Poaching in the Textual Enclosure: Nineteenth-Century Literary Fandoms, at the Intersection of Gender and Space


Evan Hayles Gledhill
Reading University

The fan is often positioned, culturally, in opposition to the author for control of the meaning and content of the literary text. This binary dynamic between reader and author is a discourse of power relations, as are other pairings such as masculine and feminine, or public and private. This article explores how these inter-linked pairs describe a matrix of gendered space, both physically and textually. The title of this article draws a parallel between debates over authorship and control of the text, and the enclosure debates about ownership and land usage in the nineteenth century. Debates about fan practices and audiences often seem to be purely about the content of the text itself. However, they are as much about the spaces involved - the space of the text on the page, and the space in which fan practice occurs – and thus, are about the value structures regarding the gendered bodies that inhabit these spaces. Tom Mole describes the Romantic period as a pivotal moment in the creation of celebrity as we know it, in part because of the changing nature of literary dissemination; from an era of small print runs, linked to personal distribution networks, to the rise of early capitalist structures of mass production and mass literacy.[1] Examining the content and context for original fan texts, from commonplace books to letters written to famous authors, this article explores the dynamic between female fans and male authors from the Romantic poets at the start of this new era of mass literacy, to the establishment of the first modern copyright law in the mid nineteenth century. In the commonplace books of the early to mid-nineteenth century poetry and drama are the key fandoms, and this article focuses on fandoms surrounding poets and poetry.[2]

What it means to be a fan, rather than simply being an audience member or reader, is a debate that continues amongst scholars, despite some thirty years of work in fan studies. Leading scholars, such as Henry Jenkins, and Abercrombie and Longhurst, have defined fans by their productivity, whilst scholars drawing on their work have noted the problems when participants of the cultures being written about do not self-identify as fans, which is also a problem for historicised studies projecting modern terminology onto past behaviours.[3] Fan practices and celebrity culture are often thought of as relatively recent audience participatory strategies, but their long history is beginning to be explored, with research such as Corin Throsby’s focusing on Byron’s fan letters.[4] To situate the approach taken in this article, here the audience in general is considered to be any reader, or potential reader, with access to the literary work. Fans are all those who make a special effort to engage with the work and its author – whether this is through intense discussion or recreation of the text with other fans, or through a repeated and studious consumption of particular works, or by engagement with a favoured author, soliciting contact in person or by mail.

The Land of the Text

Michel de Certeau labelled the reader as a ‘poacher’ on the land of the literary text: they ‘move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write.’[5] This ‘poaching’ he presents as a resistance strategy for individuals against dominant cultural hegemony, but a weaker practice than that of the ‘original’ act of creation, supported by mass media and capitalist production methods. Yet, his terminology - of ‘poachers […] despoiling the wealth’ of the text - does not set up the individual against the system, so much as individual against individual within a system.

Henry Jenkins extended ‘textual poaching’ to examine another aspect of the power balance between author and reader; noting that fans can, and do, simultaneously interpret texts through dominant and oppositional reading strategies.[6] In this model, the reader is no longer directly in opposition to the author for control of the land of the text, but in negotiated discourse with them. However, the concepts of authorship and authority continue to be deployed: the mechanisms of control and distribution that enabled this reader to obtain this text by this author, instead of some other text perhaps, are rather moot in these discussions. de Certeau acknowledged dominant cultural power dynamics at play, but the terminology is politicised in the favour of the powerful. When we use terms such as ‘poaching’, by identifying the practices of individuals as problematic, we are using the terms that support the existing systemic power structures that ‘legitimate’ only certain usage and users.

