English Romantic Poets and their Reading Audiences

Thesis (M.A.), 2002

123 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)


List of abbreviations

1. Introduction

2. The growth of the reading public
2.1 Size and limitations of the reading public
2.2 Causes for the growth of the reading public
2.2.1 Population growth and urbanization
2.2.2 Education and literacy
2.2.3 Technological progress and the impact of the industrial revolution
2.2.4 Growing interest in political events
2.3 Social varieties of the reading public

3. Romantic poets and the literary marketplace
3.1 The transformation of the publishing business
3.2 Authors and publishers
3.3 The commodification of literature: copyrights and best-sellers
3.3.1 The debates over copyright
3.3.2 Best-sellers
3.4 The institutionalizati on of literature: The British reviews
3.5 Romantic poets in the literary marketplace
3.5.1 The task of a lifetime: William Wordsworth
3.5.2 Unacknowledged legislators: Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats Percy Bysshe Shelley John Keats
3.5.3 Aristocratic best-sellers: George Gordon Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott George Gordon Lord Byron Sir Walter Scott

4. The poet and his audience: Romantic critical theory in its socio-historical context
4.1. Romantic theories of art and their social context
4.2. Conceptions of poets from the Renaissance to the Augustan Age
4.3. Romantic conceptions of poets and their audiences
4.3.1 William Wordsworth The poet’s social function: “one of us” or poetic genius? Wordsworth’s conception of readers and audiences
4.3.2 Samuel Taylor Coleridge Coleridge’s definitions of the poet Attitudes toward the literary marketplace Configurations of readers: Sciolism and the clerisy
4.3.3 Percy Bysshe Shelley Definitions of the poet Shelley’s conception of audiences
4.3.4 John Keats Attitudes toward the collective reading public The poet and his ideal readers
4.3.5 George Gordon, Lord Byron Definitions of the poet: The aristocratic amateur re-established Byron’s attitudes toward the reading public

5. Conclusion: The Romantic dilemma and beyond

Appendix: Sales and editions of English Romantic poets



Zusammenfassung in deutscher Sprache

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1. Introduction

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were a time of accelerating cultural, social, economic, and political change. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and the passing of the first Reform Bill in 1832 are the political cornerstones of an age that saw the promotion of human rights and civil liberties against established systems of absolutist governments and limited possibilities of political participation. Democratic ideas that form the constitutional basis of modern Western societies were developed and circulated in a highly-charged political and cultural climate, represented, defended and contested in a bourgeois public sphere that had only come into being as a space of rational contestation in England in the century between the Glorious Revolution and the French Revolution.1

In philosophy, perhaps the most far-reaching development in the eighteenth century was the exploration of the individual psyche. John Locke’s empiricist epistemology was based on the idea that the mind of the infant is like a tabula rasa and that there are no innate ideas or moral principles. Instead, Locke argued, the individual’s knowledge springs from his or her own sensory perceptions. This epistemology carried with it a serious social problem: in effect perceivers were deprived of shared views and, isolated in their own perceptions, were cut off from the environment that had produced their knowledge. “Equally isolated from objects and from others, Lockian perceivers can be certain of only their individual mental processes. […] Certainty, knowledge, and truth become, at best, relational.”2

The problem of the individual’s position in and relation to a society that was already perceptibly fragmenting as a result of economic developments and increased social mobility was debated by philosophers throughout the eighteenth century. David Berkeley, the Earl of Shaftesbury, and Adam Smith all in their own ways tried to find a solution to the empirical dilemma they had inherited from Locke and sought to relocate the individual in a social context.3

This empirical dilemma turned into a professional one for the Romantic poets as the growth of the reading public and the emergence of the literary marketplace left writers and readers with the task to redefine their own positions as well as their relations toward each other. In the course of these redefinitions “literature” lost its broader public significance, and by the 1820s the terms “public” and “literary” had come to be regarded as an open contradiction.4 The commodification of poetry and other forms of writing in the nascent literary marketplace produced what J.W. Saunders has termed the “Romantic dilemma”:

One insistent claim made by the Romantics was that writers, especially poets, had a special vision of truth which ought not to be socially corrupted or circumscribed: they should be free to write as their inspiration took them; it was enough for society to protect their special gifts and profit from their prophecies and insight. The Romantic dilemma, as far as the literary profession was concerned, was how to adapt the social context of literature to make room for this new claim. The dilemma became sharper when the reading public demanded an immediate and practical use for writers’ dreams and visions, not as a means to truth and an understanding of life, but as a kind of anodyne, a means of escape from life. Wide schisms were to open between what the public expected of literature and what the writers wanted to do: after an age of balance, an age of most extraordinary unbalance, producing in extreme instances literary schizophrenia.5

