Vous êtes sur la nouvelle plateforme d’Érudit. Bonne visite! Retour à l’ancien site


Crossing Old Barriers: The WorldWideWeb, Academia, and the Romantic Novel

  • Catherine Decker

…plus d’informations

  • Catherine Decker
    California State University at San Bernardino

Corps de l’article

Change in Romantic studies traditionally comes through scholarship: new claims to canonicity, new pedagogical approaches, new aesthetic judgements, and new arguments connecting literature to other arts, history, culture, philosophy, science, medicine, and the social sciences. In the classroom, particularly in courses designed for beginning college students, such as the classic survey of British literature, such change is slow to manifest itself: new texts in the new edition of our anthology, new topics and critics in student papers, or new ways to organize the syllabus and to shape the discussion of a particular text. The WorldWideWeb is a new factor in the traditional model of change outlined above, and one that is shaping not just what we study and teach but also how we do our studying and teaching and how we define these acts and ourselves.  [1]

For the past fifteen years, I have been studying British women's novels of 1770 to 1830. While I am not a representative figure of the Romantic scholar, my role on the web is a fairly typical one and shows how a strong web presence can help cross some of the old barriers of the academic world. In particular, I want to focus on how the web blurs the divisions between canonical and noncanonical novels, teaching and research, and the disparate levels of power and prestige established by hierarchial academic rankings.

Crossing the Gulf Between the Canonical and the Noncanonical Romantic Novel Via the Web

The WorldWideWeb has contributed to blurring the edges of the Romantic novel canon in rather subtle ways. As I will discuss more extensively below, the web has done little to make noncanonical novels of the Romantic era electronically accessible, somewhat surprizing given the rapidly growing amount of scholarship on novels traditionally outside (or on the fringes) of the canon. However, as a result of the increasing number of Romantic scholars on the web, extensive research projects that are not stylistically appropriate for journals are now accessible.  [2] Freed from pressure to create "marketable" research, academic web designers can juxtapose discussions of canonical and noncanonical works; cross barriers between research, teaching, and creative writing; and fire salvos in the canon wars.  [3]

The canon war, at least in the theatre of electronic texts, is being won by the traditionalists.  [4] The web, for instance, has not yet significantly changed the availability of noncanonical British women's Romantic novels, although a few electronic texts outside the Romantic canon (or pieces of such texts) have been made accessible.  [5] The gleanings on the web are few indeed: the preface to Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron (1777), the full text of Eliza Parson's Castle of Wolfenbach (1793), and excerpts from Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797).  [6] Moreover, given that these Radcliffe novels are in print by Oxford University Press in the "World's Classics" series (and a new version of Udolpho is slated for June 1998 publication), it is—delightfully—rather questionable to label Radcliffe as "noncanonical."

The reasons for the canonicity of the bulk of the electronic texts available on the web are hardly elusive: most of the large textbases are located at and funded by major universities (or grants to university scholars that include a cut for the university at which the project is situated). Consider for example the university affiliations of such archives as The English Server (at Carnegie Mellon University), The Emory Women Writers Resource Project (at Emory University), The Penn Electronic Archive and Library (at the University of Pennsylvania), The Electronic Text Center (at the University of Virginia), and The Eris Project (at Virginia Tech University).  [7] While these sites contain some works that are "noncanonical," none as yet has helped significantly in the study of the noncanonical Romantic novel.

The above sites, particularly the Emory Women Writers Resource Project, do demonstrate an interest in making literary texts that have been rarely or never reprinted as available online as those of the canon that are ubiquitous in print. Oxford's new Project Electra: An Electronic Resource Base of Women's Writing and Images of Women, 1780-1830 sounds immensely promising, and, ideally, it will negate the need to read the following paragraphs' discussion of why one still cannot access noncanonical Romantic novels on the web.

The problem in getting noncanonical works online is partially due to the lack of copyright-free, modern-font reprints of such works. Romantic-era fonts are a challenge to many types of optical-character-recognition (OCR) software, making extensive page-by-page editing needed after scanning to correct each misrecognized character. Sometimes the number of recognition errors caused with a particular font precludes having a non-human agent doing the transcription of the text.  [8] Few people are willing to finance the tedious transcribing and editing of a novel without the promise of recouping some of their investment in money or fame. Even with a clear modern font, most OCR software still has a modest error rate of two to five percent, which given the length of a two- or four-volume novel can turn into a much more significant problem.

Moreover, because many scholarly reprint collections of Romantic-era novels (such as Garland Publishing's the Feminist Controversy in England, 1788-1810 and Arno Press' Gothic Novels I, II, and III) reproduce the original fonts of the Romantic-era, they are not good candidates for scanning with the sort of OCR software that is readily available and reasonably priced. Huge repositories of texts on microfilm and microprint also have fonts resistant to clean optical-character recognition. The web can, however, display images of scanned pages rather than formatted text. Adobe Acrobat can convert various scans into images in pdf (portable document format) files that are easily viewed and printed without distortion, even if the web designer and web surfers use different computer systems, programs, and printers. Unfortunately, the scholarly use of such images is limited because images in pdf files cannot be searched for key words or terms in the way pdf texts can be.

