Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia

Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia

by H. J. Jackson

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When readers jot down notes in their books, they reveal something of themselves—what they believe, what amuses or annoys them, what they have read before. But a close examination of marginalia also discloses diverse and fascinating details about the time in which they are written. This book explores reading practices in the Romantic Age through an analysis of some 2,000 books annotated by British readers between 1790 and 1830.
This period experienced a great increase in readership and a boom in publishing. H. J. Jackson shows how readers used their books for work, for socializing, and for leaving messages to posterity. She draws on the annotations of Blake, Coleridge, Keats, and other celebrities as well as those of little known and unknown writers to discover how people were reading and what this can tell us about literature, social history, and the history of the book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300129496
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

H. J. Jackson is a professor, Department of English, University of Toronto. She has published extensively on Romantic literature, and her book Marginalia was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in literarty criticism.

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Romantic Readers

By H. J. Jackson
Yale University Press
Copyright © 2005 H. J. Jackson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10785-2

Chapter One
Mundane Marginalia

The case for the centrality of print in British culture in the Romantic period does not rest on the impact of a handful of great works or popular best-sellers but on the widespread everyday service of publications of all kinds. It is hard to speak up for the everyday: it seems dull or low or self-evident, therefore uninteresting. It is by definition tedious, if we let definitions go unquestioned. The everyday of two hundred years ago, however, has a degree or two of exotic glamour more than the everyday that we are used to, so I turn first to the witness of readers' notes in books of the most humdrum kinds, those associated with education and working life. What did readers of the day customarily do with the books they worked with all the time? What inferences can we make from routine use? And what can we learn from exceptional cases?


Certain forms of writing in books had been immemorially approved as study methods: interlinear glosses, as aids to translation; heads-words indicating topics and changes of topic-for comprehension and rapid review; marginal commentary taken by dictation from the instructor. The Romantic period, which saw continuing debate about many aspects of education, may have refined these traditional techniques but saw no reason to question them. Many readers therefore acquired the habit of writing in books early and extended it to books not assigned by teachers. It must have felt like a natural thing to do. Humanist educational theory encouraged such habits. Erasmus had recommended a system of marks to highlight different kinds of beauties in a work and declared that he preferred a battered book with notes in the margins to the pristine treasure of the bibliophile. Locke spoke out against memory-work and insisted that the point of reading was to improve the mind by exercise of its own powers, not to stuff it with the words of others: "Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking makes what we read ours" (193). His successor Isaac Watts echoed his words. (Watts was perhaps the most frequently consulted practical writer on education in the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth, his Improvement of the Mind [1741] being regularly reprinted.) "It is meditation and studious thought, it is the exercise of your own reason and judgment upon all you read," he declared, "that gives good sense even to the best genius, and affords your understanding the truest improvement" (6).

Watts specifically advised readers to write in the margins of their books. Their notes, he said, would serve various purposes. Readers should mark passages that contained matter "new or unknown" to them, for a second reading; they should detect the writer's faults, make note of them in the margin, and "endeavour to do it better" (the copy of Watts that I read had a reader's "NB" at this point); they would find it convenient to create a rough-and-ready index, if the book did not come with one; and they might make "remarks" about the faults and beauties observed along the way (74, 78, 80, 81-82).

Other things also of the like nature may be usefully practised with regard to the authors which you read, viz. If the method of a book be irregular, reduce it into form by a little analysis of your own, or by hints in the margin: if those things are heaped together, which should be separated, you may wisely distinguish and divide them ... all these practices will have a tendency both to advance your skill in logic, and method, to improve your judgment in general, and to give you a fuller survey of that subject in particular. When you have finished the treatise with all your observations upon it, recollect and determine what real improvements you have made by reading that author. (79-80)

Watts's strenuous program of self-discipline through reading was consistent both with academic tradition and, perhaps surprisingly, with the progressive, post-Rousseauian educational theory of the age. Whatever the real-life experience of the schoolroom, the consensus among reforming writers on education was that gentle methods worked best; that the tutor's task was to inculcate good habits, not to enforce strict rules; and that the goal of education was to train the mind, not fill it up. And this was true at all levels, even the most elementary.

Mothers in the home, who were often responsible for early education, were told to ensure that children understood what they were taught and did not just repeat verbatim what they had been told. While offering this advice, Elizabeth Hamilton reminds her reader that were it only for the children's sake she must not neglect her own education, even if she has the misfortune to be married to a man who "despises female intellect" and "merely wishes in his wife to find the qualities of the housekeeper, and the virtues of the spaniel" (2:252). In their advice on the use of books in the family, Maria Edgeworth and her father also stress the importance of understanding over memorization and give practical advice to the parent about building the child's critical self-confidence: "When young people have established their character for truth and exact integrity, they should be entirely trusted with books as with every thing else. A slight pencil line at the side of the page will then be all that is necessary to guide them to the best parts of any book" (2:118). Schoolbooks that have survived from the period naturally contain traces of the sort of parental guidance and purposeful reading that the Edgeworths and their like recommended. The commonest forms of children's marginalia are ownership inscriptions, practice writing, heads, and solutions to problems in mathematics. Parents and teachers often wrote in dates, either to assign a reading or to record progress; and they may have been responsible for marks at passages deserving special attention. Besides such routine use, I note a few special cases in the collections of the British Library, special because they were tailored to individuals and happen to have survived, but probably common enough in their kind at the time.

The first is a well-worn copy of A Key to Spelling and Introduction to the English Grammar. Designed for the Use of Charity and Sunday-Schools (1788). Intended for the children of the poor, this little book covers the elements of pronunciation, grammar, and public speaking, and incidentally reminds us that oral and print cultures were not conceived of as being distinct from one another to the extent that they are now. Reading was taught orally, the child or children sounding out letters and words ("spelling") and reading aloud in chorus as well as individually. (Writing about similar methods of instruction in America about this time, William J. Gilmore observes, first, that the process of learning was probably more rapid because they were thus building on oral practice, and, second, that "the substance of oral and print culture were, from the earliest years of an individual's life, indissolubly linked" [38-39].) The children taught from this Key might never reach the writing stage, but they would speak well and be able to read aloud when called on. They would not have had their own copies of the primer; it belonged to the teacher and was interleaved to take the teacher's notes, clarifications, and additional illustrations. Where the text explains "ew" sounded as "u" in "brew, crew, Jew, ewe" (3), for example, the facing page shows the teacher going through the alphabet to find further instances: "Drew, few, grew, knew, mew, new, pew, screw, two [sic], view." Further on, facing p. 17 he or she notes,

These faults must be corrected. All knows you cares not for me. All know you care I does not mind you. I do

And when they reach the stage of putting it all together,

When you speak in public, or in any Oration, do not clip your Words, but express every Syllable, except in Poetry where the Measure being confined may require it. As, say not, Should'st, for Shouldest. Could'st for Couldest. (facing p. 31)

It's a small point, but the exception made for poetry tends to confirm the social range of poetry in the period, since these children destined most likely to be servants needed nonetheless to be aware of poetic measures.

In 1811 Eliza Hawtrey, whose brother had been an upper master at Eton College, whose husband was a clergyman and fellow of the College, and whose son Edward Craven Hawtrey went on to become headmaster and then provost, gave her daughter Mary a copy of Thomas Gisborne's Familiar Survey of the Christian Religion for her birthday. Besides the presentation inscription (with a little paper heart stuck on with sealing-wax to reinforce the hope "May she ever love this Gift; & Giver! as she loves her excellent, and aectionate Child!") it has other manuscript elements: a letter tipped in; extracts from other books, copied onto the back flyleaves; reading dates of 1814 and other dates, up to 1817, in connection with occasional notes; heads in the historical section; and some parental advice for further reading, such as "Look to the 221st Essay in the Spectator-Excellently good!" (+5). These notes were written over a period of years; the fact that the donor continued to write in the book after she had given it away says something about family use and the relative absence of possessiveness about such property, though of course we don't know how Mary felt about it. Sharing of books was normal and, as later chapters will show, books with marginalia were common social currency, especially among women.

My final example in this section is another instance of shared use, probably again within a family. The owner having acquired James Lee's Introduction to Botany (1806) as a student at Oxford later adapted it for "Betsy," composing lessons in the form of a poem that occupies three and a half closely written flyleaves. Samples: "Can my Betsy repeat those first ten lines, / Which tell of the classes, their names and signs? / How MON meant one Stamen, and DEC ten?-/ Well! we'll borrow these words from the valiant Men.... There! don't be afraid, Love! peep down the Corolla, / And tell us now-what do you see in the hollow?" Botany is the one subject consistently associated with poetry (and with women) in the period, following the example of Erasmus Darwin's Botanic Garden, and where the manual itself did not versify, readers often made their own contributions, as in this clumsy but charming case. The British Library copy of Priscilla Wakefield's Introduction to Botany that belonged to Lady Eleanor Fenn, herself an author of books for children, contains eight pages of poetic extracts in manuscript.