It is this dilemma I want to explore in the present study. At exactly that point in history where Romantic writers had the potential to reach wider audiences than ever before with their insights, how did they make sense of this potential power, and how did it materialize in the literary marketplace? How did the Romantics explain their successes or failures in the marketplace, and which concepts of reading did they develop as a consequence? There is a perception of Romanticism as a self-centred monologue of aesthetic brilliance but limited social relevance that is still common due to the fact that much scholarship of the twentieth century has treated Romanticism on its own terms, a critical orientation that Jerome J. McGann has identified as the “Romantic Ideology,” “an uncritical absorption in Romanticism’s own self-representations.”6 An important tenet of this ideology is the figuration of the Romantic poet as a Shelleyan “nightingale,” devoid of any contact with reading audiences, and free from social obligations. Even in such influential studies as M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), Romantic critical theory is treated on a broad philosophical and aesthetic basis, while socio-historical approaches do not enter the picture. It is one of the aims of the present study to restore the socio-historical context to Romantic conceptions of poetry, the poet, and his audiences, and show that Romantic engagements with readers and audiences were more complex and conflicted than an intrinsic approach to critical theory is likely to suggest.

Consequently, I have tried to avoid a methodological restriction that would fall short of any accurate depiction of developments, events and the reactions they provoked. While a close reading of Romantic critical texts will constitute the basis of my argument, I hope to do justice to the complex interrelations between poetry, history, society, economy, and psychology by outlining the transformations of literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the perspectives of readers, writers, publishers, and reviewers, and relocating Romantic critical statements in this context.

As much of Romantic prose is concerned with the growth of the reading public and its effects upon authors, a critical survey of this growth will precede my discussion of the literary marketplace and the Romantics’ share in it. The core of the present study is formed by a close reading of Romantic critical statements that is guided by an interest in the implications these statements carry for the relations of writers and readers. The conclusion will then focus on the different strategies developed by English Romantic poets to solve their dilemma with the reading public and pose the question how these options were realized as the reading public grew into the mass dimensions so familiar to us today.

From the 1920s until the 1960s, only few studies were devoted to the role of the reader in British Romantic literature. Owing to the predominance of New Critical premises in literary criticism, comparatively little was done with the socio-historical backgrounds to literature. Those studies that did appear argued from contesting points of view and perpetuated the ambivalent stance toward the literary market that had characterised the original discourse of Romantic poets on literature as a commodity. Cultural conservatives who bemoaned the decline of values and standards in the wake of the extension of the reading public betrayed a bias against mass audiences and promoted a cultural elitism that established a continuation of aristocratic elitist complaints about the harmful effects of the mass market. A.S. Collins’ The Profession of Letters: A Study of the Relation of Author to Patron, Publisher and Public, 1780- 1832 starts off, in a fatalist, resigned tone, with a flat rejection of the literary marketplace and its allegedly harmful effect on writers and readers alike:

That literature ever became a profession, or, for the most of those who practise it, a trade, is one of those developments which, when one looks back, seems all the way inevitable, but of which we cannot at times help but feel, that had the world done without them, it had done better.7

Collins goes on to argue that the leisured classes had produced the greatest works, evoking the impression that the great Romantic poets never wasted any thought of writing for the market, or larger audiences. Despite these classist and conservative assumptions, her book gives a detailed account of the various factors that helped increase the reading public which is still useful today.

In a similar vein, Q.D. Leavis analyses the growth of the reading public in her book Fiction and the Reading Public.8 Leavis is clearly influenced by the cultural conservatism of the New Critics, and her argument is ahistoric in that it tends to neglect economic and social causes of the change in the composition of the reading public: “In discussing the novel which has come to be literature it is possible to neglect all other aspects of it but that which is contained between the covers: genius can manage to exist almost independent of its background.”9 Moreover, she is prone to classism as well, equating the cultural participation of wider strata of society with a lowering of cultural standards that is to be bemoaned: “the critical minority to whose sole charge modern literature has now fallen is isolated, disowned by the general public and threatened with extinction.”10 Ultimately the story of the growth of the reading public is a story of decline, disintegration and dissolution of cultural standards, a development that Leavis identifies in modernist fiction such as Joyce’s Ulysses. She is clear about her aim to promote a discerning minority, claiming in almost Wordsworthian terms: “If there is to be any hope, it must lie in conscious and directed effort. All that can be done, it must be realised, must take the form of resistance by an armed and conscious minority.“11

Studies with an emancipatory bias, on the other hand, celebrate the growth of the reading public in the nineteenth century as an important aid to democratisation. Richard D. Altick’s standard work The English

Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-190012 is based on the thesis that “[t]he history of the mass reading audience is, in fact, the history of English democracy seen from a new angle.”13 For Altick, a mass reading audience does not pose a threat to an endangered set of cultural values, but rather represents ”an impressive challenge to our social institutions”; in fact, readers are disadvantaged by inadequate educational facilities: “If the audience for books and relatively serious periodicals remains dishearteningly small, it is because people still have not been sufficiently schooled to value and use good literature and because facilities for distribution still are inadequate.”14

The most useful survey of reader relations from the writer’s point of view still remains J.W. Saunders’s The Profession of English Letters (1964), which joins Altick in arguing that “[t]he primary problem today is one of education, a process which will end the Romantic isolation of the artist from the community, and also bring about a more perfect homogeneity of taste in a wider public.”15

More recent studies of the relations between readers and writers have benefited greatly from the renewed interest in the socio-historical aspects of literature from the late 1960s onwards. New Historical studies generally attempt to demonstrate how Romantic self-representations are based on the instability of linguistic signs and inevitably deconstruct themselves. Historical audiences are seen not so much as fixed entities, but as shifting and unstable constructions that have to be “made.” This critical orientation is presented in paradigmatic form in Jon P. Klancher’s The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790- 1832 (1987), which concentrates on four crucial audiences: a newly self-conscious middle- class public, a nascent mass audience, a polemical radical readership, and a special institutional audience. Arguing that audiences are not simply stable aggregates of readers, but “complicated social and textual formations”16 with ideologically charged mentalities, Klancher explores the ways audiences were constructed and deconstructed by the English Romantics.

Andrew Bennett’s Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity (1999) inquires about the origins and implications of Romantic figurations of posterity as a mode of reception, arguing that “Romanticism reinvents posterity as the very condition of the possibility of poetry itself: to be neglected in one’s lifetime, and not to care, is the necessary (though not of course sufficient) condition of genius.”17 Lucy Newlyn, in her recent study Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception (2000), explores the thesis that “the question of what constituted the writing-subject’s identity became increasingly ambiguous”18 as writers found themselves dependent upon a mass of readers that were figured as hostile others whose anonymity was felt to be a “figurative displacement for more troubling anxieties about loss of self-identity consequent on industrial expansion and the overcrowding of England’s great cities.”19

2. The growth of the reading public

2.1 Size and limitations of the reading public

The growth of the reading public during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was both a result of and a catalyst for the political, social and economic transformations and revolutions that occured with accelerated speed from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. The only contemporary estimate of the size of the reading public was made by Edmund Burke, who in 1790 held that it consisted of some 80,000 persons.1 Contemporary commentators like Sir Walter Scott certainly perceived that the growth of the reading public extended to all classes literate enough to read:

Reading is indeed so general among all ranks and classes, that the impulse received by the public mind on such occasions is instantaneous through all but the very lowest classes of society, instead of being slowly communicated from one set of readers to another, as was the case in the days of our fathers.2

Although indirect ways of estimating the size of the reading public are bound to yield rough approximations at best, some general remarks can be made that indicate the size as well as the limitations of the reading public in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While only a handful of separate volumes of prose fiction had been published by about a dozen London booksellers in 1700, by the end of the century well over 150 novels were being published annually.3 Although Alexander Pope was able to earn considerable amounts of money with his poetry, it was the novel that proved most profitable. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) sold five editions within a year, Joseph Andrews (1742) three editions, totalling 6,500 copies in thirteen months. Similarly, Smollett’s translation of Gil Blas (1748) sold 6,000 copies in three editions, and Fielding’s Amelia

(1751) sold its first edition of 5,000 copies within a week.4 The conclusion Altick draws is that four or five editions with less than 9,000 copies were all the market could absorb; even though the novel-reading public expanded steadily, this growth “was reflected by the proliferation of individual novels and the increased patronage of the circulating libraries rather than by any increase in the sales of specific titles.”5

The view that the size of the reading public in the eighteenth century was limited indeed is supported by the more detailed publication analysis of eighteenth-century titles presented by James Raven, which suggests a steep increase not only in the specialist production of new novels, but in all published titles, especially after the late 1760s, made possible by “the expansion of the country distribution network, increased institutional demand, and new productivity based on financial or organizational innovation.”6 As Raven shows, large editions were commercially dangerous and technically difficult to produce. General economic difficulties as well as review-led reactions against ill-written “sentimental” novels were reflected by the sharp falls in output in the 1770s, before the recovery and consequent surge in production of the 1780s. With these commercial risks, the book business tended to produce fast-selling, quickly printed publications, while public subscription, previously used as a method of assessing demand and sharing costs, now functioned as a “useful insurance against heavy losses on large, technically difficult, or unusual undertakings.”7 However, due to the lengthy process of subscription collection, fashionable, competitive volumes could hardly be produced that way. At the end of the century, chapbook-like miscellany volumes were increasingly replaced by high-quality, modishly produced books in duodecimo format.8

