British Library etexts

In his 1941 memoir Life For Life’s Sake, Richard Aldington fantasized that all the great works of world literature could be printed on paper so thin that an average home could contain the entire canon of major works. Finally he had to admit that the scheme would not be practical.

If he’d been alive today, he’d have been delighted to hear of the British Library’s latest project, funded by Microsoft. 65,000 works of Victorian literature have been  scanned and will be available online. Alternatively, print-on-demand copies will be available at a reasonable cost.

The Times article that explains the scheme stresses that works by Austen, Dickens and Hardy will be among the texts, but this isn’t really the big news. Those authors are easy enough to come by anyway. The real value will come from the lesser-known works by lesser-known authors.

Back in the mid-seventies,  when I first formed the ambition of studying for a Ph.D., The author who inrtigued me was  Margaret Oliphant, author of (I think) 96 novels and twice as many works of non-fiction. (If you don’t know her work, try Miss Marjoribanks – it’s terrific.) My wife and I took holidays traipsing  round the second-hand bookshops of England and Scotland, picking up copies here and there that would supplement the small but select collection in the library of Leicester University, where I first met her work.

I read thirty-odd of her novels, but never got round to properly registering for the Ph.D. then. If the B.L. scheme had been in place I’d have had no excuse for the delay, or for the trips round East Anglia hunting out obscure bookshops, or the visit to the very select apartment in Edinburgh that furnished me with an elegant copy of Sons and Daughters. Research would have been much easier, though less fun.

Victorian editions of Mrs Oliphant are now prohibitively expensive. The books that I picked up for 50p are now likelier to be priced at over fifty pounds.  These online editions will therefore meet a real need, and will encourage scholars to look beyond the conventional canon, to see the hinterland of literature behind the classic works. Up till now, conventional publishing houses have been led either by profit or by intellectual fashion in their choices of what to reprint. This has meant that since the feminist eighties there have been many welcome reprints of Victorian women novelists (including Margaret Oliphant); on the other hand, major male novelists such as Charles Reade and George Meredith have pretty well disappeared from view. The promise of 65,000 texts (more, surely, than any individual could read in a lifetime) means a selection that will have to represent writers that literary history has chosen to forget.

There is a hint in the article that the scheme will be extended to the early twentieth century. Living near Oxford for my current research, I have been very privileged to have access to the Bodleian Library, which as a copyright library has holdings of almost anything printed in Britain. I have been able to look at books that are unobtainable elsewhere (and sometimes the pages of the Bodleian copy are uncut). On the other hand, I have also profited greatly from etexts such as those supplied by Project Gutenberg If the plan is carried through, many more readers will be able to explore the kind of literature that I have enjoyed, and will able to form their own conclusions, which will doubtless be different from mine.

There is the potential for a great blossoming of literary research, away from the usual canon (Do we really need another book on Virginia Woolf?) and into the neglected byways. For a young researcher, we could be on the brink of a golden age.

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