In the introduction to Everyday Life de Certeau outlines the view that disciplinary powers exert a grid of control ever more extensively in society; a Foucaldian perspective, linked to ideas of the panopticon. Foucault made this architectural design a metaphor for the dissemination of power in modern society through the concept ‘panopticism’:

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.[7]

Reading is both a public and a private activity: one can be observed reading, but the thoughts that the reader takes from the work remain unobservable, unless the reader chooses to make their engagement with the text public, through discussion and creative dissemination of their own. This article focuses on the power dynamics governing these activities, through examining public observances made about fans and readers, drawing parallels between debates about different realms of the public sphere to highlight some of the power dynamics at work. For example, some of the most contentious land enclosures in England occurred between 1750 and 1850, and the arguments put forth in this period about the situation were about the management of the land by individuals. In simplified terms, pro-enclosure proponents argued that modern crop rotations and efficient farming methods could not be managed on commonly held lands, and anti-enclosure lobbyists argued that the poor would have no agricultural opportunities at all if land was held privately. The discussion was going to be won by those whose values most aligned with the sections of society holding power in parliament. The measure of value for those who held power, aristocrats and increasingly the bourgeoisie, was productivity. In an industrialising nation efficiency of output was the highest value the land could have. Thus, while debates about enclosure were about farming practices and the use of the space, they were directed and framed by capitalist value structures. By focusing the discussion on the uses of the land, pro-enclosure supporters ensured that mechanisms of social control were discredited as a topic in the discussion.

The parallel I draw here is that debates about fan practices and audiences may be about the spaces concerned – the space of the text, and the space in which fan practice occurs – but they are governed by patriarchal value structures regarding the gendered bodies that inhabit these spaces. The fans whose actions and creations are discussed in this article are female, and the cultural producers they admired men. There are more nineteenth-century commonplace books extant created by women than by men, suggesting that this was a female-dominated pastime.[8] And it is the fan letters from women that subverted expectations of gendered social practice; female fans pursuing famous men are labelled pathological and dangerously subversive. A man pursuing a famous woman conforms to ideas of masculine sexuality as tied to pursuit, dominance, and scopophilia, and a long history of patronage and economic power dynamics.[9] Behaviours and spaces considered commonplace for men when exhibited and inhabited by women are judged very differently. Foucault’s analysis of power dynamics has been regularly critiqued as not taking gender into account, but work by later critics such as Laura Mulvey’s analysis of the ‘male gaze’ can be fruitfully employed as a filter for this lens. Femininity is aligned culturally, particularly in the era under discussion, predominantly with ideas of passivity, submission and reticence. These are the qualities that make a woman the object of the gaze, and not the perpetrator. Women’s fandom undermined this, through the participants’ passionate, active engagement with the text and with the public sphere.

Public and Private, Personal and Personhood

Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite emphasise that the coffee-house and club of the personal distribution networks in the long eighteenth century were models of masculine sociability.[10] Their edited collection, Romantic Sociability, highlights the gendered nature of social space, and the often marginalised role of sexuality and gender in theoretical models that seek to analyse historical developments. They engage with Jurgen Habermas’s model of the ‘public sphere’, in which the ‘medium of the press and its professional criticism […] formed the public sphere of a rational-critical debate in the world of letters.’[11] The rational and critical in the enlightenment tradition are as aligned with masculinity as the coffeehouse culture; linking ideas about spacial relations, gender, and an informed readership. Deidre Lynch’s essay in Romantic Sociability notes that Habermas negatively critiques the move from what he terms ‘culture-debating’ in coffeeshops to a ‘culture-consuming’ mode of engagement through the mass circulation of text, and that he sees this commercialisation of culture as an inherently feminised mode.[12] Habermas’s critique continues the tradition of viewing the passive and the feminine as inextricably linked ideals, and furthermore suggests that textual consumption is passive and private, whilst its creation is active and public. Lynch’s essay, along with others in the volume, support instead a reading of an expansion of the public sphere occurring in the Romantic-era, an expansion of the spaces that could be considered public, and a widening of the texts and behaviours that are considered as actively engaged. Fan practices were part of this new literary culture that disrupted the spatial boundaries between the private and public, passive and active, male and female.

