Five Questions: Gillian Russell on The Ephemeral Eighteenth Century

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Gillian Russell is Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature at the University of York. Her work focuses on British and Irish literature, history and culture of the long eighteenth century, with particular interests in theatre, gender, sociability, war and print culture. Her books include The Theatres of War: Performance, Politics and Culture, 1793-1815 (Oxford University Press, 1995), Romantic Sociability: Social Networks and Literary Culture, 1770-1840 (co-edited with Clara Tuite; Cambridge University Press, 2002), Women, Sociability and Theatre in Georgian London (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Tracing War in British Enlightenment and Romantic Culture (co-edited with Neil Ramsey; Palgrave, 2015). Her latest monograph, which we discuss below, is The Ephemeral Eighteenth Century: Print, Sociability, and the Cultures of Collecting, was published in 2020 by Cambridge University Press.

1) How did you first become interested in ephemera?

I would date this interest to how as a child I used to pore over a shoebox filled with documents from the First World War preserved by a relative, such as crumbling newspapers, drill manuals, guides to useful French phrases, and field service postcards asking you to mark phrases as appropriate such as ‘I am quite well’.  (Luckily this material was eventually given to the local museum). In researching my first book The Theatres of War, I was reliant on ephemeral material such as playbills, posters, newspaper clippings, caricatures, etc. but it was only much later that I became interested in how that material had been preserved, often in named collections.  For example, Sarah Sophia Banks’s collection on private theatricals which included material on military theatricals was very important to The Theatres of War but it was only much later that I became interested in Banks as a collector.

Another important influence was my involvement in events associated with the return from Canada to Australia in 2007 of the earliest document to be printed in Australia which is a playbill for a performance in Sydney of Nicholas Rowe’s tragedy Jane Shore in 1796.  This experience led me to think more about the playbill in general and also about how institutional contexts shape the meaning of a document, in this case investing a fragile scrap of paper with national historical significance.  As a result of my work on sociability, I was also interested in how ephemera such as tickets and playbills can be a way of accessing eighteenth-century consciousness of the ephemerality of sociable life.  The fact that some tickets were virtual art objects is a sign of investments in the uniqueness of particular social occasions that might otherwise be missed in the historical record.

2) What do you think are the most important things we miss when we confine book history to books?  How does examining ephemera help to address this gap in our understanding?

To be fair to book historians they have argued for a long time that we shouldn’t confine book history to the study of the codex-form book. The importance of ephemera as part of the spectrum of print has been recognised by doyens of book history such as D. F. McKenzie and Michael Harris. Peter Stallybrass and James Raven have also drawn attention to the importance of jobbing print. The reasons why printed ephemera hasn’t featured more in book history have been because of assumptions, created by the category itself, that not much of it survived and also because we lack the descriptive tools and methodologies by which to analyse it.  Cataloguing protocols influenced by the codex-form book that are focused on author, title, publisher, and date of publication are not easily applicable to e.g. a playbill or advertising handbills.  The Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue project in the late 1970s actually excluded playbills and other kinds of ephemera relating to sociability because a) there was too much of it and b) it was difficult to describe.  Digitisation has been transformative in making the existence of collections of printed ephemera and their contents more visible.  When I began the project in the early 2010s, for example, the only way to access Sarah Sophia Banks’s vast collection in the British Museum was to go to the Department of Prints and Drawings.  Now a lot of what she collected is available to view online.  Digitisation is no replacement for the ‘real thing’ though, as I explore in the book in relation to the 1796 Sydney playbill.

3) In what ways would you see the ephemeral eighteenth century as differing from the ephemeral seventeenth century and the ephemeral nineteenth century?

Not surprisingly, in the light of my affiliation, I see the ephemeral eighteenth century as being very long.  I argue that there’s a remarkable continuity in the kind of ephemeral material collected by individuals from the 1640s to the 1860s.  Ephemeral print expanded and diversified as technology changed, for example in the use of larger type for posters in the early nineteenth century, but what printed ephemera could do, in terms of publicizing and recording quotidian life in the form of print to the moment remained consistent between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.  Indeed, you could say that the ephemeral eighteenth century is still with us in the form of the ephemerality of social media, as well as the survival of the printed notice that has played a significant role in marking the experience of lockdowns in 2020-21.

4) Studying ephemera is complicated both due to the potential scale of the kinds of materials that could be considered and due to the rarity and particularities of survivals.  How did you come to locate and select the forms of ephemera you focus on in your chapter (Sarah Sophia Banks’s collections, playbills, visiting cards, the print surrounding frost fairs)?

The main challenge I faced in writing the book was how to communicate the breadth and diversity of printed ephemera and the significance of the work of collectors in amassing this material.  My initial plan was to focus on Sarah Sophia Banks but I gradually realised that a) there was too much in her collecting to cover and b) I wanted to convey the fact that she wasn’t the crazy eccentric that she’s sometimes represented as, but rather part of a tradition of popular antiquarianism going back to the seventeenth century.  (Marilyn Butler’s work on popular antiquarianism was very helpful in that respect).  I deal with the tip of the tip of the iceberg of Banks’s collecting, focusing on particular items and subjecting them to techniques of close reading that we use in literary analysis.  I see the book as laying the groundwork for future study in this field e.g. in relation to how imaginative literature, particularly the novel, incorporates and remediates printed ephemera.  I address this in the book in relation to Edgeworth and Austen. 

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’ve been interested in Charles and Mary Lamb for a number of years and am beginning to work on an edition of Lamb’s Specimens for the Oxford University Press edition, helmed by Greg Dart. Also, I haven’t finished with ephemera.  I’m planning a project on collectors of ephemera in Yorkshire and Scotland and down the track I’d like to do some work on printed ephemera in Irish history.