The nineteenth century witnessed an explosion of printed matter in Europe, as new technologies such as the steam press and new distribution infrastructures such as the railway produced and circulated printed books in unprecedented numbers. But manuscript was not simply superseded by print. Manuscript texts circulated alongside printed matter and intersected with it in a variety of ways. Mounted in conjunction with the seminar ‘British Romanticism and the Survival of Manuscript Culture’ led by Prof Michelle Levy (Simon Fraser University) on April 3, 2009, this exhibition traces some of those interactions. Displayed together, the manuscript and printed texts in this exhibition survey a nineteenth-century media ecology in which script and print fed off each other in unexpected ways, generating new cultural possibilities through their mutual interactions.

Curated by Benjamin Barootes and Tom Mole

More about this exhibition

Further reading


Circulating in Manuscript

The prevalence of print in the early nineteenth century did not mean that it was the only means of disseminating literary works. Many writers continued to produce and circulate texts in manuscript, often among a select coterie. This practice had its benefits. It gave authors and poets the opportunity to test new material and to revise and refine it before committing it to posterity. Similarly, manuscript circulation allowed writers a level of control over the exposure and consequent reception of their works that is impossible to achieve with the wider, more public dissemination that comes with print. There were, of course, problems and complications. This section takes one case, the relationship of Coleridge’s Christabel and Byron’s Siege of Corinth, and examines the complexities of manuscript transmission. The limited access to manuscript copies meant that many ‘readers’ only heard the text read aloud by another party. This meant that the audience of a given text often had to rely on (imperfect) memory, and errors often appeared in the later reception of such texts.