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Chapter 5 examines the importance of the playbill in general in Romantic-period culture. Playbills represent by far the largest body of ephemeral texts that have survived and this chapter explores the history of their interest to collectors and how the theatre, as part of the category of ‘public amusements’, was integrated into ephemera collecting as a whole. The history of the playbill also focuses a discussion of changes in printing technology around 1800 – mainly the introduction of larger typefaces that could be read from a distance – which led to the emergence of the poster and the increasing colonisation of urban space by print. I argue for the importance of ephemera and ephemerality to Romantic-period media history and also to the genealogy of theatre history as a discipline. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the earliest printed document in Australian history to be discovered to date, a playbill for a performance of the tragedy Jane Shore at the ‘Theatre, Sydney’ in 1796.
In their account of Romantic poetry as a medium, Celeste Langan and Maureen McLane argue that poetry, unlike the novel, ‘had a stronger claim to be considered a supermedial transhistorical venture’. However, the fiction of Austen and Edgeworth suggests that the novel too had aspirations to be a ‘supermedium’ by incorporating and aestheticising the experience of ‘common life’. The society novel in particular achieved this by assimilating the printed ephemera of polite sociability: it remediated the paper filters that facilitated social life in the eighteenth century in order to make the interstices or hyphenations of sociable life, spaces occupied by women in particular, more visible as an appropriate object of fiction. As I suggested previously, the affect of the ephemeral social encounter, the transience of events that flicker to life and disappear, were the common subject of Sarah Sophia Banks and Jane Austen, the former’s assemblages of tickets for balls and assemblies and the latter’s novels textualising the same phenomenon. The evocation in ephemeral print of ‘common life’ as a kind of diurnal historiography was the context in which the novel became central to the affective rhythms and routines of human activity, establishing an idea of the everyday as intimate, familiar, and reassuring rather than as something that was estranging in its absolute anonymity or carelessness, something to ‘fear’ in Blanchot’s terms. The materiality of the codex form of the novel, its solidity and tendency to take the reader’s time while being portable and adaptable to both private and social life, allowed the novel to remediate the specificity of social and affective experience but also to defend both itself and the reader from the abyss of entropic ephemerality. The novel thus capitalises upon an idea of the everyday that it simultaneously resists. Arguably, however, as a literary form most closely linked with the second printing revolution, with which its ‘rise’ coincided, the novel never completely escaped its affiliation with ephemera, as indicated by the enduring association of the novel and novel-reading with trashy, ‘ephemeral productions’, with that which wastes time rather than redeems it.
Chapter 3 explores Sarah Sophia Banks’s archiving of ephemera associated with fashionable life in the broader context of the interests of other collectors of such material. It addresses the significance of No. 32 Soho Square, where Banks lived with her brother Sir Joseph Banks, as a hub of Enlightenment scientific inquiry, knowledge and social networks, and flows of documentary information.
Chapter 1 begins with a discussion of Joseph Addison’s alignment of fugitive print with the idea of ‘accidental reading’ in The Spectator, as an important context for Samuel Johnson’s later theorisation of fugitive literature and ephemerae in the mid-eighteenth century. The second part of the chapter explores the importance of the new medium of the handbill and in particular its role in paper wars of the 1790s.
Chapter 4 explores the methodologies and significance of Sarah Sophia Banks’s collections, firstly in relation to her brother’s sociability, and secondly as an archive of fashionable sociability and public culture after 1760, with particular reference to her interest in ballooning from the 1780s.
Chapter 2 explores the interest of figures such as George Thomason, Anthony Wood, and Narcissus Luttrell in the paraphernalia of texts that subsequently became classified as ephemera single-sheet ballads, advertisements, pamphlets, and tickets. This interest is linked with the development of early Enlightenment associational culture and the importance of such kinds of print in catering to and archiving the quotidian, sociable life of the developing public sphere. I discuss how such material was archived and preserved in the form of ‘collections’ and in the last section of the chapter outline how such ephemera books were important in literary history, Romantic-period bibliography, and also the idea of a repository of the archives of the nation, a public records office, as represented by William Godwin’s interest in the Thomason tracts.
