Five Questions: Ina Ferris on Book-Men, Book Clubs, and the Romantic Literary Sphere

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Ina Ferris - Book-Men, Book Clubs, and the Romantic Literary Sphere

Ina Ferris is Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa.   She has written a series of important and influential contributions to Romantic Studies, particularly in the fields of book history and the history of the novel, for which she has received numerous deserved plaudits, including, most recently, the Distinguished Scholar Award of the Keats-Shelley Association of America.  Her major works include the monographs The Achievement of Literary Authority: Gender, History, and the Waverley Novels (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991) and The Romantic National Tale and the Question of Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).  In recent years, her research has focused on the book cultures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, resulting in works including an edited volume for the Romantic Circles Praxis series on Romantic Libraries and a collection on Bookish Histories co-edited with Paul Keen.  One of the culminating achievements of this interest is her latest monograph, Book-Men, Book Clubs, and the Romantic Literary Sphere, which we discuss below and which was published in August by Palgrave Macmillan.

1) How did you first become interested in the idea of the bookman?

I’d been interested for some time in the intense bookishness of the early nineteenth century and I’d started by looking at familiar essayists such as Hunt and Lamb who made books and reading a focal point in their writing.  But in thinking more generally about how print was incorporated in the period I became more and more interested in a form of bookishness that hadn’t received much attention and was represented by bookmen who joined together to insert themselves in the circuit of book production and distribution as an alternative to the commercial market.

What sparked this turn was my running across the Bannatyne Club, the antiquarian printing club founded by Walter Scott in 1823 to print historical documents (a forerunner of the later learned printing societies).  Two things struck me as I did the research.  First, the club was formed not to read, discuss or collect books, as we might have expected, but to sponsor and produce books.  Second, the Bannatyne books came under surprisingly vehement attack from periodical reviewers and other commentators who derided or dismissed them as regressive ‘rubbish’.  The question was why they were so agitated in the first place by an inoffensive circle of bookmen and minor publications with restricted circulation.  I became interested in how bookmen, especially when they formed associations, functioned as flash points in literary culture not just because of their perverse attachment to the material book but because, in involving themselves in the making of books, they put into play an understanding of literary and disciplinary categories at variance with those sustaining the literary sphere.

2) You characterise the bookman as an outlier in the literary field, invested more fully in books themselves than in reading or in notions of literariness.  How does the liminality of the bookmen you examine serve to inform and enrich their perspectives?

The original title of my book was in fact Bookish Outliers: On the Borders of Literary Culture.  I wanted to foreground their position as figures detached from the centre of the literary sphere but not entirely removed from the sphere itself.  In relation to the question of perspective what this position means is that the bookmen’s location on the border put them in contact with contiguous spheres, letting them establish connections and introduce protocols and practices from neighbouring areas.  In this sense, their perspective was informed by a broader matrix of book production and practice, and one of my aims in the book was to draw attention to how this led to a different configuration of book, author and readers than what was being promulgated in literary circles.

One of the most striking examples in the book is Thomas Frognall Dibdin, founder of the elite bibliomaniac Roxburghe Club but also involved in the workaday world of the printing trades.  As a book designer as well as an author, Dibdin produced hybrid bibliographic volumes that embody his understanding of the book as the product of the printing arts as much as the writing arts.  What’s most interesting about them from a conceptual point of view is the way this understanding led Dibdin to make visible in his books what the modern book sought to make invisible.  He put print itself on flamboyant display, for example, and played with the format of the page.  He also credited by name printers and other craftspeople who contributed to the production, so that authorship in Dibdin is situated rather differently from authorship in the novels of Austen or even (despite their bookishness) in Scott’s historical romances.

3) In your introduction, you describe book clubs as having ‘largely disappeared from critical view’, becoming ‘not so much absent as elided’.  What do you think critics can gain by thinking through and countering this elision?

Book clubs have been typically lined up with literary societies, subscription libraries, and reading societies in lists of organizations exemplifying the conversational culture of politeness and the historical narrative of improvement.  This is not wrong (the clubs are certainly related to these other literacy-based organizations) but it obscures the specificity of the clubs, lumping them in with associations dedicated to reading, discussion, lectures, and so forth.  Moreover, placing all these associations on the same plane implies a smooth passage from one term to the next, but the book clubs have a different genealogy and trajectory, and they don’t stand in the same relation to the model of improvement.  By restoring their specificity we open a window onto overlooked dimensions of the experience and uses of print in the period, and so bring into view a more uneven terrain of the book and a more tangled process of the absorption of print into the everyday.  This seems to me the first critical gain.  The second is that in order to counter an elision, we must first track the process of elision, and this move induces critical reflectiveness, drawing attention to the investments/assumptions that sustain central literary categories (not only in the Romantic period but in our own time).  The response to the book clubs seems to me particularly resonant, presenting from a different angle the way literary culture in the Romantic period carved out a place for itself within a dynamic book culture that pressed in on it in different ways.

4) How did you come to fix on your book’s final structure, which circles out from establishment bibliophilia and printing centres in the cities to provincial book clubs and circuits?

To spotlight the constitutive friction between book culture and literary culture that helped to entrench dominant literary categories in the period, I isolated issues of circulation, production and reception triggered by book clubs not primarily devoted to reading or discussion.  At the same time I also wanted to expand the spectrum of book practices and the geography of the book, and so decided to filter these issues through three case studies centred in different regions.  The book starts in London with the high-toned Roxburghe Club of wealthy rare book collectors, which garnered criticism for restricted circulation, then shifts to Edinburgh where the more middle-class Banntayne Club issued historical documents relating to the Scottish past, prompting debate about what should be moved out of the archive into publication.  The final section widens out to look at a type of book club rather than a specific club, concentrating on ‘circulating’ book clubs that proliferated in small towns and rural areas and did not fit readily into the notion of the reading public.  These different spaces of the book make for a kaleidoscopic structure, showing different configurations of the book club, but underlying this structure is a historical thread (or story) about a ‘bookish interim’ which opened up and then closed down over the course of the early decades of the nineteenth century.

5) Now that this project is complete, what new research are you planning to embark on?

One of the discoveries for me in researching Book-Men, Book Clubs, and the Romantic Literary Sphere was the world of printers and the degree of literary activity linked to the printing house, and I’ve now begun to work on a project building out this interest in the printing trades.  I’m looking at the notion of authorship through figures who were involved in some way in these trades and who took to publication in their own right.  I have in mind figures such as William Hutton, who ran a paper factory and wrote the first history of Birmingham, along with various other works; or Pierce Egan, who trained as a compositor and produced the enormously popular Life in London.  What I want to do is revisit Foucault’s famous question ‘What Is an Author?’ by thinking about what happens if you pose this question not from the theoretical perspective of the function of a system of discursive regulation but from the historical perspective of those entering publication via unconventional paths.  How did they encounter or understand authorship?  What might this tell us about a period increasingly invested in the ‘literary character’?