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The Minerva Press: Challenging its reception as a purveyor of ‘trash’ novels of the ‘common run’

In anticipation of our forthcoming special issue on ‘The Minerva Press and the Literary Marketplace’, this post is the first in a series by Colette Davies reflecting on the role played by the firm during the Romantic era and its somewhat tarnished reputation in the following centuries—a challenge that the essays in our new issue seek to address.

Forgive me for this rather long title; I had not intended to echo the wordy titles of Minerva Press novels! Think, for example, of The Adventures Of Anthony Varnish; or, a Peep at the Manners of Society (1786) or The Subterranean Cavern; or, Memoirs of Antoinette de Montflorence (1798). As my headline suggests, the Minerva Press was once dismissed summarily by critics: Charles Lamb decried ‘the common run of Lane’s novels’ in 1826, and more than one contemporary reviewer synonymised Minerva novels with ‘trash’. [1] This critical dismissal caused a nigh-on elision of the Minerva Press in nineteenth- and twentieth-century criticism, despite the status of the press as the largest producer of new fiction in the 1790s. Yet recently, particularly in 2019–20, Romantic scholars have witnessed a notable and momentous increase of scholarly interest in the Minerva Press. Importantly, this is scholarship that no longer deems the Minerva Press unworthy of serious and focused study: an approach exemplified by the forthcoming special issue 23 of Romantic Textualities focusing on the Minerva Press.  

It was a privilege to gain a preview of the articles and introduction which make up this special edition. Overseen and edited by Christina Morin at the University of Limerick and Elizabeth Neiman at the University of Maine, these nine original and insightful essays illuminate hitherto unstudied and unwritten aspects of the Minerva Press. Each article demonstrates that the Minerva Press provides vast and rich source material which increases our understanding of the Romantic-era book trade and authorial practices.  

The Seismic Interest in the Minerva Press 

One of the questions prompted by this special issue is: ‘Why has there been such sudden critical interest in the Minerva Press?’ I believe that the idiom, ‘everyone loves an underdog’, or in this case ‘researchers love an underdog’ might partially answer why the Minerva Press has captured many scholars’ attention.  

I’m not sure that William Lane, the proprietor, would have appreciated this epithet, but it is undeniable that the Minerva Press offers Romantic scholars both extensive material with which they can really grapple and a sense of wrongful dismissal. The Minerva Press offers a challenge. There are no surviving archives of the Minerva Press; records are scattered throughout Britain, Germany and North America—as well as other places, I’m sure. This means that the narrative of the Minerva Press and its writers is obscured, opaque even, and most certainly polyphonic and complex, stimulating researchers to challenge themselves as they try to ‘work out’ the Minerva Press. This uncertainty about the Press is compounded, or amplified, by the sheer volumes of its publications and its vast number of writers, many of whom were anonymous and will never be identified.  

This speaks to another element of the Minerva Press which evokes intrigue: authorship. A number of previously anonymous Minerva authors have now been identified and this has revealed that the press enjoyed connections with now canonical authors that have sustained far more critical interest than the average Minerva author. Both William Godwin and Amelia Opie, for example, started their careers as novelists at the Minerva Press. Furthermore, the Minerva Press has links to Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen. Despite producing fiction dismissed in its time as ‘trash’ by critics, the concern was connected to writers we esteem now. Not only does this suggest we ought to reconsider our perspective of the press and uncover more of its unknown authors, but it also provides a new narrative to these more famous authors’ careers.  

Minerva and Me 

As a current PhD candidate researching the Minerva Press, I hope my work can contribute to and sustain this interest in the firm. I stumbled across Minerva during my MA studies—and am so glad I did! I was looking into Elizabeth Helme and discovered that she had published with Minerva. A quick Google search led me to Dorothy Blakey’s 1939 monograph on the Minerva Press; Blakey’s book was the only monograph published on the Press until earlier this year when Neiman’s Minerva’s Gothics was released. Blakey’s critical appraisal of the Press corroborated the eighteenth-century critics’ view that the Press provided prolific amounts of ‘trash’. For me, the gauntlet had been thrown down—I was determined to find an alternate narrative for the Minerva Press and its authors and participate in its recovery. 

I have always been interested in women writers and the purpose and act of writing. As such, my thesis has a dual focus. Firstly, it seeks to illuminate how the Minerva Press female authors were represented by others in peritextual materials such as title pages and in epitextuals like advertisements and reviews. Secondly, it investigates how the Minerva Press authors represented themselves and the act of writing through analysing relevant references to themes and others writing in the prefaces and the plots of their novels.  

My focus interacts with and is enriched by many of the articles in this edition. I was drawn to Hannah Hudson’s and Yael Shapira’s articles as they discuss the ways Minerva writers altered conventional tropes and thus identify the differences between and nuances of imitation and copying. This is a seminal distinction which interests me as it affects the literary and authorial merit accredited to Minerva Press works and writers in reviews. In this respect, Megan Peiser’s article on reviews of the Minerva Press intrigues me as it deals with a topic I am also looking at. Specifically, I am investigating reviews which feature comments on the authors and reviews which make references to imitation and copying. This is in order to gauge how accusations of copying or imitating were used to disparage Minerva Press novels and if reviewers ever perceived merit in imitative novels. Last but certainly not least, Jennie Batchelor’s article discussing comparisons between the Minerva Press and the Lady’s Magazine prompts me to consider why William Lane co-opted Classical goddesses as Minerva Press icons. What can these Classical icons and linguistic references, seen also in the Lady’s Magazine and Lackington’s Temple of the Muses, tell us about shared, or imitative, literary practices and marketing techniques? All of the articles featured in this special edition were highly enjoyable and interesting to read; they have provided me with much food for thought for my own research.

The collection of essays shortly to be published in Issue 23 of Romantic Textualities highlights the inroads scholars have made into the press and showcases its substantial output, significant number of connections to other literary enterprises, its numerous writers and their texts, and the global reach and circulation of Minerva Press texts. Together, these essays prove the new knowledge to be gained about the Romantic-era literary marketplace and its authors by studying the Minerva Press, while simultaneously correcting historical critical dismissals of the publisher. I believe scholarship will remain enthralled by the Minerva Press: its scope, output and dissemination are unfathomably vast. No one scholar will ever be able to wholly research and exhaust the research possibilities of the Minerva Press. Above all, this special issue demonstrates that only the tip of the iceberg of scholarship on the Press has been uncovered and more is yet to be discovered.


Notes

1. Charles Lamb, ‘The Sanity of True Genius’, qtd in Dorothy Blakey, The Minerva Press, 1770–1820 (London: Bibliographical Society, 1939), p. 3, and e.g. please see: Review of ‘Albina: A Novel in a Series of Letters. 1786. Lane’, in Critical Review, 62 (1786), 149. Available at: <https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=FxYFAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA149&dq=%27it+is+some+of+the+vilest+trash,+in+every+respect,+that+probably+ever+disgraced+shelves%27.&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiq2e2O8JTfAhVYUhUIHb2HBbQQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=’it%20is%20some%20of%20the%20vilest%20trash%2C%20in%20every%20respect%2C%20that%20probably%20ever%20disgraced%20shelves’.&f=false> [accessed: 10 December 2018].


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