Parergy and the Beginnings of the Mass Market in the 1840s


1st page of The London Journal 1845

One of the key concepts was what I called the parergic after Derrida, though I used the term in a very different way from him. It was an attempt to explain in a serious and non-condescending but at the same time intellectually rigorous way the particular position in the literary market place of texts right at the beginning of the commercial mass-market: what was the relationship of these texts to the more general field? Here in this first post revisiting what seems like a long ago (and indeed I first came up with the idea in the 1990s), is an extract from the original. Later posts will test the concept against other work.

Having provided paragraph-length biographies of several journalists and marked their career paths – they all started aiming for high status and ended writing for money – I came to a conclusion and then sought to explain that conclusion and link it to curious stylistic features characteristic of these texts, features very different from the Edward Lloyd-type serials I had encountered previously which did not seem to care about their status as commodities. The material I was studying from The London Journal seemed worried about being ‘economic literature’ – how did this worry manifest itself exactly?


… The London Journal was thus a precipitate out of surplus labour which would prefer the greater symbolic (and at this stage usually economic) capitals of the up-market magazines. The desire for a unified cultural field that I discussed in Chapter 2 is visible here, supported sociologically by the very limited socio-cultural group that writers in general came from (Altick, 1989). In that sense, the impression gained from Vizetelly’s description of the magazine as staffed by ‘failures’ is correct.

The longing for the high but exclusion from it that such career paths suggest results in what I term the parergic. This comprises a set of specific textual effects and practices, which, while underpinned by sociological narratives, does not inhere in specific bodies or corpora (a writer, artist, a periodical or even an article may display the parergic or not at various points). It is a system whereby texts are based on originals that are invested with greater symbolic capital and authority. Officially respectful and emulative, the parergic is tinged always with a resentment, caused by exclusion from desired cultural areas, that brings about mutation in what is supposedly emulated. The parergic sometimes raids authority aggressively and seems therefore to attack it, but nonetheless paradoxically buttresses cultural boundaries even in the act of transgressing them. Unlike parody, which always in some sense undermines the authority of its original even while being complicit with it, the parergic fully acknowledges and maintains this authority even when it effaces its model. Unlike straightforward imitation of the high, which depends on large cultural capital to judge its value, the parergic does not use the exclusive codes or high prices that cultural authority wraps itself in to keep out the uninitiated.[1]

The weekly ‘Essays’ furnish typical examples of the parergic in terms of that practice which is ‘style’. Essay L on ‘The English Language’, signed by John Wilson Ross (III: 7-8), begins with the commonplace thesis that ‘the progress of language marks the progress of the human mind’, and swiftly interprets this in a nationalist sense. It continues by placing the ‘rise’ of the English language at the Reformation because then ‘men began to argue’ and to do so ‘they [had to] express themselves with precision’. Thereafter,

Addison was unquestionably the first of our writers who introduced elegance of expression into the composition of English prose. He found the writings of his predecessors disfigured by a loose, inaccurate, and clumsy style. He changed all this, and made himself a model for imitation. In his works we find no forced metaphor – no dragging clause – no harsh cadence, – no abrupt close. He is, also, a happy model for the use of figurative language. They seem to spring spontaneously from the subject: and are never detained till the spirit evaporates or the likeness vanishes. They are just like flashes of lightning in a summer’s night – vivid, transient, lustrous, – unexpected but beautiful, – passing over the prospect with a pleasing brightness, and just vanishing before you catch a sight of all the beauties of the scene they gild. The copious and classic mind of that writer gave our language the greatest degree of elegance and accuracy of which it is susceptible. Since his time fine writing has not improved. Simply, because it cannot be. You cannot give the English language a nicer modification of form, or a greater beauty of feature than Addison gave it. But you can give it more nerve and muscle. And subsequent writers have done so.                                                                                                     (III: 7)

It was Johnson, ‘[t]hat Colossus of English literature’, who provided the muscle. Since his time ‘there has occurred no variation in the style of English prose’ except, possibly, by increased use of the ‘Gothic, whence [English] sprung; and that is a feature in language which our readers will agree with us is more deserving of disgust than admiration, and a variation in style more worthy of punishment than praise’ (III: 8).

The essay’s claims to authority depend largely on the assumption of a common standard throughout the literary field…

London University Magazine 1828-30

Unlike the subjects of my previous two posts, there is virtually nothing written about the  The London University Magazine.

