Living as an Author in the Romantic Period: a K-SAA ‘What Are You Reading?’ Special: Part 2
As a part of our ‘What Are You Reading?’ series on the K-SAA Blog, we’re delighted to present a Q&A with Matthew Sangster to mark the publication of his monograph Living as an Author in the Romantic Period.
Part of the Palgrave series Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print, the book uses previously-underutilised archives to show that during the Romantic period, authorship operated principally as a relatively restricted social system, rather than a profession or mode of artistic practice. You can read the first post by Sangster to introduce his research here. Today in part 2, we put some questions to the author and ask him about sociability, archives, favourite critical studies, teaching, and what he’s reading next. You can catch up on part 1 here!
Why do you think it is important to study ‘literary sociability’ in the Romantic period?
The flippant answer is that literature in the Romantic period was sociability, at least in large part: works were produced as means of demonstrating an individual’s talents and qualities in order to achieve forms of social recognition (which might then lead to financial recognition or cultural recognition of other kinds).
This is always true of writing to some extent, of course, but was more strongly true of historical environments before a mature market for literary works had developed and within which notions of art remained quite tightly tied up with elite notions of taste. Imposing modern notions of authorship, professionalism and artistry back onto Romantic-period productions might allow us to see interesting things in such works, and might help with detecting nascent discourses, but such impositions also move us a considerable way from the dominant understanding of authorship at the time.
I think that thinking of texts as social or sociable is something that we could stand to do more of in academia in general. We’re good at theorising from texts, or historicising them, or tracing aesthetic patterns within them, but we’re rather less good at acknowledging the affect that inheres in imagining authors, or at registering texts as being networked, conversable or practical. In my book’s preface, I argue that paying closer attention to authors’ lives reflects the ways that the wider culture engages with literature, lets us register historical change more accurately and helps us see how and why certain writers have been allowed to speak and endure while others have been silenced or pushed into obscurity. All these things seem to me to be worthwhile and important.
Studying sociability is also a lot of fun – as Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite have argued (in Romantic Sociability), treating records of sociable interactions as texts and enjoying and learning from them as we would literary compositions produces some very satisfying results. I’ve personally taken great pleasure in collecting examples of Wordsworth being dreadful at parties (although I’ve only manged to squeeze a couple of those into the book). We enjoy books, but we also enjoy and value the stories and communities that coalesce around them. I don’t think that’s something we should gloss over – it seems to me to be right at the heart of what keeps literature alive.
When you were reading in the archives for this project, did you have a particular moment of exciting discovery you can tell us about? Does it feel significant or unique paying attention to archival sources that are neglected and unread, in your experience?
I had lots of moments of delight and pleasure from discovering things new to me, as well as more than a few where I was frustrated by elisions, losses or terrible handwriting. I spent a lot of time with archives while researching for the book – as part of my work on the Literary Fund, I catalogued over 3,600 case files containing more than 75,000 documents, plus considerable further administrative materials. I did find what I think are previously unknown Wordsworth letters, but they’re not very interesting (first he accepts an invitation to the Fund’s 1842 anniversary dinner, then he writes again to decline). My favourite author in the Literary Fund Archive is probably Eliza Parsons, although I can hardly claim her as my discovery when scholars like Diane Long Hoeveler and Jennie Batchelor have already engaged so fruitfully with her work. There are hundreds of fascinating authorial performances in the RLF archive, though – I could only gesture towards a few in the book, and there’s certainly a lot more to be done with those papers, particularly the twentieth-century materials now catalogued for the first time. Later in the year I’m hoping that a fuller database of the catalogue will make the archive’s riches more visible.
In the publishers’ archives I used, there’s a lot of great underexamined correspondence written by the publishers themselves – there’s a fascinating letter from John Murray to William Blackwood on how to run a successful business that I quote from liberally in my first chapter. I also love some of the Thomas Moore letters preserved as part of the Longman Archive – there’s a wonderful performative epistle to Lady Barbara Donegall I spend a fair bit of time unpicking in my chapter on sociable alignments. I take a lot of pleasure in Robert Southey as a letter-writer, as is probably shown by how frequently I quote him – it’s great that the Collected Letters now makes his playfulness, incisiveness and enjoyable egotism so much more accessible. I’m very grateful to Liz Denlinger at New York Public Library for introducing me to a whole series of letters that helped me develop my thinking about performance and networking in and through correspondence. I was delighted by Leigh Hunt’s brilliantly inventive letters to the Shelleys and I learned a lot from working through Elizabeth Hamilton’s furious rejoinders to her former friend Mary Hays. I also enjoyed examining Matilda Betham’s sociable candour with George Dyer and considering Jane Porter’s attempts to loop Mary Cockle into a specifically female literary milieu.
