Print Culture in the Age of the Circulating Library

'Title Pages' Tour

Emma Clery, Sheffield Hallam University

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The story of the title page begins in the late fifteenth century. Its first use was practical, as an extra cover sheet to prevent soiling of the first page of text and a means of succinctly announcing the contents, then ornamental, as a space for elaborate woodcuts or engravings combined with print. Already in the sixteenth century publishers and booksellers were taking advantage of the innovation to publicise their businesses, with names and addresses prominently displayed. The name of the author was less of a regular feature.

By the eighteenth century the layout of title pages was standardised, with little decoration and a regular economy of information. But as this exhibition of title pages from the Corvey Collection demonstrates, there were subtle variations, some playful juggling with the form, and some innovation: notably in the use of epigraphs. Accustomed as we are today to seeing most of the publisher's details exiled to the verso of the title page, the continuing tradition of bold self-publicity is notable.

The title page was still above all the publisher and booksellers' domain, and identification of the author remained optional. In many cases anonymity would have been the author's choice. But in her recent essay Anonymity and the Pressures of Publication in the Early Nineteenth Century [external link], Kathryn Dawes has investigated a number of cases where authors unmentioned on the title page are identified elsewhere, in prefaces or dedications, suggesting that the name of the author was by no means regarded as an essential component by the publishing industry, even if forthcoming. The title page inscribes the dominance of publishers over all but the most successful and prestigious authors, with the legal framework and sales practices skewed in their favour. A full history of the title page would probably depict the publisher or bookseller as the animating force: the sketches provided here retain the conventional focus on the writer.

Over 200 title pages have been scanned and incorporated in the database Corvey Women Writers on the Web: works by the better known and most prolific authors have been covered, and those with surnames beginning with 'A'.

I. Authorship: Ascription and Concealment

The two title pages of works by Marguerite, Countess of Blessington (1789-1849) show a common pattern of early anonymity and later revelation. In 1822, when Sketches and Fragments was published, she was still relatively unknown in society, recently married to the Earl of Blessington, and with a scandalous past to live down. By 1833 she was widowed, established as one of the great London hostesses, a former confidante of Lord Byron, an editor of prestigious annuals, her image publicised in a number of famous portraits. Although still not wholly respectable, her name had become a prime selling point.

But in other cases there is no clear logic to the manner of ascription. Charlotte Dacre (1781?-1825) began her writing career contributing poems to the Morning Post under the pseudonym 'Rosa Matilda'. On the title page of her second novel Zofloya her 'real' name is introduced, though 'Dacre' may also have been an invention (she was born 'King' and later married Nicholas Byrne). In her fourth and last novel The Passions she reverts to 'Rosa Matilda' alone, although previous publications under 'Dacre' are mentioned: could it have been to capitalise on the not unflattering mention of the author under this pseudonym in Byron's English Bards and Scotch Reviewers of 1809?

II. Intertextuality: the Use of Epigraphs

National Tale

From the start of her career, the title pages of works by Sydney Owenson (1776-1859; later Lady Morgan) are striking for the flamboyant use of epigraphs, signalling her intellectual confidence and assertive attitude to publishing. Her first novel St. Clair; or, The Heiress of Desmond (1803) was ascribed modestly to 'S.O.', but paraded the philosophic interests of the author, and knowledge of foreign language and literature. The Wild Irish Girl was her ticket to success, and the title page typically quotes from a recherché foreign source. Owenson appropriated the space of the title page in a way attempted by few other authors, and the style and nature of the epigraphs became a mark not only of her own identity as an author, but of the 'heavyweight' pretensions of the 'national tale', a form she did so much to popularise. The lengthy and portentous quotations on the title page of a work by the obscure Miss Appleton are a tribute to her example.

Female Authority

Epigraphs and quotations always involve issues of literary authority and canonicity. When female authors cited the works of prestigious male writers they were not only acceding to the status quo, but also displaying their own credentials for inclusion in the male-dominated republic of letters. The title page epigraph had added significance, and could be regarded as a professional calling card. On rare and notable occasions a contemporary female writer was quoted on the title page. Opie takes her lines from the poem 'To Miss R on her attendance upon her mother at Buxton'. Meeke cites from Elizabeth Griffith's comedy A Wife in the Right (1772). Both Griffith and Barbauld were successful writers and had engaged in the canon-making task of editing. Could they have had talismanic value?


