Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Political Propriety and Feminine Property: Women in the Eighteenth-Century Text Trades

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Political Propriety and Feminine Property: Women in the Eighteenth-Century Text Trades

Article excerpt

Dispersing seditious books is very near a-kin to the raising of tumults; they are as alike as brother and sister: raising of tumults is more masculine; and printing and dispersing books, is the feminine part of every rebellion.

--Serjeant Morton at the Trial of Thomas Brewster

It is a general prejudice, and has been propagated for these 1600 years, that arts and sciences cannot flourish under an absolute government; and that genius must necessarily be cramped where freedom is restrained. This sounds plausible, but is false in fact.... [W]hy the despotism of government should cramp the genius of a mathematician, an astronomer, a poet, or an orator, I confess I could never discover. It may indeed deprive the poet or orator of the liberty of treating of certain subjects in the manner they would wish, but it leaves them subjects enough to exert genius upon, if they have it. Can an author with reason complain that he is cramped and shackled if he is not at liberty to publish blasphemy, bawdry, or sedition?

--Lord Chesterfield

In the foundational article "What is an Author," Michel Foucault claims that:

   [the] status [of discourse] as property is historically secondary to the
   penal code controlling its appropriation. Speeches and books were assigned
   real authors ... only when the author became subject to punishment and to
   the extent that his discourse was considered transgressive. In our culture
   ... discourse was not essentially a thing, a product, or a possession, but
   an action situated in a bipolar field of sacred and profane, lawful and
   unlawful, religious and blasphemous. It was a gesture charged with risks
   long before it became a possession caught in a circuit of property values.

While historians of the French book trade have, following Foucault, historicized the emergence of the author in relation to his responsibility for potentially seditious texts, the relationship between authorship and censorship has been largely ignored by critics concerned with the professionalization of the author and the rise of the novel in England.(1) They seem to have succumbed to the notion, promulgated by Lord Chesterfield as early as 1749, that genius exists separately from, and is not influenced by, government regulation.(2) This is partly due to a misunderstanding of the nature of censorship and its targets in the second half of the seventeenth century. Susan Stewart, for example, in discussing the English treason cases of the period, asserts that, "before the development of concepts of original genius and intellectual property, all thoughts were potentially held in common, ... and it was those who disseminated ideas who reaped any rewards or punishments prompted by such ideas" (12). The disseminators of sedition Stewart refers to were, of course, booksellers, publishers, and hawkers--a group Stewart, in this comment, makes sharply distinct from authors, who, she seems to imply, were ignored by government agents.

I will attempt to show in this essay, however, that the author as an accountable agent emerged in England as an entity intrinsically connected to printers, publishers and other legally responsible agents within the trade: writers, in the eyes of the law, were just one of many print workers. Furthermore, I will illustrate the ways in which eighteenth-century English censorship, rather than being purely repressive, was productive of certain types of discourse. I refer here to more than the obvious notion that government censors favored pro-monarchy and standard religious tracts and silenced political critics and sectarians. Rather, I believe that even literature outside the usual purview of censorship, focusing on entertainment and education rather than politics, felt the ripple effects of textual regulation. To fully understand this point, we must look at writers as they were considered in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries: as members of a larger group of print workers. …

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