A Community of Interest—Victorian Scholars and Literary Societies
Single-author literary societies were formed in the late 1800's by enthusiasts who sought to promote the work and preserve the effects of contemporary or near-contemporary British authors. Though often mocked for their cult-like devotion, these societies filled a gap in the academic study of modern authors when the ancient universities were still debating whether English studies constituted a legitimate discipline. Unfazed by established canons of literary value, society members presented papers, compiled and published bibliographies, produced scholarly editions, and acquired manuscripts and literary relics which might otherwise have gone into private collections. This article briefly rehearses the history of these societies and their continued development with an emphasis on the sometimes awkward, sometimes productive relations between the professional and the general reader.
Any discussion of the ways in which Victorian Studies and literary societies are connected needs to begin in the last decades of the nineteenth century when such societies were, in effect, the first organizations dedicated to the study of both Victorian and Romantic authors and to the extension of the fruits of that study to a general public. The very topic this collection ponders, in other words, originates, as is so often the case, in the Victorian period itself when the relations between the study of contemporary literature as both an academic and a non-specialist enterprise were hotly debated. If there was a difference in the see-saw of controversy about how, what, and why one should study literature and who has the proper credentials to do it, it may have been in the larger sway of the amateur in matters of textual scholarship. As John Gross notes in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, “until the closing years of the century the notion of a critique universitaire scarcely existed in England, while even the labours of exhuming and annotating texts were as often as not performed by private enthusiasts far from the universities” (182). Societies such as the Browning, Wordsworth, and Shelley Societies first emerged from the ranks of such private enthusiasts specifically to fill a gap in the academic study of modern authors while the ancient universities were still debating whether English literature was a legitimate discipline, and while learned societies were primarily engaged in the philological study and publication of early English texts. Although single-author literary societies were almost immediately the object of humorous condescension, their unapologetic embrace of contemporary and near-contemporary authors set a significant precedent. Free from the institutional constraints and controversies of the universities over the content and methods of English studies, literary societies compiled and published bibliographies, produced scholarly editions, collected letters and manuscripts, and worked out forms of interpretative practice and valorization. William Peterson asserts that the Browning Society, founded in 1881 during the lifetime of the poet, established “Browning’s reputation as a thinker and a philosopher . . . called widespread attention to his poetry. . . . and had a hand in publishing nearly every book written about Browning in the nineteenth century” (5). Stephen Gill, in his account of the Wordsworth Society in Wordsworth and the Victorians, traces the Society’s important role in the founding of the National Trust as well as its publication—largely through the efforts of its founder, William Knight—of the first bibliographies of Wordsworth’s works, as well as bibliographies of periodical criticism about Wordsworth (238). Despite the largely scholarly interests of these early societies, the connection to the general public was always an essential aspect of their stated aims. Gill notes that the efforts of the Wordsworth Society to preserve the Lake District were bound up in the notion that such sites might serve as a kind of open air university to enrich the nation (258). Frederick J. Furnivall’s purpose in founding no fewer than seven literary societies during a period of twenty-one years, among them the Early English Text Society, and the Chaucer, Shelley, and Browning Societies, was to make literary materials “available to all in democratic fashion” (Peterson 23). The acquisition of the papers of living authors, which is part of the regular business of university libraries today, might be said to have begun with the author societies of the late Victorian period, which wished to bring unpublished papers out of the collections of private collectors in order to conserve them for the public.
The ridicule with which so many of these societies were met despite their achievements (the word “ridicule” comes up again and again in the early commentary and remains very much in use today) can be attributed to several sources, but certainly at the heart of it was the foundational attempt (so troublesome to the institutionalization of English as well) to combine a popular and an academic approach to literary work. The very idea of enthusiasm allied to advocacy sits uneasily with both a highbrow notion of the literary and with the premises of academic scholarship. Every literary society, both then and now, has as its central aim the promotion of interest in an author’s life and works. The author as organizing principle or raison d’être of the society shifts the emphasis from text to person in a manner that was felt from the beginning to smack of the cult and, of course, more emphatically in today’s academic discourse can be seen as utterly retrograde. In his 1913 study of learned societies, Harrison Steeves wrote: “It is a matter of common remark that in a number of the greater and lesser societies and clubs formed for the exaltation of a single literary figure, careless and precipitate judgment interfered with sound study and often invited irritating ridicule” (183). And in 1923, B. W. Matz, editor of The Dickensian, marked the coming of age of the Dickens Fellowship by marveling: “Twenty-one years is a long time for a body of enthusiasts for one author to hold together and command respect instead of running the risk of creating ridicule” (14.4).
