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British Fiction, 1800–1829: A Database of Production, Circulation & Reception

Guide to Contemporary Reviews

The material included in the Contemporary Reviews section provides a remarkably extensive record of the critical reception of novels in the Romantic period. The reviews made available in the database are significant for what they tell us about the public reception of an individual title; they also reveal a great deal about the constantly evolving attitudes towards the genre itself in the period 1800–29. As novels continued to gain respect from critics and the reading public alike over the course of the late 1810s and 1820s, reviews of novels grow longer and more essayistic, and reviewers spend increasing amounts of time debating the literary status and future direction of the genre. While early nineteenth-century reviewing practices have often been discounted as ‘puffing’, it is clear from the Contemporary Reviews that critics generally treated novels with seriousness and respect.

The power of the Reviews to affect the sales and general reception of fiction can be gauged by examining the Newspaper Advertisements section of the database. Extracts from Reviews were used widely in advertisements—often to the reviewers’ chagrin, as many of the quotes were taken out of their critical context. Authors and publishers actively sought to have their works reviewed: even a negative review could generate publicity and sales by increasing public curiosity about a new publication.

The material in this section is drawn from the following periodicals: La Belle Assemblée, Critical Review, Flowers of Literature, and Monthly Review. Additionally, reviews have been gathered from the Star, Morning Chronicle, and Edinburgh Evening Courant newspapers. These periodicals have been chosen because they provide a high degree of coverage for novels over the period 1800–29, and because they represent a range of early nineteenth-century reviewing practices. The Critical and the Monthly Reviews dominated the review market until the advent of the Edinburgh (1802) and the Quarterly (1809). The underlying aim of both the Monthly and the Critical was comprehensiveness in attending to new publications: both periodicals attempted to review as many new works as possible, even if only in a brief notice.Click here to go to the top of the page. This practice marks out a significant difference between reviews established in the mid-eighteenth century, like the Monthly and the Critical, and those such as the Edinburgh and the Quarterly, which instead provided extensive essay-like reviews on a select number of publications.

La Belle Assemblée provides an example of novel reviewing in a periodical whose primary audience was women readers. La Belle Assemblée devoted a significant amount of space to fiction: this took the form of reviews, as well as the publishing of new fiction in instalments. It also published numerous biographical articles on ‘Contemporary Poets and Writers of Fiction’, many of which were on women authors such as Jane and Anna Maria Porter.

The Flowers of Literature is an example of a review that was written largely by two men, William Blagdon and Francis Provost (and, after 1804, by Blagdon alone). As such, Flowers provides a unique example of a periodical that stands on the border between an individual, anecdotal response to a work, and the corporate, impersonal voice of the larger reviews.

In all, there are 1,675 individual reviews in this section, covering a total of 1,114 novels first published in the period 1800–29. Reviews range from simple one-line notices (usually scathing), to extended reviews illustrated by a number of extracts. The most extensive reviews are those devoted to the works of Walter Scott, although authors such as Maria Edgeworth also received significant critical attention.

Often reviews simply provide a summary of the content and plot, illustrated with a number of extended quotations from the novel. Every attempt has been made to include these plot summaries and extracts, as they reveal what reviewers found most interesting about a given work: often the quotations used in reviews of Scottish and Irish novels, for example, were chosen to illustrate the unusual or humorous aspects of Irish and Scottish life. However, in the case of reviews drawn from the newspapers and La Belle Assemblée of the 1820s, full extracts have not normally been given. This is due to the frequently disproportionate length of the quoted material. In such instances, where omissions have been made, the beginning and ending of the quotation is given in square brackets using the following formulation: [Extract beginning ‘...’, and ending ‘...’, is omitted.]

Reviews occasionally covered more than one work in the same article. This practice was increasingly used by Monthly Review in the late 1820s. In the majority of such cases, the entire review has been included in order to provide users with the larger context for the reviewing of a single novel.

Both the Monthly and the Critical reviewed foreign literature, and often reviewed novels twice, once in the original language edition and again in translation. Every effort has been made to locate both reviews for inclusion in the database.

Original punctuation and spelling (such as ‘Shakspeare’ and ‘Scotish’) has been retained in the entries; the exception to this is quotation marks, the usage of which varied widely between reviews and within individual reviews themselves. The policy has been to use single quotation marks in the first instance, and double quotation marks within single.

The ‘Notes’ field includes information about price, format, and publisher (where available). If there are no ‘Notes’ attached to a given entry, it can be assumed that the review did not provide such information.

   
 © 2004 Project Director: Professor Peter Garside;
 Research Associates: Dr Jacqueline Belanger, Dr Sharon Ragaz;
 Database/Website Developer: Dr Anthony Mandal
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