Reading the Victorians


‘David Copperfield and Uriah Heep’. From David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, 1850. Illustration by by Fred Barnard, 1870

by Simon Calder

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain,
by Leah Price,
Princeton University Press, 360 pp.

What use is this book, which asks us to enlarge our ideas about the possible uses of books? According to its author, Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain can “help us understand the printed ‘before’ against which so many twenty-first century commentators measure their digital ‘after’”. A professor of English at Harvard University, Price contends that we have much to learn from “nineteenth-century understandings of, and feelings toward, the uses of printed matter”:

We can learn, in particular, from the Victorians’ struggle to articulate how far the power of books (for good and evil) depended on their verbal content, their material form, or the social and antisocial practices that they enabled.

Here, and throughout this stimulating book, Price invites us to recognize three distinct modes of engaging with books. These are “reading (doing something with the words)”; “handling (doing something with the object)”; and “circulating (doing something to, or with, other persons by means of the book – whether cementing or severing relationships, whether by giving and receiving books or by withholding and rejecting them)”. Price’s central claim is that these modes almost always overlap, no matter how often they are pictured as competing, and that by exploring “the often contentious relation” among these three operations, we may be able to replace “the Manichean contrast between print and digital [media] by distinctions within the uses of each [medium]”.

Price’s observations on the uses of printed matter elicit some interesting reflections on the power of books to mediate meetings of minds and to “broker (or buffer) relationships among … bodies.” In Part I: Selfish Fictions, Price studies various configurations of reading, handling and circulating among husbands and wives (chapter 2), among parents and children (chapter 3) and among masters and servants (chapter 4). As such, Price illuminates both the power of printed matter to unite or divide families (consider spouses hiding behind newspapers, and children retreating into fictional worlds) and the power of assumptions about the uses of printed matter “to determine who stands inside and outside of the ‘family.’” This second focus comes to the fore in Part II, Bookish Transactions, where Price’s notion of the book as a “barrier” between family members and non-members gives way to her notion of the book as a “bridge” between classes. As Price asserts, new commercial developments, political arrangements and distributional infrastructures provoked three problems concerning the uses of printed matter over the course of the nineteenth century:

Too much information, too many readers, too much paper: Part II explores the first problem through the rise of junk mail and subsidized tracts (chapter 5), the second through the shift from masters’ concern about servants’ reading to public library patrons’ concern about one another’s handling (chapter 6), the third through the fall of paper recycling (chapter 7).

Each of Price’s seven case-studies is as illuminating as it is fascinating. Ultimately, however, she seems less committed to documenting the manner in which printed matter was used by the Victorians than she is to passing judgment on the sensibility of various, monolithic groups (specifically “us”, the Victorians, literary critics, and book historians). Price ultimately wants to persuade us that “we” will only be able to overcome “the contradictions of our own media theory and practice” if we “grope our way back into [an] … intellectual and emotional and ethical investment in paper”. As such, her laudable endeavor to “study books without privileging reading” often slips into a more quixotic critique of readers and of reading, and her effort to make a novel contribution to Victorian studies  becomes a quest to prove that book historians, not literary critics, are today’s rightful “heirs” to the Victorian novel.

As a literary critic, I am perhaps just as invested in disagreeing with Price as I am in reading books. Biases aside, however, I see no reason why an investment in reading should be at odds with a commitment to studying investments in circulating, handling and reading. As such, I hope that this reading of Price’s book aids your decision as to whether or not to invest in it, and what uses to put it to.

Price offers many reasons for treating Victorian ideas about the uses of books as a foil to contemporary attitudes, the clearest of which is that “the Victorians plotted the book/text distinction” – i.e., the distinction between book-as-physical-thing and text-as-string-of-words – “onto every axis imaginable”.

Sexually, the text was conceived as “the province of male thinkers,” whereas books were conceived as “raw material for women’s curlpapers or pie plate liners”; socially, the text was “the business of intellectuals,” and books “the business of … filthy rich bibliophiles”; ethically, the text was “an aid to selfhood,” and books “a spur to selfishness,” and so on.

Now, if this were true – that is, if all Victorians always aligned the concept of the text with whichever term (male, intellectual, etc.,) was considered superior – Price’s study of Victorian attitudes would be far less intriguing than it is. As it is, our author more ambitiously strives to “trace antibookishness back to a particular time (around 1850) and a particular genre (the secular middle-class bildungsroman)”. Since a bildungsroman is by definition a novel (roman) about the formation (Bildung) of a character, all bildungsromans will be “centered on subjects,” and most will be “centered on a human being through whose hands texts pass”.

