*not to be cited or quoted without written permission of the author*
Representations of India in the British Novel 1780-1796
I am going to begin this talk with two quotations. The first quotation is taken from the heroine Sophia Goldsburne in Hartly House, written by Phebe Gibbes (in 1789). It describes a young Brahmin man she has made the acquaintance of in Calcutta.
What a sweet picture would the pen of Sterne have drawn of this young man’s person! But such is the narrowness of sentiment, that if I was to attempt to do it you would instantly conclude I love the precepts for the teacher’s sake…1
The mention of Laurence Sterne by Sophia Goldsburne is illuminating because it shows how the author has created the Brahmin within a tradition of eighteenth century sentimental fiction - with the Brahmin becoming equivalent to a chivalric gentleman paying compliments to his suitor. Phebe Gibbes’ depiction of the Brahmin is indicative of the way novels portrayed India and their people through pre-existing literary tropes and genres. The second quotation is taken from the preface of Adventures of a Rupee (1781) and it describes why the author, known to be Helenus Scott, has chosen not to attribute the work to himself:
The following pages in my own opinion are so insignificant, that to them I should blush to prefix my name: but I think they may bear some rank among the performances of the same species – which every hour engenders -My work is barren of incident, and what incident it has, may not be in its kind of importance…2
Helenus Scott’s attitude is indicative of the way many novelists thought of the work. To the majority of novelists the novel was not something they took pride in or thought of as worth attributing to themselves, but rather a derivative and commercial enterprise that was simply meant to amuse and entertain. The two quotations thus get to this heart of this paper in that they suggest that rather than novelistic representations of India being predicated on specific events in the subcontinent or due to the shifting nature in the relationship of the coloniser and colonised they are more based upon short term trends in the literary marketplace and pre-existing genres that happened to be fashionable at any given point in time.
In this paper, I am going to look at the emergence of the novel in relation to the literary marketplace, differentiating its perceived lowbrow status in relation to poetry. I will in turn show how this affected depictions of India differentiating novelists writing about India from poets writing about the subcontinent through class, gender, lived or lack of lived experience in India. I will use four novels: The Indian Adventurer, or the History of Mr Vanneck (1780), Adventures of a Rupee (1782), Hartly House (1789), Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Raj (1796) to illustrate the highly formulaic nature of portrayals of India using intertextuality in the literary marketplace as a means to understand fictional tropes about India. Let me begin, however, by looking at the growth of print capitalism and situate the emergence of the novel in relation to this phenomenon.
Although printing presses had been in existence since the fifteenth century it was only from the mid-eighteenth century onwards that Europe transformed from being an oral-scribal culture to a printing society3 with the older system of patronage being swept away as writers realized they could make their living by selling their works to the public4. This of course radically altered the ‘authorial self’ as authors had to adapt themselves to the demands of the literary marketplace5. Within this context the novel was a medium that was well adapted to the book trade as it was a genre that was specifically designed to fill gaps in the market, with novelists often imitating specific models such as the epistolary novel, the adventure story or the oriental fable6.
The authors of novels were not aiming for lasting literary fame – as can be seen by the fact that most of them remained anonymous and their works often achieved a very short shelf-life never to be reprinted7. They consequently seldom considered themselves as creators or artists in the same way that poets of this time did and were less shame faced about being derivative or engaging in plagiarism. Novelists generally wrote formulaic texts according to what had previously proved to be successful. This explains the fact that between 1770 and 1790 at least 30 percent of all novels were in epistolary format with it accounting for about 40 percent of the annual output from 1776 to 17848. Moreover, most of the novel output was dominated by the sentimental romance genre where women were prone to swooning and fainting. Novelists, as William St. Clair observes, between the mid to late eighteenth century were seen as ‘anonymous, genderless, low skilled, low paid piece workers’ and thus whilst ‘the poetry of the romantic period was supply-pushed by authors and patrons’ novels ‘were demand-led by book purchasers, by commercial borrowers, and by readers.’9. A distinction thus emerged in the late eighteenth century between poets who with their creative genius were the custodians of highbrow culture and whom distanced themselves from the capitalistic processes of the literary marketplace and the novelists who traded their work for mere profit. Such a categorisation led to poets such as Lord Byron correlating inferior literary work with femininity and the mass market10.
