Authorizing Readers

John O’Brien

University of Virginia

In 1740, a little-known playwright named Joseph Dorman published Sir Roger de Coverly, or the Merry Christmas, a two-act afterpiece featuring as its central figure the country squire made famous in the pages of the Spectator a generation earlier. Dorman’s entertainment picks up a thread left untied in Addison and Steele’s journal, showing the good squire welcoming Mr. Spectator and Will Wimble, another member of the Spectator Club, to Coverly Hall. There, the men watch a play-within-the-play, an entertainment staged for the season by Sir Roger’s tenants, a fairly mild satire on contemporary character types (a fishmonger’s wife addicted to card games, a hack writer who believes himself to be a great poet). Collectively, the frame play and the entertainment contained within it do not so much constitute an argument as offer an impression of Sir Roger as a companionable host, and of the genial pleasures of country life. By extending Sir Roger’s career beyond the pages of The Spectator, Dorman was engaging in a common practice. As David Brewer argues in The Afterlife of Character, 1726–1825 (University of Pennsylvania, 2005) examples of what he calls “character migration,”—where characters originating in one work spawned sequels, continuations, and farther adventures—proliferated in the eighteenth century, as dramatists, novelists, and readers in general freely poached fictional characters and put them to uses of their own. And by making a theme of sociability, Dorman was in effect expressing the structure of feeling that permeates Brewer’s argument, which recaptures the sense of a collective practice of reading, one where stories and characters are imagined as the shared property of a community of engaged readers. Brewer’s book is an exemplary study of a now-obsolete way of thinking about and using texts and characters, one that gives pride of place to readers rather than authors, to collectivities over individuals. It invites us to envision eighteenth-century texts as being consumed by readers less impressed by their isolation as by their membership in a community that claimed possession of literary characters and situations, and that authorized itself to imagine their lives independent of the physical books in which they had begun their lives. Here, the construction of the literary is a two-way street, with readers cast as full participants. Indeed, Brewer demonstrates how readers collectively were able to claim a kind of authority over characters that in the first instance exceeded that of authors themselves. Together, readers constructed what Brewer calls, following Franco Moretti, a “social canon” of works and characters that emerged and was sustained over generations, its existence localized more in the collective imagination than in any anthology or syllabus determined by scholars or critics.

By presenting what he terms a “microhistory” of reading practices, one that tries to determine what readers did with characters, Brewer ingeniously accounts for something that many readers of eighteenth-century British literature have noticed without thinking much about—the way that a cast of characters from drama and fiction far exceeded the texts in which they first appeared, in some cases becoming almost mythological figures: Sir Roger, of course, but also Robinson Crusoe, Lemuel Gulliver, Falstaff, Abraham Adams, Pamela, Tristram Shandy, and others who appeared in texts, plays, and images that their original authors could not have foreseen. Such extension, constituting what Brewer terms “imaginative expansion,” articulates texts as open, rather than closed systems, and as such permits literature to embrace other systems, most notably the law. Brewer argues that eighteenth-century readers analogized literature to a form of collectively-held property. He depicts what he aptly describes as a “textual commons,” a way of thinking about imaginative literature as a field populated with characters who belong to no one in particular. They therefore become a form of public property, available to everyone at once, and therefore free to be appropriated by readers with their own agendas and interests. Crucially, the textual “commons” that Brewer describes is a space of plenitude rather than a domain of scarcity, a place where new stories, new adventures, might be generated by any member of the community, not just the originating author.