Such unease about author-centric societies was exacerbated in the Victorian period by the contemporaneity of the authors in question. Veneration for Milton or Shakespeare had the excuse of distance and established greatness—to devote time and intellectual energy to the celebration of the work of someone who might drop by the society’s meetings for a chat about the meaning of his poem Sordello was something else again. The relative inclusiveness and sociability of the author society may also have been at work in the condescending attitude many had toward the work of these associations. If the Oxbridgian aversion to English Studies had an underlying bias, it might very well have been the then commonplace view that English literature was a popular substitute for the classics, better suited for Mechanics’ Institutes and University Extension lectures—and for women—rather than for serious scholars. The literary societies ignored this charge as well, cheerfully providing a home for anyone who wished to share their reading pleasure. From the first, the societies welcomed both men and women (the Irish poet and author Emily Hickey was co-founder of the Browning Society with Furnivall), both university and self-educated members, and pretty much anyone who could afford the shilling dues. The Dickens Fellowship emphasized in its founding statement that the decision to call themselves a fellowship rather than a society was based on their intention “to knit together in a common bond of friendship lovers of the great master of humour and pathos, Charles Dickens” (Williams 5).
For academics, in particular, the motley assortment of activities and the emotional identifications of literary societies are at once too distant from their own interpretative standards and too close—a troubling mirror image, perhaps, of a course of study whose disciplinary integrity has always depended on disassociating itself from the shallows of a readerly pleasure accessible to most of the literate public. One of the standard arguments against the introduction of English as an honors subject at Oxford in the 1890s was that it required no special skills, and the charge has hovered over the profession long after its embrace of such allied fields as the social sciences with methodologies sufficiently rigorous to stiffen the spine of any literary scholar on the run from the charge of belletristic tendencies. The argument has been particularly tenacious in academic study of the novel. Here, too, the literary society boldly (or naively) ignored the prevailing view, embracing the novel early on as part of a lasting literary heritage (a great tradition!) despite its utter neglect within the syllabi of formal institutions of learning or even in the proprietary libraries of the Literature and Philosophy Societies designed to bring learning to a provincial, middle-class public. It seems appropriate that 1893, the year Oxford inaugurated its English School, was the same year in which the Brontë Society was founded in Yorkshire, and that while the former languished for decades for lack of funds and students, the Brontë Society acquired a vast trove of literary property and, of course, eventually the Parsonage itself, putting Brontë scholarship (and veneration) literally on the map.
As literary societies settled into their modern and enduring form with the founding of the Brontë Society in 1893 and the Dickens Fellowship in 1902, the mixture of what Steeves called serious scholarship and the “pleasant projects” of “personage societies” (185) began to shift decisively towards the latter, though the social dimension continued to be combined with active efforts to purchase or restore properties associated with a given author, the promotion of an author’s work in various venues and media, and the publication of newsletters, journals and books related to the author’s life and times. The anxiety about legitimizing their continued existence that turns up in all of the early numbers of single-author society publications, though still in evidence even as their place in public culture became more fixed, begins to seem more like a ritual exercise than an earnest examination of society aims and projects. The largely metropolitan associations like the Browning and Shelley societies, composed of literary men and women and loosely organized around the energies of a central figure, gradually disbanded to be superseded by regional societies whose membership rosters, though still studded with recognized scholars and writers and the obligatory aristocrat at their honorary helm, became largely populated by the educated readers and local dignitaries whose connection to the society was civic and social rather than specifically literary.
