Lab #9: BPL 18th and 19th Century Materials

Bleakhouse_serial_cover For this lab, I chose to examine the serialzed set of Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House” and a volume from an exclusive, subscription-only set of “The Works of William Shakespeare.” Both were published in 1852, making the texts particularly interesting as exemplifiers of two very different models of publication that existed in the mid-19th century. Considering this, the pair can help speak to the reading culture, publishing practices and the status of books in general during this time period. First, however, the many divergences – and a few similarities – between the two texts must be explored.

Even knowing nothing of the content of the two texts, great disparities between the two can be garnered from a mere glance. The serialzed “Bleak House” – which came in the form of 20 volumes, released monthly from March 1852 through September of the following year – were small in size and poor in quality. With dimensions similar to a Reader’s Digest or one of those small essay exam booklets, each thin, flimsy volume of “Bleak House” contained less than 100 pages, or a few chapters worth (plus some rather crude drawings, of material, with the rest of the pages being devoted to advertisements. This is quite unlike “The Works of William Shakespeare,” a massive, leather-bound volume of obvious high quality. Large, elegant type, complemented by detailed drawings throughout, fills the finely-bound book. It is a text of fine (and expensive) craftsmanship.

Aside from the blatant physical differences between the two books, the accessibility of each is at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Dickens’s work, in the original serialized form, was meant to be accessible to all. Noted on each volume is the fact that “Bleak House” was available in every railway station, and it was also easily and cheaply obtainable via mail. “The Works of William Shakespeare,” on the other hand, was part of a limited set. Akin to “Bleak House,” Shakespeare’s works came in volumes (albeit much lengthier ones); the set comprised of 20 folio volumes, with only 150 copies of each volume printed (the BPL’s copy was numbered 110). The set – published over a dozen years – was available via subscription-only; those wishing to procure the work paid for it before it was even published. The exclusivity of the text is detailed in an inserted prospectus, which contains a disclaimer, “Extent of the Impressions,” from the publisher, certifying that “The present edition of Shakespeare has been strictly limited to 150 copies…[the Editor] intends to number every copy of each volume and to take great care that not a single copy of the work shall be made of the waste sheets.” Exclusive indeed.

All of this, of course, is reflected by the price of the two texts. Each volume of “Bleak House,” with one exception, sold for a very affordable one shilling (the final volume, which included two installments, sensibly cost two shillings). Unsurprisingly, “The Works of William Shakespeare” cost a significant amount more than this. A single volume – one of 20 that subscribers would have paid for – cost two guineas, which is equivalent to about 42 shillings.

Ultimately, such divergences are reflective of the expendability – or lack of it – of each of the texts. Copies of “Bleak House” were very expendable. Publishers did not expect readers to hold onto the volumes, individually or even as part of the whole set, for years after the novel’s publication. This is indicated by everything from the price to the poor quality of materials to the advertisements. Evocative of the Harlequins we look at on the first day of class, the “Bleak House” volumes all include a multitude of ads, many for the publisher itself and its own titles, and other that were specific to the date an installment was published, promoting a monthly sale or something of the like. All of this further cheapens, and is indicative of the expendability, of “Bleak House.” On the contrary, the volume of Shakespeare’s work is rare and valuable; it was something people had to actively subscribe to and thus intended to hold onto. It was even personalized, in a way, with a separate page in the prospectus – meant “to protect, to the fullest extent, the interests of the original subscribers to the work” – that lists each of the subscribers, further solidifying the exclusiveness of the work, with the list seeming akin to one for an elite, secret club of sorts.

These two texts, even with all their dissimilarities, indicate certain things about mid-19th century book culture beyond the different modes of publishing that existed. The fact that both “Bleak House” and “The Works of William Shakespeare” were published in volumes, over a span of time, suggests something about the very act of reading during the period. Serialized works, as we saw from studying the publication of Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” were commonplace during the mid-19th century. Much like the modern consumption of television (not thinking of the binge-culture we’re moving towards with Netflix and the like), reading a single work, whether it was found in a newspaper or in serialized volumes, was often a drawn-out act that people dedicated a significant span of their lives to. Even with a novel like “Bleak House” – as a single text, it is certainly sizable, but not remarkably so – people consumed it, in its original serialized form, over a time period of more than a year and a half. Perhaps this is somewhat reflective of the 19th century novel-reading commentaries we looked at in class – the idea that reading too much, in too short a time span, can be somehow bad for you. More so, however, it’s emblematic of how books were now fully established as forms of entertainment, rather than being primarily related to education, religion, etc.

These copies of “Bleak House” and “The Works of William Shakespeare” also speak to a shift in reading culture – and who’s a part of it – during the 19th century. As the cheap, accessible volumes of Dickens’s work suggests, books – and ‘good,’ or intellectually stimulating books, at that – were available for the masses, rich and poor. Books were no longer a medium for just the educated, wealthy classes; instead, books, in some form or another, were available for all. This speaks to increasing literacy rates and improvements in education in the U.S. at the time, as well.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that, perhaps contrary to earlier publishing, when these two texts were published, the content of text wasn’t necessarily reflected by the physical book and how it was published, or vice versa. One would expect work by someone as revered as Shakespeare to come in a fine, high-quality book and, on the other hand, it might be presumed that crappy paper serials contain equally crappy, lowbrow work. However, as we see with “Bleak House,” that’s not the case. Even at the time, Dickens was a successful, popular writer, and “Bleak House” is considered one of his finest (not to mention most complex and engaging) works. This illustrates how, just like we’re always told not to judge a book by its cover, readers in the 19th century couldn’t necessarily equate a certain type of publishing with the content of a book.

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