The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period 
by William St Clair.
Cambridge, 765 pp., £90, July 2004, 9780521810067
Show More
Show More

‘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.

The printed book industry soon became just as tenacious of what it regarded as its intellectual property rights as were landowners of their rights of property over acres of countryside, although, as St Clair points out, real property and intellectual property do not closely resemble each other. He does not, however, mention perhaps the most important difference between them. Many landowners wanted to keep their land in their family for centuries, if not permanently, by creating legal settlements which would make it impossible for succeeding generations to alienate the land in question. But they were not allowed to do so for more than a generation – and then a new settlement was needed. The principle that ‘perpetuity’ was forbidden existed before and throughout the reign of Henry VIII. ‘The mischief that would arise to the public,’ a Master of the Rolls later said, ‘from estates remaining for ever or for a long time inalienable or untransferable [would be] a damp to industry and a prejudice to trade.’ The mischief caused by virtually permanent intellectual rights was no less conspicuous, yet over them there was no rule against perpetuities.

Until the 1620s, property rights in Shakespeare’s plays were distributed among a number of printers. Consequently, the plays could be bought individually and cheaply and were widely read. But the prospective publishers of the First Folio bought up most of those rights, with the result that from 1623 nearly all the plays could be bought only in one large expensive volume. The effect of this, St Clair writes, was to bring Shakespeare ‘in from the playhouses, the law courts and the country fairs to the hall and the library … The book which celebrated and monumentalised Shakespeare as a great English author simultaneously removed him from most of the nation’s readers.’ What happened to Shakespeare happened on a smaller scale to most writers.

The assertion by publishers of their intellectual rights not only prevented the production of reasonably priced books which could be afforded by much of the reading population, it also stopped the publication of anthologies, abridgments, adaptations and books of quotations. For 150 years after 1623, only one Shakespeare anthology, that of Dr Dodd in 1752, was permitted. Twenty-five years later, despite the efforts of Dr Johnson and others to save him, Dodd was hanged for forgery – of a banknote, not of Shakespeare.

The lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695 ended the tight pre-censorship of books that had been restored with the Stuarts. To curb the unauthorised production that followed, the government introduced the Copyright Act of 1710 ‘for the Encouragement of learned Men to compose and write useful Books’. The act gave the author of a book not yet published the sole right of printing it for a term of 14 years from first publication, while books that had already been printed were given protection for 21 years. While generally favourable to the London book industry, the time limit on its continued monopoly was a blow. The industry had hoped, as St Clair says, for a statutory right of permanent copyright. Instead, they got the first law against ‘perpetuity’ in intellectual rights.

Yet oddly enough, the 1710 act made little difference except in Scotland. After the expiry of the 21 years, the English courts gave back to the London printing industry what statute had taken away. The court of Chancery went on granting to the original printers injunctions against competitors who had allegedly infringed their now non-existent copyrights. The 1710 act was reduced to a nullity, and from 1710 until 1774 the result was what St Clair calls ‘the high monopoly period’. That monopoly was ended by the Scottish courts, which were not hidebound by previous decisions and thought that a statute meant what it said and that the courts should enforce statutes, not ignore them. The Scottish judges had the considerable advantage of being advised on monopolies by Adam Smith, their Edinburgh friend and neighbour.

The Scottish publishers naturally followed the decisions of the Scottish courts and began to reprint English books that were no longer covered by copyright. The leader of the Edinburgh industry, Alexander Donaldson, even opened his own shop in London and there sold out-of-copyright books at prices about half those prevalent in England, whereupon the English publishers sued him in the English courts for ‘piratically’ reprinting a book. The legal chaos and the conflict between the English and Scottish courts were finally resolved in 1774. The House of Lords, the highest court in both countries, decided, as it had to, that the law of Great Britain was laid down by the statute of 1710. The unlawfulness of perpetual copyright was confirmed, and all injunctions were dissolved. Thus from then until 1808, when copyright was extended from 14 to 28 years, what St Clair calls a ‘brief copyright window’ was opened.

During the first three-quarters of the 18th century – St Clair’s ‘high monopoly period’ – the British population and real incomes per head were rising, but the production of books increased only slightly. In other words, production declined in real terms, and the purchase of books became even more concentrated in the richer classes. Then, during the last quarter of the century, after the end of perpetual copyright in 1774, when the British reader temporarily escaped from the monopolising tyranny of greedy London publishers, that trend was reversed. Book production grew, and readership markedly increased.

