Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Scottish Student Marginalia in the Romantic Period: A PhD

Hello! My name is Rachael Tarrant and I am the latest, and fourth, PhD researcher to join ranks with the Books and Borrowing team (shortly to be followed by Jacqueline next year) – a climbing number that itself testifies to the germinating power of the Books and Borrowing project. My SGSAH AHRC funded PHD, co-supervised by the Universities of Glasgow and Stirling, started just last month, but I have followed along with Books and Borrowing via these blog posts for far longer. It feels more than a little strange to be on this side of a Books and Borrowing project team post!

Like the Books and Borrowing project, my PhD is committed to establishing which books readers actually engaged with in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but, unlike Books and Borrowing, my research focuses specifically on Scottish students and the evidence of their marginalia. I first became interested in this topic in 2019, when I spent four months unpacking the revealing nuances of the copious early-nineteenth-century student marginalia penned within a first-edition University of Glasgow library copy of William Wordsworth’s The Excursion for my Master’s dissertation.

‘End of the first book’ marginalia in William Wordsworth’s (1814) The Excursion.

‘End of the first book’ marginalia in William Wordsworth’s (1814) The Excursion.

Attuning sensitively to the students’ inscriptions unearthed a fascinating, yet overlooked, student-led tool, as students used the book space to negotiate shifting models of discourse – from authorial, to institutional, to public – in provocative dialogue with one another. Students flocked to the quarto’s ample pages, applying and refuting standards of art delineated in university ‘Belles Lettres and Logic’ lectures and periodical press reviews in a creative arena of their own making. My PhD research will systematically examine such book use by creating and interpreting a large-scale dataset of marginalia through comprehensively mining the University of Glasgow’s substantial holdings of Romantic-period imaginative literature and drawing upon comparative examples in surviving books held by other Scottish universities and owned in the period by individuals.

The amorphous, fractious literary landscape of the Romantic period has become a key focus of my research in order to reconstruct the students’ intellectual environment. Key players – authors, magazines, booksellers and institutions – carved out distinct roles for themselves and the works they studied and produced amongst the ‘culture-wide debate about […] disciplinarity, language, class and audience’ (Valenza 2009: 146). Discourses circulated by now-canonical Romantic authors – emphasising poetic inspiration, imagination, emotion and transcendence – sought to place literary works outside the bounds of professionalism and industrialisation, in a way that still slants criticism today. Romantic-period student marginalia, like those found within the University of Glasgow library’s first-edition copy of Wordsworth’s Excursion, engages with literary debates that shaped English Literature’s disciplinary emergence in Scotland.

My research will chart related institutional shifts taking place in the teaching of English Literature in Scotland, from the establishment of ‘Belles Lettres and Logic’ courses in Glasgow in 1780 towards the creation of the first chair in ‘English Literature and English Language’ at Glasgow in 1862. To contextualise evidence from marginalia, I will analyse Glasgow’s historic lecture synopses, student notes and exam scripts on ‘Belles Lettres and Logic’ to investigate how classes in logic, rhetoric and moral philosophy shaped (or failed to shape) student approaches to literature. This archival work will nuance crucial advances in recognising English Literature’s precursor courses, typified by Robert Crawford’s 1998 examination, by attending, as in recent work by Matthew Eddy, to the ‘material artefacts [students] actually made and used’ (2023: 5).

Excerpt from University of Glasgow arts student George Palmes’ notebook, containing notes taken from the lectures of George Jardine, Professor of Logic and Belles Lettres, in the years 1793-4.

Where my PhD directly intersects with Books and Borrowing is in the work I will be doing with the University of Glasgow’s Romantic-period student borrowing registers. To assist with identifying popular books, I will transcribe and add data from Glasgow’s surviving nineteenth century student registers to the Books and Borrowing system, generating further searchable open-access data and placing Glasgow reading practices in the context of wider trends. Glasgow does not retain full student borrowing records for the period I’m interested in – the latest eighteenth century student borrowing register ends in 1770 and the earliest nineteenth century student borrowing register starts in 1828 – however, the register I am interested in is particularly substantial. Indeed, upon a closer look at the 1828-1833 borrowing register, I discovered that it is closer to 10,000 entries than the 4,000 or so entries typical of professorial registers! Thankfully Glasgow doesn’t appear to have used the same scoring-out system as the criss-crossed University of Edinburgh registers (see examples of their eighteenth century borrowing registers here); the register is very neat and clear, recording the name of student, pressmark, place and date of publication, title, dates borrowed and returned.