Furthermore, putting microfilm and microprint into a form that can be feed into a scanner is an expensive and time-consuming processes. The number of machines that can photocopy microprint available in North America is only a tiny fraction of the number of photocopiers available, and prices for one page of a microprint novel from the huge Early American Imprints microprint collection costs $1.50 at the Riveria Library at the University of California in comparison to a mere $0.07 for a conventional photocopy. Thus, many key collections of noncanonical novels like the ESTC microfilm and the Early American Imprints microprint are too costly to be good candidates for electronic publishing.

Another problem in making noncanonical novels of the Romantic-era into electronic texts is the scarcity and fragility of the original books. Many such novels are kept in sealed plastic packets in carefully isolated bookstacks in rare-book rooms to prevent damage and are in no condition to be photocopied, let alone to be subject to a scanner. (Such is the fate of the University of California at Riverside's 1796 copy of Elizabeth Helme's The Farmer of Inglewood Forest, for example, which makes reading it a task fraught with anxiety for both patron and librarian.) In addition, more recent reprints of Romantic era texts that use OCR-friendly modern fonts raise ethical questions about copyright infringement and academic honesty. But whether it is fear of a lawsuit or a deep respect for colleagues and academic publishing houses, it seems unlikely that the new crop of reprints being issued by such publishing houses as Broadview will be found in electronic form on the web very soon.

The web, however, does make noncanonical novels more accessible in non-electronic forms. The web's ability to make access to small print runs from minor presses rapid and easy makes it a powerful weapon for those seeking to undermine the canon. Another asset of the web for those wanting to promote noncanonical texts is its capacity to let you find out how to obtain rare and out-of-print books. The Brown University Women Writer's Project, for example, will sell you computer-generated printouts of out-of-print Romantic novels, such as Charlotte Smith's Desmond (1792). (The Brown University Women Writer's Project purportedly is aiming towards selling electronic texts of these works but has not yet begun to do so.) Besides such very useful academic-based sites as the one at Brown, there are a multitude of commercial sites that cater to bibliophiles with money and a craving for the rare and hard-to-find book. In the vanguard is Amazon.com Books, whose vast 2.5 million-book database includes information on most out-of-print scholarly reprints of noncanonical Romantic novels.

For those who are not flush with money and patience to wait for booksellers to track down these volumes, the web offers free and immediate access to most of the computerized card catalogues of the world's research libraries. Unlike the costly R-LIN or ESTC which involve site licenses and account numbers, most library catalogues can be accessed for free over the web. Amazingly, due to the noncanonical status of some Romantic-era women writers, some libraries are willing to ship patrons such gems as an 1815 copy of Isabella Kelly's The Secret and an 1818 edition of Mary Brunton's Emmeline as part of their inter-library loan service (both of which arrived in little cardboard boxes for me with a casualness that startled me).

What the web does best, however, is provide a cheap and large forum for unconventional and innovative scholarly projects. For those interested in the Romantic novel, there are many sites that make no distinction between the canonical and noncanonical. First of all, there is my own eclectic contribution of British Women's Novels: A Reading List, 1777-1818, a site combining hypertext bibliography of mostly noncanonical Romantic novels with many informal evaluations of the novels.  [9] This site is linked to a page geared toward readers of twentieth-century popular romances set in 1790-1830, The Regency Page, in a deliberate attempt to bring two disparate sets of readers together.

The Regency Page itself also mixes links to scholarly academic sites with those done as labors of love by independent scholars and commercial authors outside of academia. My juxtaposition of such sites as Henry Churchyard's Jane Austen Information Page, Sally Houghton's The Georgette Heyer Homepage, and The Unofficial Patricia Veryan Webpage is an attempt on my part not only to draw lovers of twentieth-century popular, aesthetically superior novelists to Romantic-era canonical and noncanonical novels, but also it is an effort to undermine the bias in the academy against the popular genre of romance. This bias can be seen in course catalogues and periodical holdings. You can take much more easily a course that features the great novels of the genre of science fiction or mystery than one about great romances. It is also relatively easy at research libraries to read journals or society newsletters devoted to science fiction like Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction, Science-Fiction Studies, and The Year's Scholarship in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, but a challenge to find scholarship on the romance genre.