The ranking of poetry over the novel was in no small part due to gender and class. Whilst between 1780-1810, the majority of novels were written by women, poetry was predominantly written by upper-class men versed in the classics. Eighteenth century Conservatives such as John Brown and Tobias Smollett also argued that women’s consumption of trashy literature like the novel was morally debilitating in that it was filling women’s heads with ideas of unrestrained love and fancy that made them unfit for the role of domestic servitude as daughters and wives11. I would also argue that the novel, which was increasingly read by people alone and in private spaces, aroused suspicion as it contradicted Scottish enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith who espoused the virtues of the sociable man12. The suspicion of the solitary figure engaging in private pleasures can also be seen in eighteenth century medical discourses that warned against the moral and physical dangers of masturbation13.
An examination of the eighteenth century Edinburgh publisher John Murray’s letter books reveals how the novel was marginalised and trivialised as a literary form in the literary market. If one looks at John Murray’s outgoing correspondence one can see that the publisher undertook direct correspondence with historians and travel writers advising them to adopt a populist style that would cater to both ladies and gentleman14, even at some points rewriting prefaces without their permission15. He also helped cultivate a special relationship between the poets and their work by making sure that poets’ heads were engraved on the cover of their books. Whilst John Murray was prepared to invest so much time and effort in directing the publication of poetry and histories no such trouble was taken for novels. His lack of direct correspondence with Helenus Scott, the author of Adventures of a Rupee – a novel which Murray was responsible for publishing – is indicative of his stance towards novelists. Murray’s only mentions of Adventures of a Rupee are in two letters to his friend Dr Dunbar and in letters in November 1781 he describes the novel which he is about to print, in dismissive terms as ‘a juvenile performance but not destitute of spirit and fancy’ and as ‘a little volume’16.
The perceived lowbrow, disembodied and derivative nature of the novel greatly affected the way the novel represented India. Novelists unlike poets were less likely to come to original formulations and nuanced depictions of India and were more prone to represent the subcontinent according to the rigid schemata of specific genres. The lack of cultural specificity of novelistic depictions of India when compared with poems about India was also due to the fact that Anglo-Indian poetry was predominantly written by male colonial administrators living and writing in the contact zone of Bengal whereas out of the four novels dealing with India only one of the authors, Helenus Scott, had experience of living and working in India.
All four novels, I will be discussing, are highly formulaic and heavily rooted in genre. Hartly House is an epistolary novel that charts a young lady’s entrance into adulthood and society and thus follows tropes laid out by sentimental novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. Translations of the Letter of a Hindoo Raj is an epistolary novel but it is also firmly located in the genre of the oriental traveller in Europe. Indian Adventurer: or, History of Mr Vanneck and Adventures of a Rupee are adventure stories where India provides a colourful background for the action of the story. Indian Adventurer is also a pornographic and sensationalist novel which is aimed at gratifying the sexual interests of the eighteenth-century reader.
It is worth pointing out that in three out of the four novels global exchange and circulation are embodied within the very literary form that these particular novels take. Adventures of a Rupee adopts the genre of a speaking object, the Rupee, which transgresses and transcends national borders and Hartly House and Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Raj deploys the epistolary mode where the narrator’s letters move across continents. Such figurations are unsurprising in a time dominated by global trade and in an age of print capitalism where written texts were increasingly being circulated and exchanged in coffee houses, taverns and circulation libraries17. Letters arriving in England from India in Hartly House and the rupee moving from the subcontinent to Europe and ending up in England also metanymically allude to an age where Britain was receiving imports such as Chinese porcelain, Japanese Lacquers and Indian calicoes from Asia on an unprecedented scale. In 1700 the value of exports to the whole of Asia was £114,000 while that of imports was £775,000. The imports later rose to £2,200,000 in 1772-3 and approximately £5,800,000 by 179818. The texts’ construction thus mirrors the unequal level of exchange between Britain and India with Britain importing goods whilst exporting little back.