The Brontë Society, the oldest continuing literary society, is representative of this shift. Formed in response to the dispersal of effects of the Brontë family, its founders were local men of social significance—librarian, mayor, journalist, cleric, schoolmaster, local antiquarian. Yorkshire boosterism was initially a stronger motivation than a particular reverence for the Brontës, followed by a fascination and pride in the Brontës themselves. Sometimes these two motives were linked as the first annual report of the Society in 1894 makes clear: “The Brontës represented the true Yorkshire spirit though they were not Yorkshire people themselves . . . [I]n their works one found capital representations of the scenery of the uplands of West Yorkshire, the brown bare moorlands formed the background of most of their works, and through their writings there swept the cool breath of the upland winds” (Brontë Society 7-8). As the Brontë Society accumulated important collections of Brontëana, in particular the acquisition of the extensive Henry Bonnell collection, its governing council was expanded to include representatives from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds, and Sheffield, and in 1902 it was registered as a company without a share capital. Although few societies are as prosperous as the Brontë Society has now become (though all are registered charities under British tax law), its combination of regional pride and participation, the gradual accumulation of literary property through bequest and growing capital, and the association with a major heritage site is common to most of the prominent societies with a significant membership base. Most societies do not own or run house museums (though in the case of The Dickens Fellowship they were the initial purchasers) but instead serve on their boards of directors, contribute materials to their collections, and are vigilant conservators of their use. The current inhabitants of Max Gate, the home of Thomas Hardy, which is owned by the National Trust, are long-time members of the Hardy Society, were residents of Dorset when Hardy was alive, and now serve as committed guardians of the shrine. This regional base has proven to be a mainstay of author societies, which might otherwise have faltered without a connection to place that could draw into the activities geared around an author whose works they may never have read those interested in local history as well as cultural tourists looking to map fictional terrain on to actual topography.
In general, the societies have flourished because of the “partialities” that Steeves so disdained (185)—the direct attachment to person, place, and work. Society members have sometimes known the authors they celebrate, or their parents and grandparents once mingled with them in their everyday lives; the homes where they were born or where they wrote are still there to be visited, sometimes right next door or just over the hedgerow. It is a persistent feature of British literary societies that the descendents of the writers are founding members or officers of societies bearing the family name. The Evans, Cross, and Lewes families have been involved in the George Eliot Fellowship from the first (an interesting reunion of contending families when one thinks about it); the Dickens family has long supported the efforts of the Fellowship; Ruth Bennett and Virginia Eldin, the niece and daughter of Arnold Bennett respectively, have been officers of the Bennett society for decades. The current Lord Byron is the president of his famous ancestor’s British society while the Earl of Lytton, the descendent of Bulwer, presides over the Newstead Abbey equivalent. Though to my knowledge no members of the Kipling family are involved in the Kipling Society, the organization was founded by the originals of the characters in his boarding-school stories, Stalky & Co. Finally, there are the authors themselves who, though frequently reluctant to be so honored in their own lifetimes (George Bernard Shaw was particularly harsh on the subject), have been known to take part in society functions. Browning inaugurated the process, while a more recent example can be found in the Edinburgh-based Muriel Spark Society, which was founded “with Dame Muriel’s blessing” (Muriel Spark Society). This connection to the local, the personal, and the familial might serve to qualify assertions current in recent academic studies about the consolidation of a national identity through the establishment of an English literary canon. Though the argument can certainly be made that English Studies have been consciously employed in the service of what Philip Connell calls “cultural patriotism” (559), literary societies are far more likely to claim their favorite sons and daughters of Dorset, the Midlands, and Yorkshire than to pay tribute to a national heritage. Arnold Bennett is known to his Society, centered in Stoke-on-Trent, the site of the “five towns” of Bennett’s novels, as the “greatest writer of the West Midlands,” and the Society includes among its aims the promotion of other provincial writers with a particular relationship to North Staffordshire (Arnold Bennett Society). Even when there is no specific association of place with author, there is often another kind of connection among members. Kipling’s extensive and sympathetic depictions of the British soldier—a rarity in English fiction—have drawn a substantial number of former colonial officers and military men to his society and its governing council.
Despite their home-grown flavor and the regional sensibilities that gave rise to them in so many cases, there is a global dimension to British literary societies as well, with thriving branch or independently founded societies, particularly in Europe and in English-speaking countries, but also, increasingly, in Asia. The Japanese have a long tradition of pilgrimage to British literary sites, as anyone who has been to Haworth can attest to, and are frequent participants in society conferences and events. There was a Japanese Hardy Society before there was one in Dorset, a fact that, according to the Hardy Society’s first publication, was the spur to their own formation (Wightman 4). Several societies, among them the Dickens, Shaw, and Byron Societies, now have “international” permanently affixed to their names and have branches in countries throughout the world including, in the case of Byron, in Albania and Greece (which has both a Missolonghi and a “Hellenic” branch).
