Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Do Women Have a Book History?

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Do Women Have a Book History?

Article excerpt

WRITING IN (2012) ABOUT THE EXTENSIVE SCHOLARSHIP STILL NEEDED ON women writers of the Romantic period, Anne Mellor urged that "we need broader studies of women's participation in the entire range of print culture in the Romantic era." (2) The first half of this essay explores the theoretical and methodological strategies by which we can begin to answer Mellor's call, by developing a woman's book history for the Romantic period. In doing so, I have been inspired by Mellor's example of significantly broadening the canon, as she has done throughout her career, in both her critical and editorial work. (3) Franco Moretti's related model of "distant reading" has also guided my approach, particularly his contention that in order to grasp a literary field as a whole, scholars must devise strategies that allow us to zoom out to take in a wider view.

The second part of this essay offers a specific case study of women's publishing history of the period, exploring an unexamined archive of the correspondence of 80 women with four publishing houses. The survey of this collection begins not only to broaden but also to revise our understanding of women's involvement in literary culture, putting pressure on received understandings of the print marketplace and women's professionalism within it.

i. Building Bridges: Book History and Feminist Literary History

Robert Darnton's 1982 essay "What is the History of Books?" proposed what became a highly influential model for conceptualizing such a history, that of the "communications circuit" (fig.i), a model depicting a circuit from author to publisher, printer, shipper, bookseller, reader, and back to author, as a means of describing the operation of the book trade in England and France during the print-era. (4) One of the most profound contributions of Darnton's model for literary scholars has been to re-embed authors within the larger fields of activity by which books were made and sold, distributed and read. As we know, the fantasy of the isolated writer was propagated by several Romantic poets, who figured themselves as did Shelley, as "a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds." (5) Book-historical approaches have been instrumental in debunking this mythology of solitary genius, as literary scholars have productively used Darnton's theory to examine the social networks that enabled the production and dissemination of printed books. Darnton's famous diagram is, however, silent on the question of gender (as it is with respect to other important identity categories, such as class). What happens if we overlay gender onto this diagram? It becomes immediately apparent that whereas men (albeit of different classes) have occupied all positions along the circuit at all times, women have rarely done so. Scholars have begun to bring gender to bear on Damton's model, with results that suggest the importance of heeding historical and geographical variations. Some early modern feminist historians have usefully appropriated Damton's model, in part because it has helped to draw out women's various contributions to print culture in a period when fewer women appeared in print as authors. Thus Maureen Bell, Paula McDowell, and Helen Smith have documented women's active participation in producing and disseminating texts, as printers and hawkers, publishers and sermonizers, compilers and collectors.


However, other early modern feminist scholars have contended that book history's focus on the printed book has tended to marginalize women. Margaret Ezell, for example, has repeatedly called attention to manuscript culture as a socially significant form of literary dissemination throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and one in which women engaged not only as authors but as editors and translators, patrons and copyists. Consideration only of printed books by women during the early modern period yields a highly distorted picture. …

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