Throsby’s chapter on Byron’s fans and commonplacing explores these themes in specific reference to celebrity, recognising that these reading practices ‘could be seen as a kind of decentralisation of literary authority’.[13] However, Throsby is concerned that we might attribute ‘too much subversive significance to commonplacing – it is very unlikely that the women who owned these books saw themselves as part of a “counterculture” of readers.’[14] I counter that women constructing their own readings, and reacting to art, is an inherently subversive act in a culture that is dominated by an insistence that intellect is disembodied and rational, whilst also heavily invested in expectations of behaviours and abilities based on gendered embodiment. If women simply reading, responding to, and creating written text were not inherently subversive acts, they would not have been supressed and controlled so heavily, for so long.

Before widespread printing and cheap, woodpulp paper, educated persons often kept books of useful, devotional, or interesting excerpts copied out from more expensive or rarer texts. These might also include sketches and, or, maps. Lucia Dacome has made explicit the link between the construction of the commonplace book and conceptions of the self in the Enlightenment.[15] The idea that identity and selfhood resided in the mind, in a Cartesian separation between the mechanistic flesh and the animating soul, had achieved widespread acceptance by the early nineteenth century. Locke, whose philosophy championed such a division of the self and the body, was also influential in commonplacing culture, having developed and promoted the premier indexing and structuring system. Dacome suggests that Locke’s influence over the popularity of keeping and compiling of commonplace books served in part to legitimate his idea of the disembodied, intellectual self ‘as the result of a negotiation between notions of order, practices of self-improvement, social demands, and visions of the intellectual world.’[16] The act of knowledge acquisition is here linked explicitly to tradition of masculine humanism that privileged the rational mind over emotional response or bodily sensation. However, in the Romantic era we see commonplacing practice changing its cultural emphasis, as it becomes associated with women, and this has a profound impact on ideas of selfhood. The materials that are marshalled to create the ‘self’ come under increasing scrutiny, as universalised, disembodied modes of subjective experience become aligned with cultural markers of femininity, and thus embodied identity. Discourses of space and gender are brought to bear on practices previously concerned with privacy, interior selfhood and intellectual pursuits.

As mass production methods developed, the commercial possibilities of the new print culture expanded. Bound albums were created commercially as collectable consumer goods, either blank for the purpose of traditional commonplacing, or already filled with a selection of poetry, art and prose, often designed as a gift item. Increasingly targeted at a female audience, reflecting their circulation in private, domestic circles, these books became known as ‘sentiment albums’ with connotations of excessive emotion and affect. A brief glance at the interior of such an album shows its difference to the carefully indexed and densely written text of the Lockean ideal. The sentiment album can be richly coloured and full of art, pages maybe pasted in from other sources with no regard to the matching of materials, and there are rarely indexes or any form of organisation by theme. The result is vibrant, but chaotic, and leads the reader by chance rather than by design.

For women, excluded from public arenas of learning, schools and universities, commonplacing was a way to circulate learning without leaving the domestic sphere. These books were compiled in private, but they were also performative: left out to impress visitors with their owners’ erudition, creativity and humour, given to friends and lovers to cement both private and public bonds. The commonplace book was often written in by many hands; it contained tokens of friendship and romance, calling for public declarations of devotion. These semi-public displays of affection were mingled with original compositions of poetry, and copied or clipped texts from other published works. These practices disrupted the divide between the domestic private sphere and the public realm, mixed the active and passive mode of cultural reception and production. There was much debate in women’s magazines about the ‘propriety’ of these practices. As Andrea Kunard highlights, in her examination of the implications of gender and class in the album keeping tradition, contemporary commentators feared young men would be, essentially, trapped into courtship; being unable to turn down politely a request for a dedication in a book, but equally finding it difficult to express an appropriate sentiment of friendship without leading the book’s owner and other readers to think that there was the intent to court. [17] There was also debate about the content of the books, and collections of ‘appropriate’ content were published, one of the earliest being Original Album Verses and Acrostics published in Toronto around 1800. Further, brothers, fathers, and husbands would compile collections for the women in their lives to guide them in their tastes. In a commonplace created by a man in the 1790s for a female family member, the compiler wrote an introduction stating:

it has been thought that a woman’s reading should be confined to such books as are directed to the imagination and fancy, asserting that they have not capacity for any other subjects, and admitting they had capacity, these declaimers of the fair sex, will have it, that any other sort of reading, only makes troublesome wives and inattentive mothers.[18]

