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The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period
William St Clair

Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004
£90, 765 p., ISBN 052181006x
£21.99, 796 p., ISBN-13: 9780521699440 (paperback)


Reviewed by Robert Mankin



As this is the work of a gifted book historian, it is appropriate to begin by noting that The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period first appeared in 2004 and was reprinted twice in 2005. The hefty volume here under review, the second reprint, apparently adds no revisions or updates to the original. My review copy is the serviceable black buckram hardbound edition but the release in paperback has just occurred (January 2007). The dust jacket of my copy reproduces the painting of a customer, a seller and a bookbinder in a Dutch bookshop in 1820. These roles are true to St Clair’s subject, though the non-anglophone rival of real interest in The Reading Nation is not a Dutchman, but the Parisian publisher and bookseller Galignani, who had a considerable part in bringing British romantic literature to Britons (Pace Linda Colley). Nowhere does the dust jacket announce the daunting price of the hardbound edition: luckily, the paperback will be affordable for many readers of this review. As for content, the work divides almost in half. The text consists of 451 pages and includes a few tables and illustrations. It is followed by ‘Appendices’ that are too compendious and long to support that second-class name: almost 300 pages of tables lay out invaluable data on intellectual property law and practice, publishing details and sales histories of major and minor authors, popular literature, periodicals and much else. So much for the overview of a volume that is not just two books in one, but so chequered and inclusive that one hesitates in some ways to call it a book. More on that in a minute.

As William St Clair was trained as an economist, it is also appropriate to note the framing presence of Adam Smith in the text: Smith is the first author explicitly mentioned [7] and with a final chapter entitled ‘The Political Economy of Reading,’ he can be considered the last. This is not to say that St Clair relies on the technical language of economics or even on the methods of the social sciences that he sometimes invokes. Nor does he proffer a Smithian, liberal view of the publishing industry, even if Smith is invoked more than once to denounce unregulated commercial monopolies. The homage to Smith is clearly motivated by St Clair’s perception of all the important ways that readers are consumers. It also bespeaks the progressive role of Scottish publishing in the history of the book in Britain, as well as the centrality of Walter Scott’s poetry and novels and of Hugh Blair’s sermons [270 ff.]. Beyond all of these associations, Smith may have a particular relevance to The Reading Nation since he was an analyst at the beginning of the age we generally take him to have been studying: the age of capitalism. St Clair too is a prophet of sorts, for his history of the print era in Britain is excellent preparation for thinking about contemporary questions of intellectual property, the internet and the opaque, globalized screen readers most of us have become.

That St Clair is no ordinary historian strikes the reader almost at once. Whatever the complex term "reading nation" means [266 ff.], this volume cannot be taken as one more book-length study of the Romantic period. The scope of his preoccupations and expertise extends much farther and can be summarized briefly as follows. ‘The print era,’ the time when books and other forms of printed matter were undeniably the privileged medium of cultural transfer, ran for about 500 years and ended in the early twentieth century, with the appearance of radio and then television. (Frontispieces notwithstanding, illustration finds its way into his story in midcourse, perhaps the late 18th century, but does not deeply affect the priority of text.) In Britain, the history of print culture is told through a series of specific dates: essentially 1600, 1774 and 1817. Curiously, the dates that automatically spring to mind—the spate of pamphlets during the 1640’s, the non-renewal of the Licensing Act in 1695 and Queen Anne’s statute of 1710 (which we generally call the Copyright Act)—do not play a central role in this brilliant, deeply informed account. Pace Macaulay, pace most teachers and readers on the subject. This shift in emphasis implies that the history of intellectual property (and authorship) cannot be told without a history of readers.

One wants to exaggerate and say that The Reading Nation tells the whole story, the long history of print in Britain and the way in which the book shaped mentalities, the structure of society and the history of ideas from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. For St Clair, the story begins with England’s linguistic isolation from the rest of Europe and from manuscripts and print circulating on the continent. It also begins, less blatantly in his telling, with moves made by ‘the State’—in fact, a State driven largely by a religious agenda—in the sixteenth century to use print to control opinion and settle religious habits in the population (e.g. The Books of Common Prayer); it is only later in his account that he deploys the acerbic term ‘official supernatural’ to describe this particular aspect of political and cultural life. The other key starting-point is the ‘first come, first served’ approach taken by the stationers, in the age of moveable type, with respect to the printing of previously existing works. St Clair likens their grabbing up of titles to the early-modern appropriation of common lands by the upper classes. But his metaphor drifts. He sometimes likens it to Locke’s labour theory of property a century later: if you printed the text (first), you owned it. But though he is already telling a fascinating story and raising many questions, the reader must not get too caught up in it yet: all of these various beginnings are in fact hung as a backdrop.

