William St. Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Authorship, Commerce and the Public, eds. Clery, Franklin, Garside. Press, Politics and the Public Sphere, eds. Barker and Burrows. Women’s Writing, eds. Justice and Tinker.
Simon Fraser University
In the last decade, historians of the book have held forth the possibility that material culture might provide us with a compelling account of the historical uniqueness and special tenor of Romantic-era literary culture. By examining the dramatic rise in print publication that began in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, the Romantic period may be more easily distinguished both from what came before (the more stable rate of print production that prevailed through most of the eighteenth century) and what came after (the even larger rise in print production and emergence of a truly mass reading public in the Victorian era, enabled by new forms of mechanical reproduction—iron presses powered by steam, industrial paper-making, stereotyping, and lithography). The four books under review demonstrate the potentially transformative effect of a rigorous empiricism on literary studies, as it seeks to supplement and even supersede the more anecdotal and impressionistic material histories that preceded them.
In studies of the Romantic period, the bibliographical projects of Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schowerling (The English Novel 1770-1829, 2000) and J.R. de J. Jackson (Annals of English Verse, 1770-1835: A preliminary survey of the volumes published, 1985 and Romantic Poetry by Women, A Bibliography, 1770-1835, 2003) first ushered in a new era of quantitative analysis. William St. Clair’s monumental The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, released in 2004 and reissued in paperback in 2007, for the first time provided scholars of the period with an unparalleled and nearly exhaustive “quantified factual foundation of costs, prices, print runs, textual controls and intellectual property” (16). The data St. Clair collects are reprinted in over 300 pages of appendices, which summarize and organize years of archival research in the records of literally hundreds of publishers, booksellers, printers, circulating libraries, book clubs, and private collections. The matters they cover range from government policy and copyright regimes to lengthy schedules of print runs, editions, prices, costs, from lending institutions to piracies—from Shakespeare through the Victorian period. These data have already been mined by countless scholars working in the field, and are the subject of rigorous analysis by St. Clair himself over the course of twenty-two chapters, which survey a panoply of topics in print history: from the manufacturing process to the international book market, from the piratical and monopolistic practices of booksellers to the reception of influential individual literary works. In The Reading Nation, St. Clair at once provides a provocative revision of the Romantic period as a history of the book and an indispensable reference guide to the entire print era.
The comprehensive nature of the project is one of the reasons it has garnered accolades from scholars working in a wide range of period and national literatures; but its appeal also lies in its narrative force, as St. Clair tells an altogether poignant story of the enduring and evolving struggle to obtain access to books. Reflecting a ruling class distrustful of a reading nation, the state colluded for years in the British publishing industry’s operation as a “perfect private monopoly,” which in turn “rested upon the perfect monopoly of intellectual property” (101). The turning point for St. Clair comes in 1774, with the shattering of the de facto system of perpetual copyright by the House of Lords in Donaldson v. Becket, constituting “the most decisive event in the history of reading in England since the arrival of printing 300 years before” (109). By limiting the period of copyright protection to the term established by the Statute of Anne in 1701—fourteen years, with an additional fourteen if the author was still living at the expiration of the first period—Donaldson initiated what was in fact the shortest copyright period in English history.