In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Patronage

  • Introduction

British and Irish Literature Patronage
Richard McCabe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0186


Literary patronage is best regarded as one expression of a much wider social and political phenomenon necessitated by, and dependent upon, social inequality. Ideally conceived, it works to the mutual advantage of patron and client, both of whom participate in a “gift economy” of reciprocal exchange. The language in which such relationships are customarily couched—employing standardized topoi of friendship, kinship, loyalty, admiration, or love—is designed to negotiate, or even disguise, their fundamentally asymmetrical nature. On closer inspection, the “gift economy” often proves to be peculiarly calculating and even mercenary, and the language of dedication needs to be read contextually with an awareness of the various vested interests that eulogy can serve. The gaining of patronage may bring a writer social status as well as material support; the granting of patronage contributes to a reputation for liberality, enlightenment, or “magnificence” with all the cultural capital this entails. “There is little friendship in the world, and least of all between equals,” comments Sir Francis Bacon in his aptly titled essay “Of Followers and Friends,” “that that is, is between superior and inferior whose fortunes may comprehend the one the other.” Not surprisingly, networking, whether through courts, coteries, academies, or clubs, is of the essence of patronage because it provides vital access to sources of wealth and influence. From the classical world onward, needy authors promise wealthy patrons fame, the ultimate “gift” in their power, but with the advent of print, a powerful technological supplement to traditional scribal publication, the stakes of the game rise considerably. The visibility and transmissibility of print publication lends immediacy to dedicatory panegyric, canvasing the patron’s praise very publicly to a wider and more diverse range of contemporary readers. At the same time, however, the commercial development of the book-trade creates an alternative economy centering on the relationship between author, publisher, and purchaser. New classes of patron, notably civic and mercantile, emerge, and letters “To the Reader,” often cajoled in traditionally patronal terms as “gentle” or “courteous,” accompany dedicatory epistles. Read in such a context, Dr Johnson’s famously discourteous “Letter to Lord Chesterfield” articulates the seething resentments that often underlie the traditional diction of humility and gratitude, attitudes perfectly captured in the negative connotations of the verb “to patronize,” defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “to assume an air of superiority towards; to treat or speak about condescendingly, especially with apparent indulgence or kindness” (p. 6a). In the literature of book and self-dedication it is often unclear who is “patronizing” whom, and the bibliography below is intended to provide a number of productive avenues of approach to this complex issue.

The Social Practices of Patronage

The following three sections are designed to introduce the most productive anthropological and sociological approaches to the phenomenon of patronage, illustrate the various kinds of networks and communities through which it operated, and draw attention to the crucial role women played in generating and sustaining them.

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