The narrative truly begins with an event that St Clair dates from around 1600 and considers "among the most decisive events in the history of reading" in the West [67, 80]: the entrepreneurial ‘clamp-down’ on traditional genres of information carried over from the manuscript age, such as abridgements, anthologies and ballads. He speaks of this as "an event" in English history but it is murkier than that: although he unquestionably perceives the results, he finds no trace of actual decisions taken by the Stationers’ Company, a cartel or even government. (And he notes that the same shift seemed to occur elsewhere in Europe at about the same time.) The result, however it occurred, was to curtail fresh production in these popularizing genres—vulgarisations, as the French put it—whereby new information was traditionally gleaned from published sources and diffused throughout society. The market for new material became exclusive (No Gleaning Allowed) and expensive. One way to define the 17th century in England, St Clair suggests, is as the time when book prices soared, putting an end to a world in which texts circulated like commonplaces, to be shared and appropriated over and over, and the people were in the theatre too. So it was from around 1600 that ‘the English Renaissance’ ended, and the vast majority of English men, women and children were thrown back on the older, ‘obsolete’ forms taken by the popular genres of previous centuries. As cultural renewal ceased to occur at almost every level of society, it became possible to speak of "the innate conservatism of the rural mind" [80] and to think of the latter as a timeless reality, to bank on it to the point that certain classes easily condescended to or feared the people, while deploring their proclivity to astrology, superstition and popery. As if ‘the world we have lost’ were not just a memory or a refuge from urban industrialization, but itself, in part, the fabrication of an increasingly rigid religious, political and commercial establishment.

In St Clair’s account that establishment persisted remarkably well through times of civil war, Commonwealth and Restoration. A nice example here is Shakespeare, who loses all of his scruffiness and popular appeal by having only moralized editions of the sonnets or weighty folios of the plays available in the seventeenth century. Nor was the establishment dislodged by Queen Anne’s statute ‘for the encouragement of learning’ in 1710. Although by law copyright now ceased to be perpetual, in practice English publishers found a variety of ways, often based on the common law, to maintain their monopolies over the key texts. If scholarship has taught us that change came to the eighteenth century via journals, newspapers and clubs, thereby transforming and expanding the realm of public opinion, St Clair’s perspective downplays these trends. First of all, his concern lies more with books as such, though chapbooks, ballads and pamphlets certainly figure in his account. Second, what makes books important is that they were under the control of the London establishment. Thus, the conflict he sets out is not between government and citizens, or religion and the (increasingly Anglican) printers or even within the London cartel, but between London and its peripheries. The latter are not the provinces nor even the continent but the Scots and the Irish.

If the 18th-century Irish publishers are often presented as industrial ‘pirates’ (we owe the metaphor to Addison; 90), St Clair shows how their studied fixation on the English market impoverished the home market and the progress of literacy outside of Dublin and a few other cities [191]. Disregard for intellectual property might have done otherwise there, as it later would in North America, to which he devotes an entire chapter. But it is clearly the Scots who get the best role in the story, as dynamic economic players who respected the 1710 statute, made no appeal to English common law, developed their industry massively at home [114] and finally set up shop in London, to the point of infiltrating the London cartel. In many ways, the Scottish book industry becomes St Clair’s ideal version of Enlightenment, Scottish or otherwise. Under these pressures, the British situation had to change. In 1774 a decision made by Lord Kames in the Scottish Courts of Session was upheld in the House of Lords, declaring that the copyright laws of 1710 indeed applied to English publishing. There now opened what St Clair calls ‘the brief copyright window’ whereby older texts of British culture could be published at will and circulated in all formats and prices, and thus at all levels of society, at least through 1808. In addition, schools began to acquire prominence as a setting in which print—of many kinds—could be encountered. The event this time is easier to describe than with the clamp-down of 1600:

Quite suddenly, in the course of a few years from about 1780, English literature became the principal source of texts for English education, aiming to associate learning with reading, reading with pleasure, pleasure with beauty and beauty with virtue. […] Of all the many changes brought about by 1774, the one with the most long-lasting consequences was to steep British children of the post-Enlightenment urban and industrialised nineteenth century in the pre-Enlightenment rural religious culture as it had been imagined and celebrated by writers of the previous century. [137]

As St Clair demonstrates, it is not that the texts brought into view were the canonical texts of ‘English literature’, but rather that the editorial and commercial processes here described led ‘quite suddenly’ to the existence of that canon, "the first truly national literature" [138] for Britain. Literary study as he describes it in his chain reaction ("learning with reading, reading with…") was perhaps not as new as he claims, but the number of readers concerned was clearly unprecedented.

