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.
The effects of varying copyright regimes are central to the history of readership that St. Clair presents, and Donaldson provides him with a trigger for the print explosion that occurred in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, since the almost immediate effect of the judgment was to free thousands of titles for reprinting at greatly reduced cost. Suddenly, after 1774, much wider dissemination of older titles (which St. Clair designates the “old canon”) was possible, and these texts could be issued in their original form or in the abridgments, anthologies, and adaptations that more often introduced these works to new classes of readers. While it has perhaps always been the case that elites have had superior access to texts, the 1774 decision dramatically increased the availability of old texts at the same time that it resulted in even higher prices for contemporary texts, such that the gap between what was being written and what was being read may never have been (and would never again be) greater.
In the five years since The Reading Nation appeared, its most influential and controversial argument has been this causal linkage between the dismantling of perpetual copyright and the late eighteenth-century outburst in print productivity. Without any significant technological development to explain the growth in printed matter, St. Clair’s claim is compelling. Yet, while it seems indisputable that these reprintings of older titles contributed to overall growth, in the genres of the novel and poetry, where quantitative analysis has been done, we find that the number of new titles also rose significantly (though not always consistently) during the period, a fact that cannot readily be explained by reference to the shortened copyright period. Indeed, authors like Wordsworth argued that the short copyright period was discouraging to the writer who must “creat[e] the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.”1 More recently, Richard Sher and James Raven have questioned whether the altered copyright regime offers a complete explanation, pointing to developments in the reprint market before 1774;2 instead, they emphasize the critical role played by publishers in initiating and sustaining the print boom of the late eighteenth century. In her earlier account of print explosion, Heather Jackson has summarized this view with the observation that “the period 1790-1830 offers an impressive display of enterprise and ingenuity in the book trade from top to bottom.”3
If The Reading Nation’s explanation for the print boom requires further study, the data it collects about prices, sales, and costs offer irrefutable evidence of the wide gap that exists between the literary works that were widely read during the period and those that, for over 100 years, have been deemed representative of the period. St. Clair relentlessly draws our attention to the minute readerships of five of the “big six” male Romantic poets—with Byron as the important exception. St. Clair’s empiricism tells a story wildly at odds with most current anthologies and course syllabi, even with the canon’s great expansion over the past four decades. We are reminded of the extraordinary popularity of Scott and Byron—with over 50,000 copies of Guy Mannering selling in Britain before 1836, and somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 copies of Don Juan selling before Byron’s death in 1824. And we are asked to set these sales figures alongside what are now some of the most revered poetry volumes in the Romantic canon: Lyrical Ballads (which sold 2,000 copies—at most—over a seven year period), and Keats’s Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820) (fewer than 500 copies sold by the time of his death the following year). Blake is a special case, of course, because of his printing methods, but his poetry, along with Shelley’s, sold in even smaller quantities until the Victorian era when their poetry was rediscovered. Even as St. Clair turns to our canon, as repopulated by female and working-class authors, the story doesn’t change much: John Clare sold no more than 5,000 copies of his poems during his lifetime (592–3); Felicia Hemans, often said to be the best-selling poet of the day next to Byron, rarely sold more than a few thousand copies of any given work, and many of her works failed to sell after the first edition. On the other hand, Amelia Opie and Hannah More—rarely part of any reformulated canon—join a handful of now-neglected male poets (Thomas Campbell, Thomas Moore, and Robert Bloomfield), all of whom sold very well, in the tens of thousands. St. Clair’s contention (and data) closely resembles that of Benjamin Colbert, in an essay included in the next volume under review, Authorship, Commerce and the Public, edited by E. J. Clery, Caroline Franklin, and Peter Garside. Like St. Clair, Colbert points to the way in which Romanticism has “often subordinated the material conditions of publishing and readership to an idealist literary history” (153). By confounding the critical distinction between reputation and popularity (159), Colbert, like St. Clair, insists, we have lost sight of the popular, both as an empirical fact and as a conceptual paradigm.