Thus Price plausibly argues that most texts in this genre would represent (private, ethereal, character-building) transactions with texts “as systematically as they avoided any mention of the social transactions in which the book was enlisted or the material properties with which it was invested”. More creatively, Price then proceeds to characterize another literary genre – the “it-narrative” – as the bildungsroman’s antithesis: since nineteenth-century “it-narratives” would center on “a book that passes through” various sets of human hands, “the it-narrative reveals [or “restores”] what the bildungsroman conceals [or “suppresses”]: the backstory by which books reach their readers”.

However, this is too simple a story, as Price very deftly reveals. Turning to a particular bildungsroman, Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, she supports her claims about the genre by demonstrating how “David develops a Personal History (as the full title of the novel has it) at the expense of his books’ being stripped of one”. At the same time, however, Price allows Dickens to complicate matters. On the basis of her characterization of the genre to which it “belongs,” we might expect David Copperfield to quarantine “any awareness of the book-object within the consciousness of its least sympathetic characters,” with texts being cast as catalysts for the realization of David’s dreams, and “the book [cast] as a press for minor villains’ flowers”.

‘The Bibliomania of the Golden Dustman’, from Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, 1865. Illustrated by Marcus Stone, 1901

Price’s book is most rewarding when she uses her literary-critical skills (a skill-set of which she is critical) to combat general pronouncements (even, or especially, pronouncements of her own) about Victorian culture. For example, in  a chapter titled “David Copperfield and the Absorbent Book,” Price persuasively argues that Dickens “sets us up to expect a novel about an agent shaped by books, only to reveal the protagonist instead as an object compared to books – metaphorically imprinted, bound, sold and scanned”. From such cases Price generalizes that mid-nineteenth-century novelists like Dickens developed an especially subtle way of working against the idealist grain of their culture. “Detail-oriented, business-minded, and petty,” Victorian novelists established their realism “not only by contrasting the context of high-flown literary texts with a more mundane reality,” à la Miguel de Cervantes, “but also by replacing textuality tout court with a materiality that, like charity, begins at home, – that is, that begins with the book in our hands”.

As Price proceeds to argue that Victorian novelists were especially committed to heightening their readers’ attention to materiality, some of her most interesting observations are thus: In Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, mightn’t Mr. Boffin’s habit of referring to Gibbon’s famous text as the “Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire” be a product of his awareness that this book was bound in a characteristic calfskin leather from Russia, making this eccentric remark a sign of his heightened “sensitivity to color, texture, and smell,” as opposed to a mere “deficiency of interpretative skill”? In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss or in Anthony Trollope’s The Claverings, whenever some character is said to be accustomed to laying a particular volume “open before [them] on special occasions,” or to “having always at breakfast a paper or book before [them],” isn’t it interesting that the narrator “describe[s] the position of the printed object in relation to a person’s body, [whilst] … refusing to specify what that person is doing with his hand – let alone with his eye, much less his mind”? And when the governess in a little-known Victorian novel, Mrs. Henry Wood’s The Earl’s Heirs: A Tale of Domestic Life, confesses to her “Rochester” that “she has never been able to lay her hands on a volume” of Shakespeare, doesn’t this cause the cognizant reader to question where the Jane Eyres of such novels as have entered our canon acquired the books “that so richly furnished their imaginations”? More than anything else, it is the power of these close readings that causes me to question not only the wisdom but also the authenticity of the assault on reading that Price mounts in the opening chapter of How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain.

In that chapter, titled “Reader’s Block,” Price “intertwines an introduction to Victorian debates about media with a survey of (and polemic about) the relation of book history to literary-critical theory and practice”It is here that she first marks the overinvestment in reading of contemporary literary critics as her “target,” arguing that “Victorian realist fiction shares its temperamental cast with late twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century book history,” and that late twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century literary criticism has more in common with the sermon than it does with realist fiction. Speaking of the Victorian novelist and the contemporary book historian, Price asserts:

Both are detail-oriented, business-minded, and petty; both are called upon to integrate descriptions of material details with generalizations about social institutions; both are inclined to privilege the mundane over the ideal, the local over the transcendent, the concrete over the abstract.

Price’s contention is that literary critics have conversely “learned to prize spirit over matter – and, by extension, the inwardness of selves produced by reading over the outward circumstances of bodies handling [as well as, presumably, circulating] books”. Luckily for us, Price implies, the tables are now turning: “in intellectual as much as literary history, the hermeneutics of suspicion has given way to a poetics of deflation,” such that book historians are now, at last, on hand to help us “grope our way back” to the Victorian realists’ “investment in paper”.