It was intended to be, according to its first article, “a magazine whose principle is to encourage merit, wherever it is to be found, and foster youthful genius, wherever it may have been discovered” (“A Young Head, and, what is better still, a Young Heart”, p. 4). While it claims to have been set up by students of London University for students of that institution, The Marauder, a 24-page publication intended as a monthly critique of the Magazine (but of which only one issue survives), denies that this was the case (p.4). Whether this was true or not, the magazine declared itself to be free of the control of the Council of the University, which in turn gave it leave both to praise the institution and to “record its errors with sorrow”. The Marauder was not the Magazine’s only gadfly: the London University Chronicle was set up in 1830 to attack both it and the professors it lauded. On the other hand, the press in general heaped praise upon it: many favourable reviews, from publications as diverse as the Athenaeum and Bell’s Life in London, were reprinted in the prospectus for volume II (bound in the volume in the library of the University of London at Senate House).

Dating is difficult but reviews of it suggest it ran for 8 numbers September 1829-April 1830. Its was ambitious in its publishers in London, Edinburgh and Dublin: Hurst, Chance & Co (London); Constable & Co. (Edinburgh); Curry Jr & Co (Dublin). Ambition is legible too in its number of pages per issue (c. 144) and price:  7/6.

It had many precedents at Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin, most recently the Oxford Literary Gazette and Classical Foreign Journal (1829) and the Cambridge Snob (later The Gownsman, 1829-30) – see the bibliography at the end for detail of where to locate more about university magazines. Its appearance therefore is a sign of determination that London was to be a fitting alternative to those with an appropriate organ to disseminate the information particular to it: it is, in other words, a sign not of having arrived but of determination to arrive.

Starting off as a predominantly scientific, legal and medical quarterly with emphasis on material clearly thought useful to students (the first volume carried the timetable and prices of lectures, and examination papers for law, medicine, botany and classical languages, with answers for some of them), it announced a wish to continue in the tradition of the quarterlies – not the university magazines – in terms of independent thought, but it also distanced itself from the quarterlies by ostentatiously refusing alliance with any political party. Later, however, its predominant political stance becomes clearer. In the leading article of issue 2, an imaginary Japanese debate over education between a business-man, a priest and a “radical” “votar[y] of common sense, philospher[], follower[] of reason”, the latter decidedly wins (“On the Improvement of Education and the Simplification of Knowledge”). While not explicit, this was a radical Whig trope.

The “Address to the Public” of volume II admits that the magazine has been like the omnibus, a mode of transport introduced in the very year the magazine was launched: the analogy indirectly acknowledged the criticism of its opponents that  in its early days it had taken wrong turnings. To rectify what is now presented as a too specialised focus, “common sense” language will now be employed, “articles of a lighter nature” will be printed as well as what is called the “golden mean” in terms of reviews: somewhere between the lengthy essays of the quarterlies and the brief notices of the magazines. There are also now included reviews of the London theatres, lists of patents granted, share premiums, and even Births, Marriages and Deaths.

Early issues had included a serialised but incomplete translation of Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants (1790), but the press (even including The Marauder) delighted most in the two-part essay “The Personal and Poetical Character of Lord Byron”, the two brief series on “The Troubadours” and “The Decline and Fall of Roman Literature”, and the gothic tale “The Eve of Walpurgis”.

Finally, of great interest to print media historians will be “The Secret History of the Connoisseur, an Irish Periodical” by “N.” in volume II, a comic account of the difficulties of setting up and maintaining a periodical in Ireland.


Andrew King, “University Magazines”, Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism (London and Gent: British Library and Academia Press, 2008), pp. 647-8

H. C. Marillier, University Magazines and their Makers (London: H.W. Bell, 1902)

Rosemary T. Vanarsdel and John S. North, “Student Journals” in Victorian Periodicals and Victorian Society, ed. J. Donn Vann & Rosemary T. Vanarsdel, Scolar Press, 1989: 311-331

The Monthly Repository 1806-1837

monthly repository preface vol 1

While the Monthly Repository has been well studied (see the bibliography at the end) – and it occupies a central place in the ncse project – it is nonetheless worthwhile here assembling information here that is not available elsewhere.

Running January 1806 – December 1837, this shilling monthly went through quite a series of publishers:

Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme 1806

Sherwood, Neely and Jones 1810

Sherwood, Jones & Co, 1824

Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1825

Monthly Repository Office, 3 Walbrook Buildings, and R. Hunter, St. Paul’s Churchyard, 1827

Monthly Repository Office, 3 Walbrook Buildings, and R. Hunter, St. Paul’s Churchyard; Bell and Bradfute, Edinburgh, G. Hamilton, Edinburgh; Bowles and Dearborn, Boston US, 1828

C. Fox, 67 Paternoster Row; R. Hunter, St. Paul’s Churchyard; Bell and Bradfute, Edinburgh, G. Hamilton, Edinburgh; G.G. Bennis, 55 Rue Neuve St. Augustin, Paris, 1832

