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The Book’s The Thing

Toby Barnard

The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home, by Abigail Williams, Yale University Press, 351 pp, $40, ISBN: 978-0300208290

Once, the history of the book was dominated by the connoisseur and collector, happy to pay a high price for the rare and exquisite. The most enlightened commissioned experts to classify and catalogue both the outsides and insides of their treasures. But the subject, though not yet entirely relinquished by such devotees, has since been seized by literary scholars and historians. Bibliographical analysis, involving patient collation and comparison of printed texts, and the identification of the distinctive ornaments with which printers enlivened otherwise blank spaces, flourish. They remain the bedrock on which, over the last thirty years or more, a ponderous superstructure of interpretation has been erected. Local and national pride have sustained enquiries: a specific town or state is shown to have been in the vanguard of printing and book production; their products exhibit superlative skills in the quality of paper and type-faces, layout, design and binding; the titles are marked by intellectual precociousness or boldness. Feelings of this sort have inspired, and sometimes brought generous subventions for, histories of the book in particular countries (for example in England, Scotland and Wales). Such researches have been greatly assisted by the refining of a variety of electronic resources. Recorded copies of publications in English published before 1800 can be tracked thanks to the English Short Title Catalogue. Moreover, most of these titles can now be read remotely, via Eighteenth Century Collections Online and Early English Books Online, saving a visit to a remote library in order to consult a sometimes unique copy. This massive substructure has made it easier to ask questions of the abundant evidence. In consequence, it is possible to document more exactly the appearance and growing popularity of genres such as the novel and belles-lettres and to note an apparent decline in the number of theological treatises. The dearth of printing in the Irish language before 1800 can be seen starkly.

One hazard which arises from the ease with which virtual editions can be examined is that vital differences in size and format, and so in original price and legibility, may be obscured. There is no substitute for balancing a hefty folio on desk or knee or for deciphering the smudged characters of a tiny duodecimo volume on flimsy paper and in poor light. The physicality of the business of reading has altered in a manner which may make it hard to resuscitate its eighteenth-century form. These possible losses make Abigail Williams’s new analysis so welcome.

With so much more known about what was printed before 1800, minute bibliographical analysis, while not abandoned, has given way to speculating about the contexts and ways in which the books were used. As a result, the reader as much as the author, printer and publisher, has come into clearer focus. Also, because numerous aspects of consumption and consumerism are attracting the attention of writers on the eighteenth century, books as objects and artefacts have taken their place alongside other accessories of domestic lives. Dr Williams’s study favours this approach. Confidently and convincingly, she returns the books to the settings in which they were enjoyed. She stresses how books were valued as adjuncts of and conduits for refinement and self-improvement. While not dropping the notion of the solitary and silent reader, she shows through a wealth of examples the frequency of reading aloud and in a group. Much of this activity was intended to divert and to banish boredom, but more was to teach and improve the listeners. Attention is given to the skill needed for the recitations. Guides as to how to perform effectively proliferated. Some were aimed at those whose vocations obliged them to speak in public: notably clergymen, and also lawyers, teachers and officials. But, as Williams argues, the manuals were used much more widely. Following instructions too slavishly could court the pitfalls of artifice and theatricality, which were mocked and had to be avoided. Nevertheless, eloquence, oratory and rhetoric were highly valued, and generated treatises, including those of the Irish actor-manager Thomas Sheridan. Even for the young not intending a public career, elocution lessons were useful, helping towards success in polite company. Conversely, regional accents – especially Scotticisms and the Irish brogue – were to be obliterated, not just as a barrier to understanding but as a badge of backwardness.

Almost all Dr Williams’s evidence is drawn from eighteenth century Britain, raising the question of how much of her argument can be applied elsewhere. There is little reason to doubt that similar pressures and trends to those that she stresses can be detected in North America and Western Europe, where print was becoming more readily available, levels of literacy rising, and aspirations to refinement strengthening. The same may well have been true in Ireland, but there the situation is complicated by the persistence of Irish-speaking and the virtual absence of printing in Irish. Attempts to test some of the tentative conclusions are hampered by the sparseness in Ireland of the sorts of documentation on which she is able to ground her study. Williams has delved deeply into inventories, letters, catalogues, commonplace books, and the printed volumes themselves. Particularly illuminating is her attention to the fashion for memorialising writers, fictional characters and actors in pottery, needlework and caricature. Through children’s games, toy theatres and amateur dramatics, print was assimilated. Choice titbits were snipped from periodicals or copied by hand and then pasted into albums which contained a mélange of riddles, aphorisms, jokes and rhymes.

Following the thrust of some recent enquiries, Williams reminds us that new books were for the few. In the course of the eighteenth century, they may have become more expensive, not cheaper, and levels of literacy were slow to rise. Most readers necessarily contented themselves with the venerable – sometimes inherited or bought second-hand and cheaply – or abridgements and digests. Bound copies could be supplemented by periodicals and magazines, by what others might read to them or, harder to ascertain, what was summarised and frequently garbled in talk. Despite these limitations, astute authors and publishers found it worth their while to cater for women and children, as well as the socially uncertain, keen to learn how to conduct themselves.