Thus we are informed that “writing from the ‘margins’”  in the old style of literary criticism has given way to “writing in the margin,” and that “the old hermeneutic refrain ‘it is no accident that’” has been “shunted aside by a new interest in paratextual “accidentals”. Price both believes in and celebrates these shifts, and yet no less than five pages after eulogizing the phrase, “It is no accident that…” we catch her in the act of using it. This is how Price opens a section of Chapter 1 titled “Animal Spirits”:

As abstract is to concrete, common are to proper nouns: Bacon metonymically bound in pigskin or “crushed Morocco” reduced from the name of a country to a piece of leather. No accident that the person who anathematized “things in book’s clothing” was named Lamb.

Were Price more true to her premises, she might have made a point of the fact that the affinity between Charles Lamb’s surname and his confession of 1822 – that “it moves my spleen to see these things in books’ clothing perched upon shelves” – was nothing but a happy accident. One might even accept Price’s slip into an “outdated” idiom as purely accidental, since she clearly doesn’t mean to suggest that Lamb’s surname compelled him to conceive nicely-bound, yet undeserving books as “usurpers of true shrines” or (metaphorical) wolves in (material) sheep’s clothing.

However, pupil of suspicion that I am, I hold it is no accident that Price does not abandon the “old hermeneutic refrain.” As is made clear in her Endnotes, what Price means to celebrate when she writes of a turn towards bathos is a departure from interpretational habits that “track at too high a level of abstraction to give [material vessels] their due”. Now, according to Price, a capacity to perform this maneuver is one of the attributes shared by the book historian and realist novelist, insofar as “both are called upon to integrate descriptions of material details with generalizations about social institutions”. Price’s suggestion is that the literary critic’s habit of striving to reveal X by “reading” Y militates against any true appreciation of the “mundane,” “local,” “concrete,” and “contingent” dimensions of the object of analysis.

This is all very well in theory, but it fails to be played out in Price’s practice. Indeed, as we have seen, it is precisely when Price engages in close, and therein complicating, readings of – for example – Our Mutual Friend and David Copperfield that she descends from that high level of abstraction from which genre can be pitted against genre (the bildungsroman versus the it-narrative), philosophy against philosophy (idealism versus materialism), profession against profession (book historians versus literary critics), and period against period (the Victorians versus us). As an accomplished book historian, Price imparts a great deal of invaluable information about the handling and circulation of Victorian books; but as a reader of Victorian texts, her work only yields special insight when she is able to integrate her book-historical knowledge and her commitment to critical reading, so as, for example, to recognize that it may be no accident that Mr. Boffin invents this particular name for that particular book.

Price does offer something of a rebuttal to this  line of argument, being that book historians must do something more than construct “analyses of the material conditions of production and consumption [that] corroborate some formal or thematic analysis of the text”. Otherwise, she argues, members of her profession will be stuck at a “Heads you win, tails I lose” impasse, with literary critics deeming any findings that support their own conclusions “redundant” (but we have our own ways of knowing that Mr. Boffin is not as dumb as he seems) and any findings that contradict their conclusions “irrelevant” (why should we care what binding this fictional copy of Gibbon has?).

In this context, Price argues that a “corrective” to the status quo can be found in “the pun,” which, by its very nature, marks “the gulf separating bibliographic codes from linguistic codes”. Thus, we find Price both punning on Charles Lamb’s surname and celebrating Victorian puns on Francis Bacon’s, following a discussion of F.B. Doveton, Irving Brown, and Thomas Hood’s reversals of the logic of Bacon’s aphorism, that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested.” If Bacon “changed the tongue from an organ that literally affects the book (licking a finger before it turns the pages, for example) to the vehicle of a metaphor for disembodied acts,” then these Victorians responded in kind, by transforming Bacon “from the name of a great mind to the name of an animal’s body”. One example – a couplet from Doveton – will suffice to exemplify the maneuver that Price is celebrating:

I lost my Bacon t’other day – could anything be harder?
My cook had taken it by stealth – I found it in the Larder.

It is interesting that immediately before Price claims the title of “heir to the realist novel,” she asserts that her discipline’s commitment to “belaboring the obvious” serves the same purpose as these Victorian puns about bookbinding: like these puns, and by puns of their own, book historians “pit materialist against idealist conceptions of culture”. It should by now be clear that this is also what Price wants her readers to imagine “the realist novel” is doing: prefiguring the materialist agenda of contemporary book historians, as opposed to the idealist agenda of literary critics, novelists like Eliot and Dickens were “inclined to privilege the mundane over the ideal, the local over the transcendent, the concrete over the abstract,” the bathetic over the heroic.

