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  • Anonymous Signatures: Circulating Libraries, Conventionality, and the Production of Gothic Romances
  • Edward Jacobs

Ever since circulating libraries first became commercially successful during the second half of the eighteenth century, social and literary critics have analyzed them primarily as institutions for distributing books. The dominant view has been that circulating libraries vulgarized literature, by pandering fiction to women, servants, and other people who had previously been excluded from reading by the high cost of books or by illiteracy. For instance, near the end of The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt argues, as many eighteenth-century critics did, that during the last quarter of the eighteenth century “the pressures toward literary degradation which were exerted by the booksellers and circulating library operators in their efforts to meet the reading public’s uncritical demand for easy vicarious indulgence in sentiment and romance” caused “a purely quantitative assertion of dominance” by female authors and readers, and by the gothic romance genre. 1

Recently, Paul Kaufman and Jan Fergus have qualified such complaints on documentary grounds. 2 As their studies show, extant circulating-library catalogs and business records do not verify the assumption that circulating libraries distributed “mainly” fiction, or that they were patronized “mainly” by women, or by “new,” “lower-class” readers in general. Although the evidence does suggest that circulating libraries dealt substantially in contemporary fiction, and that they were patronized disproportionately by women and by lower-class readers, documents ultimately suggest, as Fergus argues, that “popular novels should be less easily dismissed as hack work directed at a new audience more naive and less educated than traditional readers; these novels and their writers bear closer examination.” Kaufman makes a similar case “In Defense of Fair Readers.” 3

But even though Fergus and Kaufman present their evidence in contradiction of the traditional dismissal of “popular novels” as a sub-literature for silly women and servants, their arguments ironically [End Page 603] comply with the elitism and misogyny of that traditional dismissal. For both Fergus and Kaufman justify re-appraising the texts and authors of popular fiction by demonstrating that these texts and authors have less to do with circulating libraries and “more naive and less educated” readers than we had thought. For Watt, popular novels are damned because circulating libraries distributed them to women and servants; for Fergus and Kaufman, they merit renewed attention because circulating libraries did not distribute them only to women and servants. In both cases, the “class” of readers who patronized circulating libraries is used to determine the “literary” value of the texts available in the libraries.

Most every other published commentary on circulating libraries similarly analyzes them as institutions for distributing books. 4 However, this tradition of evaluating circulating libraries only as distributive institutions misrepresents them as being “passive” institutions, in the same ways that their allegedly female patrons were for centuries supposed to have been “passive” people. For in focusing exclusively on the question of what circulating libraries distributed to whom, critics have ignored the fact that many circulating libraries also published books.

In presenting the preliminary results of my own analysis of circulating-library publishing, this paper will argue that a detailed analysis of circulating-library publishing is critical to our understanding of how “the novel” emerged and functioned as a dominant literary genre. Basically, my analysis indicates that eighteenth-century British circulating libraries specialized in publishing fiction by anonymous and/or female authors who were often novices. Evidence moreover suggests that the libraries run by these publishers institutionally supported this strategy by culturally reproducing reading patrons as these anonymous and/or female authors. Circulating-library publishers pursued this strategy of development, I maintain, because as relative fledglings unconnected to the dynastic publishing houses who since the 1740’s had monopolized “the novel,” these publishers could compete only by developing cheap, new talent and fashions within the fiction genre.

One might immediately assume that these results confirm, from the perspective of production, the traditional argument that circulating libraries lowered the class of fiction, by transforming it into a culture industry that produced dull imitations and trendy sensations rather than “novel” works of ingenuity and exploration. However, in the context of recent arguments about the ways...

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pp. 603-629
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