In 1843 Alexander Macmillan and his brother Daniel opened their first bookshop together in Cambridge and thus began one of England’s most successful publishing companies. Alexander continued the business alone after his brother’s death in 1857 and published all but one of Christina Rossetti’s volumes of poetry.
Letters from Christina Rossetti
In the winter of 1861 Macmillan decided to bring out a volume of poetry by Christina Rossetti, with her poem 'Goblin Market' as the leading poem in the volume. The artist John Ruskin had previously advised Christina’s brother Dante that no publisher would want the poem as it was not to the public’s taste. Despite his friendship with the Rossettis, Macmillan made no pretence about only publishing what he thought would be commercially popular and he had faith in Christina’s work. The volume was published in March 1862 and met with a warm reception although sales were slow.
The letters from Christina are fascinating because they show her increasing confidence in herself as her popularity as a poet grew. Self-conscious and reclusive, she describes herself in a letter to Macmillan in 1863 as ‘a person small in the literary world’ (f. 3). Her tone is very deferential in the early letters and while they never lose their friendly tone, her later letters show her to be more assertive and business-like. In 1881 a dispute took place between Christina and Macmillan over the copyright of her latest publication. She was unhappy about the idea of giving up the rights to her work and told Macmillan ‘copyright is my hobby: with it I cannot part’ (f. 67). However, Macmillan remained on good terms with the Rossettis and continued to publish Christina’s work.
Letters from Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Although never his publisher, Alexander Macmillan and Dante Gabriel Rossetti corresponded over Christina’s work and in particular over the designs that Dante created to accompany her work. The close working relationship between Dante and Christina can be seen in these letters; in 1865 Dante requested that Macmillan send a copy of the proofs of Christina’s work to both himself and Christina ‘and not print off until both are returned to you’ (ff. 148r-148v).
In the letters we also see a different side of Dante, we see him ‘as a skilled craftsman discussing the technical details of his craft’ (Packer, p. vi). Angry about errors in the printing of one of his designs, Dante wrote to Macmillan ‘the phenomenal stupidity of the fool who plugged that block is enough to make one loathe one’s kind’, ‘the beastly ass goes and cuts half a face out’ (ff. 137-8)
In March 1864 Dante wrote to Macmillan several times to ask if he would consider publishing some work by his friend Algernon Charles Swinburne. Dante was impressed by the poems and told Macmillan ‘they inspire a certainty that Swinburne, who is still young, is destined to take in his own generation the acknowledged place which Tennyson holds amongst his contemporaries’ (f. 121). Although Macmillan declined, Swinburne went on to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature six times.