On the eve of the Romantic period and during it, the state was vigilant in suppressing the publication of any book that could be considered remotely subversive. From 1790, printing presses required a state licence, and many of the rich remained unconvinced of any benefit accruing from the less rich being able to read books other than the Bible, though even that compendium contained dangerous pages. Not surprisingly, therefore, a number of bishops in the days of the French Revolution were happy for even the Bible to remain out of bounds to the poor, fearing that to teach them to read would be like giving them guns. The bishops were instrumental in defeating, in the House of Lords, Samuel Whitbread’s 1807 bill, which sought to establish a national system of education. Opposing that bill in the Commons, an MP maintained that giving education to the ‘labouring classes of the poor’ would be ‘prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture, and other laborious employments to which their rank in society had destined them; instead of teaching them subordination, it would … render them insolent to their superiors.’

One of the leading figures in government, Lord Eldon, who was lord chancellor almost without a break from 1801 to 1827, made himself, a contemporary historian wrote in 1828, ‘Licensor of the Press and Censor’. St Clair quotes Eldon in 1793, when he was only attorney general and called Sir John Scott, telling an author that he could continue to publish his reply to Burke in ‘an octavo form so as to confine it probably to that class of readers who may consider it coolly’ (that is, people who would be unlikely to approve of it), but that as soon as it was published more ‘cheaply for dissemination among the populace’ (that is, among people who would agree with it), he would be prosecuted. A year later, ignoring good legal advice to be content with a charge of sedition, Scott prosecuted Thomas Hardy for treason in the first of the 1794 trials. At a time when a treason trial normally took only one day, Scott opened the prosecution case with a speech that lasted nine hours. ‘Nine hours,’ the former lord chancellor Thurlow exclaimed, ‘then there’s no treason, by God.’ After an eight-day trial, he was proved right: Hardy was acquitted. During his long years as lord chancellor, Eldon’s efforts often had a similarly perverse effect.

In 1817, Sherwood, a radical publisher, got hold of the manuscript of Wat Tyler, a previously unpublished play by Southey written in his radical days in the 1790s, and published it for the first time. Southey was horrified, thinking that his long discarded play would now incite revolution. Accordingly, he sued Sherwood for breach of copyright. But to win his case he had to show that his text was lawful, and as his own counsel spoke of its ‘wickedness’ and Southey himself thought it ‘injurious’, Eldon refused him an injunction. In consequence, not only Sherwood but a number of pirate publishers printed Wat Tyler, whose price fell dramatically so that it was able to reach a very wide audience. St Clair estimates that two or three times more copies of Wat Tyler were sold than all the other works of Southey combined.

Again unintentionally, Eldon engineered much the same result with Shelley’s Queen Mab. Initially, Shelley and Harriet, his wife, had believed that revolutionary, anti-Christian views could be rendered safe from prosecution by being expressed in verse. His publisher had no such illusions and was well aware that ordinary publication of the poem would undoubtedly lead to both author and publisher being fined and imprisoned. So Shelley merely printed privately 250 copies to be given away. Four years later, however, in a lawsuit over the custody of his two children, after his deserted wife had committed suicide, Harriet’s family cited Queen Mab as evidence that Shelley would be an unsuitable guardian of his children, and Eldon agreed with them. There could, therefore, be no copyright protection for Queen Mab, and, as had happened with Wat Tyler, the pirates moved in. As its price fell, the sales of Queen Mab rose. So, whereas Shelley’s other poems either had a minuscule sale or were not even published, the revolutionary Queen Mab was sold ‘cheaply [enough] for dissemination among the populace’. It enjoyed a large sale, and was never out of print.

A number of observers saw the absurdity of Eldon’s position. By withholding intellectual property protection from books he considered pernicious, he was in theory penalising their authors. In practice, though, the chief effect of his rulings was to ensure that the books he disliked were given a huge circulation. The Edinburgh Review urged the chancellor to overrule himself. But Eldon was too pigheaded to do anything of the sort. And over Byron’s Don Juan in 1823, by giving advice to his vice-chancellor, who tried the case, he struck his third unwitting blow for free speech and the spread of radical literature among the working classes, in whom, Southey wrote, Byron’s ‘poison would operate without mitigation.’ As Don Juan was in the eyes of the law and of the chancellor plainly ‘injurious’, its publication too forfeited the usual protection of copyright.

Byron himself had wanted Don Juan to be published not only in his publisher’s usual manner but also in ‘very small [i.e., small-sized pages] and cheap editions … to anticipate & neutralise’ the pirates; not so his publisher, John Murray. But in 1823, Byron left Murray in favour of John Hunt, and the remaining cantos of Don Juan were published very cheaply in large numbers. After Byron’s death the following year that quantity was enormously swelled by pirate editions. In consequence, St Clair concludes that in its first twenty years Don Juan was read by more people than any previous work of English literature.

In contrast to Byron, Wordsworth was opposed to selling his books cheaply, and thus had small sales. Even Lyrical Ballads, written with Coleridge, which achieved considerable fame and was a short and fairly cheap book, did not have a large sale. It evidently did not occur to Wordsworth that his later, more expensive books would have reached a far larger audience if he had made them cheaper.