Though respectful of women’s intellectual capacity, the author continues in his preface to place a woman’s learning in a moral perspective with reference to the benefits to her family, and to liken a woman of learning in a social setting to a ‘safe harbour’ for men. A woman’s learning was never her own, or for her own good and enjoyment, but was merely a reflection of her family, of her husband, and her good breeding. Through sharing and circulating albums, middle and upper-class women were forming semi-public identities as potential wives, but also as readers and thinkers. Those identities were expected to conform to socially acceptable ideals for womanhood; hence, a trend in attempting to control the content of the commonplace book. Clearly, these albums were tools used to help a woman find and fix her place in the world, just as they had been used in the same manner by men, though constructing a very different self to the ones envisaged in Locke’s organisational systems.

Women’s unfettered access to culture is clearly considered dangerous to the social order. Women don’t ‘do’ culture right – according to these men - they like the wrong things, they are sentimental, emotional and affective, and passive. If they are to be passive receptor, it is of the right sort of fiction, for they are considered unfit for true cultural and intellectual pursuits. Or they might come to act ‘like’ men, and become active and compete as producers themselves, activities which fan practices highlight.

Exit Poet, Pursued by a Woman

The relationship between Bryon and Catherine Lamb is a particularly fascinating case from the Romantic era. Lamb initially wrote anonymous, but public, reviews of Byron’s work which he was mostly circulating through the older models of personal networking. Then she wrote signed fan letters to him. Women often wrote to Byron offering to meet him publically, and offering themselves sexually to him, though they had never met.[19] Unlike many of the readers who wrote such letters, Lamb’s societal position meant that she moved in social circles that could introduce her to her idol. Once abandoned for more influential, and more discreet, lovers, Lamb took her revenge through published text. Her novel, Glenarvon, was a fictionalised account of her affair with Byron, sold to a commercial publishing house, making use of the most widespread distribution methods available. Lamb made the private public, publishing the text of letters exchanged between them within the tale. Lamb sought to publically shame Byron, but could not do so without so shaming herself. The novel only worked as a critique of his behaviour if she was identified as its author, to guarantee its veracity, and Glenarvon and other characters could be clearly mapped as caricatures of living public figures. Though she left her name off the title page, like many authors of the era, Paula Feldman has demonstrated that this was very often a pose, an open secret, when an author’s real identity was in fact well known to their contemporaries.[20] There are many layers of public and private discourse at work in this situation.

Byron, by contrast, circulated excerpts of Lamb’s letters to him ‘within a tightly circumscribed private circle’, as Tuite notes, because he is ‘acutely aware of how permeable the boundaries are between manuscript and print culture.’[21] Byron needs only to discredit a woman on a personal level for it to become a public scandal and gossip; her position is more precarious than his as her public reputation also depends upon her domestic role as a wife and mother. Byron’s relationship with Lamb, and the resulting scandal, certainly led to difficulties for him socially. Yet, for her the effects were devastating. To posterity he remains a libertine genius and a stud, she is thought of as a banal romance writer, or ‘the crazed flibbertigibbet’ as a reviewer of her modern biographer described her reputation.[22]

Lamb crossed from the most private to the most public realm, crossing both gender and class boundaries, and was punished. Yet, her acts were in many ways simply exaggerations of what many other women were doing, though, crucially, in private. Public authors like Elizabeth Barrett Browning kept even their chaste fan practice very private; in a personal letter to her friend Mary Russell Mitford Browning declared herself to be “capable of all sorts of foolishness (which Mr. Kenyon thinks so degrading that he does me the honour of not believing a word of them - at least he says so) about autographs and such like niaiseries.”[23] Lenard Berlanstein has noted, in his study of female stage celebrities in nineteenth-century France, an important aspect of the acceptance of a woman’s place as a public figure was her fulfilment of a measure of necessary femininity, according to traditional models.[24] When famous women were profiled in news and celebrity gossip publications the focus was on their home lives and their children – or on their lack of children, and rumours of sexual impropriety. They were divided in to good women, or bad women. One way women achieved acceptance of their place in the public sphere was to demonstrate that public engagement was compatible with traditional femininity. Yet, in supporting this model as role models and ‘good women’, and accepting the labelling of their fan practice as foolish and ‘degrading’, the dichotomy between masculine and feminine realms was reinforced, rather than challenged.