The solution, according to both Colbert and St. Clair, is to pay greater attention to popular authors, those whose works enjoyed robust sales during the period. In a subsequent lecture, St. Clair has made it clear that he was throwing down the gauntlet to us both as scholars and educators:
When we read a book or essay called, say, ‘The Age of Wordsworth,’ should we not be concerned that, in his lifetime, most of Wordsworth’s books were produced in editions of about 500 to 1,000 copies of which many were remaindered or wasted several years after publication? Could that amount of reading have shaped the minds of ten to fifteen million people? Especially when Wordsworth was, on the whole, reinforcing ideas that were mainstream in the culture of his day? How do we deal with the fact that over two million copies of Scott’s verse and prose romances had been sold in Britain alone by the middle of the nineteenth century, maybe a million more than all other authors put together?4
His point is that claims for an “age of Wordsworth” are exaggerated if not illusory, and that to obtain a better understanding of the literary culture of the period, we must heed the empirical evidence about what was actually read.
The Reading Nation insistently calls attention to a distortion even more troubling than our neglect of the popular: that most Romantic-era reading was of titles written long before the “Romantic” authors were even born. In the aftermath of Donaldson v. Beckett, the flood of cheap reprints meant that books written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, even obsolete scientific and educational treatises, enjoyed much wider circulation because of their low price. With the exception of works like Don Juan (which was quickly pirated) and the Waverly novels (which were so popular that they were made available relatively quickly in smaller, less expensive editions), most of the truly affordable literature of the period had been written decades, even generations, before. Yet St. Clair’s exhortation, to “consider the print which was actually read, not some modern selection, whether that selection is derived from judgments of canon or from other modern criteria” (3), requires further justification. To begin with, the task of determining the “print which was actually read” is rife with difficulties—the phrase, after all, resonates with Wordsworth and Coleridge’s equally fraught injunction to use a “selection of language really used by men.” If we were to attempt to follow St. Clair’s advice, we would first have to ask—“read by whom?”—for readers of different genders, ages, classes, political persuasions, and geographical regions inevitably read different selections of printed material. We would then have to ask how it was they “actually read”? It has been speculated that the process of reading during the period itself may have changed, as readers turned from intensive to extensive reading: that is, from reading a few works, repeatedly and exhaustively, to reading many more works, less often and more rapidly. It seems highly unlikely that we could ever accurately reproduce these reading habits and patterns.
Even if historical reading could be reconstructed, there is no intrinsic justification for allowing sales to determine our own selection of titles. Many authors shaped the literary culture of their day not by the sales of their works, but by their critical reputations. Wordsworth’s career is again exemplary, for while his poetry sold poorly, at least until the 1830s, he was a significant, even defining presence in British letters for the prior three decades, as measured by the frequency with which his poetry and the “system” that he claimed for it was debated in the periodicals and parodied by his contemporaries. If one’s goal is to reconstitute the literary field of the day, surely authorial reputation requires some consideration, as does the broader landscape of the print field, which was populated not by bestselling authors, nor even by authors with a critical presence, but by an overwhelming plurality of writers whose works were neither popular nor influential. For while many Britons read novels and poems that sold exceptionally well, or those by authors of note, unpopular works with very poor sales actually comprised a much larger share of the market, and hence of the reading public’s diet.
This sort of marketplace has been described by Chris Anderson, media guru and editor of Wired magazine, as the “long tail”—a marketplace in which very unpopular cultural commodities, when aggregated, actually outsell the most popular titles. Anderson has lauded the long tail as, among other things, a source ripe for further economic exploitation, as indeed it appears to have been by eighteenth and nineteenth century booksellers.5 From what data we have, the parallels between the British book economy of two hundred years ago and our own cultural marketplace appear to be strong. Richard Sher, for example, in his analysis of Scottish enlightenment book sales, identifies a similar pattern, with the majority of books, some 65% of the total, comprising relatively unpopular titles, those selling between one to three editions (701). Similarly, more than three-quarters of all novels printed between 1700 and 1829 failed to reach a second edition (Garside, Raven and Schowerling, I:35, II:97). The “ephemeral condition of the novel” (Garside, Raven and Schowerling, I:35) establishes a pattern that likely holds true for other types of books, and almost certainly for other print forms. It may be that, contrary to St. Clair’s suggestion, we need to sample a greater number of unpopular works if we wish to reconstruct Romantic-era reading.
