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Women Writers and Print Networks in Eighteenth-Century England

Women Writers and Print Networks in Eighteenth-Century England

This post is part of a series authored by our collaborators on the Intertextual Networks project. For more information, see here. 

By Kate Ozment, Texas A&M University

My project for the Intertextual Networks traces the material links between women writers in the long eighteenth century in England—their publishers. We have long discussed how significant numbers of women made their way into the literary side of the print market after the Restoration of Charles II. We have also begun to outline with more certainly the changes and developments in the book trade that enabled these women to reach their audiences. This project links these two discourses together by asking: who published women and why?

Accordingly, I investigate the collaborations between women commercial authors and their partners in the book trades by mapping books as data points linked to their producers. Through this method, I hope to uncover the network of publishers, printers, and booksellers who produced women’s literature. I use Gephi to show relational frequency through which tradespeople cluster the most between authors through direct edges. When known printer-publisher-bookseller relationships exist, I also tag who was mostly likely linked to the project as well using indirect edges. Gephi’s relational nodes show the clustering tradespeople between authors to highlight which firms were most often used by more than one author. The difficulty thus far has been how to show chronology along with frequency, which is a problem I hope to solve as this project continues.

An example of a Gephi visualization displaying Aphra Behn’s publishing network.

In order to control the data input, I am focusing on genres and authors that have a scholarly history in literary studies from which to pull. I include poetry, drama, fictional prose, pamphlets and essays, and literary biographies; a future project will expand to herbals, cookbooks, and other forms of technical writing where women have a long and rich history. I have begun with the authors about which the most is known—Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, and Eliza Haywood—for ease of reference and as test subjects before moving into murkier waters. All three women were successful (even notorious) commercial authors who created a space for more to follow. A second round will expand to include Katherine Philips, Susannah Centlivre, Jane Barker, and Mary Astell along with their more genteel colleagues: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Mary Chudleigh. One limitation of my first three authors is that they span time periods without significant overlap; the second round will make connections more easily identifiable.

As authors are the primary categorizing variable, the book trade names on imprints are secondary factors, largely exercises in identification. But, even this is rather tricky. Each of the printer, publisher, and bookseller has roles that are both easily defined and difficult to delineate. Printers were responsible for physically printing books; publishers for the financing, and therefore would own the copyright; and booksellers for the sale of physical copies. Individuals or firms could inhabit one or all of these roles; multiple individuals could inhabit each role—and often did through publishing collectives; and there could be various layers of contracts as jobs were sold off in pieces. Further, each book is its own case with a unique set of circumstances. It is difficult to re-create these relationships because imprints and surviving papers rarely offer definitive information about who fills what role. This presents both opportunities and challenges for scholars looking to historicize material decisions in the book-making process: if publishers or bookseller usually commissioned or bought books, would they be the ones to make decisions about design and format? If the book was jobbed out to trade publishers or other printers, would it be given sets of instructions or would the compositors make these decisions? Essentially, to whom do we designate authority?

As I do not (yet) have all the answers to these questions, I have imperfectly decided to input printers’ names but use publishers and booksellers as the primary factors for tracing relationships with authors. Printers could be seen as laborers on certain projects (and would complain of being treated as such as the century progressed), and it is highly unlikely that the designations assigning ownership to booksellers and publishers did not denote financial backing. Such a relationship can be seen with Aphra Behn’s The Luckey Chance: or, an Alderman’s Bargain that was published in 1687. The imprint reads: “Printed by R. H. for William Canning, at his Shop in Vine-Court, Middle-Temple.” In cases such as this, Ralph Holt (as identified by Wing) was Canning’s printer, and the latter was the financier of the project. Nodes like this will cluster with Canning rather than Holt, as trade practices would categorize Holt as Canning’s jobbing printer. More importantly, Canning was the owner of the work so Behn would have had her negotiations with him and he would have owned her copyright, either singularly or in partnership with others.

My examples thus far are of Aphra Behn’s career—Mary Ann O’Donnell’s Aphra Behn: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources (2004) has made it possible to track imprints and titles with authority. Behn produced an impressive number of titles in her almost 20 years as a professional writer, ranging from translations to drama to fictional prose and poetry. She also changed publishing firms many times. Her most sustained relationships were with three firms: Canning, Richard and Jacob Tonson, and Richard Bentley and James Magnes. She has also been associated rather strongly with Richard Wellington and Samuel Briscoe, booksellers who jointly bought up many of her copyrights and reprinted them in the 1690s after her death. Little is known of Canning’s practices, which is an area I am currently researching more fully. Fortunately, much is known about the Tonsons and a good deal about Magnes and Bentley. Jacob Tonson and his nephew Jacob, Richard’s son, would go on to become some of the most famous and profitable publishers in London, producing fine volumes of John Dryden, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and William Shakespeare well into the 1700s. Magnes and Bentley were moderately successful printers of plays and novels with a shop outside Covent Garden.

The potential benefits to this project are the ways we can use data to create most-likely scenarios for why these women published as they did. From surviving authorial addresses and letters, we know that Behn, Manley, and Haywood all viewed their writing as a commodity, something with an eager audience and potential profits. It is hardly speculation to imagine they would have been keen to find good partners in the book trade. Nevertheless, the lack of surviving records means that we have largely been unable to meaningfully investigate the motivations behind these decisions, rendering the tradespeople invisible or even parasitic rather than essential partners to book production. My project will build data around these questions so we can make these decisions more visible, giving us tools and information that we can use to reconstruct the agent side of commercial authorship.

It may be that I find patterns within the relationships. For example, both Manley and Behn chose Bentley’s firm as their first publisher. This could indicate that Bentley was willing to take chances on new authors, perhaps even new women authors, that other firms were not. It could also mean that Behn’s ongoing relationship with Bentley made him seem more appealing to Manley when she began publishing plays in 1696. Conversely, I could also find dissonances, as a wide variety of publishing firms produced women’s writing. That it is not limited to a single few, however, opens up the most powerful option of all: that women publishing was less culturally transgressive than we have imagined. We rely on the scribblings of wits, critical reviews, and the authors’ rhetorical self-presentation as our data for re-creating the cultural attitude about women’s commercial authorship. These sources are limited in their scope and filtered through rhetorical lenses that make them dubious as historical fact. Publishing data may tell a different story, one derived primarily from the collaborative production of commodities. It may lead us to consider that the marginal status of women writers was more rhetorical and discursive than economic. At the minimum, it demonstrates that the press and its workers commercially sanctioned these women’s social transgressions, complicating their role as outsiders. At the most, it suggests women could be social outsiders but economic equals.