Chapter 7 focuses on the year 1814 to argue for the importance to Romantic-period culture of an ephemeral historicism. The year 1814 was notable for ephemeral public events, beginning with the February frost fair on the Thames and the extensive celebrations for the premature peace in the summer, culminating in the Jubilee Fair in the royal parks of London. Both occasions produced a wide range of ephemeral print – tickets, handbills, and prints – collected and arranged from very different political perspectives by Sarah Sophia Banks and the radical reformer Francis Place. I focus on 1814 in order to trace how ideas of ephemerality as developed in the eighteenth century mutated into the category of the everyday in the nineteenth. The year 1814 is also significant in literary history as the year in which Jane Austen set her posthumously published Persuasion. I relate that novel to the significance of 1814 as a particularly ‘ephemeral’ year, with reference to Austen’s acknowledgement of the presence of ‘flying’ literature in the form of the newsmen of Bath.
In the late 1920s in Old Headington outside Oxford, a woman called Lilian Gurden, who was working in the garden of the home of Mrs Dorothea Johnson, was invited inside by her employer for a cup of coffee. Mrs Johnson was the wife of John de Monins Johnson (1882–1956), Printer to the University of Oxford from 1925 to 1946 and the most significant English ephemerist of the twentieth century. Interviewed in 1986 by another important ephemerist, Maurice Rickards, Lilian Gurden (later Thrussell) recalled Dorothea Johnson telling her that she was unable to take a bath because it was ‘full of soaking album pages’. These albums contained printed ephemera from which John Johnson was extracting material for his collection, the ‘Sanctuary of Printing’, housed in an upper room of the printery of the Oxford University Press. Johnson’s interest in paper scraps had been inspired by his early experience as an Egyptologist, ‘digging the rubbish-mounds of Graeco-Roman cities in Egypt for the written materials – the waste paper of those ages’. Encountering long queues outside cinemas in 1920s Oxford as he travelled home from work, Johnson was led to contemplate the relationship between twentieth-century visual media, the cityscape, and advertising as a form of graphic and visual art. His not inconsiderable ambition was to document ‘the miscellany of the world … Trivial things like the development of advertisements on our hoardings … all the ephemera of our lives’.
Chapter 6 deals with the visiting card as a new form of social media that anticipates the text messaging of today, exploring how its novelty caught the attention of Horace Walpole and Samuel Johnson. As a genre that was particularly invested in the representation of social life, the novel is one of the most important sources for understanding the complexities of visiting in eighteenth-century social life and textual media that facilitated and recorded it. With reference to the novels of Jane Austen and, in particular, Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee (1812), I discuss how prose fiction adapted the capacity of visiting card and other kinds of ephemeral texts in order to realise the affective power of the intimate social encounter entailed in handing over one’s card. I argue that The Absentee is exceptional as a fiction that not only utilises the visiting card but also emulates ephemerology as the Enlightenment’s other science.
Often regarded as trivial and disposable, printed ephemera, such as tickets, playbills and handbills, was essential in the development of eighteenth-century culture. In this original study, richly illustrated with examples from across the period, Gillian Russell examines the emergence of the cultural category of printed ephemera, its relationship with forms of sociability, the history of the book, and ideas of what constituted the boundaries of literature and literary value. Russell explores the role of contemporary collectors such as Sarah Sophia Banks in preserving such material, arguing for 'ephemerology' as a distinctive strand of popular antiquarianism. Multi-disciplinary in scope, The Ephemeral Eighteenth Century reveals new perspectives on the history of theatre, the fiction of Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen, and on the history of bibliography, as well as highlighting the continuing relevance of the concept of ephemerality to how we connect through social media today.