Those who dared to step outside the domestic sphere to engage in the pursuit of erotic and artistic, challenged dominant constructs of gendered spatial relations. This engagement with culture has been looked at through the lens of gender and celebrity by scholars; David Haven Blake particularly notes the transgression of fans across space. [25]  Just as the author reaches out into their private space through their works, the readers seek to reach back into the author’s private space by writing letters, taking tours of their home, or by meeting them in person. By the mid-nineteenth century mass literacy, and a growing entertainment industry, meant that an unsurpassed audience could be reached. Longfellow’s poems were made into songs and hymns by popular musical groups, and the poem ‘Excelsior’ was used in a number of advertisements, from New York insurance companies to Massachusetts clothes shops, reaching even audiences who couldn’t read.[26] In his life, Blake states, Longfellow received over 6000 fan letters, not including simple requests for autographs, and fans turned up at his house to ask to view his study. Longfellow’s son, in his autobiography, recounted the tale of a female fan who arrived at Craigie House ‘with all her baggage and announced that she was married’ to the poet and ‘had come to stay’; inevitably, he refers to her as ‘crazy’.[27] Similarly, Walt Whitman received a letter from a female fan offering him a child; Susan Garnet Smith wrote, ‘my womb is clean and pure. It is ready for thy child my love. […] He must be begotten on a mountain top, in the open air.’ The poet, whose own affective outpourings had inspired this confidence, apparently wrote the questioning phrase ‘insane asylum’ on the back of the envelope.[28] Blake insists however, as he should, that this is no mere ‘pathology’, these women are emissaries

from an obscure collection of nineteenth-century women […] these responses, at once crazed and devotional, literal and profound, can help us consider how the imagined intimacies of fandom developed alongside—and at times in concert with—mid-century attitudes towards poets and poetry.[29]

These women are responding to works at the centre of the popular imagination of their era. They may be ‘obscure’, on the margins of culture, but culture was not marginal to their lives nor their identities. To label their response in simple pathological terms is to once again enforce the power differential that would label them poachers against the legitimate readings of the authors and cultural critics. Blake considers that of the spaces these fans had crossed on the journey to their idols – and I would add, of the texts that they ‘poached’ - that it was the distance between the famous and the not famous that was the greatest divide. I disagree. The greatest division they sought to cross was the binary that labelled them, by gendered association, as passive rather than active, private rather than public. These transgressive women technically remained within the feminine domestic realm, as mothers and wives. However, they actively sought out that which appealed to them most with passion, and the masculine public realm was made full of erotic potential for them. Cultural creations lauded by dominant hierarchies of education and taste were actively parsed for meaning by the marginalised, challenging the idea of the passive reception of culture from producer to reader.

Woman as Creators of the Text

The fan community, to use an anachronism, of female readers depicted in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is an active audience. Catherine makes new friends through the discussion of literature with Henry and Elinor Tilney, and Isabella Thorpe. These young people discuss and swap gothic texts, create their own texts in their diaries, and Catherine Morland even attempts to live-action role-play (LARP) the role of the heroine. Catherine’s visit to the Tilney family home, the eponymous Abbey, sees her exploring forbidden corridors in the night, and mistaking laundry lists for ancient documents. Austen may be satirizing her fellows, but she not only empathises with women’s position in hierarchical capitalist society, but also challenges their passive positioning as readers. She mocks the idea that women’s preferred reading material is inconsequential and their interest in politics lacking when her heroine is surprised that Henry, as a man, does not ‘read better books’, and a conversation about disturbing texts is mistaken for a political discussion of invasion.