There are currently over a hundred author societies in the United Kingdom, and they continue to be formed at a fairly brisk pace. (It is difficult to arrive at an exact number because the only multiple listing depends on each society’s voluntary affiliation with the Alliance of Literary Societies, an umbrella organization founded in 1973 to pool resources and share information.) There are curious lacunae in the roster of societies and even more curious inclusions. Some authors may have had to wait until the end of the twentieth century to find the core enthusiasts necessary to the founding of any voluntary association or the precipitating event to give it impetus. The Wilkie Collins Society, for instance, was founded in 1980 by Andrew Gasson, a contact lens specialist in London with a special interest in the Victorians, and an American author, Kirk Beetz, after a brief correspondence over a bibliographical find in Collins’s body of journalistic writing. According to Gasson: “‘The thought occurred that if there were sufficient people interested, a Wilkie Collins Society might be created.’ Beetz picked up on this immediately and I think it was during a telephone conversation a few weeks later that he proclaimed ‘We now have a Wilkie Collins Society, I’m President and you’re Secretary’” (Gasson). The Jane Austen Society, perhaps the most famous of literary societies, was not formally organized until 1940 (when not only the fate of Britain hung in the balance, but also the fate of Chawton Cottage). Byron’s short-lived Victorian society was resuscitated in 1972 by the indomitable Elma Dangerfield, who died on Byron’s birthday and whose ashes now mingle with Byron’s in the family vault. On the side of curious omissions, while such lesser lights as Warwick Deeping and Adrian Bell (my apologies to their members!) have societies, Thackeray and E.M. Forster languish without one. (In keeping with the personal nature of author societies, a man to whom I posed the question about the absence of a Forster Society replied, “You had to have known E. M. Forster”).
All of these societies, large or small, prosperous or modestly funded, are engaged in projects that are addressed to a public of actual and potential readers. A visit to any of their websites (and the internet has been a boon of incalculable measure for societies which hitherto had very few venues for advertising their existence) will testify to their goal of outreach to anyone who might be led to pick up a novel or read a poem or visit a birthplace because of their publications and activities. In the process of fulfilling their efforts “for the public benefit,” the phrase that appears in so many of their statements of purpose, societies have found themselves part of informal and often impromptu alliances among city and borough councils, businesses, schools, libraries, churches, and community centers, as well as state-wide organizations like the National Trust. The George Eliot Fellowship, for instance, participated in a Heritage Lottery application with the Warwickshire County Council, Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council, and the local Heritage Forum securing a grant of £50,000 for community projects including celebrations in honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Scenes of Clerical Life (Burton). Though cooperation among these bodies does not always run smoothly when competing imperatives and limited resources intervene, this patchwork of local authorities and voluntary societies has in general managed to pool facilities, funding, venues, personnel, and space for society collections. The Hardy Society, for instance, is provided free office space in the Dorchester County Museum, and St. Mary Magdalene’s, the parish church of Hucknall, houses a display of Byron’s life in one of its chapels.
Society projects, as I have already suggested, range widely in type and reflect the varied audiences that literary societies have always sought to engage, professional scholars among them. These include, on the one hand, toasts to the Immortal Memory, the laying on of memorial wreaths on the Birthday, and guided walks through Hardy or Ransome or Housman Country, and, on the other, funding educational projects in the schools, commissioning art projects, providing support for graduate students and for scholarly publications, purchasing significant literary property, and publishing reader’s guides and bibliographies of current work on a particular author. The ongoing production of an online Reader’s Guide to the works of Kipling provides an impressive example of the kind of resources made available to the general and academic reader through the efforts of literary societies. Many of their journals, while still hospitable to articles by amateur enthusiasts, have become academic journals of record, which publish the work of professional academics around the world. The Byron Society’s journal, for instance, has recently been added to the lists of Project Muse, one of the most widely consulted academic journal databases. Their conferences bring together scholars, students, writers, and general readers for days of events that might include musical and dramatic performances as well as readings and lectures. True to their origins, the societies continue to be formed for contemporary authors as well as those who are now considered classic. Although the bulk of the work of these societies continues to be conducted by the voluntary labor of private enthusiasts—among them retired businessmen and librarians, actors, artists, teachers, optometrists and IT managers—professional academics, particularly in the United Kingdom, are frequently involved in their activities: speaking at conferences, editing or publishing in society journals, serving in advisory roles or as council members in their organizational hierarchies or even, on rare occasions, taking on the labor intensive task of serving as Chair. Some have been known to participate with varying degrees of gusto in the more antic activities of literary societies as well. Such noted Victorianists as Asa Briggs, Barbara Hardy, Gordon Haight, Thomas Pinney, Marion Shaw, and Gillian Beer have served in various capacities in literary societies over the years, and many others have continued to do so, in particular, though not exclusively, those scholars whose work centers on a particular author. Though some university faculty whom I have encountered at society events felt it important to tell me that they were not, strictly speaking, members of the societies, or that they did not approve of their biographical bias, or that their colleagues often looked down on the societies for their robust engagement with period costume or anecdote or genealogy, most have expressed a genuine appreciation for the work of literary societies and the kinds of investment that they continue to make in cultural conservation efforts and the encouragement of reading and the arts. Societies have also materially contributed to the advancement of university initiatives through conference and publication subventions and student scholarships.