The thirteen short essays in Authorship, Commerce and the Public: Scenes of Writing, 1750-1850, edited by E. J. Clery, Caroline Franklin, and Peter Garside, offer a diversity of methodologies similar to that found in St. Clair’s study, moving from focused accounts of particular authors and texts to broader analyses of the institutions and ideologies that informed Romantic-era print culture. More sprawling than the other two anthologies under consideration, the essays are organized according to the three categories enumerated in the title. The first topic explored is that of authorship, of clear importance to the period 1750-1850, during which, according to Foucault, the very conception of the modern author emerges. Paula Feldman and Claire Lamont in their essays offer fascinating accounts of the authorial strategy of anonymity—one that seems so much at odds with the cult of personality for which the Romantics are notorious.
Feldman’s essay, an earlier version of which had appeared in a special issue of New Literary History on authorial anonymity, demonstrates the critical interventions that can be achieved with quantitative work. Her essay disproves the conventional view that female poets commonly withheld their names from publication, showing that in fact “during the period 1770-1835, women rarely published books of verse anonymously” (44). Her explanation for the misconception is also convincing, as she points out the confusion between publishing practices pertaining to novels and poetry, and the difficulty scholars have had in “acknowledg[ing] that the mid- to late-twentieth-century obscurity of some of the major women poets of the Romantic era has been due not to silencing in their own time, but to their erasure by literary historians, critics, and anthologists” (48). In Lamont’s essay, we have an equally penetrating account of Scott’s decision to publish his novels anonymously. Lamont identifies Scott’s strategy as one of “partial anonymity,” as he put his name to a large number of publications in genres other than the novel. Further, she points out that his authorship of the Waverly novels was widely suspected, indeed even an open secret, within British literary circles. The complexity of Scott’s multiple authorial identities is also brought into focus, as Scott, unlike many other anonymous novelists including Jane Austen, did not use the soubriquet “by the Author of Waverly” for all of his subsequent novels. His adoption of multiple authorial personas replicates the strategies used by other writers who deployed both anonymity and pseudonymity during their careers. Lamont provokes us to think about the ingenious devices writers developed as they negotiated the field of public authorship, demonstrating the ways in which authors both manipulated and succumbed to the demands of what Foucault has termed “the author function.”
These strategies were not devised by authors alone, but were the shared inventions of publishers (including author-publishers like Scott and Godwin). Douglas S. Mack and Paul Chirico, in essays on James Hogg and John Clare respectively, examine the intricate relationship that existed between these authors and their publisher-editors. Along with Sara Salih’s discussion of Burney’s “feminist editing” of the second edition of Camilla, the essays call attention to the importance of paratextuality as a means of conditioning the reception of literary works. Though they deploy a methodology familiar to Romantic scholars, these essays begin to articulate not only why paratexts were so important to Romantic authors, but also underscore the difficulties that multiple editions pose for us as editors (and instructors) attempting to establish (and select) definitive texts.
As a whole, these essays emphasize the ingenuity with which authors, editors, and publishers negotiated the public realm of print. Women and working-class authors, who held an arguably more tenuous place in the literary field, were heavily invested in such strategizing. Pam Perkin’s essay on Anne Grant’s Letters from the Mountains (1806) emphasizes the importance of genre to these efforts. Grant’s insistence that her fictive letters had in fact originated in private correspondence, as a way of establishing “what she claims to be unmediated representations of the private self,” is of course one of the most commonplace and successful of Romantic-era literary ploys (29). The pervasive irony of these tactics, as Perkins shows, is that “[t]he paraphernalia of private life and amateurism—omitted details, fragmented narrative, and so forth—had been appropriated and professionalized by novelists long before Anne Grant collected and edited her letters” (30). Indeed, as Jürgen Habermas has noted, social genres such as letters and diaries were the immediate forerunners to the novel, which emerged from the “audience-oriented privacy” of domestic life.6 Most Romantic-era writers, whether lyricists or diarists, composed not only with a social readership in mind, but with the thought (however remote) of a larger public, as well. The professionalization of privacy that Perkins describes in relation to Grant’s letter has broader applicability, across a wide swath of Romantic-era literary production.