C. Fox, 67 Paternoster Row; R. Hunter, St. Paul’s Churchyard; William Tait, Edinburgh; G.G. Bennis, 55 Rue Neuve St. Augustin, Paris; Gray and Bowen, and L. Bowles, Boston, 1833

C. Fox, 67 Paternoster Row; R. Hunter, St. Paul’s Churchyard; William Tait, Edinburgh; G.G. Bennis, 55 Rue Neuve St. Augustin, Paris, 1834

It was more stable in its printers:

C. Stower, 1806

George Smallfield, 1817

William Clowes, 1832

The Monthly Repository is mainly famous today for its volumes from 1832 onwards when, having become completely secular, it carried contributions by noteworthy radical and literary figures such as Harriet and James Martineau and John Stuart Mill. Earlier volumes are however very useful for the student of Dissent and Radicalism.

It had been founded by the 24-year-old Reverend Robert Aspland who, from a modest background, had converted to Unitarianism four years previously and become the minister at the Gravel Pit Chapel, Hackney. The same year he established the Unitarian Fund of which he was secretary and later founded other periodicals and societies, by means of which he became a leading light in Unitarianism.

Unitarianism can be considered a means by which the industrial managerial class consolidated its identity through cultural and religious means, and the Monthly Repository in its first 21 years functioned as an important method of creating and sustaining a communicative network amongst this class. Typical of Unitarianism, it prioritised reason and toleration over tradition and was one of the first periodicals actively to embrace the new methods of biblical criticism developed in Germany. Poetry in its first two decades was largely devotional, but there is an exceptional amount of translated work, with again the emphasis on German.

The Monthly Repository also embraced Utilitarianism and was active in politics, promoting a radical agenda, which included the education of women. In 1813, a member of Aspland’s congregation introduced the Trinity Bill into Parliament which abolished penalties for refusing to believe in the Trinity: unsurprisingly, this is covered extensively in the volume for that year.

Under Aspland’s editorship there are several areas of especial interest, not least of which is the use of obituaries. These, along with the extensive coverage of Unitarian activities and debating points and the finely engraved portraits that acted as frontispieces, were key to the monthly’s identity. One of the principal commonplaces of attack on Unitarians comprised claims of deathbed recantation: many of the obituaries stressed on the contrary unwavering adherence to, and indeed comfort in, Unitarianism throughout long illness and death. As Ruston points out, the proportion of women whose lives were recorded in this way is high ‑ some 27% ‑ though this is typical of nonconformist journals in general.

A further point — of interest for post-colonial historians — is the coverage of the ‘Calcutta Controversy’ and the space devoted to the Indian Unitarian Rammohun Roy. Even one of the frontispieces is given over to his portrait (1824). Considerable space is devoted to the role of the press, both Indian and British, in this controversy 1823-1824.

After 21 years, Aspland, never having earned anything for his editorial work, ceded the task to William Johnson Fox, a Unitarian famous for his oratorical powers. Fox was also noted as a drama critic, and had written for the Contemporary and Westminster Reviews. He was also moving away from Unitarianism, and, having bought the magazine from Aspland, he transformed the Monthly Repository into a secular periodical: from January 1832 it may be considered wholly so, acting now less as a medium of interchange amongst a commercial and religious network as amongst a radical cultural élite. Its years under Fox are today the most famous and studied, when it was very much concerned with social and political reform, and sophisticated literary criticism. It also carried some fiction and, importantly, gave voice to early feminists (see Robson, 1987).

Every month from July 1834 it also carried an insert consisting of a song for voice and piano that was tied into the relevant issue of the body of the magazine in some way, enabling thus the domestic performance of the magazine.

In June 1836 Fox resigned the editorship to R.H. Horne. A year later, Fox gave the magazine to Leigh Hunt, who, with his son, wrote a very large proportion of it. Although this was Hunt’s tenth editorship, his experience failed to help the magazine make money and under him it died.


Francis E. Minneka, The Dissidence of Dissent: The Monthly Repository 1806-1838, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944

Ann Robson, ‘The Noble Sphere of Feminism’, Victorian Periodical Review, 20, 1987: 102-7

Walter Graham, English Literary Periodicals, New York: Octagon Books, 1966: 272-3

Alan Ruston, Monthly Repository 1806-1832: Index and Synopses of Obituaries, 1985

Contributions to The Monthly Magazine, Dr. Aitken’s Athenaeum, The Monthly Repository, and the Christian Reformer by the Late Reverend Eliezer Logan, extracted and compiled by his son Richard Logan, London: Woodfall and Kinder, 1856

R. Brook Aspland, Memoir of the Life, Works and Correspondenc of the Reverend Robert Aspland of Hackney, London: Edward T. Whitfield, 1850

The DNCJ of course has an entry (by the indefatigable Matthew Taunton), but the most important resource remains the ncse.

