Sir Walter Scott thought the author "a prose Juvenal." The book went through at least nineteen editions, of which three were U.S.; two, French; and three Irish; the remaining issued in London. It was a satiric roman á clef, its characters drawn from the contemporary social and political spheres. It is considered to be one of the most famous novels of the 18th century. Yet few are aware of it.
The books is Chrysal: or The Adventures of a Guinea, originally published in London, 1760 by T. Becket. It's a book whose conceit - following an object through the many hands it passes through - would spawn imitators, particularly in movies, i.e. The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964), written by British playright Terrance Rattigan, who undoubtedly was influenced by this extremely popular, if now forgotten, book.
Its author, Charles Johnstone (1719?-1800?), “was educated in Dublin and became a lawyer. He travelled in 1782 to Calcutta, where he remained as a journalist and later as a prosperous newspaper proprietor. His best-known work is Chrysal, or The Adventures of a Guinea (1760-5). ‘Chrysal’ is the articulate spirit of gold in the guinea, whose progress from hand to hand, through some six different countries, serves to link various inventive and satirical episodes, including a section on the Hell-Fire Club at Medmenham Abbey [the most infamous, led by Sir Francis Dashwood]. Various characters, good and bad, from high life and low (many of whom were libellously identified with characters of the day), covet and become corrupted by the golden coin” (The Oxford Companion to English Literature).
“The ‘best scandalous chronical of the day,’ the supposedly ficticious characters being taken from prominent men of the time. A key to their identity is to be found in Davis’s Olio [An Olio of Biographical and Literary Anecdotes and Memoranda Original and Selected, 1817], one of the criticised being General Wolfe. ‘We may safely rank Johnstone as a prose Juvenal’ - Sir Walter Scott. Halkett and Laing ascribe the book to C. Johnston, Prideaux to Johnstone, and B.P.C. and B.A.R. to Johnson. An inferior edition was published in duodecimo the following year. This had only 12 plates” (Tooley).
Given today's social and political scene, were the book written today the object passing through many hands would be a prostitute.
For the record, a guinea is 1£ 1s (21 shillings).
[JOHNSTONE, Charles]. Chrysal; or The Adventures of a Guinea: By an Adept. A New Edition, to Which is Now Prefixed a Sketch of the Author’s Life. Embellished with Plates. In Three Volumes. London: Printed for Hector M’Lean, by Howlett and Brimmer, 1821.
First illustrated edition, and "best edition" (Tooley). Three octavo volumes. , v-viii, 319, [1, blank]; , 321, [1, blank]; , 326 pp. Fifteen hand-colored engraved plates (including frontispieces) by W. Read after E.F. Burney, T. Mawson, R. Courbould, and J. Burney.
Images courtesy of David Brass.