- Romanticism Bound
The history of Romanticism is bound up with the history of bookbinding. However, there remains a gap in research addressing Romantic-era bookbinding even as book-historical methodologies continue to gain traction in our field. This gap seemingly arises from the misconception that publishers' bindings—when a book's binding is determined by the publisher at the point of sale rather than by, say, a lending library or individual purchaser—did not hit the British literary marketplace until the 1830s and only became standard a decade or so later. Bibliographers like Stuart Bennett and David Pearson have argued for the earlier appearance of publishers' bindings and trade bindings in the eighteenth century.1 However, these [End Page 102] arguments have had little influence in Romantic studies where it is common, though not necessarily correct, knowledge that texts were sold in unbound sheets. Incomplete understandings of bookbinding's history have kicked questions about publishers' bindings (and bookbinding more generally) to Victorianists. But publishers' bindings are not a Victorian issue; they are a Romantic issue. Indeed, the careers of second generation Romantics parallel the rise of publishers' bindings.
Literary annuals, for instance, offer a clear reminder that many books in the second half of the Romantic period found their way to readers already bound. Audiences would have read works by Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Lord Byron, William Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt in literary annuals with lavish publishers' bindings. The famous red silk on the cover of The Keepsake for 1829 comes to mind, but earlier annuals had impressive glazed-paper publishers' bindings printed with steel-plate engravings, thus revealing that key changes in bookbinding appeared in full force by the early 1820s.
Moreover, important editions of works by members of the KeatsShelley circle and their contemporaries appeared in publishers' bindings, as was the case with The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1839) and Charles Lamb's Album Verses (1830), both published by Edward Moxon. Case studies of major publishers including Moxon, John Murray, and Henry Colburn indicate that publishers roles in the bookbinding process shifted earlier than is often assumed. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, publishers' advertisements increasingly gave prices for and descriptions of bound books, and there was a marked rise in publisher-produced printed spine labels with title, author, and price. My own preliminary examinations of bindings on novels published by Colburn during the Regency period suggest early attempts to brand books based on their bibliographic codes, including bindings. Such evidence signals a movement in the Romantic period toward binding practices governed by publishers rather than individual purchasers.
Admittedly, research on binding will require substantial hands-on work in libraries and archives, since descriptions of bindings in catalogues are often incomplete or absent. Romanticists will also need more bibliographical training to accurately describe and analyze bindings. [End Page 103] But the difficulty of this research should be a challenge not a deterrent, for to understand Romanticism and its histories of reception, scholars must also seek to understand how readers' encounters with Romantic texts were influenced by the bindings on the books they read.
Lindsey Eckert is Assistant Professor of English at Florida State University where her research and teaching focus on Romanticism and Book History.
1. See Stuart Bennett, Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles, 1660–1900 (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2004); and David Pearson, English Bookbinding Styles, 1450–1800: A Handbook (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2005).