This was social progress, the progress that has led us to the institutionalized study of literature, the plaisir du texte and the quandaries of literary study in schools and universities today. Historically, too, St Clair shows that the progress was never quite what one might expect. Just as the clamp-down had condemned a large part of English society to backwardness, so the decision of 1774 put a new, expanding readership out of joint with its times. Post-Enlightenment, industrializing Britain basked in pre-Enlightenment rural England, because even when the copyright window opened, the intellectual property rights of contemporary authors were still enforced: what British readers could easily purchase and read were English authors of previous periods. One can think of other reasons as well why increasingly urban, prosperous classes might have been drawn to the country, but this aspect of book history makes a powerful case about why Enlightenment authors had little impact on the plight or the minds of the common people of Britain, whether the latter could read or not. Largely because of copyright, the Enlightenment author was an expensive author. True, some lived handsomely from their pens. But the ideas of Robertson, Hume, Gibbon, a republican author like Catharine Macaulay or (somewhat later) Mary Wollstonecraft were confined to the most prosperous classes of society until sometime in the nineteenth century. As a result, St Clair notes, the authors of the Enlightenment were only read by a large readership "simultaneously with works by Gisbourne, Hannah More, and Paley who constituted a Counter-Enlightenment" [254]. Indeed, it seems that British readers often met the latter first, which might explain in part why sales of the Bible were higher during the Romantic period than in all the rest of British history combined [270]. Book history throws its own light, in other words, on the idea of ‘conservative Enlightenment’, not to mention the history of British political parties in the 19th century or the extraordinary historical importance of the Waverley novels. Nor do such historical paradoxes end with the Enlightenment. St Clair explains the fascinating contradiction in which Southey found himself in "the most decisive single event in shaping the reading of the romantic period" [316]. In 1817, Southey’s youthful verse drama "Wat Tyler," written in his republican days, was issued in an unauthorized edition. The poet laureate, who had become highly conservative, could not suspend the publication because when he denounced the work as morally and politically dangerous, he made it impossible for the courts to justify protecting his ownership of the text. A loophole was thereby opened through which major texts of Shelley and Byron were soon diffused and a new urban imagination created. Yet it would not be until the 1860’s [420 ff.] that the romantics as a movement finally penetrated the ‘old canon’ of English literature and developed a mass readership of their own, lending impetus to the campaign for universal education.

In what is finally a short space, The Reading Nation manages to argue that we have never really understood the reception and social significance of Shakespeare, or the civil wars, the lapsing of the Licensing Act or even the Enlightenment. Likewise, Romantic literature turns out to be a response to these peculiar spasms in the history of publishing, which include the rise of an "old" national literature and the "censorship of price" [256] enforced upon the new, leading to a remarkable ‘collectivisation of the reading of newly written books’ in book clubs and circulating libraries. As St Clair neatly points out, the growing trend in collective reading from 1750 may have been organized largely by social class but it did not arise from "a Northern European bourgeois ethic" [262 ff.] any more than the public sphere was there heroically winning the battle of opinion. Progress in the evolution of mentalities, social class and ideas depended on the economics of the book industry and the tricks of the trade. Perhaps this is what St Clair means when, more than once, he dismisses our belief in ‘grand narratives’. For this very reason, one may wonder whether his summa about books and reading does not damage many of the ideals associated with books in our history. How did the ‘political economy of knowledge’ (Joel Mokyr) ever develop if it depended on the political economy of reading? Are we wrong to have expected so much from books? And if books are so complex, why must we depend on publishing rather than other industries to explain the patterns of development in culture?

Let me conclude by putting the question slightly differently. St Clair performs so thorough a revision of so many aspects of our usual picture that it amounts to a revolution. But is this a revolutionary book? It is long and rewarding, a real page turner; the ‘appendices’ will take years for scholars to mine and expand upon (where, for instance, is Addison?). But this is also a work with little patience. When the brief copyright window opens in 1774, St Clair despairs of the eighteenth century:

The damages which the British nation suffered from sixty-four years of illegality can also be estimated by comparing what went before with what came after. In economic terms we can note the income losses of everyone forced to buy overpriced books, the foreclosing of opportunities to authors, manufacturers and traders, the loss of potential jobs. The losses include less literature of all kinds being written and published, less reprinting, less reading, a slow-down in the pace of the diffusion of new ideas, less access to the discoveries of science and medicine by those at the lower tranches of the book market, less education, more obsolete education, more illiteracy, more ignorance, more unwanted children. [120]

Perhaps it is a romantic despair, which we need books to express. Shelley thought that reading would change the world [318]. But books didn’t. Or unfortunately, they did. In any case, in 1774 the Corn Laws were yet to come.




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