"Slovenly Monthly Catalogues": The Monthly Review and Barbauld's Periodical Literary Criticism

Article excerpt

Anna Letitia Barbauld, one of the eighteenth century's most highly-regarded women poets, was also the early nineteenth century's most important British woman literary critic. She not only published a large body of essay criticism, but authored hundreds of literary reviews as well, most of which were published in the Monthly Review Catalogues, special sections devoted to brief articles. Though literary scholarship has paid little attention to reviews, Barbauld's work at the Monthly Review shows that even brief Catalogue articles were the work of professionals who provided an important service. Study of these articles helps to dispel some of the prejudices about reviewing and literary professionalism. They show that both authors and reviewers regarded literary production as a collective activity, with reviewers playing an active part. Most importantly, they illuminate the evolving role of a woman writer in an increasingly professionalized literary culture.

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During the second half of the eighteenth century, as Britain saw a rapid increase in both literacy and the volume of new publications, an innovative form of periodical appeared--the literary review. Periodicals commenting upon literature had for some time enjoyed great popularity and influence, but with an expanding reading public eager for guidance on the mushrooming numbers of new books, the time was ripe for a publication devoted exclusively to making sense of all the new writing. Educated professionals expected to keep up with advances in all branches of science and the arts, while the rising middle classes wished to attain the sort of general familiarity with literature that was quickly becoming a necessary mark of status. First conceived in the mid-eighteenth century, literary reviews came to dominate the practice of literary criticism by the beginning of the nineteenth century, determining the shape of Romantic-era popular literary taste. These new publications offered writers plentiful opportunities for paid work and provided a venue where they could hone their critical and creative skills, and so helped to drive the shift during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries from an amateur literary culture grounded in patronage to a professional one in which the relationship between writers and their booksellers and editors emphasized clear terms of payment. (1) Yet study of literary reviews remains burdened with unexamined overgeneralizations about reviewer aptitude, dedication, and impartiality--about, in other words, reviewer professionalism--with briefer, less prominent articles written off altogether.

Meanwhile, although women frequently turned to writing as a source of income, criticism for a well-known literary review remained during these years by and large the province of men. Even so, a very few women did engage in this form of professional literary work, among them British Romanticism's most important woman literary critic, Anna Letitia Barbauld. For over seven years, Barbauld reviewed books and pamphlets for the Monthly Review, Britain's first modern literary review, and for many years its most prestigious. She authored literally hundreds of articles, all of them published in the Monthly Review's Monthly Catalogue or Foreign Catalogue, both sections devoted exclu-sively to brief reviews. These Catalogue contributions are precisely the type of brief criticism that most scholars have dismissed out of hand, yet they offer a rare glimpse of a woman writer's role in one of the most professional forms of Romantic-era literary work. Barbauld's Catalogue articles show that she viewed reviewing even minor works as providing a necessary public service. They disprove many of the preconceptions that have stood in the way of understanding the function of these short articles and open the way to a reassessment of what insights literary reviews might offer on the changes taking place in literary culture.

The years preceding the British Victorian era present very few opportunities to become acquainted with the work of a professional woman literary critic, and among the few women critics that can be identified Barbauld stands out for the quantity, range, and professionalism of her critical work. …