What surprised you about authors’ interactions with publishers in this period?
Class-based snobbery from privileged authors sometimes surprised me (although perhaps it shouldn’t have done). Printers and booksellers were generally seen as tradesmen, and gentlemanly authors in particular quite often acted as if they were doing their publishers a favour. While Southey respected Murray, there’s some pretty cutting stuff in his letters to others that makes it very clear he thinks Murray should know his place. By contrast, publishers could be very good friends to authors they built up strong relationships with – Longmans were integral to getting Thomas Moore out of financial difficulties, and many of Murray’s authors called on him to send them considerable numbers of books they needed, which he seems happily to have done.
Some accounts think that publishers regularly cheated authors, but I didn’t personally find much evidence of outright deception when lining up surviving ledgers and letters, although William Lane definitely did a lot better out of the Minerva Press than his authors did. Publishers did co-operate quite tightly, which kept the prices paid for literary works from being driven up through things like bidding wars, but they also took on considerable risks, and for books that sold reasonably well, the half-profits arrangement in particular compares quite favourably with modern practices. The main issue was the status of new literary volumes as luxury items that were only affordable for a relatively restricted audience of enfranchised readers.
Can you tell us about how members of the Keats-Shelley circle figure in your book?
One of the objectives of the book was to decentre the canonical Romantics as much as possible – they’re there at the edges (in the introduction and the coda), and they flit in and out of a couple of the chapters, but the book’s really concerned with understanding the authors who outcompeted the Big Six within the cultural systems current during the early nineteenth century and with accounting for some of those who were pushed to the margins of literary culture.
Having said that, figures from the Keats-Shelley circle do pop up at various points. I discuss some of Percy Shelley’s interactions with publishers in Chapter One (he was taken advantage of at various points, although he also took advantage of publishers by not paying his bills). In the second chapter, there’s a discussion of Keats and sociability (in dialogue with Jeffrey Cox’s work), and I spend a fair bit of time reading the interactions between Leigh Hunt and the Shelleys in the same chapter, as I’ve mentioned. The conclusion of the fifth chapter, on how the quarterlies propagated their authority, reads the preface to Adonais alongside the reviews that Shelley attacks, looking at how the Quarterly Review sought to ostracise certain authors while recruiting others to its cause. Byron turns up at quite a few points as a snarky, privileged commentator, and there’s a discussion of his popularity at the end of Chapter Six. The coda reconsiders how the Big Six became big; there’s a fair bit of Shelley in that discussion.
Which critical studies of Romantic literature have influenced you the most?
I mentioned William St Clair in yesterday’s post, and The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period is probably the book to which mine most directly responds. I don’t agree with every interpretation St Clair advances, but the Reading Nation is a book I very much admire – it’s big, ambitious and generous, and it’s written in a style I really enjoy. I remember when I started working on ideas for my thesis, I asked Anne Janowitz what I should look at, and she mentioned Jon Klancher’s The Making of English Reading Audiences and Clifford Siskin’s books – as you’ll be able to tell from my monograph, both of those were excellent recommendations (stating this here makes me feel a bit less bad about missing Annie out of my acknowledgements…). In thinking through particular problems I was grappling with, Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology was very generative, as was work by Andrew Bennett, Penelope Corfield and Michael Gamer.
I probably remain most influenced by some of the first critical books I read, so I should also mention Stuart Curran’s Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism and Iain McCalman’s Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age – I learned a great deal from both of those collections. Marilyn Butler’s Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries remains an inspiration – beautifully written, concise, witty, provocative and full of life. It’s dated now in various ways, and there are certainly important things a modern attempt at the same kind of synoptic or introductory project would include that Butler omits, but I also think a modern project would miss some of the really interesting things she sees (particularly in relation to classical inheritances).
This series isn’t just about your writing but also about your reading. In light of that, how has your study of Romantic authorship contributed to your other academic work, for example teaching? Are there any texts on the subject of Romantic authorship that you recommend in class?