By contrast, we all recognise the warning implicit in Flaubert’s tale of over-enthusiastic fiction consumption, Madame Bovary. The eponymous heroine attempts to bring the imaginary into the real, to cross spaces of class and gender, but her source texts are romances in which heroines are passive, rather than Austen’s gothic texts in which heroines actively overcome their challenges. Whilst Flaubert was sympathetic to his heroine (apocryphally declaring ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi!’), he was not willing to give her his creative powers. Emma Bovary creates nothing, she remains the passive consumer and reader. The poet Robert Southey warned Charlotte Brontë of the same fate; over-indulgence in fiction would mean that ‘all the ordinary uses of the world [will] seem to you flat and unprofitable, you will be unfitted for them without becoming fitted for anything else.’[30] Yet Brontë, like the gothic readers a generation before her, became fitted for imagining an alternative to the ‘ordinary uses of the world’ which men would allow her, and she created it herself in her own imagination. This is what men like Southey feared, when he further told her that ‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.’[31] The only thing legitimating one reading practice over another in these debates was the gender and sex of the participants. Women were not reading as men intended.

As Corin Throsby has noted, in her examination of William St. Clair’s collection of an hundred commonplace books,

if the commonplace books are a kind of people’s anthology, then Byron is the only one of the ‘big six’ to be seen as canonical by Romantic-era readers. Wordsworth and Coleridge are rarely cited, excerpts from Shelley and Keats are very unusual, and references to Blake are non-existent.[32]

Women were not following the lead of the male arbiters of taste. The keeping of commonplace books and sentiment albums is representative of a wider transition from private distribution to public practices that actively assisted the circulation of authors’ works. Romantic poets, including Wordsworth, Keats and Byron, all contributed original works to their friends’ albums and recognised that the circulation of their poems in this manner added to and enhanced their fame. The works cited most often in the albums are not necessarily those most popular in terms of sales and veneration in the public sphere. The keepers of these books were also not following to the letter the original designs of the author. Poems might be copied out whole, the mere transcription into handwriting from text an act of ‘poaching’, or words might be altered to suit the tastes and needs of the intended audience or owner of the book. The culture of commonplacing was originally a culture of copying for accuracy, governed by methods for recalling accurately important information, legitimate information. But the culture of the sentiment album was a culture of reframing, of collage, of reconfiguration.

As mentioned above, to deal with this potentially subversive behaviour, books of suitable verses were compiled and sold. Completed ‘gift books’ with preselected verses and pieces of art, mimicking the original cut and paste look of the albums, were made available. It is easy to read this as an early attempt to capitalise on a popular fad, or simply the best way for authors to ensure payment for their poem – to sell it to a gift book that will sell multiple identical copies, rather than inscribe it for free and hope the literary influence of the recipient is high enough to ensure further success and fame. However, the sudden rise in this market reflects the gender dynamics at work, and the positioning of women as passive consumers in the new iteration of the public realm. Works providing guidance on commonplacing in previous eras foregrounded techniques of collating relevant materials, of reflective reading and active engagement. However, the guides produced for sentiment album creators focused not on their practices but on the texts they chose to work with. A man’s commonplace book of the early eighteenth century was not seen as an easily replicable item that could be mass produced. It was linked to his identity, to his intellectual development, which equalled his very self. Women’s self-identity, however, was not viewed as an internal construction but predominantly through her bodily roles as wife and mother. Independence of thought, as we have seen, threatened this social role. The repackaging of women’s sentiment albums, and the selling of mass produced collections, can be read as an attempt to limit individuality of thought, to curtail feminine free play with cultural markers.

In her chapter on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s gothic contributions to commercial albums of the early nineteenth century, Judith Pascoe echoes Jenkin’s construct of fans as textual poachers.[33] She labels Wollstonecraft Shelley’s elegiac poem ‘On Reading Wordsworth’s Lines on Peele Castle’ an ‘appropriation’, just as the works compiled in commercial albums ‘allow (indeed, invite) appropriation and individuation by the annual’s readers.’[34] Pascoe is writing with a feminist inflected understanding of this term, recognising the power dynamics that govern a woman’s engagement with dominant culture. She notes that the location in which the text is set is a space that influences its interpretation by the audience. If the owners of sentiment albums were poachers, if Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as a published author is herself a poacher, so was her husband. Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound is as much an appropriation of Goethe or Byron, but he is not traditionally positioned and viewed as ‘appropriating’ from others.