Other websites also bridge distinctions between contemporary popular fiction and the canonical and noncanonical writers of the Romantic era. The Republic of Pemberley, for instance, loves all things in the spirit of Austen whether written by the canonical author and her peers or by contemporary amateurs. (The canonical status of Austen, however, is made quite clear on this site.) Much more radically than The Republic of Pemberley and the many other Austen websites that are directed more towards non-academics than academics are the websites that deliberately set out to undermine the largely male-dominated traditional canon. Mary Mark Ockerbloom's A Celebration of Women Writers celebrates both the few canonical and the many noncanonical woman authors of the world with equal vigor, and The Write Page discusses "dozens of long-dead women writers that have been ignored or overlooked by the academic community."  [10] More assertively and professionally, The Brown University Women Writer's Project states that it will allow, "scholars in the earlier periods of English-speaking literatures and cultures to recover and disseminate the range of writings in English by women."  [11]

Searching the web for information on noncanonical Romantic novels takes you to websites that not only seek to cross the old barriers the canon has placed before access to noncanonical writers and texts, but to sites that demonstrate how truly integrated teaching and research is upon the web. Such a search also brings into juxtaposition pages like The Write Page, geared towards an audience outside academia, and The Brown University Women Writer's Project, very much an electronic embodiment of academia. The common goals and content of these two pages from the commercial and academic worlds highlight how the web is crossing the gulf between the ivory tower and the "real" world.

Crossing the Gulf Between Research and Teaching Via the Web

A classic feminist adage is, "The personal is the political." The WorldWideWeb illustrates this by showing how professional activities are not isolated from academics' personal lives or the domestic world of the private sphere. The homepage, the bulletin board, the chat room, the MOO, the MUD, electronic journals, and electronic mail have expanded interaction among people reading and writing about Romanticism and Romantic literature. With words, images, sounds, and sometimes film, academics and non-academics can connect in "public" web space from personal computers. While on one level this allows for a new anonymity, on another level it allows for a new intimacy. Web surfers need not directly contact web designers, yet the surfers leave electronic trails that record their interests and reading patterns for those maintaining web sites. Web designers also tend to communicate much more about their personal tastes and lives than they could in traditional print media. The removal of the editor and traditional print formatting forces academics who produce web pages to be more than writers. They must design their pages by some aesthetic code, and their choices can be viewed as another rhetorical and stylistic decision that shapes the authorial voice of the text.

Vivid personas speak to us from the pages woven on the web by academics such as Jack Lynch, Adriana Craciun, Alan Lui, Margaret D. Stein, J. Voller, and Mary Mark Ockerbloom, to name only a few of those whose online projects have become web research sites for Romantic studies.  [12] Such webpages reveal not only the individual research interests of scholars, but let us into their classrooms as well.

Hypertext syllabi, such as my own Hypertext Syllabus of Restoration and British Literature (Spring 1997), are available on the web in numbers that grow with each new quarter or semester. These syllabi mix research and teaching to such a degree that they are inseparable. These hypertext syllabi are an important step in bringing some psychological unification to the scholar/teacher in an age when, as Michael Bérubé points out, "What makes for a groundbreaking (or merely esoteric and weird) book in literary and cultural studies ... often has nothing to do with the pedagogical and curricular needs of your average English department."  [13] Bérubé sees a "disjunction between what the English market values in research what English departments value in prospective teachers" (B7), a disturbing trend if students want to learn the basic values and procedures of literary research from their professors. Hypertext syllabi and other web-based projects make research an integral part of classroom procedure, for as students explore the links on the syllabi, they are both preparing for classes and researching literary texts. In learning to use hypertext syllabi and their links, students begin to appreciate the amount of scholarship that goes into producing courses and textbooks, both in print and on line. When the research that is involved in producing and editing a text is apparent to students, they have obtained a critical perspective that forestalls them from seeing a literary anthology as a timeless authority containing a fixed, unchangeable canon.

The web, which allows each syllabus to become an anthology in itself, can counteract the sense of canonical inferiority associated in student minds with photocopied supplements to the textbook. Reading a text off of a scholarly website at a university imbues a text with more prestige than does a photocopy of either a primary edition or a published scholarly one. Both the primary and the scholarly edition are viewed by most students as expensive, obscure (hence "ignorable") texts, while texts that have been edited for the web are frequently seen as "relevant" and having significant or even "timeless" appeal—key criteria for canonicity.

Student production of research projects for the web also conveys to them that literary scholars have a public role and that literary research is an activity with meaning "in the real world." Student-teacher collaboration is showcased in projects like The Gothic: Materials for Study, A Hypertext Anthology and the assorted student projects directed by Laura Runge. Giving students the power of publishing on the web turns student research projects from forgettable exercises into a very visible, potentially career-assisting achievements. The students become educators via the web, and their research is in a forum that requires they be responsible and ethical in their use of source material. Having a public audience who can both identify and commit plagiarism teaches students that research is a public discourse with rules and responsibilities more effectively than most lectures. The increasingly obvious role marketing, advertising, and business plays on the WorldWideWeb is one of the reasons it can act as a powerful tool in the classroom: research and education are revealed to students as the businesses that they are instead of being falsely perceived as hermetic activities encountered on the way to a degree and a "real" job.

