- The Early Roxburghe Club, 1812–1835: Book Club Pioneers and the Advancement of English Literature by Shayne Husbands
The Roxburghe Club celebrated its bicentenary in 2012, and to mark the occasion published a history by Nicolas Barker. This must be regarded as the Club's official account, and it covers two hundred years. Shayne Husbands's study deals with a much shorter period, and as the work of an outsider has a different viewpoint. In many ways the two books complement each other, not least because Husbands is able to devote more space to some of her themes than was possible for a book covering a much longer period: Barker was able to give roughly eighty pages to a period where she can take about two hundred. Her terminus is the year in which [End Page 89] Viscount Clive became the club's second President, following the death of Earl Spencer.
What did the Club look like to an outsider? Founded by a group of enthusiasts inspired by the extraordinary sale of the Duke of Roxburghe's books in 1812, it was pioneering not so much in its dinners, which became talked of well beyond the rooms in which they took place, as in the practice of its members to have reprinted books whose rarity had become such that they were not easily read, let alone appreciated, even by the small numbers of early-nineteenth-century scholars who interested themselves in early English literature. For some observers, the Club's social activities seemed more interesting than its books: it was easy to mock the elaborate dinners, and the costs of the wines. Bibliomania, often involving high prices for books that (it was assumed) would be little read, was not an easy phenomenon for many people to accept. The attacks were as much on what seemed to be privilege as on conspicuous consumption.
Socially, members were drawn from a much wider spectrum than was sometimes assumed. The club was unashamedly elitist, but that did not mean socially exclusive. Husbands points out that of the eighteen people who sat down at the first dinner in 1812, just two were peers and two were baronets. Aristocratic members were in a minority. John Dent, for example, was a banker. Dibdin was a clergyman. Joseph Haslewood was self-educated. Richard Heber was a private citizen. George Isted and Edward Utterson were barristers. She provides useful summary biographies of the members during her period.
People apart, she is most interested in the contributions by members to the study of early English literature. She is not the first to cover this ground: the volume presented by Tim Munby to the Club in 1964, by Nicolas Barker, offered an account of the Club's publications, and like her provided a list of them. But she is the first to go into detail concerning the textual background of some of these books, beginning with the Earl of Surrey's translation of Virgil, printed in 1814 after the original edition of 1557. Some pieces were slight, while others were very considerable, such as Caxton's translation of part of Ovid (presented by George Hibbert in 1819), and Madden's pioneering edition of Havelok the Dane was an innovation: a book published by the Club rather than paid for by a private member. By far the most striking features of the early books are not just their frequent attention to antiquarian typography, but their subject matter. Almost all were of negected or forgotten (and, frankly, minor) English literature. In the wake of the sales of the libraries of Richard Farmer (1798) and Isaac Reed (1807), and of Edmund Malone's bequest to the Bodleian Library in 1821, early English literature became not just fashionable, but also a proper concern for scholarly investigation. The Roxburghe books, published in small editions, were a critical part of this movement, but in their small numbers they were also a reminder: that this was by...