Wordsworth temporarily became a high-price publisher himself when, in exchange for two-thirds of the net profits he financed two-thirds of the costs of The Excursion, which was published in 1814 and cost 42 shillings. St Clair judges it to have been for its length ‘perhaps the most expensive work of literature ever published in England’. Notwithstanding the two guineas it cost and despite being desperately short of money, Shelley bought it when he returned from his elopement with Mary Godwin. Byron also bought it, calling it in Don Juan ‘a drowsy, frowzy poem’. Not many other people did the same. Of the 500 copies printed in 1814, only 400 were sold in six years. By 1834, 36 copies were still in stock. Wordsworth did not derive much benefit from his publishing experiment.

In 1832, his Poetical Works were issued at 24 shillings in an edition of 2000. The next year 1600 copies were still unsold, which Wordsworth found ‘wholly inexplicable’. He lamented that not a single copy of his poems had been sold by one of Cumberland’s leading booksellers, though Cumberland was his ‘native county’. He also noted that Byron and Scott were the ‘only popular writers in that line’. He was certainly right about that. St Clair estimates that during the Romantic period, Scott sold more novels than all the other novelists combined, while John Murray in two years sold 13,000 copies of the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The Corsair was even more popular, selling 25,000 copies. Scott and Byron would anyway have been more popular than Wordsworth, but had he lowered his prices he might have narrowed the gap.

Foreign publishers were not affected by English copyright laws or intellectual rights, and in Paris Galignani published cheap editions of English authors, thereby benefiting English travellers on the continent and also, as his books were imported illegally into England, many Britons who stayed at home. Wordsworth resented Galignani’s excellent 1828 ‘pirate’ edition, which contained all his poems and cost a mere 20 francs, remarking that ‘everybody goes to Paris nowadays.’ But that didn’t stop him owning the Galignani edition of Coleridge, Shelley and Keats.

Towards the end of his life, Wordsworth, worried about the financial position of his sons after his death, became concerned to extend authorial copyright beyond the author’s death. In 1836, he supported a bill extending copyright to 60 years. The bill failed. But six years later another bill extending it to 42 years from publication or throughout the life of the author became law. Writing in support of the bill, Wordsworth maintained that he ‘knew of no work of imagination of the very highest class that was ever, in any age or country, produced by a man under 35’. He thus dismissed not only the best poems of his old friend and collaborator, Coleridge, but also all the poetry of Keats and Shelley and almost the entire oeuvre of Byron. Even more absurdly, he also relegated to the second division his Lyrical Ballads, the 1805 edition of The Prelude and some other of his finest poems. Despite Wordsworth’s almost lifelong devotion to lengthy copyrights, all the great Romantic poets he implicitly denigrated were not, as St Clair points out, deterred from writing poetry, even though the copyright regime of their time was relatively short.

In an illuminating conclusion, St Clair stresses the importance of three structures in influencing or determining what many people read and, consequently, their outlook and mentality. These were ‘private intellectual property in the hands of the text-copying industry, cartelisation within the industry, and a close alliance between the state and the industry in which the industry delivered textual policing and self-censorship in exchange for economic privileges’, and their consequence was that much of the reading public between 1600 and 1780, who could not afford the inflated prices of new books charged by the cartel, were confined to texts that were increasingly obsolescent and gave misleading information on almost everything from religion to birth control.

Any analysis which draws attention to the immense importance of economic factors in determining the cultural consciousness of 18th-century society will have obvious echoes of Karl Marx. But, just as Popper pointed out that while Beethoven was affected by such social developments as the enlargement of the orchestra, no theory of metaphysical or materialist determinism could explain a single bar of his music, St Clair is clear that the economic base of the English publishing industry cannot explain any of the great poems or novels of the Romantic era. He does not wish to resurrect Marxism, but he does stress the importance of the economic processes of the publishing and printing industry in influencing the minds of readers.

A book containing a vast amount of new information, based on massive investigation, could not, one would have thought, fail to contain a lot of errors, some of them serious. But the errors I spotted in St Clair’s book are few and unimportant. Perhaps one of them is worth a mention. The Leveller leader, John Lilburne, is described as a ‘regicide’. ‘Honest John’ Lilburne was indeed asked to join the Special High Court of Justice which was set up to try Charles I, but as he wanted the king to be tried by the general law of England he refused the invitation. Had he sat on the court, he would probably have voted for the king’s execution and become a regicide, but one cannot be sure even of that. Lilburne was so unpredictable and opposition-minded it was said of him that ‘if there were none other living but himself, John would be against Lilburne and Lilburne against John.’ The Reading Nation is a work of formidable scholarship and accuracy.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences