Edited by Rosalind Crone and Katie Halsey
I have, of late, been thinking about the challenges we face when interpreting the evidence we collect in the Reading Experience Database, prompted by an article I have recently been writing in the wake of the excellent Beyond the Book conference in Birmingham. The database is now at a stage where we can start to draw meaningful conclusions about the material we have collected. But how do we do it? And what, exactly, should we be trying to do? Anecdotal evidence is considered as notoriously unreliable by the historian, and yet it seems to tell us so much. How can (and should) we manage the challenges involved in working with material that is so interesting, and yet so factually slippery?
Of course, the primary purpose of the Reading Experience Database is not the interpretation of this evidence; by its very nature a database collects and cannot interpret. But, as scholars, the RED team does use the evidence we collect, and so, we hope, do scholars and researchers world-wide. What, then, are the various pitfalls that we tacitly expect our users to understand and avoid? Much of what I write here will no doubt be obvious to many of our users, but it is nonetheless important to sound a cautionary note.
Our many types of sources demand various kinds of interpretation, and different levels of contextual knowledge, although many issues need to be considered in all cases. It is always important, for example, to consider the provenance of the source, and its reliability. Have there been any significant editorial interventions (if it is a print source)? If manuscript, has it been authenticated? It is helpful also to consider the motivation of the author of the source, and, in many cases, the accuracy of his or her memory. It is necessary to take into account questions of tone, and the dictates of convention or literary form. And different genres and forms demand greater or lesser levels of attention to particular issues.
Many of the questions our evidence raises are related to the cultural status of reading a particular text at a particular time. ‘Tell me what books a man has read, and I will tell you what he is,’ wrote Maria Edgeworth and her father in their Practical Education of 1798. The writers of diaries, letters, journals, autobiographies and the rest of our sources are, we have to assume, similarly aware of what their reading might say about them, and for that reason it is always wise to interpret first-person accounts of reading in the light of their social, political and historical contexts. Recording the reading of Anouilh’s Antigone in Resistance France, for example, makes a distinct political statement, as does reading A Vindication of The Rights of Man in 1789, or the Satanic Verses in 1991. Reading is not, of course, always a directly political activity; it may denote social or cultural aspiration, or a desire for intellectual improvement, or the opposite of any of these things. In her Autobiography, Harriet Martineau recorded reading Paradise Lost at the age of seven, claiming that this act fixed her mental destiny for the next seven years. This claim might well be true, but we should also consider the reasons for making such a claim. Is she asserting her spiritual precocity? It is obviously important to her that her readers should know of her love for poetry. But why? Does she, as a second-rate but ambitious author, want to claim kinship with the great poet Milton? Is she, an activist for women’s rights, making a feminist point about a woman’s intellectual ability? Might all of these motivations be present? These questions can only be answered by a closer study of Martineau’s life and works, and of the cultural status of Milton’s poem in the 1870s, but whatever the answers are, they have an impact on how we interpret her reading experience.
We need to consider context and motivation carefully in all the examples given above, and this leads us into both textual and cultural analysis. First-person accounts of reading need interpretation in the same way that a novel or poem needs interpretation; thought is never unmediated by the form in which it appears, even in the most seemingly transparent confessional writing. The value of anecdotal evidence, therefore, lies not primarily in the factual data it can provide (although we should not underestimate the importance of the factual information about reading habits and practices that we have collected – the database tells us a great deal about, for example, the times of day when reading is most common, the unexpected popularity of certain texts, the books available to particular reading communities at a given time, and such matters as the costs of given editions) but often in what it can tell us about cultural pressures and prohibitions on readers, and how readers react to such pressures and prohibitions. There is more to be written about this subject, but I must now move on to project news. We would be interested to hear from any readers of RED Letter on the topic of working with our evidence; please get in touch with Katie.Halsey@sas.ac.uk if you have anything you would like to discuss.
