In 1913, the journalist Sir William Robertson Nicoll wrote that a history of the radical Victorian periodical Westminster Review "would form a romance of the most extraordinary kind". If the Westminster Review was the stuff of romance, there was only one candidate for the role of hero: John Chapman, the free-thinking publisher who edited it for 42 years. He certainly looked the part: a photograph taken in old age depicts him as suitably sage-like, with still- lustrous locks and a beard like white candy floss, but also shows that to the end he retained a raffish twinkle in his eyes and the sort of cheekbones that could cut an admirer's heart to ribbons. However, even the most heartstruck of Chapman's admirers recognised the real source of his heroism: the forward-thinking campaigns for political reform, women's education and many other kinds of social justice, directed through the pages of the Review, which helped to mark his age and shape the future.
Geographically and imaginatively central to this reforming spirit was 142 Strand, the handsome building that, during the 1850s, housed Chapman's publishing business, bookshop, family, mistress, the local branch of the Electric Telegraph Company, paying guests and staff. Even for a large house, that was quite a squeeze, so perhaps it isn't surprising that the world vividly evoked in Rosemary Ashton's book is one of friction and tension existing alongside shared social ideals. Here are snapshots of Marion Evans, the future George Eliot, brought to London as the Review's new editor, squirreling herself away in her room to avoid the jealousy of Chapman's wife; Ralph Waldo Emerson writing at the top of the house, with the traffic "subdued to a kind of hum" far below; and parties where clever and unconventional young men and women could meet each other and learn to face the world: Herbert Spencer, G H Lewes, T H Huxley, F W Newman and many more.
Arching across these scenes of bohemian living are Chapman's struggles to keep afloat a magazine that seemed to lose money at roughly the same rate that it gained influence - no easy task given the caprices of financial backers such as Edward Lombe, an eccentric philanthropist who was happy to support the Review so long as it parroted his own views, or the busy-minded Harriet Martineau who, according to the author and publisher Robert Chambers, never needed her famous ear-trumpet "because she did not care to hear what anybody had to tell her".
For both its friends and its enemies, 142 Strand was more than a place; it represented a set of attitudes and a style of argument - an "address" in the double sense of calling out to the nation and attempting to right its social wrongs. It was a pivot on which the 19th century turned. Still, given the title of this book, it is something of an anticlimax to learn that Chapman was based here for only seven years. Indeed, there is a feeling of anticlimax to Ashton's study as a whole, which sketches out Chapman's subsequent parallel career in medicine, with his sideline in patented ice packs for the spine ("soothing and agreeable, as well as curative", his advertisement boasted), but crams the last 24 years of his life into a brief coda, as if he was no longer of much interest once the reforms he championed had taken root.
But Chapman is not so easy to dismiss. He was a complex man, and Ashton is a fair-minded judge of his strengths and weaknesses: his appalling business sense, the "bloated rhetoric" that masqueraded as a prose style, the buoyant optimism that was periodically weighed down by ruthless self-doubt. Her attempts to place him at the heart of literary London are persuasive and generous, although there are times when she is generous to a fault - for example, when she breezily describes George Eliot as "the best literary critic of the period" (an awkward mixture of the high-minded and high-handed might be closer to the mark), or when she quotes Carlyle's growl about Froude's The Nemesis of Faith as a "vomiting up [of] all his interior crudities" that should be passed "by the downward or other methods, in his own water-closet", before concluding that "his comments should not be taken as unfriendly towards Froude".
Despite Ashton's claim to have put Chapman "at the heart of his own story", it seems sadly symptomatic of his life that the most vivid parts of this book should be the moments when he fades into the background. Perhaps it is inevitable that a man whose career was dedicated to helping others find their own voice should find himself being drowned out by the huge cast of supporting characters he attracted. But it is when Ashton patiently unpicks the ways in which their lives were tangled together that she comes close to creating something far more original than a standard biography: not a romance, but the real-life equivalent of a Victorian multi-plot novel; a web of human connections that comes closer than any recent historical study to catching the spirit of the age.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's "Victorian Afterlives: the shaping of influence in 19th-century literature" is published by Oxford University Press