Depictions of India in the novel must also be located within the context of both the popularity of fashionable French translations of oriental tales such as the Antoinne Galland’s A Thousand and One Nights at the beginning of the eighteenth century and to the later development of popular British oriental prose fiction in the periodical. The Arabian Nights was first translated into English in the first decade of the eighteenth century and by as early as 1715 the grub-street translation of Galland’s text had reached its third edition and in 1723 the London News, a thrice weekly newssheet, serialised the Nights over three years19. The success of the Arabian Nights was remarkable when it is considered most English fictional texts never managed to make it to a second edition and ran to a series of 500 copies20, which in turn shows that the Arabian Nights was a phenomenon at the forefront of the literary market. The oriental tale was subsequently deployed by Joseph Addison in the Spectator (1711-1714), Samuel Johnson in the Rambler (1750-1752) and John Hawkesworth in the Adventurer (1752-1754). These three men were pioneers of the development of a literary market in that they developed popular periodicals that were read by a mass readership and thus their deployment of the orient in some of their tales helped much to popularize the genre. The oriental tale subsequently became a mainstay of London magazine and periodical fiction with it becoming particularly in vogue in the 1750s21.
Addison’s, Johnson’s and Hawkesworth’s depictions of the orient, however, is extremely vague with the only eastern attribute of their narratives being the unfamiliar nomenclature deployed. The tales usually conveyed some universal moral truth and the oriental setting seems simply to serve the purpose of conveying to the reader a fable-like grandeur. Johnson’s deployment of Latin maxims and discussions of morality before beginning the tale22 was indeed the standard stylistic convention of all his tales and discourses in the Rambler which in turn indicates that no attempt was made to create a new literary form for the oriental content of his narratives. The description of the orient through conventional British prose formats would set the trend for later depictions of India in the Anglo-Indian novel. I will now look at the four novels in closer detail.
An Indian Adventurer, or, History of Mr Vanneck recounts the sexual escapades and adventures of Mr Vanneck, a German surgeon living in India. It is notable that the author distances himself from the work by both not attributing it to himself and by relaying the story through a German narrator, Mr Vanneck. The deployment of German narrator I would argue is a device by which he can project sexual vice onto the European continent rather than attaching it to a British national identity. The text comes to an exaggerated and distorted understanding of Hindu tenets when Vanneck says that polygamy is the norm of Hindu culture with Brahmins having twelve wives and living ‘a month with each during the course of the year’23. Moreover, he also says that a wife who does not perform Sati ‘is turned out of the family, and obliged either to be a slave or a prostitute’24 . This sensationalistic depiction of Hinduism is clearly designed to titillate the reader as can be seen by the Hindu hermit (of Muslim origin) who gives religious blessings to women in return for them kissing his private parts and performing economic favours for him25. The intermeshing of mercenary motives, disingenuous and sexual sensationalism by the Hindu hermit mirrors in many ways the author’s own engagement with and appropriation of the oriental tale in that like the cynical sage the author seeks to exoticise and distort Hindu doctrine for profit and lurid gratification.