Flowers of Literature 1801-1809

flowers of literature title page

Flowers of Literature for 1801 and 1802 [1803, 1804, 1805, 1806, 1807, 1808, 1809] or, Characteristic Sketches of human nature and Modern Manners. To which is added A General View of Literature during that Period with Notes, Historical, Critical and Explanatory

[from 1803 the following is added] Portraits, and Biographical Sketches

Though described  and extracted in the Cardiff Corvey database ( I thought it might be useful to add more information and offer another take on this interesting periodical. Several volumes are available free through Google Books.

The Flowers of Literature was a commercial miscellany composed of extracts from other publications. It is useful to the publishing and literary historian for several reasons: as an indication of the changing tastes of the market; for its general overview of the literary scene (including fluctuations in the trade) in its annual prefaces; for (from 1805) its catalogues raisonnés of recent publications; and as being one of the many productions of Francis William Blagdon (1778-1819). It was published throughout its run by B. Crosby & Co, Stationer’s Court, London, and printed by J. Swan in  Angel St, and had a circulation of around 3,000. Its first two volumes cost the very considerable 11 shillings but thereafter the price was reduced to 6 shillings.

Its target readership – according to the preface of its first volume was (pace the Corvey Index) threefold:

1)       “gens du monde; who are desirous to become, without serious application, conversant with modern literary taste”

2)       “the lovely British fair, whose minds are formed for tenderness… and whose sensitive faculties, when not involved in the vortex of fashionable dissipation, are susceptible of every passion which can dignify human nature”

3) “the noble youth of our country… whom we will gradually and safely introduce to the path of literary studies”

Begun as a joint publication (of around 400 pages long) with the Reverend F. Prevost (about whom virtually nothing is known), after the first two years Blagdon took sole charge. Blagdon, from a humble background, had been taken up by a Dr Willis who taught him French, Italian, Spanish and German. Around the time Flowers first came out, Blagdon was publishing many translations from French and had just brought out, again in collaboration with Prevost, Mooriana, or Select Extracts from the works of Dr. J. Moore, in 3 volumes in 1803. In 1802 he had begun Modern Discoveries, which amounted to eight volumes over two years. In 1805 he published a pamphlet, with the signature of Aristides, condemning the administration of the navy under Earl St. Vincent. As he describes it in the Preface to the volume of Flowers for 1805, the government had changed by the time the pamphlet had come out and he sent the whole of the print-run to the Earl – who prosecuted him for libel. Blagdon went to prison for six months and had to find sureties of £1,000 to keep the peace for three years. Unsurprisingly, this delayed the appearance of Flowers that year.

Other volumes of Flowers also appeared irregularly, especially from 1807 when Blagdon began to devote more energy to his newspaper, the Phoenix (later the Phoenix and Political Register or Blagdon’s Political Register) and to politics.

The preface to the first volume claims that the compilation was begun initially for the private use of the editors: they are careful to distinguish it from the reviews which are “much more confined in their extracts”. Annotations to the selected texts (actually quite rare) are “designed to direct the taste, to explain obscure passages, and to record facts and circumstances not generally, but worthy of being, known”. Extracts in volume 1 are taken from, amongst many others, Mrs Inchbald, Mrs Opie and Scrofani’s Travels in Greece; a few are translated from French (e.g. Le Brun’s Portefeuille politique).

flowers of literature frontispiece

There is a 32-page overview of the state of literature in the first volume: in later ones the overview, called the “Introduction”, is sub-divided into various classes. In these later volumes too are frontispieces comprising portraits of five writers, always four men surrounding a woman in the centre: in 1803 these comprise Darwin, Cowper, Pratt and Colman around Seward. The five writers are then always granted biographies in the early pages of the volume.

While claiming to describe the state of literature in Europe as a whole, in fact the foreign writers referred to are mostly French, sprinkled with a few German. The effect of the contemporary war with France is visible not only in the inclusion of many explicitly patriotic and/or francophobic texts but in their arrangement within the volume: there is usually a concentration of such texts at the end. The 1806 volume, foe instance, concludes with two letters from Josephine to her daughter Fanny (supposedly revealing the “Character of the French Nation, and the present state of its usurper” – a footnote informs the reader that omitted from the translation is a passage where Josephine describes how Napoleon beats her) and a “National Song” attacking Bonaparte (a footnote declares that when the piece was selected it was thought the war would soon be over).