Crossing the Gulf Between the Ivory Tower and the "Real" World Via the Web

Michael Bérubé's "The Contradictions of the Job Market in English" was easy for me to identify with when I was an ABD uprooted by following my spouse to his new university. Suddenly, I was isolated from other scholars working on the thirty-plus women novelists of the Romantic-era whom I was studying. Depressed by not knowing a single being within hundreds of miles who could recognize any author in my dissertation besides Austen (or, more rarely, Mary Wollstonecraft or Mary Shelley), I turned to the internet for solace and sanity.  [14] Suddenly, I was making friends and contacts in a way that hardly corresponded to my non-existent academic status: I corresponded with distant colleagues on discussion lists; I become the chair on communications for the Aphra Behn Society and wrote the html for their first website (now turned over to my successor Carole Meyers); and I became an electronic author, editor, and publisher as I produced both electronically and in print the first newsletter for the Aphra Behn Society (also bequeathed to Carole Meyers). Electronic mail, an ftp site, and a web site helped the Behn Society recruit new members. The newsletters and electronic mail enabled the society to formally ratify its constitution, which had never been voted upon by the members. The Society also was able to form panels for conferences other than the Behn Society's own conference, such as the annual conference of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

After I gained my Ph.D., I did obtain a position of low-rank in the university system. But despite my lack of high academic rank, I gradually became more of a resource for non-academic people and students at high schools, colleges, and graduate schools all over America, through e-mail interactions inspired by my webpages. One of the most alluring aspects of the WorldWideWeb is the way in which it brings you into intellectual engagement with people both inside and outside the Ivory Tower. Even more fulfilling, however, is the way the web makes the work of academic literary scholars relevant to contemporary themes and life.

My own exercise in trying to bring my skills learned in the academy to those who are outside it is my Regency Fashion Page. Now instead of discussing Romantic novels and the thematic, cultural, and historical context of them with only a few students and colleagues (an achievement when the bulk of one's course load is basic and freshman-level composition), thousands of people of all sorts have visited my page. These visitors also write me and initiate critical discussions of Romantic-era novels or ask for assistance in their own personal research projects. Others write to invite me to their pages, seeking to open a dialogue between the two texts. The Regency Fashion Page connects fashion plates and texts from British and European regency periodicals with information and images on regency portraits and the textile holdings of private collectors, entrepreneurs, and museums. Other parts of the page more intimately combine portraits, fashion, history, literature, and bibliographic information: Princess Charlotte's Wedding Page and The Regency Year-by-Year Style Page.

The The Regency Year-by-Year Style Page is my most direct attempt to make a common interest in Romantic novels cross the barriers of the canon as well as those barriers between teaching and research and between the commercial, private, and academic worlds. By scattering links to the pages for each year throughout the site, I can draw the interest of someone looking at a portrait to novels published in the same year. A reader of contemporary regency romances might encounter a link to a year on my Hypertext Guide to Regency Romances, which could lead them to want to read some of the actual regency- era novels. To my delight, my Regency Fashion Page led me to be invited to give a talk on Jane Austen to the costumers, historical dancers, performance artists, and historians of the Lively Arts History Association. Speaking at the Jane Austen Evening was in many ways a unique pleasure: it is rare that an academic addresses a group of people who are gathered simply to celebrate and delight in the pleasure brought by a great Romantic-era novelist. This invited talk as well as the two endorsements won by The Regency Fashion Page, a recommendation by The History Channel on their page of nineteenth-century historical links and a one-year Best-of-the-Web award from Snap!Online, seem to me a sign that I am succeeding in crossing the barriers between academia and the "real world."

Literary scholars of the Romantic period have much more to offer the world than traditional academic classes and scholarship; we can use the web to educate those outside the academy about how the themes and issues in the literature of our field are relevant to modern cultural and social concerns. The public notion of our uselessness disturbs me. During the jury selection process for a trial, lawyers quizzed me on if I felt my Ph.D. entitled me to view myself as an expert. My reply stating that if there was any connection to the literature, culture, and history of the late eighteenth-century novel, yes, produced a laugh in the courtroom. But women's legal rights are a key theme in novels such as Lady Mary Hamilton's Munster Village, Charlotte Smith's Marchmont, Mary Hays' The Victim of Prejudice, Mary Wollstonecraft's Maria, Mary Robinson's Walsingham, Elizabeth Hamilton's Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, and Frances Burney's The Wanderer. It is my hope the WorldWideWeb will one day still the sort of laugh that dismisses our field as irrelevant to most aspects of contemporary life.

Parties annexes