The story that Brewer tells in effect turns the usual triumphalist narrative of the emergence of the author on its head. Here, the growing authority of the writer who originated notable literary characters is construed as a kind of fall, the closure of a realm of plenitude into a culture where authors jealously guard their control over their own characters. When authors like Richardson and Sterne arrive in this book, they appear as canny co-opters of the power that readers had asserted over literature, carefully claiming the propriety right of an individual over property that had by tradition been held in common. Brewer traces an incremental process, using a number of case studies to demonstrate how authors gradually but firmly asserted their control over the lives and fates of the characters they invented. A fascinating chapter on Samuel Richardson argues persuasively that Richardson’s well-known use of a coterie of readers who functioned as consultants on his major works was a way to co-opt the energies of the reading public. Richardson’s epistolary fictions would seem to lend themselves to extension, as they present themselves in the first instance as selection from a much larger archive of correspondence, more of which could be brought to the light of day—or, more to the point, created, either by Richardson himself or by others. And indeed Pamela in particular spawned sequels—paintings, dramatic productions, waxworks, an opera, parodies—such that Richardson denounced John Kelly’s “spurious Continuation” Pamela’s Conduct in High Life, but then produced a sequel of his own that represented the full—and final—selection from the larger cache of correspondence.

The lesson Richardson seems to have taken from his experience with Pamela was that he had no choice but to consider the desires of the reading public, but he had a strong proprietary interest to do so in such a way as to maintain control over his own characters. Thus his deployment of what Brewer terms a “coterie public,” the creation of a middle space that enabled a selected group of readers to feel that they were participants in the process. Richardson’s coterie public overlapped with, but differed from, the well-known coterie, consisting largely of women, with which Richardson surrounded himself. Rather, the coterie public was virtual rather than embodied, its members sharing an interest in Richardson and his creations but never meeting face to face. Richardson was himself the intermediary here, advancing his status as the definitive editor of Pamela’s correspondence by serving as the embodied focus of the coterie’s attentions. That Richardson tended to ignore any advice given to him by members of this coterie only underscores how the net effect of this strategy was to enhance rather than to diminish his importance.

If Richardson could be said to have invented a virtual coterie in order to assert the claims of the author, Laurence Sterne, Brewer suggests, fashioned the readership of Tristram Shandy into a virtual “club,” a community of like-minded—or, better, like-hearted readers—whose membership invitations came from Sterne himself. Brewer sees Sterne as cannily exploiting his readers’ desires to appropriate literary works for themselves by providing openings for readers to participate in the story, in particular where Tristram calls on the reader to imagine a character or scene in his or her mind’s-eye. Brewer’s argument about the importance of the textual commons to early eighteenth-century readers enables us, however, to see this move less as a sign of Sterne’s generosity but rather of its opposite; seeming to meet the reader half way, Sterne was actually asserting his control over the degree of involvement with the text that readers could have. To join Sterne’s club, you had to agree to play the game by his rules. In a short coda to his study, Brewer extends his story to Sir Walter Scott, the Author of Waverly, who built on the work of Richardson and Sterne to frame the author as a kind of “monarch,” ruling over a kingdom of readers who had to bow to his wisdom and authority. No one was able to challenge Scott’s right over his own characters, who, readers knew, were wholly dependent on Scott himself and who, once their utility is exhausted in any particular story, can be discarded for a new set of characters in the next of the author’s novels. Scott’s monarchical author, Brewer argues, remained the model for authorship throughout the nineteenth century and still rules what, following the metaphors that Brewer has used throughout, we can think of as the realm of literature today.

Brewer’s book is, as its subject would seem to demand, friendly to its readers—clearly argued and engagingly written. One of the strengths of Brewer’s analysis is the way that he generates useful terms—“character migration,” “textual commons”—that seem themselves well suited to application beyond the pages of this study. And perhaps yet another sign of the strength of The Afterlife of Character is that it leaves its readers wanting, well, more. A fuller discussion of Scott, for example, would both follow through on the promise of the subtitle (the main argument of the book ends with Sterne in the 1760s) and provide a more detailed picture of the Modern Author that Scott established and that Austen and Dickens, among others, would go on to exploit. And Brewer has rather less to say than one might expect about the considerable output of Eliza Haywood, who produced scores of interesting characters, few if any of whom found themselves appropriated in the way that Crusoe or Gulliver would. But in redirecting our attention from a top-down model, where authors invent characters for a docile reading public, to a more dialogical, indeed contestatory model, where readers assert their rank and privilege and authors had to struggle for ascendancy over their own creations, Brewer has provided a new and valuable way of imagining eighteenth-century literary culture.