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Romantic Libraries


Ina Ferris, University of Ottowa

  1. The essays in this volume come out of a panel on "Romantic Libraries" organized for the 2003 NASSR conference. When I suggested this as a topic for a special session, I expected to receive mostly papers on representations of the library in gothic and other novels, papers that addressed the heightened persistence with which Romantic forms of fiction exploited the long-standing link in European literary representation between literacy and romance. Romantic libraries, on this reading, would emerge as sites of erotic desire, both its flowering (as in the illicit meeting of lovers in the library in Charlotte Smith's The Old Manor House) or its regulation (as in the bonding of the proper couple over a reading of Isaac Walton in Susan Ferrier's Marriage). But there proved to be an odd lack of interest in tales of falling in love over books. Rather, the romancing that emerged as most compelling was a personal romance with books manifesting itself in genres such as the familiar essay and in cultural phenomena such as the bibliomania that erupted in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Whether the site of a romance with persons or one with books, however, the Romantic library identifies bookish spaces with intimacy and subjectivity rather than impersonal circulation. Libraries as institutions of circulation, notably the circulating library itself, have received a great deal of recent attention. So has the role in the formation of modern knowledge and the consolidation of the nation-state played by the great national collections that were being amassed and organized in the period (the British Library put out its first printed catalog in 1810). Less discussed has been the way in which this public "order of books" (to cite Roger Chartier's influential title) was given affective charge but also often unsettled by an individual relationship to books and by the formation of private libraries as personal sites of collection and memory. It is on such dimensions of bookishness and library culture—on the library as private and personal space—that the essays in this volume concentrate.

  2. Books and their collection (formal and informal) were becoming an increasingly prominent feature of both private and public life at most social levels in Romantic-era Britain. The steam press and stereotype printing made the production of books more rapid and efficient, while the striking down of perpetual copyright in 1774 (Becket vs Donaldson) had opened up a large and lucrative market for reprints, many of which took the form of portable "libraries" themselves (e.g., collections of novels, anthologies, miscellanies, curiosities, etc.). The period saw the advent of specialized furniture for books, new kinds of dedicated book spaces, clubs devoted to publishing rare or local books, and—crucially—a proliferation of representations of the book in visual and linguistic media that points at once to an absorption of and a heightened reflectiveness on the centrality of literacy in this culture.

  3. Romantic Libraries seeks to make more visible in Romantic studies not just this ubiquitous bookishness but the role of the physical book in personal and cultural identity-formations in the period. Somewhat surprisingly, given the historical and materialist turn of recent decades, we have not witnessed a great deal of analytic interest in the book-object as a peculiarly valorized and interiorized object at this time. Books typically continue to be either dematerialized as mental-linguistic constructs ("texts") functioning within a complex discursive field ("contexts") or hyper-materialized as commercial products in an emergent consumer society. Nor has their special status received much attention in the history of the book that has been flourishing in recent years (although, interestingly, this form of history has had rather less impact in Romantic studies than in the study of earlier periods). History of the book remains primarily oriented toward a history of publishing, so that books function mainly as physical units available to empirical study and description (verbal, statistical, graphic, etc.), while its model of history (like that of most historicisms) privileges the parameters of production. But the place of books in culture is neither strictly empirical nor strictly economic, and their historical-cultural valence and productivity lie as much in their reception as in the contexts of their production. The essays in this volume understand the physical book rather differently, and they write their histories largely through parameters of reception, arguing for a history of Romantic ways with books that will expand our notions of reading and the idea of the literary in the period.

  4. Heather Jackson opens the volume by basing herself in one of the best known texts of Romantic-era England to ask what Mr. Bennet was doing in the library where Austen typically locates him in Pride and Prejudice. The question triggers a series of speculations that bear suggestively on the social history of the use of books and book-spaces in the period. Pointing to Mr. Bennet's desire to hide from his family, for example, Jackson underlines the irony whereby the domestic library functioned as a retreat (particularly for men) from the very domestic order that housed it. Her essay thus sounds a note that runs through all three essays in different ways, each of which investigates a certain recalcitrance linked to bookish men of the professional-gentry classes, a waywardness oddly sanctioned by a culture otherwise heavily invested in the powers of literacy to effect domestic order and definition.

