Novel Reading in Post-Enlightenment Scotland: a PhD

Hello! My name is Cleo O’Callaghan Yeoman, and I am delighted to be joining the Books and Borrowing team as I begin my SGSAH/AHRC-funded PhD this month, co-supervised by the Universities of Stirling and Glasgow.

My PhD project centres upon analysing the relationships between novel reading and forms of ‘improvement’ within Post-Enlightenment Scotland. By combining textual analysis with detailed archival work, the project aims to advance our understanding both of the novel as an improving form of literature and of Scottish Post-Enlightenment reading habits.

Defined, for the purposes of this project, as a hinge period, spanning 1800–1837, between the Enlightenment and Victorian periods, the Scottish Post-Enlightenment period represented a pivotal stage in the novel’s canonisation. Marked most notably by Walter Scott’s seismic entrance onto the novel scene during the mid-1810s, it also saw the advent of mass printing, and rise of the novel in Scottish subscription libraries.

Title page of Scott's Waverley

The publication of Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since in 1814 marked Scott’s seismic entrance onto the novel scene, and his subsequent rise to fame as a novelist, previously written about on the Books and Borrowing blog here.

Studying for my Master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh was invaluable in acquainting me more closely with Scotland’s social, literary, and philosophical culture throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was as a Master’s student that I developed an especial interest in the Post-Enlightenment period, and also in the contemporary association of improvement – or, indeed, lack thereof – with novel reading. Whilst ‘improvement’ was often the subject of early-nineteenth century novels, the improving potential of novel reading was debated: on the one hand, it represented a catalytic act of self-improvement; on the other, it was a corruptive influence, at once romanticised and, crucially, romanticising. Such dangers were often discussed within the novels themselves, engaging readers in a didactic meta-discourse about the consequences of reading fiction.

With this in mind, the first half of the project will comprise close textual analysis of the novels of six Scottish writers: Mary Brunton, Susan Ferrier, John Galt, Elizabeth Hamilton, James Hogg, and Walter Scott. It will analyse the specific versions of improvement presented by each writer – including, for example, evangelical, historical, and intellectual improvement – and in so doing interrogate the ‘plurality of improvement’ identified by Gerard Lee McKeever in Dialectics of Improvement (2020), by which the Post-Enlightenment period can be characterised. It will also consider how fictionalised portrayals of reading are presented in the novels as conducive to improvement – or, indeed, as corrupting – on an individual and broader, social level, interrogating the national specificity of the links between individual reading and collective improvement.

Image of front cover of the 2020 edition of Ferrier's novel Marriage

In 2020, the ASLS published a new edition, edited by Dorothy McMillan, of Ferrier’s first novel, Marriage, first published in 1818

The second half of the project will compare these representations of novel reading with the period’s actual borrowing patterns. Source materials will comprise the borrowing records of six libraries associated with the Books and Borrowing project, five of which have a regional connection to the novelists under study: the Kirkwall Subscription Library (to Brunton); the Chambers Circulating Library (to Ferrier); the John Gray Library (to Galt); the Leighton Library (to Hamilton); the Selkirk Subscription Library (to Hogg and Scott); and, finally, Wigtown Subscription Library, which bears no regional connection and will therefore act as a control. The records will be analysed to assess the extent to which the novels studied in the first half were borrowed, and whether there are correlations between the contested versions of improvement presented within these novels and borrowing patterns: did, for example, borrowers of Brunton’s novels also borrow religious texts, or borrowers of Scott’s novels also borrow historical texts? Conducting this analysis on a regional basis will facilitate interpretations of the differences between rural and metropolitan Scottish communities’ borrowing tendencies, providing a basis for future research that might consider region-specific manifestations of post-Enlightenment Scottish reading behaviour.

Cover of the 2016 edition of Mary Brunton's novel Self-Control

The Chawton House Library Series (edited by Stephen Bending and Stephen Bygrave) will likewise be a valuable resource throughout my PhD; pictured here is the 2016 edition of Brunton’s first novel, Self-Control (first published in 1811), edited by Anthony Mandal