It is doubtful, however, whether the increase in the publication, sale, and circulation of literature corresponded with a growth of the reading public. Readership remained socially constrained and was particularly limited by the high prices of books. While novels were still cheaper than voluminous religious, economic, or classical works, in the mid-eighteenth century unbound, sewed novels were normally priced at two shillings a volume. The average wage of shopmen in the period was around eight shillings per week, while clerks in merchants’ offices earned about 1 a week, and craftworkers earned between 6 and 12 shillings a week, depending on the region where they were employed.9 Given the wide variation in income not only between the very richest and poorest in society, but also within the middle-classes, a lower income threshold of 50 per annum might have been the minimum annual income for anyone wanting to buy books, and it has been estimated that 150,000 such households in 1780 were potential buyers.10 It is likely, then, that those already reading books were buying or borrowing more. This trend continued well into the nineteenth century. Due to the fact that throughout the Napoleonic Wars the importation of rags from France was curtailed and because the cost of paper was one-half to two-thirds of the cost of printing a book, book prices were exceptionally high in the Romantic period.11 An average octavo volume sold for 10-14s, multi-volume novels such as Scott’s Kenilworth sold for 31s 6d. “The greater cost of books generally encouraged poetry at the expense of prose and made poetry a more important part of the publishing market by rewarding its concentrated language while discouraging diffusive prose.”12

Certainly the book-buying public numbered only in tens of thousands, and even the public for newspapers remained a very small percentage of the population.13 Only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the size of the reading public was increased due to the factors explored below, but the book trade still depended on the merchant classes, and accurately speaking a “mass” reading public had only come into being by the middle of the nineteenth century.14 Nevertheless, in 1807 Robert Southey estimated that there were some 250,000 people in England who read the news every day, and the widening of newsprint certainly confirmed the value and status of being part of an informed readership to a growing number of readers15, as did the proliferation of reviews and the institution of circulating libraries, both of which will be discussed in greater detail in the next chapter.

2.2 Causes for the growth of the reading public

Prior to the eighteenth century, people had been readers mainly for economic and religious reasons, as popular interest in imaginative fiction was no doubt present and satisfied, but was being discouraged for both clerical and economic interests as “unserious” or idle reading. As a consequence, fictional literature had to assume the mantle of usefulness and/or morality to avoid social stigmatisation.16 In the eighteenth century a number of factors eventually transformed the nature of the reading public and authors’ relations to it.

2.2.1 Population growth and urbanization

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries England and Scotland witnessed an unprecedented growth in population from 7.0 million in the 1750s to 15.4 million in 1831. Average rates of population growth rose from 0.2 per cent a year in the early eighteenth century to 0.6 per cent between 1751 and 1771 and peaked at almost two per cent between 1801 and 1831 in England and 1.5 per cent in Scotland. This enormous growth was felt most urgently in the sprawling cities. While in the 1750s London and Edinburgh were the only British towns with more than 50,000 inhabitants, by 1801 the number of such places had risen to eight and by 1841 to twenty-six. By 1851 one in every three people lived in settlements of at least 50,000 inhabitants, and over half of all residents in England and Wales were urban dwellers.17 These demographic developments were a cause for contemporary concern:

At least initially, the cultural, political, and social consequences of rising rates of population growth, and the transformation from rural to urban living which accompanied them, were highly disruptive and alarming. By making it more difficult to ensure adequate standards of public health, personal hygiene, basic education, and law and order, and by undermining traditional codes of sexual conduct, provisions for sport and leisure, socio-occupational class structures, and household and family forms and relationships, the new demographic environment helped create a potential for social dislocation which contemporaries found deeply disturbing.18

Debates on population growth were fiercely led during the 1790s, when under the impact of the French Revolution civil liberties had been suspended and Britain was at war with revolutionary France. Calls for economic and political equality by radical thinkers such as William Godwin were countered by political economists such as Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), whose first published work, Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), proposed that population, if it remained unchecked, would increase in a geometrical ratio, while subsistence would only increase in an arithmetical ratio. Denouncing Godwin’s utopian schemes, Malthus concluded that this was the natural way of things and must not be improved upon by man.19

2.2.2 Education and literacy

Although estimates are notoriously hard to support by reliable data, the long-term trend from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries was that of a growing spread of literacy. Within this trend, the growth of literacy was distributed unevenly both in social and regional categories. As early as 1600 an elite of aristocrats, gentry, and rich merchants were almost totally literate, while shopkeepers as the most literate group of the sub-elite were almost completely literate by the late eighteenth century. The highest level of literacy was reached in London, followed by the market towns. Especially in London, the literacy rate of women tripled to 66 per cent in the period between the 1670s and the 1720s. Up to the late eighteenth century, literacy does not seem to have increased and may even have declined.20

