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Betty A. Schellenberg. Literary Coteries and the Making of Modern Print Culture, 1710-1790

Betty A. Schellenberg. Literary Coteries and the Making of Modern Print Culture, 1710-1790. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 320p., 15 black and white illus. ISBN 9781107128163. £64.99 (hardback).

Betty Schellenberg’s wide-ranging and theoretically informed study using the terms and concepts of media ecology is a welcome addition to the growing body of work on eighteenth-central scribal publication culture, a revisionist area of research that argues for what Schellenberg terms the “interpenetration” of manuscript and print culture throughout the eighteenth century. This view of mutually engaged models and modes of publication, the phenomenon of intermediation, not only departs from earlier scholarship insisting on a narrative of succession as part of which print culture succeeded (and was not significantly affected by manuscript publication and circulation, which was largely associated with the seventeenth century); rather, it highlights the ways in which print was shaped by (and shaped in turn) particular practices of scribal publication. The book focuses on two main areas of investigation: a series of case studies sheds light on actual coteries in which the dynamics and exchanges of agents (in Bruno Latour’s comprehensive and accommodating sense of the term), including the manuscript objects themselves, are being examined, as well as how these exchanges are mediated, on occasion, by print. While still embedded within the formative context of manuscript coterie culture, the second area of research focuses on particular genres, such as travel narratives and the writing of characters. The former are shown to have existed well before topographical compendia and travel narratives were published from the 1770s on, and coterie members promoted a highly guarded control behaviour where manuscript characters were concerned, limiting the circulation of these works by strict rules related to their dissemination.

The case studies of Schellenberg’s volume range from well-known agents (including, among others, Elizabeth Montagu, Sir George (later Lord) Lyttelton, Elizabeth Carter, the editor of Epictetus, Catherine Talbot, and Thomas Birch) to those obscure, unnamed individuals who contributed verse as part of communal coterie activities to the manuscript miscellanies discussed in the last chapter. Some of these agents operating on the peripheries of different coteries serve as “bridges” (to use Latour’s term) facilitating cross-fertilization among different literary circles. The chapters investigate “how systems of scribal exchange were used to construct and underwrite cultural power and how that power was used, often to enhance print production” (15). But the chapters do much more than that: they offer insightful discussions of the ways in which the intermedial manuscript culture of William Shenstone’s coterie at The Leasowes operated, Robert Dodsley’s dual role in this coterie and as publisher of the edition of the poet’s posthumous Works, and how Shenstone’s afterlife in magazines and newspapers boasted the kind of coterie tributes that in his lifetime he received in manuscript form. The study of Shenstone’s coterie demonstrates once more not only the interconnectedness of manuscript and print but that the conventions of the manuscript in fact gave shape and affected Shenstone’s afterlife in print.

Schellenberg’s account of Samuel Johnson’s attitude towards coterie culture is a highlight: it puts into relief the perceived incompatibility of the different models of dissemination — the one (manuscript) associated with restricted access to the scribal productions watched over by like-minded members of a coterie, the other (print) democratized and casting suspicion on the legitimacy of elite coterie culture — when an individual’s character is at stake. The author shows that, in response to the publication of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets, members of Montagu’s coterie rejected the ways in which he criticized a one-time member of the circle, Lord Lyttelton. To Montagu and others close to her, the print medium appeared inappropriate in that it democratized judgment and encouraged others to follow (uncritically) Lyttelton’s view that Johnson advanced in his “Life.” Schellenberg’s work not only sheds light on the reception of Johnson’s evaluative character sketches, but it also elucidates how a genre Johnson appropriated and which derived from the scribal publishing practices of a still extant coterie culture jarred with the dissemination-specific views of the exponents of this more private form of mediation.

While the conception of a particular genre and particular modes of dissemination are coupled with ethical questions at the heart of Montagu’s coterie, a genre of a very different kind — that of travel writing — is shown to be indebted to manuscript practices operating in coteries that have not hitherto been sufficiently charted in the mapping of an innovative print form which (supposedly) emerged in the 1770s only. The author’s research establishes that this genre had cultural currency about twenty years earlier already. While she briefly notes that the use of a picturesque aesthetic — as articulated in the manuscript records she examines — predated William Gilpin’s theorizing, she does not consider that the historiography of the picturesque landscape and landscape gardening needs to take into account the scribal practices of the 1750s in order to reach a fuller understanding of this cultural phenomenon. Altogether, however, Literary Coteries and the Making of Modern Print Culture, 1710-1790 offers such a high degree of recontextualization, mapping areas in ways that point out numerous avenues which can be explored in future studies, that it will affect the ways in which scholars of manuscript and print culture will think about their subjects in the future.

Sandro Jung
Ghent University

Published inBook review

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