Outside the home, the heart of formal education was the study of classical literature, so middle- and upper-class boys, and occasionally girls, spent years locked into the discipline of classical scholarship and the conventions of classical editions, an experience that must have had a profound effect on their approach to literature, to books, and to the writing of notes. The formats are familiar: on each page a few lines of text, scholarly apparatus in double columns below, and at the back a glossary. The glossary translates words and phrases. The editorial notes traditionally reflect the concerns of textual editors by recording variant readings from manuscripts or from other printed editions, by proposing emendations where the text does not make sense, and by introducing parallel passages that show how other classical writers used the same words or phrases, as a way of establishing the meaning of the lines at hand. More daringly, they might venture into other areas of commentary by providing some historical context or identifying literary sources. A textbook Virgil of 1820 advertises all the desirable elements in its title, Opera, locis parallelis ex antiquis scriptoribus et annotationum delectu illustrata in usum juventutis (Works, illustrated with parallels from the ancient writers and with a selection of annotations, for the use of youth): it is designed for "youth" and therefore is "illustrated" with parallel passages and a selection of the best scholarly notes. Students worked with these editions, absorbing their concerns with the minutiae of the text and enriching their own copies with additional evidence when they could get it, whether by noticing parallels in their own further reading or by consulting more comprehensive editions and dictionaries. An extreme but not anomalous example of the result is the copy of Theophrastus that belonged to the classical scholar John Wordsworth, who acquired it in 1825 when he was twenty and must have worked with it till he died in 1839. All the pages of the Greek text are crammed with notes in a tiny neat hand, the results of his trawling through the relevant literature-editions, histories, reference books, and criticism. Such systematic annotation might in due course lead to a new edition of the work in question, or to the separate publication of the scholar's notes, as in the posthumous edition of Richard Porson's Adversaria (1812), which was based on his books at Trinity College, Cambridge. Till then they would serve the student and teacher, the best of them being disseminated by way of the academic grapevine. Derwent Coleridge said of his brother Hartley's translations from Greek and Latin that they were so vivid that they circulated privately among classicists, turning up for example in "the Sophocles of a late Tutor at Queen's College, Oxford, who had them from tradition."

One of the best known classicists of the time if not one of the best was Charles Burney (1757-1817), son of Johnson's friend of the same name, and brother of Fanny Burney. Though he eventually became "Doctor" Burney himself-a Doctor of Divinity, not of Music like his father-his career got o to a bad start when he was expelled from Cambridge for stealing books from the library (Walker). He redeemed himself, however: took his degree at Aberdeen instead, ran a very successful school, wrote about classical editions and modern Latin literature for popular periodicals, and published some scholarly essays, including an account of the meters of Aeschylus and a critique of Milton's Greek verses. His appetite for books never failing, he bought at auctions and built up an enormous collection consisting chiefly of editions of classical authors but also of important manuscripts, besides the newspaper collection that goes by his name to this day and a set of scrapbooks, extracts, and prints bearing on the history of the English stage. According to the DNB, he owned more editions of classical authors than the British Museum, where his collection went in the end.

One of the features that sets Burney apart from other major collectors of his day is that he did not merely catalogue and classify his books, he used them-apparently without making exceptions for age or rarity. Having acquired volumes already annotated by eminent scholars like Casaubon, Bentley, and Porson, who themselves had collated manuscripts and editions to assemble sets of variant readings and commentary, Burney claimed his place in the tradition with contributions of his own. Some authors and titles get more attention than others; some books may have been prepared for the schoolroom (Quintilian), and others have fed into Burney's own literary projects, notably his reviewing (Huntingford, Wakefield) and his edition of scholarly correspondence (Bentley). They are a mixed bag. But the striking pattern overall is the engagingly human one of the keen starter and poor finisher, or perhaps we should say of one whose work was mostly in progress.

Burney had many of his books interleaved to receive notes, collations, and compilations, but the interleaves are not heavily used. He started lists of various kinds-bibliographies, testimonials, tables of contents, Greek indexes-but did not finish them. (The first volume of his copy of Burton's edition of five Greek tragedies, an extreme example, has a list of praise for Oedipus Rex consisting of only one entry, and a list of references to the play in later literature, likewise with a single entry.) The very size of his collection may have been a deterrent to him. A less fortunate scholar might make his copy of Longinus into a variorum edition by entering all the variants and references he could find from books and manuscripts to which he had temporary access; but one who had several copies, as Burney did, might never settle on one to be the sole repository of learning on that author.


Excerpted from Romantic Readers by H. J. Jackson Copyright © 2005 by H. J. Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations....................ix
Introduction: The Reading Environment....................1
1 Mundane Marginalia....................60
2 Socializing with Books....................121
3 Custodians to Posterity....................198
4 The Reading Mind....................249
Bibliography of Books with Manuscript Notes....................325
Bibliography of Secondary Sources....................340

What People are Saying About This

Harold Bloom

I wish I had read this book years ago, when I was setting out to be a scholar of the Romantics. This book’s riches are manifold. Like its forerunner, Marginalia, this is scholarship of the highest distinction.—Harold Bloom

William Keach

I am sure that no one knows as much about Romantic marginalia as Jackson; this book will be welcomed by everyone working in the field. It offers a wealth of intriguing material and insight.—William Keach, Brown University

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