Contemporary discussions of education and schooling circled around the basic question whether it was appropriate or desirable that the lower ranks were granted systematic access to more developed areas of knowledge and learning. While some radicals rejected a spread of literacy and demanded greater material sustenance instead, conservative forces sometimes adopted the view that ignorance and illiteracy were responsible for most crimes and that thus the spread of basic literacy could have a stabilizing effect on society, in addition to being beneficial to economy and commerce – always provided that strict control over reading and teaching practices was entailed and no radical ideas would be communicated.21

For all these debates, it was only in the last quarter of the eighteenth century that the question of providing mass elementary education began to be debated. While Scotland could boast of the only comprehensive network of schools in the nation, run by the Church of Scotland, the

Church of England had a much patchier influence on schooling, which was only in the course of the nineteenth century organized into an integrated national structure supervised by the state and during the Romantic period still encompassed a profusion and variety of educational facilities that frequently derived from individual initiative.22 An important reason for this slow start in the national organization of basic education was that public opinion of the time was particularly opposed to any intervention by the state in the private affairs of citizens. […] The functions of the government were considered to be substantially restricted to foreign affairs and to keeping order at home – ‘order’ being interpreted in the most liberal manner – and it was only rather grudgingly admitted that assistance might be given to people who, for one reason or another, were incapable of helping themselves, paupers, lunatics, and the like.23

Clearly this individualistic political philosophy propagated by Jeremy Bentham and his school of Utilitarianism was a major obstacle to a national organization of the primary educational system. A parliamentary committee survey of England and Wales in 1819 counted 4,176 endowed schools (including 700 grammar schools for teaching the classics), 14,282 private venture schools, and 5,162 Sunday schools, reaching approximately half the children in the country. While the last decades of the eighteenth century saw virtually no progress in elementary and secondary schooling,24 and although national education bills failed in 1807 and 1820, the first three decades of the nineteenth century saw a signi- ficant increase in the range and type of education made available to the poor and labouring classes, with the number of children at non-endowed schools doubling to more than a million between 1819 and 1831.25

Nevertheless, these statistic have to be interpreted with some caution. While a general improvement in education in the long term laid the foundation for an expanding reading public, for the first half of the century its more immediate effects have to be qualified considerably:

Not until after mid-century were materials relating to the broader world […] introduced to the attention of lower- and lower-middle-class children. Until then, their intellectual horizons were rigidly confined by religious and utilitarian prejudices. A little education was all that the common pupil should have, and it was so circumscribed and penurious that only the unusual child, upon emerging from the valley of the shadow of education, would have much taste for reading.26

2.2.3 Technological progress and the impact of the industrial revolution

The enormous growth of the population helped to initiate and sustain the world’s first industrial revolution, which contributed to the growth of the reading public both directly and indirectly. Perhaps the most important finding of recent scholarship has been the discrepancy between the actual impact of the industrial revolution and the perception by contemporaries of its social repercussions, comprising “the creation of a mass urban society, governed by the regime of the factory and the pace of the machine, an environment polluted and despoiled, its inhabitants rendered anonymous and dehumanised.”27

On the one hand, technological innovations for the first time enabled the mass production of reading matter and its distribution across the country. The beginnings of the modern transport revolution facilitated communication and public discourse. Road improvements, the establishment and development of transport systems (coach services, inland waterways, later the British railway system) emerged out of economic demands by merchants, manufacturers and landlords.28

On the other hand, the spread of leisure was uneven and had an ambiguous effect on the development of the reading public. Growing prosperity and cheapness of labour enabled the middle classes to hire others for tasks they had previously done for themselves. The lower classes, on the other hand, had to fight for a reduction of working hours during the nineteenth centuries; consequently, their reading was largely confined to Sundays. When workers had leisure time on their hands, short vacations, theatres, music halls, and spectator sports competed with reading as a means of distraction, excitement and release.29

This spread of leisure developed into a vital industry as modern consumer society was born in the eighteenth century. As culture and sports became less elitist and increasingly public pursuits, they provoked the desire for social emulation, which in turn stimulated increasing consumption and expenditure. A profitable market came into being that was rapidly catered for and extended by entrepreneurs.30 It was this market that changed relations between authors and readers and vexed commentators in the early nineteenth century.

