Its most obvious cause was an immense growth in printed media. Already by 1700 the population of London was markedly more liter­ate than that of the rest of the country. Most men and women in the capital could read and write, including the bulk of servants and appren­tices. Ever since the invention of printing, however, the publication and circulation of all kinds of information had been inhibited in various ways. The most overt were official licensing and censorship, through which successive governments tried, albeit never with complete suc­cess, to prevent and suppress the expression of heterodox views. In consequence, most of what appeared in print was already constrained by self-censorship and by the relative formality of the medium.1

The main alternative means of disseminating ideas in writing was through the circulation of manuscripts. Up to the end of the seven­teenth century such ‘scribal publication’ remained extremely important, especially for material thought unfit to print. It offered much greater freedom of language and subject-matter, which is why most salacious material (bawdy and obscene verses, sexual satires, and erotic writ­ings) circulated in this format. Script was also much more restricted in its audience, for the number of copies made was usually compara­tively small, and many authors and transmitters of texts consciously limited their readership. Even the most widely circulated manuscripts

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THE EXPLOSION OF PRINT
THE EXPLOSION OF PRINT

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THE EXPLOSION OF PRINT

46. This broadside ballad about Fanny Murray probably sold for a penny. The woodcut portrait is a copy of one of the many engraved prints of her.

 

THE EXPLOSION OF PRINT

tended to remain the preserve of a social elite, largely unknown and inaccessible to the mass of the reading public.2

Since the invention of printing, censorship had broken down only on two occasions of political crisis: during the Civil War and again in the early 1680s. At both times a flood of material poured off the presses until licensing was re-imposed. In 1695, however, following the semi-accidental lapse of the Licensing Act, it came to be aban­doned for good. The result was that the eighteenth century saw an unprecedented rise in the number and variety of books and pamphlets published, as well as a marked expansion in their freedom of expres­sion. We know of about 800 different titles issued in 1677, for example; but by the end of the eighteenth century it was not unusual for there to be upwards of 8,000 publications in a single year. Around 1670 only about two dozen printing houses in London, Oxford, Cam­bridge, and York were authorized to print anything; by 1800 there were hundreds of printers and publishers, at least one in almost every town in England. There was a corresponding explosion in the number and spread of booksellers. Finally, publications of all kinds were also accessible to a mass audience in entirely new ways: through circulat­ing and subscription libraries, book clubs, and coffee-houses.3

Especially important in creating a new intellectual climate was the spectacular rise of the periodical press. Before 1600 there were no newspapers; even in 1695, they remained few in number, narrow in scope, short-lived, and limited in distribution. Yet already by 1716 so many new titles had entered circulation that Dudley Ryder’s diary refers in passing to at least a dozen of them. A modern list of the ‘principal’ London papers in 1752 runs to twenty daily, tri-weekly, bi-weekly, weekly, fortnightly, and monthly publications, not counting many lesser journals and magazines. By 1765 there were already, in addition to newspapers, over seventy-five metropolitan periodicals, many of them with very large circulations. Many of these papers were read far beyond the capital, whilst the provinces were served in addition by dozens of local journals.4

The combined readership of these various media was equally pro­digious. When he started the Spectator, Joseph Addison calculated that, though he normally printed only 3,000 copies, each issue reached around 60,000 men and women every day, by being passed on privately, read aloud, and circulated in clubs and coffee-houses – so that ‘if I allow twenty readers to every paper, which I look upon as a modest computation, I may reckon about three-score thousand dis­ciples in London and Westminster’. In later years, when the paper was at its height, it was said ‘that 20,000 [copies] were sometimes sold in a day’. In addition, it was increasingly common for the same items of news and opinion, the same letters and essays, the same stories and ideas, to be endlessly reused. Most popular journals were collected and reprinted in volume form at least once, ensuring that their con­tents remained in circulation long after the date on which they had first appeared. By the middle of the century, newspapers also inces­santly reprinted, extracted, recycled, and plagiarized each other’s contents from day to day.5

This enormous increase in the quantity and availability of printed publications transformed the nature of public communication. It allowed events and opinions to be publicized much more widely than before. New forms of print now made generally available material of a kind that had previously circulated only orally or in manuscript. News, gossip, and information were transmitted with ever greater speed and frequency. The scale on which they circulated was also infinitely amplified: by the 1750s, especially in the capital, even the most obscure men and women avidly consumed newspapers. That was precisely the reason, explained Samuel Johnson in his own paper, that the common people of England were the best informed in the world: ‘this superiority we undoubtedly owe to the rivulets of intelli­gence, which are continually trickling among us, which every one may catch, and of which every one partakes’.6 Without these develop­ments, the extraordinary celebrity of eighteenth-century courtesans would plainly not have been possible.

