Out of Bounds

Ian Gilmour

  • The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period by William St Clair
    Cambridge, 765 pp, £90.00, July 2004, ISBN 0 521 81006 X

‘Johnson wrote The Lives of the Poets,’ Elizabeth Barrett Browning grumbled, ‘and left out the poets.’ She exaggerated, of course, but a book of that title which omitted Chaucer and Shakespeare, Spenser and all the Elizabethans, Donne and nearly all the Jacobeans, while including a host of nonentities, such as Pomfret, Stepney, Dyer, Smith, Duke and King, was at the very least defective and misleading. The fault was not Dr Johnson’s. The guilty men, as a contemporary noted, were not ‘the illustrious scholar but his employers, who thought themselves … the best judges of vendible poetry’.

Johnson’s ‘employers’ were a bunch of London publishers anxious to further their own interests against a superior collection of poetry, compiled in Scotland, which the London publishing houses regarded as illegitimate competition. Since they were chiefly concerned to defend their copyrights, some of them dubious, and to stifle the Scottish interloper, their selection, which they imposed on Johnson, was the outcome of a complicated commercial negotiation conducted in secret among themselves, not of a serious consideration of which British poets should be honoured by inclusion in the book. Such behaviour, as William St Clair amply demonstrates in his magnificent, original and compelling study, was characteristic of the London publishers. His book stretches far wider than its title suggests. He has a mass of new and fascinating things to say about the centuries that followed the invention of printing and also about the Victorian age which succeeded ‘the Romantic period’.

St Clair is concerned to reveal not what people should have read or could have read, but what they did read. To discover that and assess the influence of books, as he points out, it is not enough to do what many previous scholars have done: see which books of the time subsequently became famous and popular and which were well reviewed by contemporaries, and assume that they are the books people were then reading. Good reviews do not necessarily ensure a wide readership, and people do not confine their reading to new or recently published books. St Clair cites Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman as an example of a book whose later prestige has led scholars to overstate its influence at the time. Although it had a respectable, but not spectacular, sale in the 1790s, St Clair believes that it made little or no difference to the prevailing attitude to women. The sales of books advocating or maintaining the inferiority or subordination of women to men was so many times greater that Wollstonecraft’s feminism was ‘simply overwhelmed’.

His own approach is very different. He has spent years of productive investigation in libraries, publishers’ archives, printers’ ledgers, City livery companies’ records, Parliamentary select committee reports and many other sources. As a result, he has ascertained the number and price of many books that were published and printed, which old books were available at the time and what they cost. Now a senior research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, St Clair was formerly a senior civil servant in the Treasury and so knows about figures and gets them right. He has been able to find out what people were actually buying and reading and which books, because of their price, were out of reach of most of the reading population. Yet his detailed research has not resulted in a dry-as-dust tome. Much of the detail is in the three hundred pages of appendices, though even most of these repay close study. The Reading Nation is clearly written and is throughout enjoyable to read.

To be able to read a book, two things are necessary: first and obviously, literacy, and second, the ability to buy, borrow or hire the volume. It is this second requirement which has so often been ignored. The price of a book was scarcely less important than the ability to read it. Apart from the obvious costs of paper and printing, the key factor in determining its price was the intellectual property rights of the author, or rather the printer or publisher. St Clair tells us, surely rightly, that the invention of intellectual property in Europe in the 15th century was ‘part of an economic and business response to the new text-copying technology of print. With manuscript copying, virtually no fixed capital was employed.’

In 1583, the formal intellectual property regime was legally inaugurated when a Privy Council report recommended that the first printer of a text be granted exclusive rights over it. Shortly afterwards, the Stationers’ Company, a London guild, was endowed by the state with many valuable intellectual properties; and from then on the London publishers maintained a quasi-monopolistic position by their ownership, real or pretended, of intellectual property rights over virtually all well-known books. Both then and later, there was a community of interest between the London publishing houses and the state. Like all monopolists, the publishers wanted to prevent outside competition and to make large profits by inflating the price of their goods. Keeping books expensive also suited the state both then and later, since it ensured that only the well-off could afford to read such dangerous commodities.

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