2.2.4 Growing interest in political events

The invention of print had a thorough impact on politics. The political potentials inherent in the mass production and distribution of print matter on a larger scale had already been explored in the pamphlet culture of the Civil War and its aftermath in the 1640s and 1650s. Even although Charles II tried to stifle political commentary following the Restoration, the pamphleteering culture never died out and revived in times of national crisis. After freedom of the press had been won in the 1690s, the way was paved for the full extension of the possibilities of printing.31

For the first time, these potentials were realized on a large scale in the 1790s. As a reaction to the French Revolution widespread British interest in the current political events incited previously unthinkable sales figures in the 1790s. Edmund Burke’s conservative legitimation of the divine right of kings, Reflections on the Revolution in France, sold 30,000 copies, only to be surpassed by Thomas Paine’s immensely successful Rights of Man, which sold 50,000 copies and a significantly higher number when it was reprinted and continued in a cheap edition and gave rise to pro- revolutionary fervour not only among the intelligentsia, but also among artisans and lower middle-class professionals. Paine’s enormous success was a harbinger of the new possibilities and potential power an author could wield as he reached to a wide audience by having his work printed and utilizing the expanding marketplace:

The threat that critics identified in Paine’s efforts to target a plebeian audience was reinforced by the industriousness with which many reform societies disseminated abridged versions of Rights of Man and Age of Reason. […] The deliberate circulation of Paine’s work was […] an example of the inseparability of ideas and actions: the political clubs were strengthened by the popularity of Paine’s work and also helped to reinforce his popularity by publishing cheap editions of his writing. For Paine, the test of the importance of any work was the extent of its diffusion amongst an eager reading public.32

2.3 Social varieties of the reading public

With the growth of the reading public, readership was no longer confined to the upper classes, although these still retained the cultural hegemony. The subscription list for Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla (1796) provides a representative cross-section of the upper-class reading public of the time.33 Containing over 1,100 names, the list of subscribers is headed by two royal dukes and other members of the English nobility. Other subscribers include statesmen and eminent public men; members of the bluestocking movement (an informal group of intellectual, artistic, and sociable women flourishing in London between 1770 and 1785); other circles of intellectuals and literary societies in Lichfield, Bath, and elsewhere; clergymen, actresses, patrons of the arts, M.P.s, and countless other persons of public interest who “wanted a vivid, convincing picture of the life of their day and class – conventional elegance and morality set forward with humour and pathos.”34

While this upper-class reading public continued to exist, audiences for books, magazines, newspapers, and other reading matter were as diverse as never before. The rise of the reviews as mediating agencies of culture especially for a large part of the upwardly mobile middle classes and provincial readerships is as much a direct result of the growth of the reading public as of the growth of published titles. Philip W. Martin has argued that these readers looked for a guidance that was provided especially by the reviews,35 in an extension of the guiding functions provided by eighteenth-century moralist periodicals like The Tatler and The Spectator.

Although the reading of the bulk of lower-class readers was confined to penny shockers and sensational weeklies, a small but significant minority from these classes pursued more serious reading. These “self-educated readers” had frequently had only two or three years of formal schooling and experienced difficulties when they wanted to catch up on their literary education, as a stock of cheap second-hand books and reprints of standard classics in series such as “Constable’s Miscellany” and the “Library of Useful Knowledge” was all they could access. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that cheap reprints became customary and free public libraries were established.36

Below the ranks of these self-made readers, street ballads, “penny dreadfuls” such as Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood, and other sensational fare dealing with rapes, murders, executions and the like, continued to enjoy broad popular success, while works of respectable poets – in the nineteenth century, most notably by Burns, Byron, Milton, and Pope – were popularised for a mass reading public in series such as “Dicks’ English Library of Standard Works.”37

3. Romantic poets and the literary marketplace

3.1 The transformation of the publishing business

When William Wordsworth launched his career with the publication of his poems An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches in 1793, the publishing business was in a process of transformation. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, competition between publishers had been virtually non-existent, while business between publishers was organized on an exchange basis.1 As these trade barters were replaced by purchase relations, a competitive market emerged where

[l]iterature, like other fashion and leisure wares, was taken up by entrepreneur with a sharp eye to the market. As with the manufacture of new household goods and consumables, the success of many products of the press was determined by customer identification, metropolitan trend-setting, and the exploitation of a country market. […] [C]ompetition forced greater attention to advertising, book design, the saleable value of the contents and message of a work, and methods of attracting and retaining new readerships.2

The growing demand for reading matter was met by a growing number of publishers and booksellers who supplied that demand. In the half-century from 1740 to the 1790s the number of outlets for books rose from about 400 in 200 towns to nearly 1000 in more than 300 places, indicating that the phenomenon was not limited to the traditional publishing quarters of St. Paul’s Churchyard and Paternoster Row in London, but spread into the whole of the country (the first edition of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads was published anonymously, not in London, but by a radical Bristol bookseller, Joseph Cottle).3 New promotional and marketing strategies were required for booksellers to hold their own in this competitive climate:

Public interest was stimulated by the attempts at comprehensive critical reviewing and by the publication of readers’ contributions to the magazines. Newspaper advertisements puffed ‘latest’ books by those said to be the most skilful or up-to-date authors.4

One instance of modernization was the increasing specialization within the book trade. While the functions of printer, bookseller and publisher had previously been provided by the same business enterprise, wholesale, publishing, and retailing functions were now being separated, so much so that the bookseller John Pendred brought out the first guide to English publishing, The London and Country Printers, Booksellers and Stationers Vade Mecum (1785), listing “nearly 650 businesses engaged in thirty-two different occupations.”5 This diversification was further facilitated by advances in technology such as the mechanization of paper-making, lithography (established in 1801), and the steam-driven printing press (first used in 1814).