Another important focus in the collection, and for print culture studies more generally, is the periodical. The growing market penetration, diversity, and influence of the periodical during the period is undeniable; whereas a volume of poems like Lyrical Ballads might sell 2,000 copies in seven years (Colbert 154), most periodicals sold that quantity each issue, and the spectacularly popular literary reviews of the 1810s (the Edinburgh and the Quarterly) regularly sold over 10,000 copies (St. Clair 572-75). And periodicals not only extended the reach of print to new readers and new contributors, they also, according to Robert W. Jones, expanded the very content of public speech itself. In his analysis of Eliza Haywood’s The Female Spectator, Jones demonstrates that although women did not author treatises on taste, they were nevertheless vitally involved in discourse about it through their contributions to periodicals. According to Jones, this venue provided “a license for women to talk about a wide variety of topics, many of which might otherwise be thought to lie beyond the province of women’s experience as it had been previously defined” (109). But if periodicals provided fresh opportunities, they were also bemoaned for the enormous and potentially destructive power they wielded, the subject of William Christie’s essay. The hostility of the reviews towards certain authors, Christie explains, gave rise to demands for state sponsorship of the arts. A proposal by Henry Taylor in 1835 to institutionalize a system of state patronage was based on both the perceived injustices of reviewing culture, which had unaccountably and unfairly suppressed interest in the writing of men like Wordsworth, and the alleged degrading effects of earning a living through contributions to periodicals, a necessary career path for most authors without independent means.
Judith Stoddart addresses the effects that the emergent periodicals were believed to have had on readers: she proposes that the Penny Magazine, as “a piece of cultural property available to all” (180), offered a profoundly different model of reading, one (borrowing terms first laid out by Barbara Stafford) of “horizontal skimming” rather than “vertical probing” (181). Stoddart’s claim is that new modes of reading inevitably affected readerly subjectivity. It may be, as she suggests, “that [today’s] postmodern modes of information and thus postmodern identity,” engendered by surfing and sampling, are not “so far [removed] from the old modes of self-understanding as we tend to think” (181). Other essays explore the role of the expanding print marketplace in creating new, communal subjectivities. Christopher Skelton-Foord contributes an immensely useful survey of the importance of the circulating library—the institution that, more than any other, seems to have facilitated new patterns of Romantic-era reading. Paul Keen’s essay on Charles Lloyd’s roman-à-clef, Edmund Oliver, demonstrates how the novel could thematize reading itself, with Lloyd’s presentation of print as that which could unite, rather than alienate, individuals. And Michael J. Franklin describes the global reach of the British periodical into the Indian subcontinent, claiming that the new publications enabled “Calcutta colonists [to] authenticate their experience in the subcontinent both actively as writers and passively as readers” (195). Taking as his subject the productions of “The Hastings Circle,” many of which were collected in The Asiatick Miscellany and Asiatick Researches, Franklin details the ways in which British models of print culture were deployed in the colonies. He also points out the contradictions that accompanied the spread of print: whereas it is widely believed that the print boom accelerated the pace of professionalization and specialization, knowledge production was heavily dependent on amateurs and generalists--hence Hastings “was largely reliant upon amateur enthusiasms, for his early Indologists were self-made scholars” (190).
George Justice and Nathan Tinker’s anthology, Women’s Writing and the Circulation of Ideas: Manuscript Publication in England, 1550-1800, provides a focused examination of women’s participation in scribal culture, a lingering phenomenon that, until the late 1990s, had been largely overlooked by literary book historians. Margaret Ezell’s Social Authorship and the Advent of Print (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999) persuasively argued that many Early Modern women turned to script not because their access to print was strictly barred, but because it afforded certain social benefits. Justice and Tinker as well as their contributors adopt Ezell’s argument (and the volume includes an essay by her), rejecting the contention that women were compelled to use manuscript due to gender restrictions. Like Ezell, many of the contributors to Women’s Writing and the Circulation of Ideas argue that women exploited the medium of script for their own ends.
