For Daniel Defoe and many of his peers, print marked the acme of progress. For us, print technology appears more vulnerable than ever. But, as Aileen Douglas’s nuanced new monograph makes clear, writing is by definition an acquired skill. All writers begin as copyists—‘the copy precedes the original’ (p. 198). Far from putting an end to manual writing, she argues, print culture encouraged more writing of different kinds. Work in Hand: Script, Print, and Writing, 1690-1840, in sum, raises a series of significant questions pertinent to the study of the period under discussion: Would a greater diffusion of manual writing throughout society interfere with the provision of manual labour? To what extent did the manual shaping of letters differ for men and for women, or, for that matter, for boys and for girls new to the craft? What part did the mechanical act of inscription (the laborious part of writing, Defoe once called it) play in the identity formation of ‘the author’, a writer by profession? What role could—and did—scripting play in the expanding sphere of print culture? As production became increasingly automated, did the process of shaping letters make a writer more, or less, machine-like? The book’s methodology is an inviting one: ‘Work in Hand approaches print as a portal through which a much wider and equally dynamic world of manual writing can be seen’ (p. 4). ‘Print’s gradual assumption of tasks previously performed by script’, Douglas continues, ‘is only one aspect of their co-existence’. Print also increased scribal production, she observes, by giving script new opportunities for expansion and development. Peter Stallybrass had made a similar claim almost a decade ago—he called it print’s most radical effect. Douglas’s research adds extra heft to such a claim by tracing the relationship between script and print across diverse areas. It also challenges, implicitly at least, Clifford Siskin’s influential study The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830 (1998). Investigating the historical acts of classification within discourses of knowledge, Siskin’s account is itself a late product of the process he describes—little attention is given to the manual production of writing, for one thing. Book history provides more conducive support for the present study. Harold Love, for one, has shaped our understanding of scribal publication. H. J. Jackson has long excited interest in the shaping influence on readers and authors alike played by marginalia. Susan Whyman’s The Pen and the People (2009) shows how the study of epistolary literacy can reveal much about the wider diffusion of writing further down the social scale than has been generally allowed. Adrian Johns, too, has identified an overwhelming paradox within early modern print culture: that the only effective way to assure the authenticity of printed sheets was to adopt authorial inscriptions. Laurence Sterne, famously, signed 4000 copies of the fifth volume of Tristram Shandy in 1761. Sterne is not alone—many canonical authors of the period from Swift to Austen have been repositioned within variegated scribal cultures in recent years. Douglas opts for some case studies (Pope, Johnson, Blake, and Edgeworth), but she takes pain to position them within a larger world of letters. In a sense she extends the scope of the field. In another sense she reverses Johns’ paradox. The author’s ‘hand’, Douglas posits, ‘is now an ambivalent phenomenon because, although increasingly isolated as a printed object of value and scrutiny, it could also place the author in the context of mere writing and laborious inscription’ (p. 14). Far from being stymied, Douglas compellingly works through the various implications of this newer paradox by close examination of specific scribal practices. Swift, Richardson, and Austen anchor the survey of notable representations of script in print explored in the first chapter. Later, in the same chapter, Douglas considers the status of handwriting as legal evidence in the works of the jurist Geoffrey Gilbert and the legal historian William Blackstone. Chapter 2 discusses the ‘work’ of round hand in eighteenth-century society through an examination of the copybooks of English writing masters—masculine, commercial and, broadly, ideological, it contrasts the italic hand notionally reserved for women and non-commercial purposes, we are told. Chapter 3 takes a look at individual writing hands in the nebulous contexts of British imperial expansion in Ireland and India—more specifically the Irish Charter Schools and Andrew Bell’s educational experiments in Madras. Whereas the early chapters, taken together, attend to the diffusion of manual writing in different contexts, the remaining chapters home in on prominent authors. Chapter 4 is concerned with Dr Johnson and the practice of autobiography; Chapter 5 examines poetry at either ends of the century, through the work of Pope and Blake; and Chapter 6 turns to the novel, using Edgeworth as its major steer. By the early nineteenth century, the novel had become the dominant literary form in England. While not challenging this broad idea, Douglas’s study does invite us to consider again the extent to which the novel became straightforwardly a public vehicle of education and instruction. Rather, she suggests, the thematic treatment of script in Edgeworth’s Helen (1834) indicates a deeply personal consideration of the place of the professional writer in society. The final chapter, Chapter 7, brings together two of the book’s major themes: the diffusion of script, and script’s role in generating concepts of subjectivity and interiority, in a consideration of the autobiographical and polemical works of the radical publisher Joseph Barker. Embroiled in a controversy about whether writing should be taught in Methodist Sunday schools, Barker fought for writing instruction in a passionate and highly personal pamphlet, Mercy Triumphant (1840). Writing for him was an important human concern that supplemented mere labour: it augured a clearer autonomy of the self. Susan Stewart, as Douglas notes, more recently offered an inviting parallel to this—‘To sign your name, your mark, is to leave a track like any other track of the body’ (qtd. on p. 20). In part an attempt to put modern anxieties about our post-humanity into a longer perspective, Work in Hand compellingly challenges our assumptions about the relationship between writing and print in the age of authors. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 2, 2017
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