Introducing Dr Carly Watson

Carly Watson’s great interest is the eighteenth century. ‘It’s a real point of transition between the premodern and the modern age,’ she says. ‘It’s the last century in which virtually everything is done by hand.’

Dr Watson, who joined the Department in the summer as a Departmental Lecturer in Literature and Arts, has worked as a lecturer in the English faculty since 2017, after a period as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research project involved completing the Digital Miscellanies Index, an online database that records the contents of over 1,750 verse collections published between 1557 and 1800.

Her specialism is not so much the analysis of texts, but the shape and form of books themselves.

Dr Watson’s PhD from the University of Birmingham involved the study of a collection of books donated to Winchester College in the eighteenth century. It’s a period she feels is ‘a little bit of a forgotten century in the public consciousness. It doesn’t get as much attention as the seventeenth century or the Victorian era, but there are lots of ways in which eighteenth century developments and innovations affect us today.’

From handmade processes to mechanisation

The first books we would recognise as novels, Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726), were published using handmade processes, Dr Watson explains. They could sell only a fraction of the copies that novels would sell a century later – and yet, Dr Watson points out, they’ve survived and are still read today. By the nineteenth century, all that had changed, as mechanisation was gradually introduced.

‘There are lots of processes involved in the production of books, and some of them are mechanised earlier than others. Paper-making machines start to be used in the very early part of the nineteenth century and so it becomes possible to produce paper in much larger quantities and much larger sheets, but it’s not really until the 1830s or 1840s that book printing is mechanised, so there are these time lags.’

The miscellany

Her current research topic, and the subject of a forthcoming book, is the miscellany. Due to be published in July, Miscellanies, Poetry, and Authorship, 1680-1800, looks at the popularity of the form in the eighteenth century.

While miscellanies tend to be thought of as precursors of anthologies – collections of poems by different authors – when the term first entered literary culture, there were a number of poets publishing their own work using titles like Miscellanies or Miscellany Poems. It was a term that indicated variety, says Watson.

‘If you were buying a book called A Miscellany of Poems in 1720, say, you would expect poems on a variety of subjects, so you might expect love poems, epitaphs in verse, comic poems, satires, or poems in a variety of forms: verse letters, songs, ballads.’ 

From Pope to provincial cities

For authors, the term ‘miscellany’ was a handy catch-all.

‘If you were an author publishing a collection with a title like The Works of So and So, that meant you were presenting a definitive collection of your works, perhaps with an eye to posterity, whereas if you published something called A Miscellany of Poems, or Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, then that is signalling, “Here are some things I’ve written from time to time over the years, they don’t necessarily add up to a coherent oeuvre and I haven’t necessarily tried to put them in any kind of order.”’

There was some snobbery about the form. Pope apparently claimed that he was proud to say he had never published a miscellany, when in fact The Rape of the Lock had first appeared in a successful book called Miscellaneous Poems and Translations – and he later went on to publish other miscellanies with his friend Jonathan Swift.  

As the century wore on, more and more female poets began to publish miscellanies. At the same time, miscellanies began to be published outside London, with an eye to a local audience – actors, for example, who had worked in provincial cities like Newcastle would publish collections of poems for people who had seen them at the theatre.

Having spent so much time researching miscellanies, does Dr Watson have a favourite?

She opts for The Book of Fun, a collection of mostly seventeenth-century poems, including some by Rochester, published in 1759, which she sees as evidence that ‘people were still enjoying this late seventeenth-century literature in the middle of the eighteenth century and it didn’t necessarily matter to those people who wrote it.’

She also has a particular fondness for an author called Richardson Pack, a former soldier who published a series of miscellanies in the 1710s and 1720s. From an essay he published, it was clear that Pack had enjoyed poems by Dryden, from which he then borrowed phrases. ‘He’s a very interesting case study of someone who clearly really enjoyed reading miscellanies and then had a go at writing that kind of poetry himself.’

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Published 6 February 2020