Public figures in the arts and the academy in the U.K. have a long history of participation in the public lecture circuit, literary festivals, and programs broadcast on cultural themes—a feature of British life that has much to do with post-war state support for cultural and educational programs. The Open University, one of the more successful of such government-initiated efforts, was founded through the combined efforts of Harold Wilson’s Labor government and the BBC in the early 1960s to bring distance learning to students unable to attend campus universities. The public role of creative artists and academics has been fostered, and to some extent made increasingly necessary by funding agencies that emphasize projects which are seen to further national and economic goals. The Arts and Humanities Research Council, which is currently headed by the distinguished Victorianist Rick Rylance of the University of Exeter, identifies collaborative efforts between specialists and non-specialists as a principle desideratum of funded projects.
Over the years that I have pursued my research interests in literary societies, I have also found myself becoming something of an enthusiast myself—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I have revived the enthusiast within me. Still, I do not make light of the difference between academic discourse and the language of the lay enthusiast, although, depending on the writer, these can approach each other quite closely; nor am I blithe about developments within the university and government funding agencies that in many cases value social utility over other pedagogical and disciplinary concerns. The wariness that professional scholars might feel about participation in the activities of the literary societies isn’t only a matter of defensive professional pride or ideological differences about the role of the humanities in public culture. Academic literary studies entail adherence to the disciplinary protocols and traditions of scholarship that the enthusiast, educated or trained though she may be, is not required to observe. Lay readers and writers don’t need to take into account recent work in the field or make reference to current critical approaches; nor are they subject to the institutional pressures of academic life or privy to the rewards and privileges that universities dispense to scholars who establish their reputations within their disciplines. Enthusiasts don’t question their own motives or their complicity in structures of power. Like their Victorian precursors in the early literary societies, in other words, today’s society members are free to make their own rules and follow their own sense of obligation to the text, the author, and those whom they address. The results can sometimes seem either silly or laudable depending on where one’s own borders are set—as Nicola Watson puts it, “between the professional and the amateur, the analytical and the sentimental, the textual and the autobiographical, the book and the body” (17). I can imagine, for instance, how a modern academic might wince at the principles guiding The Dickens Fellowship, which include, after companionship among the admirers of Dickens, “the spread of the love of humanity” (Williams 5); nor can I think of anything so inimical to the reading practices of the enthusiast than the hermeneutics of suspicion with its arsenal of prosecutorial verbs like “interrogate,” “implicate,” or “expose,” or the notion of a “cultural imaginary.” To engage literary societies either privately or professionally in effect requires belief in the intrinsic rather than the probative value of the experiences of the common reader, who, as Virginia Woolf memorably wrote, “differs from the critic and the scholar. . . . [A]bove all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole—a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing” (1).