It’s definitely made me more book historical: I have a habit of starting a project thinking it’s about aesthetics and finding that it’s actually about something far more bound up with paper. Writing the book has changed what I teach – I’ve taught Parsons and Byron and Scott in ways I probably wouldn’t have done without this research behind me – but it’s also changed how I teach and where I teach Romantic Studies, which is now most often in our Special Collections department. At Glasgow, we’re lucky to have a couple of Blake illuminated books we can work with, as well as a great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collection, much of it brought in by the 1710 Copyright Act and used by past Glasgow students. While teaching in Special Collections I found by accident that Glasgow’s copy of Wordsworth’s Excursion has extensive marginalia at the end of each book, where multiple students assess Wordsworth’s achievement contentiously in terms that often seem to be borrowed from Blackwood’s. One of our MLitt students wrote a great dissertation on that copy, inspired by that initial unexpected encounter. We’ve also had some great trips to work with manuscripts at the Wordsworth Trust.
I think the authority of the syllabus text can sometimes be a bit disabling for students, and that they can feel empowered by seeing how modest original printings of things now canonised as great works often were. I also think it’s helpful to highlight paratexts and reviews, to show that works were originally met with confusion, rancour or incomprehension. Looking at letters can be good too. I remember Michael Gamer once told me that the best way to get a sense of the conditions of authorship in the Romantic period was to read Walter Scott’s letters. I’ll admit that personally I’ve dabbled in those rather than reading from beginning to end, but I think some well-chosen correspondence that shows how contingent textual forms and receptions can be is really enlivening, helping students gain the confidence to intervene.
What books are in your ‘to read next’ pile right now? What does this tell us about what is next for your research?
Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of Fantasy criticism for a new project I’m working my way into. I’ve been revisiting Brian Attebery’s work on genre, which has been very pleasurable. I’ve also really enjoyed Diana Glyer’s excellent book on how the Inklings worked together (The Company They Keep), and I’ve learned a lot from Helen Young’s Race and Popular Fantasy Literature and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic. I’m currently co-investigator on two projects using library records to try and construct fuller histories of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reading (Libraries, Reading Communities & Cultural Formation in the 18th Century Atlantic and Books and Borrowing 1750-1830: An Analysis of Scottish Borrowers’ Registers), so I’ve been enjoying seeing larger pictures emerge as we continue to work, and I’ve been doing a fair bit of primary and secondary reading to contextualise what we’re finding.
In terms of Romantic Studies, I’ve mainly been reading as-yet-unpublished essays for things I’m involved in editing – this has been a lot of fun, as the work that’s been coming in is excellent. I’ve recently finished the final edits for a short collection of essays on David Bowie and the legacies of Romanticism that Romantic Circles will be publishing, and Jon Mee and I are currently doing the last tweaks for two collections arising from networks we’ve co-ordinated, one on institutions of literature, the other on the 1820s.
In terms of upcoming reading, I have some great books by colleagues that I’ve dipped into, but would like to work through in more detail before an event we’re having later this month: Craig Lamont’s The Cultural Memory of Georgian Glasgow, Nigel Leask’s Stepping Westward: Writing the Highland Tour c. 1720-1830 and Gerry McKeever’s Dialectics of Improvement: Scottish Romanticism, 1786-1831. I’ve been revisiting Charles Lamb’s Elia essays, which I’ve found very comfortable during this difficult time, and reading Stephen Gregg’s recent book on Eighteenth Century Collections Online and the new Rita Felski. I need to read up on John Martin at some point soon, and I’m also quite keen to find out more about George Crabbe. I have the Penguin selected Crabbe on top of one to-read pile along with Kate Singer, Ashley Cross and Suzanne Barnett’s Material Transgressions collection, although my to-read piles themselves are proliferating at an alarming rate, so I don’t know exactly where I’ll end up next. I’ve recently finished a very long Fantasy series, which I really enjoyed, but as a consequence I’m feeling in the mood for novellas and short things at the moment. Last night I read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which I’d definitely recommend; I also really liked Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune.
Matthew Sangster is a Senior Lecturer in Romantic Studies, Fantasy and Cultural History at the University of Glasgow, UK. He has published widely on Enlightenment libraries, literary institutions, Romantic metropolitanism, media culture and the affordances of Fantasy. @MJRSangster
Interviewed by Anna Mercer