Indian culture is treated with utter contempt within the text, hence Vanneck tells the reader of his friend who abducted a group of Brahmins and forced the ‘bigots’ to eat meat and drink alcohol26 and who kept his own personal harem of sixteen black women27. Rather then this being portrayed as something disturbing within the narrative it is treated as loveable roguery. The narrator himself engages in a number of sexual escapades with the native women. He rescues an ‘extremely pretty’ girl of ‘seventeen’28 from Sati - thus conforming to the trope of white man saving the beautiful young Hindu woman - but when she grows possessive of him he passes her off onto a lowly officer29. He goes on excursions with his European friend ‘to pick up as many black women as’30 they can find and bring them back to their lodgings and in addition he also cuckolds a Muslim31. What is interesting about these sexual liaisons is that they are not condemned within the text. The native women are treated as amusing diversions until he meets the love of his life, Julia, who is of course an English lady. Thus, whilst the native women are mere sexual objects to be enjoyed and dispensed with as Mr Vanneck pleases Julia, the white woman, is someone who demands his undivided attention. His previous encounters are thus in a sense a rite of passage before he meets his true love.
The novel with the sexual adventures of its protagonist and his lurid depictions of Hindu culture was not meant to be a serious portrayal of India. The text was aimed at titillating and amusing the eighteenth century reader, with India merely provided a colourful and exotic background for the adventure story. The lowly status of text in terms of critical approval is testified to by the fact that at time of its release the Critical Review called it ‘mean and uninteresting’ and the Monthly Review termed it ‘insufferably coarse and indelicate’32.
Whilst the author of Indian Adventurer: History of Mr Vanneck still remains a mystery the author of Adventures of a Rupee was one Helenus Scott, who served as a physician in the East India Company. Scott’s Adventures of a Rupee (1782) uses India in a similar way to the Indian Adventurer, or, History of Mr. Vanneck in that India just provides an exotic background for the action of the story.
In Adventures of a Rupee, the Rupee, the narrator of the story, recounts its humble beginnings from an ignoble lump of earth in Tibet, to it being transformed into currency and then it being circulated from person to person gradually making its way from India to Britain. The tale follows the formulaic pattern laid out in the eighteenth century sub-genre of the novel of circulation, which recounts the adventures of a non-human protagonist such as a watch, a banknote, cart, a hackney coach or a pin-cushion as it encounters diverse characters or incidents. The genre was so well established and formulaic that the Critical Review upon the release of Adventures of a Rupee commented:
‘This mode… is grown so fashionable, that few months pass which do not bring one of them under our inspection’33
The use of an inanimate manufactured object, by authors of this genre, reflects a sense of dislocation between author and text and a of a less of ownership over their tale with authors being aware that their books were cultural commodities to be constantly exchanged and owned within the marketplace. As Christopher Flint points out in Speaking Objects: The Circulation of Stories in Eighteenth-Century Fiction the narrative’s use of circulating objects can be linked to the prevailing eighteenth century literary marketplace where there was confusion over whom owned a literary text and in which both the1709 and 1774 Copyright Act sought to define who had ownership over it34.
The rupee as a form of currency is also a metonym for modern global exchanges of commerce, finance and colonialism and also points to the profit motive behind the literary text itself. Its deployment as the object narrator fetishizes currency as a means of transcending and transgressing cultural and national boundaries which is conveyed by the fact that India is one of the many countries that the rupee encounters on his travels and in terms of its basic essence is not distinct from other countries. The text thus subscribes to a conception of the universal nature of man where different races vary only in details and not in their fundamental essence. It also undercuts notions of the oriental despot in its depiction of Hyder Ali - usually portrayed as a tyrant in the orientalist literature of the time - when he releases one of the British soldiers held captive at the request of the officer’s wife35. Whilst the coin does deride the Brahmins ‘who deceive the vulgar into belief’36 and extort money out of them it sees nothing unique about their practices and equates them to ‘monks in Catholic countries’37 (p11).