Eliza Parsons was a hard-working hack writer of fiction, constantly on the verge of penury. Having published with the illiberal Minerva Press and, briefly, the upmarket Longman, after 1800 her works appeared under the imprint of the singularly ambitious provincial publisher of fiction, Philip Norbury of Brentford in Essex. The long trail of previous publications indicates her veteran status (she published 19 titles in all during her career). Her epigraphs - most likely devised by herself, since they are not attributed - project her world-weary but wryly humorous perspective on the publishing industry.

III. The Hard Sell and the Tease

The mere claim to 'fashion' or 'celebrity' was sometimes felt to be sufficient as a selling gambit, without the need to demonstrate it. The title page of Rosetta, a novel still unascribed, also displays subtly salacious epigraphs. The title page of The Carthusian Friar by Sarah Green, an author of no celebrity, has a self-reflexive satirical intent indicated by the subtitle and, perhaps, the quotation from Peacock.

Some authors had genuine notoriety and were not afraid to bank on it. The name of Elizabeth Gunning (1769-1823) had been dragged through the mud when she was accused of forging a letter to improve her chances of marrying an earl and disowned by her father. Yet far from wanting to make a new start when she married Major Plunkett in 1803, she not only continued to publish under her maiden name but also chose titles to recall her scandalous past. The formula The Victim of Seduction had already been used as the subtitle of an earlier work, Dangers Through Life (1810).

Other writers used the title page to exploit associations with celebrity. Anne Hatton (1764-1838) was the penurious sister of Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble, but although she had at one time made public complaints about the lack of support she received from her family, in her works of fiction, generally published under the name Anne of Swansea, she merely hinted at high connections. The title page of Chronicles of an Illustrious House (1816) promised the narrative would be 'embellished with characters and anecdotes of well-known persons'. The title page of Gonzalo de Baldivia makes the most of its dedicatee. Alicia Lefanu (c. 1795-c.1826) followed in the footsteps of her mother Elizabeth Lefanu (née 'Betsy' Sheridan; see the title page of The India Voyage, 1804) in drawing attention to a deceased forbear, the distinguished author of Lectures on Elocution (1762).

In contrast to this careful angling for advantage, the cavalier attitude of 'Eugenia de Acton' (in fact Alethea Brereton Lewis, 1750-1827) is refreshing.

Plain Prestige

It is notable that the title pages of works by authors who aimed at or had achieved literary distinction, as opposed to quick sales, tended towards an almost militant austerity, with uniform typescript, wide spacing and margins, and no epigraphs. Apart from Austen and Baillie, the publications of Burney, Edgeworth and Inchbald all generally followed this mode of presentation. This may have been the policy of the publishers at the upper end of the market: Cadell and Davies, Colburn, Joseph Johnson, Longman, and Robinson.

IV. Interesting Scenes: Frontispieces

Compared to the situation in France, illustrations in English works of fiction were relatively rare. Publishers on the whole aimed to cut production expenses to the minimum in order to reach the widest possible public. Frontispieces are more common, but mainly took the form of simple woodcuts rather than engravings.

Barbara Hofland (1770-1844), a Sheffield-born writer who published poetry, novels, journalism and children's books, had one of the most prolific and successful careers of any author in the period. The History of the Clergyman's Widow, first published in 1812, sold 17,000 copies. Newman, who had taken over from William Lane at Minerva Press, was evidently encouraged to invest in fairly high quality frontispieces to showcase a star writer, and the pictures may also have been intended to emphasise the entertainment value of works which were, in essence, narrativized conduct books.

The attractive title pages and frontispieces produced by the publisher C. Cooke were part of a plan to remarket popular works from the previous century in a series of pocket editions. Since the novels were out of copyright, it was presumably felt that more than usual could be spent on commissioning illustrations from artists.