Regulating authorship and creativity

The Romantic era was a period in which debates about textual ownership were becoming important. Peter Jaszi argues that it is not coincidental that key doctrinal structures of modern copyright law developed in the Romantic period, as they are linked to concepts of identity and authorship prevalent in Romantic ideologies.[35] He argues that copyright law is a locus of contradiction; copyright is about the balance between the public and the private domain. The law developed to encourage the publication and public dissemination of work by rewarding the creators. Yet, on the other hand, the law also seeks to grant the creator the power to restrict the dissemination of their work, even to deny distribution if they so wish. When the creative arts come into play it is nearly impossible to define what constitutes the ‘work’ that must be rewarded; what Jaszi refers to the ‘talismanic quality of originality.’[36] Asserting authorial identity, claiming originality of thought and mode of expression, becomes entrenched in the legal doctrines governing the intersection between private and public sphere under copyright law. Henry Warburton, of the Radicals, argued in Parliament against the copyright bill proposed in the 1830s, suggesting that if authors were allowed to restrict who published their work and at what price, then this was one step away from allowing them to determine who read them. It is unlikely that he was surprised by the 1857 Obscene Publications Act that restricted reader access to certain texts deemed ‘inappropriate’. The rise of statutes and bills governing obscenity in publication can very clearly be attributed to the rise of mass literacy, to discourses of class, gender and sex. To return again to my historical metaphor, participants in the debates about enclosure shouted about farming practice but were governed by capitalism. The debates about copyright and obscenity were supposedly about artistic practice and identity, but were governed by patriarchy.

The development and discussion of copyright as it pertained to fictional works was very obviously linked to gendered reading and consumption practices. As the nineteenth century progressed, fandom became a mode of consumption within the new capitalist structures – with products advertised through references to popular texts, actors or authors, to appeal to an audience willing to spend money to demonstrate cultural affiliations to those texts or authors. According to S.M. Ellis, in 1860 ‘every possible commodity’ was linked to Wilkie Collin’s The Women in White: there were ‘Woman in White cloaks and bonnets, Woman in White perfumes and all manner of toilet requisites, Woman in White Waltzes and Quadrilles.’[37] Ellis’s examples are all commodities linked to femininity and domesticity; it is once again the female reader who is framed as a passive consumer. The majority of fans, and those labelled poachers rather than authors in their own right, were women; and the producers, and their lawyers who established their legal rights, were overwhelmingly male.

The copyright laws inscribed Romantic ideas of authorship, tied closely to enlightenment ideas of masculine subjectivity, setting one group up as land owners and the other as poachers. Male and female authors had equal protection under the law, which did not specify the gender of the author, so women who published were as entitled to hold onto their land against poachers as men. However, the power structure that enabled this law to develop was not neutral. We can clearly trace the links between the text, gender, and ideas of identity, through the discourses of subjectivity and power. A woman who reads challenges disembodied intellectual models of selfhood, a woman who writes takes control of her own subjectivity, and both demonstrate their potential to become most dangerous thing of all – a self-actualising subject.


[1] Tom Mole, Byron's Romantic Celebrity: industrial culture and the hermeneutic of intimacy, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

[2] The commonplace books specifically referred to here are held in The Page Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University. This collection contains 285 commonplace books and sentiment albums from the long-nineteenth century.

[3] See Hanna Wirman ‘“I am not a fan, I just play a lot” – If Power Gamers Aren’t Fans, Who Are?’, in DIGRA '07, Proceedings of the 2007 Digital Games Research Association International Conference: Situated Play, [accessed 17.08.2015].