The various publications that the literary societies produce—journals, gazettes, newsletters, and annual reviews—provide a record of this creative “instinct.” While the author is the guardian spirit presiding over their endeavors, he or she is at the same time a persona with whom society members are on intimate terms; Charlotte, Emily, and Anne are “the girls,” Kipling is “RK,” and Austen, of course, is simply “Jane.” For the true enthusiasts, the world becomes a tissue of allusions to the favored author—their reading of the work tends to be associational, elaborative, centrifugal. The texts of an author’s life and works serve as source material for every possible connection that can be derived from it and then read back into it. From Kipling’s stories come a seemingly infinite amount of matter for interest, discussion and debate—the Boer Wars, Hindu mythology, World War I commemoration, Vermont architecture, Raj orphans, the geology of Sussex, Punch and Judy shows, and RK’s possible connection to the Ware Grammar School near Harrow. Members of the Brontë Society can fill you in on the Western Ireland birthplace of Arthur Bell Nicholls, the Australian descendents of William S. Williams, and Patrick Brontë’s tax returns. Though often light on the interpretative side of things, society members can be relied on for bibliographical, biographical and historical detail, and an often encyclopedic knowledge of the author’s works. Some have even been inspired to write biographies themselves, and have become literary sleuths of amazing stamina, tracking down sources and physical evidence to support their work. They are also enthusiastic consumers and cataloguers of films, TV programs, and plays based on the author’s works, though often sternly critical of the inevitable distortions in facts or presentation of character.
Literary societies often acknowledge the difference between their own forms of knowledge and those of the academy in ways that are by turns respectful and gently reproachful. I was told by many a society member that professors are just fine if they “behave,” which apparently has to do with the lucidity of their articles for society journals and lectures at society functions. When Michael Slater took over as the first university teacher to edit The Dickensian, he noted “a certain amount of bristling in the ranks of [its] non-academic readers when they found their new Hon Editor was a university teacher,’” and that even the noted Dickens scholar Philip Collins bemoaned the journal’s professionalization in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement (7). Despite the tension that can still be felt in discussions about the nature and extent of the involvement of academics, societies are increasingly seeking to provide a professional basis for their activities in order to ensure their access to funding and facilities and to secure their continuation in the face of competing cultural forms. In order to accommodate the differing audiences to which they wish to appeal, many societies, among them the Hardy and Brontë Societies, have shifted to two publications—one an academic journal of record or aspiring to be one, and the other designated for general contributions from members and society news.
In what might be thought of as yet another version of the professional/amateur dynamic, the study of reading communities and the development of differing forms of cultural consumption and commemoration has become a flourishing academic field. My own work on literary societies is meant to contribute to this growing body of research, although my fascination with societies began rather fortuitously as the result of what might pass for an epiphanic moment in the life of an academic. Three years ago I was writing a talk on illness in Wuthering Heights when I came upon a citation for an article on the subject in The Brontë Society Transactions that was written by Charles Lemon, one of the stalwarts of the Society and its historian. As I was paging through the volume in which the article appeared and others on the shelf next to it, I came upon glossy photographic inserts of members of the Brontë Society posed in front of the grave of Anne Brontë in Scarborough, of a group of workmen hanging a plaque at Top Withens, the farmhouse associated with the fictional site of Wuthering Heights, and of the various speakers addressing the annual general meetings (Rebecca West among them). Somehow, after more than two decades of university teaching and familiarity with author-centered journals, it had never occurred to me that ordinary people wearing hats and holding umbrellas and looking for all the world like members of the local Rotary Club circa 1963 actually produce and publish the volumes that line university library shelves, organize the events and activities the journals record, or in the case of the Brontë Society own the famous house museum so often pictured behind them. There was something almost uncanny about those snapshots inserted next to, say, previously unpublished letters by Charlotte Brontë or an article by Herbert Butterfield, Regius Professor of History, Cambridge (BST 73.3). What held my attention was the startling intersection between two unlikely worlds of endeavor: the world of voluntary organizations with their ceremonial occasions and group portraits and that of archival materials and professorial lucubrations. Though I never had the good fortune to meet Charles Lemon, whose article “Sickness and Health in Wuthering Heights” was of real assistance to me, I have now met many members of societies all over the U. K. and elsewhere, and I have been repeatedly impressed with their zeal and industry, their generosity and good will, their wealth of knowledge, and their boundless enthusiasm for their subject. Having made them the object of my academic work, I have found in the process a congenial way of addressing and providing assistance to a receptive public as well as learning from it, not only about the authors whose reputations the societies vigilantly guard and sustain, but also about the nature and value of my own professional commitments. Perhaps a way back to the common reader, a reengagement with a general, non-specialist public, comes most naturally as an outgrowth of our own intellectual pursuits. Although the amateur and specialist may eye each other warily across a methodological and theoretical divide, I see no reason for that to prevent some flexibility on the part of both skeptics and loyalists alike. In many ways, what the literary scholar and the literary enthusiast do is analogous—even sororial--for we share the elasticity of reference, the inexhaustible quarrying of texts and lives, the construction and reconstruction of the authorial persona. Literary societies, thus, can provide an established institutional framework within which the intellectual work of the academy can productively engage informed readers who need far less convincing than professional scholars often do that the humanities have a significant role to play in public culture. For well over a century, these societies have provided just such an organizational home for those who for various reasons and from a variety of perspectives have found a community of interest in the act of reading and its supplementary pleasures.