And now, on to RED news. Last month saw a symposium, organised jointly by RED and the Cambridge Victorian Studies Group (CVSG), and hosted by CVSG in Cambridge. It was a very successful day, and particular thanks are due to Jonathan Rose, who acted as Respondent, and William St Clair, who chaired the event. A further joint initiative, with the Robert Louis Stevenson Society, has just been organised (see below). Thanks to Richard Dury for setting this up with us, and for publicising both projects, and to Julie Watt and Olive Classe for their impressively prompt volunteering! We are also working with Matthew Bradley of the GladCAT project, to document Gladstone’s reading, and we are busy planning for the RED conference, which will take place on 21-23 July 2008 at the Institute of English Studies, London. Further information about the conference, including the draft programme, is available on the RED website, at http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/RED/REDConference.html, and our poster forms the last page of this newsletter. Registration will close at the end of June, so please sign up early to avoid disappointment. Any questions about registration or logistics should be directed to Jon.Millington@sas.ac.uk. We are grateful to Jon for all his help with the financial and administrative aspects of the conference organisation. The conference will also include an exhibition of rare books and other material from Senate House Library. Many thanks to the Senate House Library, and in particular to Karen Attar, for organising the exhibition, and also for permission to use material from the Senate House Library holdings in our conference programme.
As always, there are a number of people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for their generous assistance and contributions to the project. We would like to extend a warm welcome to all new volunteers, and to thank all of you who have been contributing material for some time, in particular Margaret Thomas, Sandra Cumming, Anna Robinson and Anna Charlton, who have been very busy entering material recently. We would also like to thank Sarah Johnson and Jenny McAuley, who have re-joined the project as Research Associates, for all their hard work and dedication. Isabel DiVanna, who left us at the beginning of this year, has just been awarded a Junior Research Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge. Congratulations to Isabel! Thanks to Pamela Robinson for helping us identify Medieval and Early Modern sources for the database, to Beth Lau for generously offering her expertise in Keats’s reading, and also to Jenny Hartley and Martin Priestman at Roehampton, for helping us to spread the word about RED.
The Reading of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Joint Venture with the Robert Louis Stevenson Society
As many of you probably know, Robert Louis Stevenson was an avid reader, and as such, we are very eager to record his reading experiences in RED. However, we are also aware that the interest in Stevenson and literature goes beyond the data we can store in RED: under the current definition of a ‘reading experience’, we have to exclude records of Stevenson’s borrowing of books and the many allusions he makes to different texts in his letters. Therefore, we have embarked on a joint venture with Richard Dury at the Robert Louis Stevenson Society, who has recently begun to collect this information in a database intended for public use. We are now looking for volunteers with an interest in Robert Louis Stevenson to read through one or several volumes of Stevenson’s correspondence in order to extract information about his reading experiences (which will be stored in RED) and/ or allusions to various texts (which will be stored in the Stevenson database). In addition to RED, entries from both databases will be made available to the public via the Robert Louis Stevenson Society website. If you are interested in contributing to this project, please do get in touch with us. We are very excited about the potential outcomes of this research! To find out more about the Stevenson database, you can also contact Richard Dury.
Launch of Scriptorium, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online
Readers of RED Letter may also be interested to hear about the launch of Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online, an AHRC-funded project based at the Faculty of English, Cambridge University. (http://scriptorium.english.cam.ac.uk) Scriptorium will comprise full digital facsimiles of at least twenty late medieval and early modern manuscript miscellanies and commonplace books, along with descriptions, transcriptions and bibliographical information; a set of research and teaching resources for students and scholars working on manuscript studies; and an enhanced version of English Handwriting: An Online Course, our interactive palaeography tool: http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/ceres/ehoc/
All parts of the site will remain freely and publicly available. Currently, the resource includes images of St Johns College, Cambridge, MS S.23, an early seventeenth-century poetic miscellany. More images and information will be added progressively in the coming weeks and months, as the site is expanded and developed. The project hopes that the resource will be useful to the wide scholarly community.