3.2 Authors and publishers

In spite of the mechanization and rationalization of the trade, books remained a relatively expensive commodity, so that authors who broke into print primarily did so in the periodical press, which made possible a career dedicated to writing. The growing competition between magazines meant that demand outweighed supply, which led to a professionalization of those who supplied reviews, essays, poems, and criticism. From the 1760s to the end of the century the number of periodicals in London rose from more than thirty to over eighty. For the aspiring writer, however, these possibilities posed the problem of being alienated from his or her creative efforts:

Without means and control, writers became manufacturers of components in the factory of literature. Such fragmentation undermined the integrity of writers, who came to bear only a marginal relation to the works they helped to produce. What they wrote was not properly theirs: it was designed by another and had value only as part of a larger whole. They had no vested interest in the completed work, for it was not a thing they could or might wish to acknowledge as their own. Writers were not authors but protean figures whose value lay in their ability to assume a number of authorial roles.6

This transformation of the literary profession had a dislocating quality for authors that Isaac D’Israeli (1766-1848) was perceptive enough to grasp. In The Calamities of Authors, D’Israeli even went so far as to claim that writing a voluminous work could be physically dangerous7 and advised young people against taking up literature as a means of sustaining their living:

The title of Author still retains its seduction among our youth, and is consecrated by ages. Yet what affectionate parent would consent to see his son devote himself to his pen as a profession? The studies of a true Author insulate him in society, exacting daily labours; yet he will receive but little encouragement and less remuneration. It will be found that the most successful Author can obtain no equivalent for the labours of his life. […] Authors themselves never discover this melancholy truth till they have yielded to an impulse, and adopted a profession, too late in life to resist the one, or abandon the other. Whoever labours without hope, a painful state to which Authors are at length reduced, may surely be placed among the most injured class in the community. Most Authors close their lives in apathy or despair, and too many live by means which few of them would not blush to describe.8

In this view, the professional author suffers from lifelong public neglect and commercial failure. Samuel Taylor Coleridge echoed these sentiments by devoting an entire chapter in the Biographia Literaria to counselling would-be writers to act according to the insight of Johann Gottfried Herder and “NEVER PURSUE LITERATURE AS A TRADE.” (BL I, 223)

With the growing professionalization and specialization of the literary scene, a modern literary marketplace emerged that effected writers’ dependence on commercial success to survive. The central problem faced by the more ambitious writers was how they could be paid but still remain respectable. Whereas the liberal claim was a juxtaposition of financial independence (produced good writing) and writing for the market-place (produced trash), Samuel Johnson, himself profiting from the new possibilities the market-place meant for writers, argued that valuable literature arose from individual ingenuity and originality and was not determined by economic conditions.9

When a new author wanted to start a career in the literary world, he had to secure the services of a bookseller and publisher, who had the resources to produce and distribute the books. The authorial strategy frequently involved appealing to the publisher’s personal interests and sympathies in order to get published. Publishers in turn adopted more and more functions of the literary patron, with services ranging from providing direct financial support to contributing to the literary public by starting and sponsoring literary salons, societies, and circles, thus providing their authors with a much craved social and professional environment.10 In a recent discussion of the system of literary patronage, Dustin Griffin has shown that the established view proposing a decline of the patronage system after 1750 is no longer tenable. Instead, Griffin holds that the system of patronage was alive and being contested by other institutions at the end of the eighteenth century. Functions hitherto exclusive to patronage were now taken over by educational and intellectual societies and less formal literary circles and salons, while patronal authority was challenged by critics, and their economic domination was inherited by booksellers and publishers, who came to play an important role from the late eighteenth century onwards. Nevertheless, all these changes, according to Griffin, are evidence that patronage “showed remarkable resilience in English literary culture throughout the eighteenth century,” for “what has already been overthrown does not need to be challenged,”11 and despite the emergence of the literary marketplace, old habits were retained well into the nineteenth century.

