Dickens and Eliot may have longed for the 19th century equivalent of a Kindle, but they also knew when to judge a book by its cover
What would the Victorians think of the Kindle? Not much, one might assume, but in her new book How to do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton University Press, £19.95), Harvard English Professor Leah Price argues otherwise. She suggests that Victorian writers dismissed as superficial those who valued the outward appearance of books; in other words, those who valued the book as object, not just as text. She summons example after example of novelists “loath[ing] anyone who loved the look of books”, from Robert Southey criticising those who treated books “as furniture” rather than reading them, to Dickens’s description of the “bran-new” books of the nouveau-riche Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend.
Price’s analysis is too simplistic. Certainly, Victorian novelists scorned those who valued books only for their cost or appearance. In Middlemarch, George Eliot pokes fun at the auctioneer Mr Trumbull, who calls a book “an ornament for the table” and boasts that he owns “two hundred volumes in calf”.
Price concludes that the Kindle would be the ideal reading device for Eliot and her contemporaries: all text and no book, nothing on which to judge a novel but the words themselves. She is wrong to do so. Victorian novelists realised that books have layers of importance that go beyond the text, and that, providing we do not fall prey to Veneering-like delusions of grandeur, a book’s physical qualities need not blind us to its literary value.
In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver is devastated by the sale of her books. She mourns not just the loss of the words on the page, but the books themselves, which are an important part of her childhood: “Our dear old Pilgrim’s Progress that you coloured with your little paints, and that picture of Pilgrim . . . looking just like a turtle!” Victorian writers knew that books have associations like any other object, and that the sensory experience of reading can enhance enjoyment of the text.
This would explain the recent success that publishers such as Penguin, Vintage and White’s Books have had with producing beautiful hardback editions of classics. Even though such classics are free on an e-reader, readers still want to own the texts because, at some level, they value them enough to want them to have a physical presence in their lives, to exist in a form that can’t be erased by the press of a button or replaced onscreen by the next book they read.
In Wuthering Heights, the discovery of Catherine’s library, in a state of “dilapidation” and heavily annotated by its owner, draws the reader into the drama of Heathcliff and Cathy: it is as objects, not as texts, that her books tell their troubled history. The lesson of Victorian literature is not, as Price suggests, that the text should trump the book. It is, rather, that we should pay attention to the stories of both.