Miriam Bailin is Associate Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction: The Art of Being Ill (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994, 2007). She is currently writing a book on the cultural history of British literary societies.
The term literary societies will refer specifically to single-author societies throughout this essay.
Suzy Anger makes a similar point: “One of the crucial arenas in which close attention to the principles of the interpretation of literature first emerged was in the debates and activities of the literary societies that were founded in the later decades of the nineteenth century” (29).
In citing The Dickensian and later, Brontë Society Transactions, I have provided only a volume and issue number in order to conform to current academic practices. In fact, the anomalous and often baffling system of citation used by these periodicals and many other society journals reflects the histories of their publication and the often ad hoc nature of their organizations. Because many of them began as pamphlets and were only later collected into bound volumes, impromptu systems evolved in which several issues were initially gathered into “parts” which were not coextensive with volumes (BST), or they were listed cumulatively over the course of the entire run as “numbers” (Dickensian).
In his history of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle published in 1897, Robert Spence Watson writes: “It is amusing but refreshing to recall too the tremendous fights which have been wasted in this grave Society over the admission of novels….The last fierce battle on this subject was fought some thirty years ago, and so fierce was it that timid members fled from the crowded and noisy room in unnecessary trepidation” (178, 179).
The same is not as true for academics from the U.S.. Claudia Johnson, referring to the activities of the Jane Austen Societies, writes that “most academics I know take a rather dim view of these galas, where enjoyment rather than hermeneutic mastery is assumed to be the reward of reading, where reading is social rather than solitary, and where the stuff of erudition itself seems so different” (223).
Among these society biographers are Kathleen Adams, Those of Us Who Loved Her: The Men in George Eliot’s Life; Dudley Green, Patrick Bronte: Father of Genius, and Margaret and Robert Cochrane, My dear boy: A life of Arthur Bell Nicholls, B.A., Charlotte Bronte’s husband.
The literature is now voluminous; see for instance, Booth, Connell, Long, Ousby, Watson, and Zemgulys.
It is utterly characteristic of the insistence of author societies on accuracy of detail that the inscription on the plaque not only commemorates the association of Top Withens with the fictive Wuthering Heights, but also notes that “The Buildings Even When Complete, Bore No Resemblance to the House She Described” (BST 14.4) inserted between pages 44 and 45).
Adams, Kathleen. Those of Us Who Loved Her: The Men in George Eliot’s Life. Warwick: George Eliot Fellowship, 1980.
Anger, Suzy. “Literary Meaning and the Question of Value: Victorian Literary Imagination.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 4.1 ( 2004): 27-41. DOI:10.1215/15314200-4-1-27
Arnold Bennett Society. Homepage. Sept. 8, 2009. <http://www.arnoldbennettsociety.org.uk/>.
Booth, Alison. “The Real Right Place of Henry James: Homes and Haunts.” The Henry James Review 25 (2004): 216-227. DOI:10.1353/hjr.2004.0019
Butterfield, Herbert. “Charlotte Bronte and Her Sisters in the Crucial Year.” Bronte Society Transactions 14.3 (1963): 3-17. DOI:10.1179/030977663796506376
Cochrane, Margaret and Robert. My dear boy: A life of Arthur Bell Nicholls, B.A., Charlotte Bronte’s husband. Beverley, England: Highgate, 1999.
Connell, Philip. “Death and the Author: Westminster Abbey and the Meanings of the Literary Monument.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.4 (2005): 557-585. DOI:10.1353/ecs.2005.0037
Gross, John. The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: Aspects of English Literary Life Since 1800. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992.
Johnson, Claudia. “Austen Cults and Cultures.” Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Eds. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 211-226. DOI:10.1017/CCOL0521495172.012
Lemon, Charles. “Sickness and Health in Wuthering Heights.” Bronte Society Transactions 75.5 (1963): 23-25. DOI:10.1179/030977663796506231
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