Ultimately, however, Price’s claims for an affinity of ethos and style between her own work and that of the punning Victorians considered above is far less contestable than her claims for an affinity between her work and that of Victorian realist novelists. Were I as committed as Price to “Bookish Bathos,” that is, to using “corny pun[s]” and incessant alliteration to counter your immersion in reading, and thus to “topple the text from its taxonomic pedestal,” I might close this review by highlighting how felicitous it is that a text so committed to countering the lesson of the bildungsroman, “not to ask what books cost,” should have been written by a person named Price. I will resist that temptation in favor of intimating how something far richer might yet come of Price’s renewal of attention to Victorian reflections on the cost and material affordances of books.

What, then, does this book have to offer? In the closing paragraph of its introduction, Price bathetically concedes that her “reliance on a few pieces of printed prose that have survived in twenty-first-century research libraries positions [have?] to offer little more than an account of competing ideologies surrounding the book in a few numerically unrepresentative genres”. She then immediately retracts her promise to provide at least that, on the grounds that “‘ideology’ sounds at once too lofty and too dry (or, in more Victorian language, too coarse) to do justice to the visceral energies driving my subjects to distance themselves from some uses of books and identify themselves with others”.

I for one find it hard to understand why “ideology” should be deemed too dry a term to describe our relations to books when it works just fine as a term for describing the visceral energies driving us to distance or identify ourselves with other humans, and I would have like to have handled, read, reviewed and circulated a book that was at once more committed to analyzing ideological conflicts through the lens of Victorian fantasies about the text and the book, and more responsive to the actual range of “ideological” positions that such a study would have forced Price to encounter.

Ultimately, the only thing that is “coarse” about the project Price avoided or aborted was its dual commitment, which survives in the book she wrote, to pitting (and studying the pitting of) “materialist against idealist” conceptions of culture. Surely the range of ideological positions adopted by Victorian and twenty-first-century subjects is quite a bit broader than that!

Lest I appear to have been drawn into a parochial skirmish, I want to end by echoing Price’s call for engagement in something more than de-contextualized reading, and to shift our focus back to the Victorians. More specifically, I want to supplement Price’s timely stress on the significance of book history to Victorian literary studies with a demonstration of the enduring significance of intellectual history.  I will do so by highlighting the impossibility of placing two influential Victorian writers within Price’s cast of idealists and materialists. These are  George Henry Lewes and Marian Evans, better known as the “husband” of novelist George Eliot and the woman behind that nom de plume, respectively.

In the opening pages of her book, Price turns to Lewes’s own early novel, Ranthorpe, in order to illustrate how novelists would establish the depth of a hero’s character “by describing what aspects of books he fails to notice”: “He cared not for rare editions, large paper copies, or sumptuous bindings” states Lewes’s narrator of Lewes’s hero; “he cared not even if they had covers at all.” A few pages later, Price takes a statement by Evans/Eliot, from her early review of J.A. Froude’s The Nemesis of Faith, as evidence of a general prioritization of the spirit over the letter in Victorian culture: speaking of the propensity of certain books to “undergo a sort of transfiguration before us,” the woman who would later pen Middlemarch invites her readers to inhabit the fantasy of “no longer hold[ing] heavily in [their] hands an octovo of some hundred pages, over which the eye laboriously travels, hardly able to drag along with it the restive mind,” but rather of “be[ing] in companionship with a spirit, who is transfusing himself into our souls”.

It is all too easy to interpret these isolated statements by Lewes and Evans as evidence of their recalcitrant idealism, but, in fact, there is in these writers’ works more to trouble the dichotomies that Price draws than to tie them down to either one of Price’s two casts of mind. Thus, for example, in 1859, Lewes asserted that “Realism is … the basis of all Art, and its antithesis is not Idealism, but Falsism.” Indeed, even in 1846, in the first edition of his Biographical History of Philosophy, Lewes’s opposition to conventional uses of the term materialism was already well developed: “Although every man now believes the brain to be veritably the organ of the mind,” Lewes lamented that “the word ‘materialism’ is still used as a bug-bear.”

One of the diverse influences that led Lewes and Eliot to question terms that Price deploys unquestioningly was the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose Ethics they both read in Latin and endeavored to translate into English. Interestingly, whereas Price avers that “a commonsense Cartesianism or Platonism” still “actively numbs us to the look and feel of the printed page,” Victorian thinkers like Eliot and Lewes were already actively influenced by philosophers for whom the dichotomies that Price maintains – between idealism and materialism, between mind and body, between contingency and necessity, etc., – had been done away with or re-framed.

After reading Price’s book I am not so much left with a recognition of the need to embrace the book and the pun as correctives for our overinvestment in reading, as with a recognition of the need to explore alternative philosophical frameworks as a corrective for our overinvestment in dualistic thinking. This too is something that the Victorians can help us with.

About the Author:

Simon Calder is a lecturer in the Departments of English and Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. In 2011 he completed his doctoral thesis in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. He is currently working on a book on George Eliot and the ethics of fiction-making.