When you are working with old books, it’s often quite easy to find information about production and distribution: authors, publishers, and printers are often noted within the volume itself, frequently alongside information about the materials used and occasionally the circumstances under which the writing took place. Sometimes booksellers are listed and other clues to circulation can be gleaned from paratexts like book plates and advertising. It is considerably more difficult to find out about reception: reading is an ephemeral, private process in comparison. Subtle trails can be left—marginalia, for example, or references to the book, usually gathered from quite diverse sources.
Perhaps the most valuable resources for those researching reception are book reviews. Reviewers are conscious of their role in elucidating the book to those who have not yet read it: as they articulate their understanding and their evaluation, they reveal priorities and assumptions that illuminate contemporary readerships. This is as true of the reviewers of the County Surveys as of any others. In a review of William Aiton’s survey of Bute, for example, published in The Farmer’s Magazine (Vol 18.71 August 1817), the unnamed author explains that for such an important and potentially useful series, the surveys have some serious flaws. He complains of the verbose and repetitive nature of the surveys in a manner that suggests the fault would be widely understood by his readers. “It seems to have been thought no part of the duty of the Reporters to confine themselves to the circumstances of the particular county on which their labours were to have been employed,” he remarks, and instead they have “wandered at large, often in controversial form, into almost every department of human knowledge” (337) This is of course precisely what makes the surveys so interesting today, but to this contemporary reader it was evidently a frustration. There were other faults too: “to some, the great length of these works, and, to others, the expense of purchasing them, may be serious objections; and the difficulty of consulting them has seldom been lessened by the addition of an index to their contents” (338) With his list of shortcomings, we get a real insight into how contemporary readers wanted to use the surveys (as manuals and reference guides) and how, in practice, they would have engaged with them (borrowing rather than buying, dipping in rather than reading from start to finish).
Reviewers are exceptional readers, however, and this also serves to marks them out from their peers. In some future posts, I’ll try to explore a few other clues that shed some light on who the ‘common readers’ of the County Surveys may have been