Another text which envisages India within fundamentally British paradigms is Hartly House. Hartly House (1789) was written by Phebe Gibbes and published in the same year that William Jones presented his findings to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta38. What little that is known about Phebe Gibbes can be recovered from her application for patronage from the Royal literary fund in 180439. Gibbes at the time of writing to the Royal Literary Fund was an impoverished widow with two daughters and a son. If her claims are true than her output was prolific as she published as many as twenty two novels, some children’s books and articles for the London Magazine - all of which were published without attributation. According to Gibbes she did not attribute any of her works to herself because her family rejected every form of literature apart from the devotional genre and that she felt that as ‘domestic woman’ she ‘never would be prevailed to put my name on any of my productions’40. Her stance of being a ‘domestic’ women is revealing as it is indicative of a reluctance on the part of women novelists in general to enter the public sphere, whilst her plea for funding from the Royal Literary Fund reflects the financial precariousness of many women novelists who were dependent upon literary success and patronage for a living.
Phebe Gibbes’ narrative like Elizabeth Hamilton’s Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Raj drew heavily upon information from correspondence with a relative who was serving in the East India Company – in Gibbes’ case it was it was from her son and in Elizabeth Hamilton’s it was her brother, the reputed oriental scholar Charles Hamiltion. The epistolary exchange between the narrator’s and their friends across the globe mirrors the real life transcontinental exchange between author and relative.
In Hartly House, a young woman, Sophia Goldsburne undertakes a passage to Calcutta to stay with the Hartly family. Through her letters to her friend Arabella, in England, Sophia documents her entrance into the Calcutta social scene and her besiegement by male suitors who are desperate to marry her. In the course of the narrative, the young heroine of the novel, develops an affection for a Brahmin man. The relationship, however, it must be stated is not one of parity. It is significant that she refers to him as ‘my Brahmin’41 and says that she is amused by the ‘little sallies’42 that take place between them. She at their first meeting decides she wants to be the ‘object of admiration’ in his eyes as it would lay testament to ‘her mental charms’43. The affection of the Brahmin is thus important to her only in so much as it is a signifier of her power of pleasing in Calcutta high society. It is revealing that subsequent to the Brahmin expressing affection for her she feels that she has played a dangerous game and regrets it. The Brahmin is subsequently killed off by the author and Sophia is left free to marry a young British officer. By the end of the narrative she has decided, on her returning to England, ‘to affect the Gentoo air which is an assemblage of all the soft and winning graces priests and poets have yet devised a name for’44. Thus Hindu manners, by the end of the novel, become a mere affectation to be paraded around for consumption in polite and fashionable British society very much like Gibbes’ text itself.
In Hartly House India is peripheral to the main plot. The novel is very much in the tradition of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded (1740) in its epistolary format and in its account of a young woman’s growth to maturity. Much of the novel is mainly concerned with her intermixing in the Calcutta Anglo-Indian social scene and being paid compliments by British suitors. The heroine herself is in the sentimental tradition of girls who are given to sighing, fainting and weeping. When Indians are mentioned in the text they are often categorized by their household role – thus they are the fanners, the sedan bearers or the hookah bearers of the British. It would seem that India just serves the purpose of adding an exotic and romantic element to an ostensibly British formulaic sentimental novel.
Whilst Phebe Gibbes did not have the confidence to attribute her work and enter the public sphere Elizabeth Hamilton did. In Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Raj, Hamilton’s first novel, she not only accredits the work to herself but uses the character of Charlotte Percy to express the fears that many women felt when entering into the literary marketplace. Charlotte when pressed by her uncle, Mr Denbeigh, to start a career as an author to console herself over the death of her brother in India and in order to financially support herself, responds as follows:
You know how female writers are looked down upon. The women fear and hate; the men ridicule, and dislike them… 45
Charlotte’s comments reveal the prejudice and suspicion that women writers were treated with when they entered the print market from both men and women. Yet the fact that Elizabeth, the real life Charlotte, had the courage to attribute her first work to herself and was subsequently to thrust herself into literary circles by associating with Edinburgh literary heavyweights such as Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg46 reflects the growing self assertion of many women novelists of the time. Zarmillah seems to express Hamilton’s own confidence and sense of purpose in getting her work published when he says, in the closing stages of the narrative:
I have already hinted my astonishment of the number of new books that are every year produced in England, but now that I know what these books have to encounter, before they fight their way into the world, my astonishment is increased tenfold…47
Publication for Hamilton is thus akin to a heroic struggle against adversity.