[4] See Corin Throsby, ‘Flirting with Fame: Byron’s anonymous fan letters’, The Byron Journal (Vol 32, No 2), 2004, and ‘Byron, Commonplacing and Early Fan Culture’, in Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750-1850, ed. by Tom Mole (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[5] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2011), p.174.

[6] Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (London: Taylor and Francis, 2004).

[7] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan, (NY: Vintage Books, 1995) pp. 202-203.

[8] Of the 285 albums in the Page Collection, identifying details of the owner/creator have only been established for 112 so far. Of this number, 66 authors are identified as women, and 44 as men.

[9] I use the pathologised term rather than ‘voyeurism’, as the latter refers to a sexual kink that can be practiced with consent, whereas the former suggests an uncontrolled behaviour that does not take the consent of the viewed into consideration. This reflects the power dynamics of the situation under discussion.

[10] Clara Tuite and Gillian Russell, ‘Introducing Romantic Sociability’, in Romantic Sociability: Social Networks and Literary Culture in Britain, 1770-1840, ed. by Clara Tuite and Gillian Russell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) pp. 21-23.

[11] Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), p.184.

[12] Deidre Lynch, ‘Counter Publics: Shopping and Women’s Sociability’, in Romantic Sociability, pp. 211-36.

[13] Throsby, ‘Byron, Commonplacing and Early Fan Culture’, p. 234.

[14] Throsby, ibid.

[15] Lucia Dacome, ‘Noting the Mind: Commonplace Books and the Pursuit of the Self in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 65:4 (October 2004) 603-625, (p. 611).

[16] Dacome, p. 612.

[17] Andrea Kunard, ‘Traditions of Collecting and Remembering: Gender, class and the nineteenth‐century sentiment album and photographic album’, Early Popular Visual Culture, 4:3 (2006) pp. 227-243.

[18] Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University Library, Page Collection, Commonplace book 19, 1790.

[19] For a full account of Byron fan letters see Throsby, ‘Flirting with Fame’.

[20] Paula Feldman, ‘Introduction’, British Women Poets of the Romantic Era: An Anthology, ed. by Paula R. Feldman, (Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) p. xxvi.

[21] Clara Tuite, ‘Tainted Love and Romantic Literary Celebrity’, ELH, 71:1 (2007). 59-88, (p.71).

[22] Sarah Bakewell, ‘Biography: Lady Caroline Lamb by Paul Douglass’, in The Sunday Times, 9 January 2005

[23] Letter to Mary Russell Mitford, February 1842, in Women of letters: selected letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning & Mary Russell Mitford, ed. Meredith R. Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan, (Boston, CT: Twayne Publishers, 1987).

[24] Lenard Berlanstein, ‘Historicizing and Gendering Celebrity Culture: Famous Women in Nineteenth-Century France’, in Journal of Women’s History, 16:4, (Winter 2004), 65-91.

[25] David Haven Blake, ‘When Readers Become Fans: Nineteenth-Century American Poetry as a Fan Activity’

American Studies, 52:1 (2012), 99-122.

[26] Christoph Irmscher, Longfellow Redux. (Champagne-Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006) pp.61-66.

[27] Longfellow, Ernest Wadsworth. Random Memories, (Boston, CT: Houghton Mifflin, 1922) p.84.

[28] Quoted in Blake, p.106.

[29] Blake, p.118.

[30] Letter from Southey to Charlotte Brontë, 12 March 1837, quoted in Juliet Barker, The Brontës (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994), p. 262.

[31] Southey, ibid.

[32] Throsby, ‘Byron, Commonplacing and Early Fan Culture’, p. 228.

[33] Judith Pascoe, ‘Mary Shelley in the Annuals’, in Mary Shelley in Her Times, ed. by Betty T. Bennett, Stuart Curran, (Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press, 2000), 173-184.

[34] Pascoe, p. 182.

[35] Peter Jaszi, ‘Toward a theory of Copyright: the metamorphosis of “authorship”’, Duke Law Journal, 2 (1991) 455-502.

[36] Jaszi, p.466.

[37] Ellis, S.M., Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu, and others (Constable & co, London: 1931), p.29.


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