  5. Jackson's essay also initiates the volume's dominant interest in books as physical objects and in the often overlooked physical dimensions of our relationship to books. Noting that Mr. Bennet would no doubt have written in his books (as did his author and countless other writers/readers of the time), Jackson underscores the degree to which the protocols governing the handling of books in the period differ from those of our own time. Early nineteenth-century readers routinely scribbled summaries and commentaries in the margins of their books as a way both of reminding themselves of their own engagement with that particular book and of sharing their thoughts with others to whom they might pass on the volume. Such practices point to an understanding of books as at once pragmatic objects and vehicles of sociability. Social and cultural history, Jackson argues, would do well to take such practices into fuller account, while for a more strictly literary history, an attention to marginalia would significantly reinflect our standard models of reception and production.

  6. My own essay takes up the question of bookish relations and literary history by investigating the heightened awareness of books as printed objects in the wake of the much-ridiculed but influential bibliomania of the early decades of the nineteenth century. Bibliomania was accompanied by an outpouring of bibliophilic, if not necessarily biliomaniac, writing in these early decades (e.g., essays, anecdotes, memoirs, travels), a writing typically dismissed in the periodical press as the product of foolish "bookmen" absorbed by the mere "outside" of books. But a fascination with the outside of books—their bindings, weight, texture, and feel—permeates the thinking about books in the period more generally, even on the part of those intent on understanding them as ideal rather than material objects. Indeed, books confounded that distinction, as they did distinctions between sensation/intellection, feeling/thinking, and other foundational binaries; for their part, bookmen proved equally unsettling, their identities strangely invested in print in ways that disturbed the clarity of distinctions between interiority and exteriority.

  7. Arguing for renewed attention to bookmen and to the minor genres of book-love in the period, the essay reads both as engaged (ironically enough) in deploying the book as part of Romanticism's ongoing struggle against the forces of dispersion and abstraction linked to modern print culture. Focusing on two types of bibliophilic writing (the familiar essay, the bibliographic tour), it traces the interaction of book-love and personal identity in essayists such as Hazlitt, Hunt, and Lamb, as well as in the eccentric productions of the bibliographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin. The essay makes two main points: first, that the insistence of such figures on the physical book and on their own physical relationship to books rewrites the book as an affective object inscribed in a particular and contingent personal history; second, that within such a history, book-objects stand in peculiar and unstable relationship to subjects. The last section extends this analysis by considering how bookishness (specifically the genres of bibliography) functioned in the period to raise more general questions about the lines of division structuring the literary-intellectual field, whose dependence on the axiological distinction between matter/mind book-objects themselves tended to place in question.

  8. Deidre Lynch's essay concludes the volume by pulling out some of the implications of the previous essays as it argues for a history of Romanticism that reads the notion of "literature" itself in relation to the history of intimacy, as well as in relation to the now more familiar histories of nation-building, modern disciplinarity, print culture, and so forth. Taking its cue from Leigh Hunt's evocative title "Wedded to Books," the essay poses the question of what it might mean to "get personal" with books. In pursuing this question, it re-reads the relationship between the Romantic essayists—lower middle-class professors of literary love such as Lamb and Hunt—and the phenomenon of bibliomania with its wealthy and aristocratic "book gluttons." For all their obvious antagonism, Lynch argues, the two converged in making a private good out of a national literary heritage: the bibliomania relocated library culture from the public realm to the interiority of private and intimate life, overlapping in this sense (if not in most senses) with the project of the essayists, who were similarly engaged in attaching books more firmly to individual persons.

  9. At the same time, domestic book-spaces themselves were being transformed, and the essay points to the dissemination in the period of images of the gentleman's library, which increasingly began to feature snug personal enclaves (e.g., the closet library) instead of formal rooms embodying authority and tradition that dwarfed individual readers. In bookish enclaves precisely tailored to individual tastes, Lynch observes, gentlemanly readers might "play truant" to their responsibilities to tradition. In similar fashion, the book-love of the minor Romantics (a kind of mimic or miniaturized bibliomania) allowed for a certain truancy to the high Romantic notions of authorship and the literary imagination that those same essayists were devoted to promulgating. Thus highlighting a doubling and crossing of material, intellectual, and affective energies linked to library culture, this final essay serves to draw together the analysis of the slippery and knotted relations between men and books that the volume as a whole has pursued. As it does so, it points to at least one way in which serious attention to book-objects in early nineteenth-century Britain can help rewrite some familiar accounts of literacy, literature, and Romanticism.

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Published @ RC

February 2004