Hamilton’s Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Raj (1796) is in a tradition of works such as Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes (1721), Charles Lyttleton’s Letters from a Persian to his Friend at Isaphan (1735) and Oliver Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World (1762), that use a foreigner travelling in Europe to critique contemporary European society but it is also partly a popular form of oriental scholarship. Elizabeth Hamilton had a sophisticated knowledge of India through her close correspondence with her brother Charles Hamilton, a well-respected oriental scholar. Her novel was also less disposable than the other texts that have been discussed in that it achieved a number of reprints, was critically well received and was hugely popular. The text takes the format of private correspondence between Zarmillah, a Hindu Rajah, and his Brahmin friend Maandara. Zarmillah’s encounter with Britain starts with a friendship with a British officer he meets in India who instructs him about the ideals behind British society – christianity, liberty and equality. Through Zarmillah’s friendship with the officer he is inspired to visit Britain and his later letters recount his experiences and views of contemporary British society. The effect of such a strategy by Hamilton is to defamiliarize the reader and thus create a heightened sense of the idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies inherent within English upper class culture. By having the Rajah Zarmillah mistakenly ascribe the playing of cards to be a poojah48 Hamilton can critique the decadency and triviality of the British upper classes and compare them unfavourably to the more honest devotion of the simple rustic British people49. There was nothing new about this mode of satire as George Lyttleton in Letters from a Persian to his Friend at Isaphan (1735) and Oliver Goldsmith in Citizen of the World (1762) had used this mode and deployed many of the same tropes. What marks Hamilton’s text as different is the extent to which she deploys the most recent and contemporary research on India in her preliminary dissertation.
Hamilton’s novel, unlike the other texts I have explored, engages in the debates about what form colonial rule should take in a way the other texts I have looked at did not. As scholars such as Pamela Perkins and Shannon Russell have pointed out her dedication to Warren Hastings50 shows that she is in favour of British rule in India and of Hastings’ conservative form of government. This is unsurprising as her brother Charles Hamilton received extensive patronage under Warren Hastings which in turn explains why she obliquely enters the debate between Burke and Hastings when a random British gentleman harangues Zarmillah at a coffee house about the outrages the East India Company have committed, using rhetoric similar to that deployed by Burke in Hastings’ impeachment51. Zarmillah subsequent confusion and bafflement at the man’s rant is a way in which Hamilton can undercut Burke’s rhetoric. Yet I would argue that this is not the only thing worth noting in the exchange. The fact that the gentleman has received the false account that Zarmillah has come to England to complain about Hastings’ misrule in India from a newspaper and his harangue takes place in a coffee house are also significant. Hamilton through the incident is both critiquing the new public spheres and as Zarmillah remarks the ‘power of a piece of gold, to procure circulation to whatever untruths’ a news writer is ready to perpetuate52. Thus it is not only Burke’s vitriolic attacks on Hastings that Hamilton is critiquing but the mercenary values inherent within Grub Street and print capitalism.
In conclusion, whilst with Elizabeth Hamilton’s text there is the beginnings of an engagement with the subcontinent and the relationship between the coloniser and colonised, this does not feature to a significant extent in the earlier texts. Thus to understand authors’ depictions of India in the eighteenth century I would argue that one must delve into the emergence literary market in Britain and the novel’s perceived lowbrow cultural status within this context. Novelists aware of the demands of Grub Street inadvertently played out in their narratives anxieties about dislocation from their texts and the profit motives behind their work. Hence, to engage with literary representations of India in the eighteenth century novel one does not really come to an understanding of the shifting nature between coloniser and colonised, but rather with an insight into a literary form and a brand of author that was only beginning to assert itself towards the end of the eighteenth century.
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