At the same time, many of the essays make the point that class, rather than gender, often determined a woman’s selection of script over print. Margaret Hannay, for example, argues that Mary Sidney’s decision to scribally publish her Psalmes was largely based on her upper-class position, whereas Kathryn King finds that Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s career trajectory from print to manuscript reflected her elevated social status. Other contributors examine the relevance of an author’s religious, political, familial, and regional affiliations to her use of scribal media. Yet the collection’s exclusive focus on female authors is somewhat problematic in light of these observations. If gender was not determinative of an author’s participation in manuscript culture, why focus only on women’s writing? A sounder methodology might have been to consider both female and male patterns of manuscript publication; a comparative approach might have been more helpful in pinpointing what, if any, role gender in fact played in determining textual dissemination and content.
Fortunately, many of the essays do pay attention to the wide range of collaborative relationships that arise within manuscript culture—those between the author and her family, patron, editor, and publisher—thereby allowing for the reintroduction of broader questions about the role of gender. Margaret Ezell, in her essay, offers a helpful typology of the varieties of women’s posthumous print publications, and thus demonstrates the critical place of surviving family members and friends in the circulation and reception of women’s writing. Other essays offer in-depth explorations of these relationships: Hannay considers Mary Sidney’s editing of brother’s secular verse, while Victoria Burke offers a lengthy examination of the posthumous arrangement and editing of Anne, Lady Southwell’s verse by her husband. This practice was of great importance during the Romantic period, particularly given the untimely deaths of many of the period’s authors. Romanticists are, of course, familiar with similar examples, such as Mary Shelley’s editing of Percy’s poetry and prose, and Sara Coleridge’s editing of her father’s. Though most of the literary works examined in Justice and Tinker’s collection date from the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth century, the essays serve as useful reminders of the endurance of traditional literary practices into (and beyond) our period. Michael G. Brennan’s examination of the poetic relationship between Ben Jonson and Lady Mary Wroth, and Isobel Grundy’s comparison of Lady Mary Montagu’s and her daughter’s youthful writing, likewise have many parallels, over a century onward, in the literary friendships and familial bonds that define the Romantic literary landscape.
Another important theme that occupies these essays concerns the dynamic interactions between gender, class, genre, and media. Thus Debra Rienstra and Noel Kinnamon contend that both Mary Sidney’s choice of a sacred genre and of scribal publication allowed her to explore idiosyncratic and even controversial interpretations in her Psalter. Similarly, Leigh Eicke looks to the considerable flexibility of manuscript publication in explaining how Jane Barker controlled access to her political writing, addressing different audiences with different political content depending on their perceived support for the Jacobite cause. Manuscript circulation thus offered authors the capacity to adapt and control more dangerous texts.
Again, we should not be surprised to see parallels in the Romantic period. All of the “big six” male Romantic poets, for example, exploited features of scribal publication, electing to control access to some of their poetry, whether by circulating verse in manuscript or undertaking “private publication.” Wordsworth’s Prelude circulated in various manuscript versions for over half a century before it was posthumously printed; and one of Coleridge’s most famous poems, “Christabel,” enjoyed a dynamic existence during its nineteen-year manuscript life, so much so that Coleridge would boast in the Biographia that the “[d]uring the many years which intervened between the composition and the publication of the Christabel, it became almost as well known among literary men as if it had been on common sale, the same references were made to it, and the same liberties taken with it.”7 Large quantities of verse by Byron, Shelley, and Keats circulated only in manuscript during their lifetimes; Keats was, like Coleridge, a profligate epistolary versifier; and because of the confidential, radical, or scandalous nature of so much of Shelley and Byron’s poetry, many of their lyrics circulated only in manuscript during their lives, or were printed privately in tiny editions. And if we consider Blake—to round out this survey of the “big six”—we find that his method of relief etching at once graphically emulated illuminated manuscripts and virtually guaranteed that his readership would be limited. By neglecting the vital influence that manuscript culture exerted on Romantic literary culture, we fail to appreciate the quantity of writing that emerged precisely in the overlap between script and print, and ignore the ongoing negotiations over the identity and authority of print that this mediation entailed.