Some preliminary work on this register has been very encouraging in terms of the frequency with which works of imaginative Romantic-period literature and belles lettres pop up. For example, borrowed in January 1828, we find Walter Scott’s The Lord of the Isles: A Poem (1815), Samuel Coleridge’s The Friend: A Series of Essays (1818), Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819), Henry Milman’s The Martyr of Antioch: A Dramatic Poem (1822), as well as periodicals like The Edinburgh Review and Blackwoods. This being said, the register does, however, embody the truth of William St Clair’s (2004: 3) reminder, in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, that ‘readers have never confined their reading to contemporary texts’. The register records examples of older and non-fiction works that also made up Romantic-period Glaswegian students’ internal libraries and into which their contemporary reading must be situated.

I’ve been really warmly welcomed by the Books and Borrowing team and I’m excited to contribute in even a small way to the data captured for the Books and Borrowing database. Thank you to the team, and thank you to my predecessors at the University of Glasgow, for breaking the library rules around 200 years ago, writing in the margins of the books, and making my PhD project possible! Here are just a few examples of the notes these students left behind (images provided courtesy of University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections).

Several students meet in this end flyleaf of Walter Scott’s Marmion (1808) and, in poetic ripostes, debate the sanctity of Scott’s verse and the annotations throughout this volume’s pages.

This student argues with the ending Charlotte Smith wrote for her eponymous heroine Emmeline, the orphan of the castle (1788), judging Delamere the rightful ‘hero’ of the book, and, therefore, the candidate worthy of the ‘heroine’, Emmeline. The student’s penned judgement interrupts a busy cast of 13 curly-haired figures sketched in varying degrees of detail and (dis)embodiment.

A student in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) adopts the voice of the conservative periodical the British Critic to declare the book ‘the stupidest novel we ever read’.


A student finds fault with a line in Alexander Pope’s ‘An Essay on Man’ anthologised in Vicesimus Knox’s ‘Elegant Extracts in Poetry, Selected for the Improvement of Young Persons’ (1816): declaring it ‘not a good line’. Another addition decodes Pope’s reference to Jonathan Swift in the former’s satirical poem ‘The Happy Life of a Country Parson’.

A student emphasises the significance of Joan of Arc’s birthplace in Robert Southey’s Joan of Arc (1796): at least 42 scrawled Domremis encircle the printed verse in a spreading chant.

Another student, in the same copy of Robert Southey’s Joan of Arc (1796), practises their penmanship within the book.

A student rewrites Ferdinand’s speech into blank verse in Joseph Holman’s The Red-Cross Knights (1799).


Crawford, Robert (ed.). 1998. The Scottish Invention of English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge   University Press).

Eddy, Matthew. 2023. Media and the Mind: Art, Science, and Notebooks as Paper Machines,         1700-1830  (Chicago: Chicago University Press).

Holman, Joseph. 1799. The red-cross knights. A play, in five acts … Founded on the Robbers of Schiller  (London: Geo Cawthorn [et al.]). University of Glasgow copy: Shelf-mark: Sp Coll DK.5.16. <>.

Knox, Vicesimus (ed.). 1816. Elegant extracts in poetry selected for the improvement of young persons  (London: F. C and J. Rivington [et al.]). University of Glasgow copy: Shelf-mark: Sp Coll DK.4.5-6. <>.

Maturin, Charles. 1820. Melmoth the Wanderer (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Company and Hurst, Robinson and Co). University of Glasgow copy: Shelf-mark: Sp Coll DK.9.5-8.<>.

Palmes, George. 1793-1794. Notes taken by George Palmes at the College of Glasgow from the lectures of Mr Jardine Professor of Logic. 1793/4, Student Notebook. University of Glasgow copy: Shelf-mark: GB 0247 MS Gen 737.

Scott, Walter. 1808. Marmion, a tale of Flodden Field (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable). University of Glasgow copy: Shelf-mark: Sp Coll DN.6.18. <>.

Smith, Charlotte. 1788. Emmeline, the orphan of the castle, 4 vols. (London: T. Cadell). University of   Glasgow copy: Shelf-mark: Sp Coll Z7-i.3-6. <>.

Southey, Robert. 1796. Joan of Arc, an epic poem (Bristol: Printed by Bulgin and Rosser for Joseph Cottle [et al.]). University of Glasgow copy: Shelf-mark: Sp Coll q121.          <>.

St Clair, William. 2004. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge).

University of Glasgow Library. 1828-1833. Student’s Receipt Book, Library Records A50 (uncatalogued).

Valenza, Robin. 2009. Literature, language, and the rise of the intellectual disciplines in Britain, 1680-1820 (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press).

Wordsworth, William. 1814. The Excursion, Being a Portion of the Recluse (London: Longman, Hurst,Rees, Orme, and Brown). University of Glasgow copy: Shelf-mark: Sp Coll b.4.32.<>.