Five Questions: Amelia Dale on The Printed Reader

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Amelia Dale is a Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics. She has published essays on on eighteenth-century and Romantic literary culture, the history of reading and ecocriticism in venues including Studies in the Novel, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Romantic Climates, Passions, Sympathy and Print Culture and Sterne, Tristram, Yorick: Tercentenary Essays on Laurence Sterne. She also creates poetry, including the book CONSTITUTION (Inken Publisch) and the e-objects Tractosaur (Troll Thread), METADATA (SOd) and Grumpy Cat 2 Reads Sanditon Chapter 2 (Gauss Pdf). Her first monograph, The Printed Reader: Gender, Quixotism, and Textual Bodies in Eighteenth-Century Britain, which we discuss below, was published by Bucknell University Press in 2019.

1) How did you first become interested in quixotic readers?

To be interested in books and what reading them does to you; to be interested in what books might leave with you after you put them down, is, in a sense, to be interested in quixotism. Literature encourages us to be interested in how it changes us. The quixote is a limit case. Quixotic readers might appear, at first glance, as ‘good’ readers because they learn from what they consume, but when Don Quixote in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote reads chivalric romances and subsequently behaves as if he was a knight from one, this becomes an issue. A quixote usually follows the rules of one genre but they inhabit a text that operates according to the conventions of another. I was interested in some aspects of quixotism before taking it up as a critic: the way Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 1 behaves as if he is a space ranger within a science fiction film rather than merely a cartoon where toys are alive. But I became increasingly interested in the relationship between gender and quixotic characters in the eighteenth-century novel. And why were so many quixotes women?

I also became fascinated by the quixotic reader as a figure of deviant textual reproduction. Rather than the Lockean ideal of a mind as an unmarked sheet of paper, able to record experience, quixotes possess a subjectivity already marked, or imprinted upon by their favourite genre. Or to put this another way, because their favourite texts mark or over-write their subjectivity, quixotic characters embody and attempt to reproduce their reading.

2) Your introduction turns on the literal, metaphorical and epistemological interactions between printing technologies and the assumed effects of reading, as writers describe ‘romances, novels, theatrical works, sermons, and other media […] altering, marking, impressing, and imprinting their readers in variously gendered ways.’  What do you see as being the main social and intellectual consequences of this strong equivalence between impressions on the page and impressions on gendered minds and bodies?

I describe in the introduction how models of human experience are bound up in the history of media, from Socrates telling Theaetetus to imagine that our minds contain a wax block, to the famous Enlightenment formulation of the subject as page that is printed on by experience and how, alongside these models of subjectivity, you have traditional ideas of female bodies as being more malleable, more impressionable, softer, in short, more penetrable. One consequence of this is that the Enlightenment subject is arguably a feminine subject, that is to say, a scriptive, penetrable subject that is marked by experience. And another is that the quixote––an impressionable, reproductive reader, who is marked and transformed by her reading––becomes feminised.

So the blank page––as well as describing an empiricist model of subjectivity––can stand for ignorance, virginity, and appropriate femininity. This draws on longstanding analogies between imprinting the page and sexual penetration of the body, and between experience in general and sexual knowledge in particular. There is that comment in Mary Hays’s Emma Courtney (1796): ‘The mind of a young lady should be clear and unsullied, like a sheet of paper, or her own fairer face’. Hays suggests how notions of ‘unsullied’ whiteness, central to racialized ideas surrounding virginity, intersect with the idea of the subject as a blank page printed over by knowledge. This trope continues. See the song ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen’ in The Sound of Music: ‘Your life little girl / Is an empty page / That men will want to write on’.

It follows, then, that the female reader becomes a ready sign for larger cultural concerns. These include the proliferation of printed texts, the ever-growing presence of women in the literary marketplace as authors and consumers, but also concerns extending beyond the literary marketplace, such as sexual difference, sensibility, labour, class, the nation-state, race, religion, empire, revolutionary politics, and so on.

3) How did you come to select the five principal subjects of your chapters (Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote; George Coleman the Elder’s Polly Honeycombe; Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy; Richard Graves’s Spiritual Quixote; and Elizabeth Hamilton’s Memoirs of Modern Philosophers)?