Kathryn King’s essay on Elizabeth Singer Rowe offers a fascinating account of another strategic use of manuscript. What is particularly interesting about Rowe is that she followed the unusual career path of transitioning from print to manuscript, beginning her career as a contributor to anonymous print magazines before turning to coterie scribal publication. This odd trajectory, from the more seemingly professional practices of a paid writer to the amateur habits of an elite manuscript community, articulates the problematic nature of such schematic divisions. Whether what is under examination is a seventeenth- or a nineteenth-century author, it is apparent that we can no longer use the mere fact of print authorship as a proxy for professionalism, and manuscript publication as definitional of amateurism. Rather, we must recognize the co-existence of both practices for several centuries following the invention of the press.
It is for these reasons that I find some of the conclusions reached in George Justice’s final essay somewhat questionable. Justice discusses Fanny Burney, an author who appeared to follow the more conventional pattern (of moving from script to print) and, indeed, mounted a withering attack on coterie scribal culture in her (ironically) unprinted drama The Witlings, written in 1779. While Justice is persuasive in claiming that Burney rejected scribal publication as anachronistic, this does not mean—as he implies—that it was, in fact, an outmoded form of literary dissemination, or that other authors viewed it as such. Indeed, as Justice observes, Burney’s critique of manuscript culture seems driven in part by concern that its encouragement of direct satire and lampoon had the capacity to damage women far more than men. It may be, finally, that gender does, after all, matter to our understanding of the choices women made about scribal culture, though not in the ways we had imagined.
It may seem like a large leap to move from an anthology on women’s manuscript culture in Britain to one addressing newspaper publications in the Netherlands, Germany, England, Ireland, America, France, Italy and Russia, but Hannah Barker and Simon Burrow’s Press, Politics and the Public Sphere in Europe and North America, 1760-1820 reminds us of the important interconnections between the local and the global, the marginal and the mainstream, the elite and the popular. Newspapers enjoyed far wider circulation than manuscripts, but, as the editors and contributors of this anthology point out, newspapers did not achieve mass audiences for much of the Romantic era. In fact, “only a small amount of capital and a few hundred readers were required to launch a successful venture,” and even the most successful newspapers of the day had circulations of no more than several thousand subscribers (though as is often pointed out, the number of actual readers was probably much larger) (17). Thus there appears to have been a “long tail” in newspapers as well as in books—in England, there were over 70 provincial publications each week by 1800 (Barker 103), and newspapers numbered over 2,000 in Revolutionary France (Gough, 184), the overwhelming majority of which enjoyed small circulations. Until steam technology improved production capacity—beginning in the 1810s—most newspapers were circulated within geographically circumscribed areas. A truly national (to say nothing of an international) press was not realized until the coming of the railway, which allowed for much more efficient national distribution circuits; what existed of a cosmopolitan press, as Simon Burrows reports, was usually limited to a small class of diplomats and expatriates. Newspaper readerships were also diverse: Barker and Burrows point out the error of associating newspapers too closely with the middle classes, since they penetrated both the upper and lower classes.
But if these essays do not develop a narrative of newspapers’ agency in the rise of a mass audience, they do document the rise of public opinion, as “increasingly, journalists began to find an editorial voice and to print their own material and analysis” (7). This finding appears to hold across national borders, though the phenomenon developed unevenly. The extent of public opinion was closely related to political upheavals: not surprisingly, it was major cataclysms like the French Revolution that allowed “the emergence of what Habermas would characterize as a mature political press” (16). The expression of opinion was also determined by the degree of governmental control over the press—by way of the stick, in terms of prior restraint, taxation, and criminal prosecution; and the carrot, in terms of bribery and “subsidies” to propagandists—which also varied considerably over time and across nations and even regions.
The individual chapters of the collection, generally devoted to case studies of specific national presses—will be of use to scholars working within those national histories, as well as to those interested in a broader development of the press over this period. For Romanticists, one of the anthology’s chief merits is that it foregrounds what the history of book so often excludes or neglects: the history of other forms of print, many of which, like newspapers, were of enormous cultural influence. At the same time, collections like Women’s Writing and the Circulation of Ideas: Manuscript Publication in England, 1550-1800 ought to draw our attention to the narrowness of looking only to print, no matter how broadly conceived, for any cultural history. Collectively, the four books under review point to the uses that a material history may hold for Romantic studies. Its future success will depend on how well it explains the complex dynamic that existed between all forms of expression, both oral and written, while marshaling the new field of quantitative analysis that is the promise of digital archives.
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