Even more than is the case in Britain, available detail about reading habits in Ireland is limited to a tiny and usually self-conscious and self-congratulatory minority. The social and economic circumstances seen by Williams as the preconditions for what she details certainly existed here, albeit on a lesser scale. In addition, many of the same works popular in the quest for betterment and refinement were available in Ireland, either in locally printed editions or shipped in from England. Whether it was the plays of Shakespeare, complete, truncated or bowdlerised, the pious Whole Duty of Man or Thomas Dyche’s A Guide to the English Tongue, what was valued in England was also seized upon in Ireland as the route to social acceptance and advance.

Books did not invariably please; nor did hearing them read aloud. Print was intended to banish ennui, but on occasion a tedious recital could of itself induce boredom. The smutty and scabrous existed alongside the improving and threatened to corrupt rather than to enlighten. Censors were neither quick nor alert enough to prevent the undesirable from entering and being read in the family circle.

Print encouraged discussion of current events – and notably the acquisition, enlargement and exploitation of an empire. In addition, it may have incubated a sense of Englishness or (by the end of the eighteenth century) Britishness. In Ireland, the issues are complicated by the persistence of Irish as the language of the majority and the stubbornly low levels of income and literacy. Choosing to read English in print hardly proclaimed political allegiance since little else was to hand. Yet those who steeped themselves in this overwhelmingly Anglophone culture of print not only differentiated themselves from the majority without regular recourse to print but from those whose first language was Irish and whose orientation inclined elsewhere than towards Protestant England. If print may have been widening dangerous rifts within Irish society, at the same time the predominantly oral culture of the majority became suffused with the ubiquitous print, although this could as readily have arrived from continental Europe as Britain.

A final chapter looks at the ways in which print was used to shore up religious belief and observance, instruct in history and geography, and introduce the increasingly complex wonders of the natural world. The popularity of these genres is shown, outweighing in numbers the lightweight novels. Williams allows that there were reservations about sharing these discoveries. The sexuality of plants was a potential embarrassment, especially if explored in mixed domestic company. In the main, though, she emphasises the relaxed and often convivial nature of the exchanges involving print. Evidence of fiery argument which disrupted social harmony is not offered. The potential of print to subvert orthodoxies cannot be gainsaid. Inevitably, then, matters of religious doctrine and interpretation and portrayals of historical figures were highly contentious. We find a Catholic squire in Lancashire discreet in his recourse to confessional publications and iconography, fearful of attracting official hostility. Reflection on what had been read led, notoriously, to discontent with institutions, notably the state church. Movements of reform and regeneration, conspicuously the success of Methodism during the mid-century, gathered momentum, thanks in part to printed admonitions. More dangerously heretical doctrines, even unbelief, were also fed by print. The scope for controversy is suggested by the references to the reading, often in company, of Mary Delany.

Opinionated and educated, Mrs Delany, having married a Church of Ireland dignitary, spent long periods in Dublin and Co Down. Her admiration for the first duke of Ormond, the Irish lord lieutenant under Charles I and Charles II, is recorded, as she went through the massive biography which had been published in the 1730s. Williams makes the point that some readers, including Delany, were happier to adopt real people from the past as exemplars than to praise fictional ones. A further point that might be made is that Ormond remained a divisive presence, associated with Stuart absolutism and the supposed betrayal of Irish interests. Through ancestry and outlook, Mrs Delany was likely to find the duke and his stance sympathetic. Here, her reading might be interpreted as bolstering an opinion at variance with that held by most of her contemporaries in Ireland. Her correspondence does not mention any divergent reactions at her fireside to the readings aloud of Ormond’s virtues. Unfortunately, given how sparse the surviving evidence is, even for reading activity, the discussion that it then stimulated has left few legible traces. The jolly ambience, lubricated with drink and food, can readily be retrieved. Not so the passions provoked by the reading matter and how it was understood. Just as passages of scripture were applied in a variety of sometimes divergent ways, so too were the messages from the past and commentary on the present.

The author concludes modestly that she has offered “a series of vignettes of reading lives and practices”. Were this all, it would itself be reason for celebration. But much more is achieved through this lively and original study, richly documented and happily free of jargon. The now familiar account of print engulfing the eighteenth century, far from being discarded, is confirmed and amplified. But, just as the quantity of available print increased, so too did the ways in which it was encountered. Through extracts, summaries, digests, quotations and captions it was present in more homes. Printed words are there in the tags painted on pottery jugs, jigsaw puzzles, embroidered samplers, the bill-heads of shops, and a barrage of advertising. Garbled, misquoted, misheard, misunderstood, it is naive to suppose that any one text invariably worked in a single way. Dr Williams, avoiding heady speculation or technical obfuscation, has brought to life the story of how print worked on people in the past.


Toby Barnard's latest book is Brought to Book, Print in Ireland 1680 - 1784