I was looking for quixotic narratives that explored the relation between impressions, gender, and print, and each of these five texts do this in idiosyncratic and informative ways. Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752) is a major text in the history of the novel, as well as the history of quixotic narratives. It sets up a template that later quixotic narratives follow: it asks what happens when a female reader looks into the mirror and sees before her eyes the heroine she’s just been reading about. Like The Female Quixote, George Colman the Elder’s Polly Honeycombe (1760) is about a quixotic female reader, but this time, she is within a play. So, on one level, Polly––like Arabella in The Female Quixote––tries to act out what she reads, on another, the actress playing her acts out the script. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759–67) responds to texts with female quixotes like The Female Quixote and Polly Honeycombe by trying to make the impressionable quixotic body male again, and this is central to the hilarious and chaotic disaster of masculinity in that book. Picking up on this is Richard Graves’s anti-Methodist satire, The Spiritual Quixote (1773). Graves’s book is preoccupied with the problem of the religious enthusiast, someone who is unable to distinguish between sexual arousal and spiritual transcendence. The Spiritual Quixote compares the religious enthusiast to the established stereotype of the female, novel-reading quixote, and her collapse of book and body. By the end of the century, there are plenty of novels that use the figure of the quixote to address the political turmoil of the 1790s, but Elizabeth Hamilton’s Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800) was particularly useful for my purposes because it contains multiple quixotes: Julia, a very typical character in British novels at this time, who avidly reads French works and experiences a sexual ‘fall’ as a result; and Bridgetina, who memorizes, fetishizes, and repeats phrases from her reading. Similar to The Spiritual Quixote’s depiction of quixotism as an enthusiastic entrapment in flesh, in Memoirs, it becomes an irreligious spawning of print.

4) To what extent do you think it’s possible to trace general trends in the ways that quixotic readers are configured across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

I think it is possible, though with caution. The first complication is that ‘quixotism’ is a notoriously tricky concept to pin down. Aaron Hanlon has written well on the difficulty of defining quixotism. I think (and Hanlon argues this too) that this does not mean we should not try to devise a conceptual framework for it, and attempt to analyse it and draw conclusions.

Since ideas about quixotism, and more generally, reading, are informed by shifting ideas of gender, the body, sensibility and so on, it follows that quixotic narratives must participate in broader cultural shifts. It is clear that, for instance, representations of quixotic readers become sharply politicized in the 1790s, just as other literary tropes do during that decade.

In The Printed Reader I claim that toward the end of the century, when the idea of experiential or epistemological ‘impressions’ became used less, and in an increasingly metaphorical sense, there was, paradoxically, a more emphatic and definitive positioning of the impressionable reading body as female. I connect this to developments in print technology, to the well-documented politicization and interrogation of sensibility at the end of the century, and to Dror Wahrman’s argument for a transition as the century progressed towards a more inflexible attitude towards gender and gender deviations.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently working with Nicola Parsons (University of Sydney) on a large collaborative project on Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies (1760-94). Harris’s List is a long running, formally omnivorous annual catalogue of women working in London’s sex trade and, Matt, your e-edition of Harris’s List for 1788 provides a fascinating visualisation of the London locations listed within the text. Parsons and I are examining how this important but critically marginalised text complicates existing understandings of character and genre, and the complex history of this text’s circulation across Europe. As part of this research I undertook a Yale University Lewis Walpole Library fellowship, where I examined first hand their rare editions of Harris’s List and traced their references to actresses and the theatre. Parsons and I are working towards a co-authored book, tentatively titled Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies: Sex, Character, and Celebrity, and a critical edition of Harris’s List for 1761.

Another major project is an ecohistoricist study of Jane Austen’s late work. Austen’s representation of history is the focus of longstanding critical controversy: I take a fresh approach by situating her work within environmental history. I read Austen’s final writings alongside the volcanically-induced seasonal anomalies of 1816-7. My work on Persuasion and Tambora appears in the recent edited collection Romantic Climates: Literature and Science in an Age of Catastrophe, and an article on Sanditon and Tambora is forthcoming.

I’ve begun a new project which examines the repurposing of eighteenth-century texts in contemporary experimental writing and conceptual art. As well as a researcher I’m an experimental writer, and I find myself increasingly in my research drawing on what I’ve learnt as a ‘creative’ writer, particularly for this new work, which examines theories of originality and textual recycling in contemporary art, and places them alongside the widespread textual recycling that occurs in eighteenth-century print.