Five Questions: Hannah Doherty Hudson on Romantic Fiction and Literary Excess in the Minerva Press Era

      Comments Off on Five Questions: Hannah Doherty Hudson on Romantic Fiction and Literary Excess in the Minerva Press Era

Hannah Doherty Hudson is Associate Professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston. Her interests include Romantic-era fiction, intertextuality, periodical culture, the affordances of biography and the commercial history of print. Her new monograph, Romantic Fiction and Literary Excess in the Minerva Press Era, which we discuss below, was published by Cambridge University Press earlier this year.

1) How did you first become interested in the Minerva Press?

I first became interested in the Minerva Press while I was preparing for my PhD oral exams — I was doing a lot of reading about Romantic fiction and gothic novels and I started to notice that only one publishing house was ever mentioned by name in the scholarship I was working through. Before doing my PhD I had worked for a large trade book publisher with many, many imprints, so this caught my attention. I started to wonder what exactly the “Minerva Press” was, and why it seemed to be the only publishing company to have an imprint name that differed from the publisher’s name (e.g. Longman or Johnson). It was also very clear that the press’s name had a negative connotation, and I was very interested in the origins of the stereotypes surrounding the press. When I looked into it more deeply and discovered that the Minerva Press was the largest publisher of fiction, by far, in the period, I just really wanted to know how this massive group of novels — more than 800 of them, at a time when many publishers put out only a few novels a year — could have essentially disappeared from so much of literary history. I eagerly read the work of Dorothy Blakey and Deborah McLeod, and the scholarship (especially on the Gothic) that paid most attention to the Minerva Press, and then started to read as many of the novels as I could access. The bibliographic information in The English Novel, 1770-1829 (ed. Peter Garside, James Raven and Rainer Schöwerling) was also a crucial part of my early fascination with Press, both for the data it provided about the Press’s dominance, but also for the way it allowed me to observe potential patterns in titling, trends, and genre cues, which I could later follow up with more extended research.

2) How did you decide that excess would be the key term for your enquiry?

Excess was a theme that I didn’t explicitly identify until fairly far along in the process of writing the book. When I began this project, for my doctoral dissertation, I organized the chapters by genre (with one chapter for the Minerva gothic novel, one for the Minerva sentimental novel, and so forth). Some parts of that structure still remain in the book, but as I worked to revise it, I kept wrestling with the idea that I didn’t (just) want to talk about what Minerva novels were like — I also really wanted to explore their relationship with Romantic literary culture on a larger scale. As I started to think through the ways that Minerva novels were talked about, reviewed, imitated, and stereotyped, and to draw connections between them and the many other novels published during the Romantic period, I realized that the thing that united them all was a sense of, for lack of a pithier term, ‘too-much-ness’: there was an overwhelming number of novels, all of a sudden, and so readers, authors, and especially reviewers had to figure out how to cope with them, which they often did by establishing hierarchies that identified some (few) novels as worthy, and others as trash that could safely be ignored. What I really liked about the term ‘excess’ is that it captures the utter subjectivity of this process: who decides what is enough, and what is too much? Almost nobody wanted to argue that all novels were superfluous, so the constant problem was trying to draw and redraw the boundary of where sufficiency ends and excess begins. For most people, of course, there really was no such thing as an ‘excess’ of novels — a reader could happily choose as many or as few as they wanted, and the more choices, the better. Lack of access and scarcity were surely more of a problem for most average people who were reading novels at all. But authors worried that if there were too many books their own work might be lost or ignored, while critics were frustrated that they had more books to review than they could read, and irritated by the repetitive tropes of new genres. I was interested in understanding the influence that these conflicting pressures had on the evolution of the novel genre and, especially, on our own scholarly approaches to studying these novels.

3) What are the most important gains we stand to make as scholars by following your suggestion that we view the Romantic period as the Minerva Press Era?

