We are accustomed to the idea of paratext as the entry point to a text, and this concept is commonly figured using architectural analogies. Taking his cue from Jorge Luis Borges's description of the preface, Gérard Genette's formulation of the para-text as a threshold employs the idea of the liminal household space, "a 'vestibule' that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back."1 The idea of the reader as visitor and the book as building was, however, in use long before Genette's influential theory. In his Preface to Henry Huth's Prefaces, Dedications, Epistles Selected from Early English Books 1540-1701 (1874), William Carew Hazlitt writes: "A series of these Forewords, as it is now the fashion to term them, bears somewhat the same relation to a series of the entire tracts as a portico bears to a dwelling; we survey the one, and form our judgment of the interior and its inmates; while, after a perusal of the Preface, we get at some knowledge of the book and its author, tempting us to go farther, or else leading us to retrace our steps."2 Thomas Dekker's preface to A Strange Horse-Race (1613), "Not to the Readers: but to the Understanders," also addresses this, relating the reading process to being guided by the author throught the labyrinthine floor plan of a house: "The maine plot of my building is a Moral labyrinth; a weake thred guides you in and out: I will shew you how to enter, and how to passe through, and open all the Roomes, and all the priuate walkes."3
The modern dedication, occupying one of the first and most prominent of preliminary spaces in a book, offers a surprisingly unwelcoming entry point for the reader. The short phrase expressing affection or gratitude at the front of a book momentarily disrupts our nascent relationship with the text to present us with an exclusive address to someone else. These small formulae share little of the discursive, guiding function that is more commonly ascribed to paratextual matter; they tell us instead of relationships, networks, lives outside of the text. [End Page 483] The more enigmatic the detail of the dedication—initials, a first name, a nickname—the more we may surmise about the intimacy of the dedication. The brevity of modern dedicatory phrases is in stark contrast to the expansive dedicatory epistles that emerged during the first age of print and often appeared as part of a suite of dedications not only to patrons but also to types of readers. These dedicatory epistles suggest a more formalized relationship between author and dedicatee than we encounter nowadays. In a chiastic inversion of the relationship between text and reader identified in my opening examples, early modern dedicatory epistles often feature the trope of the book as visitor: sent out by the author to the doorstep of a dedicatee, it asks for lodging, shelter, or sustenance. Michael Drayton's many dedications in England's Heroicall Epistles, first published in 1597, include one to Baron Monteagle that asks (with a possible pun on the surname spelled "Mount-eagle"): "Let this my Epistles be one staire or little degree, whereby I may ascend into the entrance of your good opinion."4 These public requests for protection, and the hopes for economic and social advantage that were implicit in them, present early modern dedications as distant from the intimate relationships that tend to be privileged in modern ones. There were, however, occasions when the personal and public would intersect.
Franklin B. Williams's magisterial Index of Dedications and Commendatory Verses in English Books before 1641 (1962) suggests that many early modern authors never met the individuals to whom they dedicated their books.5 Dedications might be speculative or impersonal, and gesture at patronage relationships the author would like to enjoy, rather than those already established.6 Given that a large majority of dedications in the early modern period were to royalty and nobility, it stands to reason that authors had not necessarily cultivated personal links with them. Williams's Index also shows that, after...