Even so, booksellers and publishers were frequently charged with acting in their own economic interests and thus contrasted to the portrait of the generous patron. Founding his criticism on the inevitably material nature of the new marketplace, Isaac D’Israeli dismissed publishers as a parasitic species breeding at the expenses of authors:

English booksellers, in their constant intercourse with the most enlightened class of the community, that is, with the best authors and the best readers, partake of the intelligence around them; their great capitals, too, are productive of good and evil in literature; useful when they carry on great works, and pernicious when they sanction indifferent ones. Yet are they but commercial men. A trader can never be deemed a patron, for it would be romantic to purchase what is not saleable; and where no favour is conferred, there is no patronage. Authors continue poor, and booksellers become opulent; an extraordinary result! Booksellers are not agents for authors, but proprietors of their works; so that the perpetual revenues of literature are solely in the possession of the trade.12

Although it is true that authors were generally the ones least likely to profit from the new marketplace, D’Israeli failed to see that publishers frequently filled much of the gap that had been left by the decline of traditional patronage. John Keats is only one of the more prominent examples of poets who benefited greatly from their publishers’ care, pecuniary, socially, or otherwise. Keats’s second publishers, Taylor and Hessey, unlike his first one, the Ollier Brothers, did not drop him when it became obvious that Keats’s fortunes in the marketplace were negligible, but took an active role in securing that Keats would not completely ignore the requirements of writing for the contemporary market for poetry, and eventually even made sure that the ailing poet should recover in Italy.13 In essence, then, the role of the patron shifted “from commissioner and controller of literary work to its consumer, publisher, and promoter.”14

3.3 The commodification of literature: copyrights and best-sellers

3.3.1 The debates over copyright

An important corollary of the literary marketplace is the valuation of literary copyright. Copyright follows the logic of the print market by commodifying writers’ and publishers’ share of literature in quantifiable sums of money. Since Elizabethan times it had been common practice to regard copyright as the perpetual property of the bookseller. The first proper Copyright Act of 1709 limited copyright to 21 years (28 when the author was still alive), excluding works already under copyright. While a 1769 act reinstated the booksellers’ right to perpetual copyright, this concept was effectively terminated in the case of Donaldson vs. Beckett in 1774. As a consequence a number of cheap reprint series such as Bell’s Poets of Great Britain enjoyed huge popular success and proved that the market for literature was greater than supply had previously suggested. In 1814 the period of copyright was extended from fourteen to twenty- eight years and further extended to forty-two years in 1842, or, if the author lived longer than this, to the duration of his or her life plus seven years.15

The copyright question was hotly debated during the Romantic period.

Arguing for the rights of authors, D’Israeli found that they are heirs to fortunes, but by a strange singularity they are disinherited at their birth; for, on the publication of their works, they cease to be their own property. […] The natural rights and properties of AUTHORS not having been sufficiently protected, they are defrauded, not indeed of their fame, though they may not always live to witness it, but of their uninterrupted profits, which might save them from their frequent degradation in society.16

This was the view adopted by Romantic poets. Wordsworth’s involvement with his audiences, real or imagined, in the context of the commodification of literature is exemplary of the copyright debate of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although the poet in Wordsworth’s view, as we shall see, was advised to write for posterity’s sake rather than for the contemporary market, Wordsworth inevitably had to draw conclusions as to how the artist’s rights of ownership to his works could be preserved in a marketplace that alienated artists from their works by commodifying literature.


1 Elie Halévy, A History of the English People in 1815 (London and New York: Ark, 1987 [11924]), 441.

2 James Raven, Judging New Wealth: Popular Publishing and Responses to Commerce in England, 1750-1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 42f.

3 John Brewer and Iain McCalman, “Publishing,” in An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832, ed. Iain McCalman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 198.

4 Raven, Judging New Wealth (quoted note 2), 44f.

5 Brewer and McCalman, “Publishing,” in Oxford Companion (quoted note 3), 198.

6 Ibid ., 203.

7 Isaac D’Israeli, The Calamities and Quarrels of Authors: with Some Inquiries Respecting Their Moral and Literary Characters (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1867), 70-75.

8 Ibid ., 4.

9 Brewer and McCalman, “Publishing,” in Oxford Companion (quoted note 3), 201.

10 Ibid., 202f.

11 Dustin Griffin, Literary Patronage in England, 1650-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni- versity Press, 1996), 285.

12 D’Israeli, Calamities and Quarrels (quoted note 7), 15f.

13 Robert Gittings, John Keats (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), 400, 489, 496f, 531f., 587f., 590.

14 Brewer and McCalman, “Publishing,” in Oxford Companion (quoted note 3), 201.

15 Oxford Companion (quoted note 3), 466f.

16 D’Israeli, Calamities and Quarrels (quoted note 7), 16.

Excerpt out of 123 pages


English Romantic Poets and their Reading Audiences
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Faculty for Philology)
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English, Romantic, Poets, Reading, Audiences
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Karsten Runge (Author), 2002, English Romantic Poets and their Reading Audiences, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/13961


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