acquaint me, what foundation you had for such a charge. I desire a very speedy answer to this, who am, Sir,

Your servant,

Eliz. Collins.

To Mr. Des Maizeaux, at his lodgings next door to the Quakers’ burying-ground, Hanover-street, out of Long-Acre.



I had the honour of your letter of the 10th inst., and as I find that something has been misapprehended, I beg leave to set this matter right.

Being lately with some honourable persons, I told them it had been reported that some of Mr. C.’s MSS. were fallen into the hands of strangers, and that I should be glad to receive from you such information as might enable me to disprove that report. What occasioned this surmise, or what particular MSS. were meant, I was not able to discover; so I was left to my own conjectures, which, upon a serious consideration, induced me to believe that it might relate to the MSS. in eight volumes in 8vo, of which there is a transcript. But as the original and the transcript are in your possession, if you please, madam, to compare them together, you may easily see whether they be both entire and perfect, or whether there be anything wanting in either of them. By this means you will assure yourself, and satisfy your friends, that several important pieces are safe in your hands, and that the report is false and groundless. All this I take the liberty to offer out of the singular respect I always professed for you, and for the memory of Mr. Collins, to whom I have endeavoured to do justice on all occasions, and particularly in the memoirs that have been made use of in the General Dictionary; and I hope my tender concern for his reputation will further appear when I publish his life.



My ill state of health has hindered me from acknowledging sooner the receipt of yours, from which I hoped for some satisfaction in relation to your charge, in which I cannot but think myself very deeply concerned. You tell me now, that you was left to your own conjectures what particular MSS. were reported to have fallen into the hands of strangers, and that upon a serious consideration you was induced to believe that it might relate to the MSS. in eight vols. 8vo, of which there was a transcript.

I must beg of you to satisfy me very explicitly who were the persons that reported this to you, and from whom did you receive this information? You know that Mr. Collins left several MSS. behind him; what grounds had you for your conjecture that it related to the MSS. in eight vols., rather than to any other MSS. of which there was a transcript? I beg that you will be very plain, and tell me what strangers were named to you; and why you said the Bishop of London, if your informer said stranger to you. I am so much concerned in this, that I must repeat it, if you have the singular respect for Mr. Collins which you profess, that you would help me to trace out this reproach, which is so abusive to, Sir,

Your servant,

Eliz. Collins.



I flattered myself that my last letter would have satisfied you, but I have the mortification to see that my hopes were vain. Therefore I beg leave once more to set this matter right. When I told you what had been reported, I acted, as I thought, the part of a true friend, by acquainting you that some of your MSS. had been purloined, in order that you might examine a fact which to me appeared of the last consequence; and I verily believe that everybody in my case would have expected thanks for such a friendly information. But instead of that I find myself represented as an enemy, and challenged to produce proofs and witnesses of a thing dropt in conversation, a hearsay, as if in those cases people kept a register of what they hear, and entered the names of the persons who spoke, the time, place, &c., and had with them persons ready to witness the whole, &c. I did own I never thought of such a thing, and whenever I happened to hear that some of my friends had some loss, I thought it my duty to acquaint them with such report, that they might inquire into the matter, and see whether there was any ground for it. But I never troubled myself with the names of the persons who spoke, as being a thing entirely needless and unprofitable.

Give me leave further to observe, that you are in no ways concerned in the matter, as you seem to be apprehensive you are. Suppose some MSS. have been taken out of your library, who will say you ought to bear the guilt of it? What man in his senses, who has the honour to know you, will say you gave your consent to such thing — that you was privy to it? How can you then take upon yourself an action to which you was neither privy and consenting? Do not such things happen every day, and do the losers think themselves injured or abused when they are talked of? Is it impossible to be betrayed by a person we confided in?

You call what I told you was a report, a surmise; you call it, I say, an information, and speak of informers as if there was a plot laid wherein I received the information: I thought I had the honour to be better known to you. Mr. Collins loved me and esteemed me for my integrity and sincerity, of which he had several proofs; how I have been drawn in to injure him, to forfeit the good opinion he had of me, and which, were he now alive, would deservedly expose me to his utmost contempt, is a grief which I shall carry to the grave. It would be a sort of comfort to me, if those who have consented I should be drawn in were in some measure sensible of the guilt towards so good, kind, and generous a man.

Thus we find that, seven years after Des Maizeaux had inconsiderately betrayed his sacred trust, his remorse was still awake; and the sincerity of his grief is attested by the affecting style which describes it: the spirit of his departed friend seemed to be hovering about him, and, in his imagination, would haunt him to the grave.

The nature of these manuscripts; the cause of the earnest desire of retaining them by the widow; the evident unfriendliness of her conduct to Des Maizeaux; and whether these manuscripts, consisting of eight octavo volumes with their transcripts, were destroyed, or are still existing, are all circumstances which my researches have hitherto not ascertained.

1 Van Effen was a Dutch writer of some merit, and one of a literary knot of ingenious men, consisting of Sallengre, St. Hyacinthe, Prosper Marchand, &c., who carried on a smart review for those days, published at the Hague under the title of “Journal Littéraire.” They all composed in French; and Van Effen gave the first translations of our “Guardian,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and the “Tale of a Tub,” &c. He did something more, but not better; he attempted to imitate the “Spectator,” in his “Le Misanthrope,” 1726, which exhibits a picture of the uninteresting manners of a nation whom he could not make very lively.

De Limiers has had his name slipped into our biographical dictionaries. An author cannot escape the fatality of the alphabet; his numerous misdeeds are registered. It is said, that if he had not been so hungry, he would have given proofs of possessing some talent.

2 I find that the nominal pension was 3s. 6d. per diem on the Irish civil list, which amounts to above 63l. per annum. If a pension be granted for reward, it seems a mockery that the income should be so grievously reduced, which cruel custom still prevails.

3 This letter, or petition, was written in 1732. In 1743 he procured his pension to be placed on his wife’s life, and he died in 1745.

He was sworn in as gentleman of his majesty’s privy chamber in 1722 — Sloane MSS. 4289.

4 There is a printed catalogue of his library.

5 This information is from a note found among Des Maizeaux’s papers; but its truth I have no means to ascertain.

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