When I made this argument I realized that it would likely be a polarizing one: I can’t even tell you how many times while writing this book I’ve been asked questions along the lines of: “how can you stand spending all your time reading these terrible books? Are any of them any good?” Clearly many scholars would be reluctant to rename the entire period after these novels! (For the record, I would say that some of them are good, many of them are bad, but, to me at least, all of them are interesting). There are a few reasons why I think this re-conception is really important and valuable, though. First, the ‘Minerva Press Era’ shifts the focus away from poetry alone to capture the popularity of novels and novel-reading in the Romantic period. I love Romantic poetry and teach it every semester, but I don’t think poetry in isolation captures the full spirit of the Romantic Period. It also reminds us that Minerva authors like Regina Maria Roche and Eliza Parsons, along with non-Minerva authors like Walter Scott and Ann Radcliffe, helped to define the terms on which novels were consumed. Additionally, thinking of the Romantic period as the Minerva Press Era turns our attention to the marketing and publicity that played such a key role in developing new genres and determining which novels would be praised and which maligned. For me, calling the period ‘the Minerva Press Era’ really reminds us that this was arguably the first age of industrial fiction production, and that literary works of all kinds, including those published by more prestigious presses or only circulated in manuscript, were written against — or in direct response to — this backdrop. The years around 1800 are such a tipping point in terms of changing print and paper technologies and the evolution of marketing, periodicals, and the novel itself, and re-centering the Minerva Press helps us to keep our critical eye on these crucial developments. In recent years many scholars have begun to do exciting work on the Minerva Press, all of which serves to reveal different facets of its importance to the period; it’s so exciting to me to see such a groundswell of interest in the Press and related topics. (Anyone interested in knowing more about the current state of the scholarship should absolutely read the recent special issue of Romantic Textualities dedicated to the Minerva Press, edited by Elizabeth Neiman and Tina Morin).

4) Which of the novels that you read for the project did you find most surprising and revealing?

This is such a hard one! There were so many, with all different kinds of surprises. One of my favorites has got to be Rosella, by Mary Charlton — I read this early on in the project and found it not only very funny, but also surprising in its extreme self-awareness about novels, and the reputation of popular, gothic, and women’s novels in particular (for those who would like to experience this novel for themselves, Natalie Neill has just completed a new edition, now available from Routledge). Now, having read so many more Minerva novels, I don’t actually find that quality surprising at all: because of the dismissiveness with which many of these novels have been treated by criticism, I didn’t initially expect them to be as clever, self-satirizing, and often metafictional as they are. This is not to say that some of them aren’t very silly, or flawed, or boring, but as a body the authors really do show an extremely high level of awareness of their own place in the market, the expectations their readers are likely bringing to the text, and the choices they are making in terms of genre. In the same vein, I was surprised by the elaborate playfulness of the marketing and publicity that surrounded a lot of these novels. William Lane, the founding publisher of the Minerva Press, wrote a mock-gothic advertorial in which all the places and characters were titles of Minerva Press novels, for example; later on, after the Minerva Press had ceased publication, I came across a satirical magazine piece in which the editors claimed to have received a letter from a “Czarina Amabelle St. Cloud,” who was devastated not to be able to publish with Minerva, and instead had sent them excerpts of her work and a long list of her novel-titles, which  imitate the typical Minerva two-part structure and include such gems as A Nympholept Lover; or, the Whispering Fungus and The Fatal Furbelow; or, The Tempted Templar.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Right now I am working on a new book, tentatively called Romantic Magazines and Imperial Knowledge: Commodity, Identity, Miscellany, which examines the role of the miscellaneous magazine (including prominent titles like the Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazines, the European Magazine, and the Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure) in developing new models of imperial collection and knowledge-formation in the years around 1800. I have been working on this project on and off alongside the Minerva book for years, so I am really excited to be able to give it my full attention now. I seem to be drawn to projects that leave me absolutely swimming in reams of print—now that I’m done reading Minerva novels for the moment, I’ve turned to reading thousands of pages of magazines. But in some ways I would say both books are motivated by very similar questions and interests: I like paying attention to what real people were commonly reading in the Romantic period, even or especially if what they read was inexpensive, ephemeral, or now little-known, and I’m very interested in the systems that surround publication, including advertising, reviewing, and reception. I also like the surprises and weird discoveries that come with reading through a profusion of print sources: you really just never know what you’re going to find. I’m also working on a few articles relating to magazines, including one about magazine portrayals of revolution around the globe in the 1780s and 1790s, and another on Eliza Haywood’s periodical legacies. Finally, and unsurprisingly, I do have some more Minerva-related projects on the back burner as well.