Yet although the proliferation of new media was an important con­tributory factor, it cannot be a sufficient explanation. Already in the early seventeenth century engraved portraits of famous men and women had been tremendously popular – the fact that images of courtesans became fashionable a hundred years later testifies less to the emergence of a new medium than of a new attitude. The same is true of other forms of publicity. Even in the reign of Charles II it had been possible for the scandalous sex-life of a low-born woman to be widely publicized. Between 1663 and 1673, the serial bigamist Mary Carleton was the subject of dozens of biographical and autobiograph­ical narratives, memoirs, plays, and pamphlets. Portraits of her were engraved and published alongside her works. She even appeared on stage, starring as herself, in a dramatized interpretation of her story.7 In many respects Mrs Carleton’s public persona, and its literary appropri­ation, prefigures that of the scandalous women of the mid-eighteenth century: and yet it stands as a lone exception before 1700. The deeper question is therefore why in the eighteenth century print and publicity, as well as expanding in scope, came increasingly to be used in new ways.

This transformation was so complex that it can only be understood as the product of several interrelated changes in the social and intel­lectual environment – in the character of public opinion; in the means and terms of debate; in assumptions about private and public life; and in the nature of fame and celebrity.

The first great change was that the availability of novel forms of communication helped to create a different attitude towards public opinion. Whereas in previous times the idea of directly appealing to popular judgement had generally been regarded with suspicion by writers, artists, and politicians, their Georgian successors grew to be highly self-conscious about their relationship to the broader public and their dependence upon its support. Instead of denouncing ‘com­mon’ or ‘vulgar’ views as low and misguided, it now became increasingly fashionable to measure, shape, and defer to ‘public opinion’ – a new phrase, whose coinage in the first half of the eighteenth century reflects the change of sentiment. It remained perfectly possible for theorists, critics, and statesmen to denounce popular views as misguided; or to distinguish between refined and uneducated assessments; or to dis­dain popularity altogether – but the burgeoning importance of public opinion was undeniable. As Dr Johnson, a keen student of the subject, advised, ‘there always lies an appeal from domestic criticism to a higher judicature, and the public, which is never corrupted, nor often deceived, is to pass the last sentence upon literary claims’.8

This development has been much studied by historians of politics, philosophy, and the arts.9 But it is, if anything, even more relevant to the subject of this book. In literature and politics the effect of new genres and modes of communication can be traced back at least to the

early seventeenth century; by contrast, in the case of attitudes to sexual behaviour, the power of print as an agent of public opinion developed much later and more suddenly. It was only in the early eighteenth century that there emerged a culture in which sexual mat­ters could be continuously and publicly discussed by a mass audience. The rise of the periodical press ensured that social information was much more freely, continuously, and voluminously available, that it was endlessly copied and commented on from paper to paper, and that it was shared by much more open and substantial communities of readers than ever before. In this way there became established for the first time a set of permanent mass media for the circulation and discussion of news and opinion.

The use of pamphlets likewise burgeoned. The seventeenth century had already been a great age of pamphleteering, especially on political and religious topics. The controversialist Edward Stephens, whom we encountered in Chapter 1, put forth almost a hundred different tracts between 1689 and 1706, and he was a distinctly minor writer: doubt­less other seventeenth-century authors were more prolific still. By 1750, though, pamphlet publication had come to address a far wider range of subjects, and to be much more easily accessible even to hum­ble authors, than had generally been the case fifty years earlier. By the middle of the eighteenth century the evolution of the periodical and pamphlet press had together made it possible for almost any literate person who wished to disseminate information or opinion to address a large audience quickly, easily, and anonymously.

The new media also actively encouraged their readers to interact with them, and thus to take part in public discussion. It was not new for writers to address their audience directly, or for books and pam­phlets to provoke printed rejoinders. However, the proliferation of newspapers and journals brought about something altogether differ­ent. Most of these publications depended heavily on unsolicited correspondence, verses, essays, advertisements, and announcements, sent in, often anonymously, by ordinary readers. In this way the pub­lic and its views gradually became much more visible and assertive than they had ever been before. What is more, exposure to the popu­lar press itself inescapably instructed readers in the new opportunities and conventions of publicity. The prominence given to readers’ responses to topical issues, the constant dialogue between corres­pondents, and the general, unremitting stream of public consciousness broadcast in papers, pamphlets, and magazines made concrete the sense of belonging to a large, active, and opinionated community of discussants.

This was no mere illusion, for already in the 1710s the editors of popular papers received many more letters than they could print. Unfortunately most submissions to newspapers and magazines were unsigned or pseudonymous, so that it will never be possible to deter­mine where they came from. However, some sense of the opportunities available by the second half of the century is provided by the record of James Boswell’s writings between 1758 and 1794. Even though very incomplete, this includes many hundreds of anonymous letters, essays, reviews, verses, epigrams, comments, announcements, reports, and other contributions, originally appearing in more than twenty different papers and widely reprinted in others. Boswell was obvi­ously a gentleman and an increasingly practised writer, but humbler men and women, too, came to be acutely aware of the potential power of the press to advertise their opinions. By the middle of the eight­eenth century it was common even for criminals, suicides, and convicts facing execution to take pains over the publication of their thoughts in pamphlets and newspapers. ‘There was never a time’, remarked Dr Johnson in 1753, ‘in which men of all degrees of ability, of every kind of education, of every profession and employment, were posting with ardour so general to the press’: it had become a signal characteristic of the age.10