Abstracts for Week 2
Conduits of Culture and “Food for the Mind”: W.H. Smith Railway Bookstall Workers and the Book Purchases of Late-Victorian Readers
Historians of the book identify the railway station bookstalls operated by W.H. Smith as one of the principal locations in the circulation of Victorian print culture texts. However, scholarly discussion of these sites has yet to afford any major attention to the role of the Smith employees who presided over these consumer spaces. Accordingly, this paper will examine the nature and degree of influence exercised on reader selections during book purchase transactions by the stall mangers and assistants. My efforts to illuminate this question will draw on variety of sources such as life writing texts produced by individual bookstall managers, an essay collection of stall-worker professional reflections on the “art of bookselling”, official W.H. Smith policy statements, and contemporary commentary on bookstall keeper–consumer interactions from the periodical press.
This paper will contend that these bookstalls keepers merit recognition as significant micro-level facilitator figures for audiences navigating the nineteenth-century print culture landscape. The input the Smith employees furnished in these interactions had the potential to prove particularly decisive in the case of the emerging constituency of newly literate upwardly mobile late-Victorian readers with minimal reserves of cultural capital. While demonstrating that spatio-temporal factors shaped the varying sorts of reader-purveyor relations fostered by this trade in what one Smith worker called “food for the mind’, I will also situate this analysis of print dissemination within the broader spatial context of the nineteenth-century railway network.
Dr Paul Rooney
‘The demand disturbs the happy and the rich’: the surplus person in Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population and Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley
‘A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him.’
So begins the notorious ‘nature’s mighty feast’ paragraph, which appeared in the second edition of T.R. Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1803). The view of life offered here is stark: there are people in this world who ought not to exist. Though this paragraph was omitted from all subsequent editions of the Essay, it continued to be quoted and denounced by Malthus’s critics.
My larger research project traces echoes of this paragraph through nineteenth-century British fiction, finding characters which can be read as examples of people who have no business to be where they are. For this paper, I focus on Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley. This novel was first published in 1849, but is set in 1811-12, a time when Malthus was still publishing editions of his Essay. With its patterning of images of feast and famine, crowd and individual, locals and foreigners, and its use of the love-triangle plot device, Shirley can be read as an example of how nineteenth-century British writers used the novel form to explore the emotional experience of being a ‘surplus’ person.
Dr Ruth Doherty