Professor Bill Bell, ‘The Mahout on the Elephant: John Murray’s Paratexts’

The second instalment in this term’s series of seminars was given by Dr Bill Bell, Professor of Bibliography at the University of Cardiff and founder of the CHB. His talk centred on the John Murray Archive, which houses a rich repository of materials relating to the celebrated publisher. Founded in 1768, the Murray publishing house was run by seven generations of publishers, all named John Murray, until 2002 when John Murray VII announced a voluntary takeover by Hodder Headline. Professor Bell has a comprehensive study forthcoming on John Murray, Travels into Print: Exploration, Writing, and Publishing with John Murray, 1773-1859; in this seminar, he focused specifically on paratexts in books published under the proprietorship of John Murray I, John Murray II and John Murray III.

The paratext is a textual embellishment, like the name of the author, a title, or illustrations. In their seminal work on the topic, Gérard Genette and Philippe Lejeune insist that these paratextual elements are far from being merely supplementary fringes. They argue that paratexts play crucial hermeneutic, performative, and ontological roles in that they affect the text’s meaning, effect, and position in the world: they “surround and extend the text, ultimately ensuring its presence in the world.” The paratext is not merely an apparatus surrounding a discourse, then; paratexts effectively anchor the claims to truth made by a discourse. As such, while text and paratext appear as separate and distinct elements, the former absolutely requires the latter for interpretation: as Genette says, “the text without its paratext is sometimes like an elephant without a mahout, a power disabled.”

While Bell broadly agrees with this conceptualisation of the paratext, he does add a crucial dimension. Genette and Lejeune focus on the paratext as a space in which the relation between reader, author, and text is foregrounded, but, he argues, they largely fail to take into account the importance of the publisher. The paratext comes into being through negotiations between publishers and authors, undertaken with a view to the market of readers. As a result, the paratext may change significantly when economic conditions change. For instance, the democratisation of the book market in the early nineteenth century is reflected in an increased production of cheaper, less expensively illustrated books.

In the course of his archival research, Bell has compiled an extensive inventory of paratextual elements in books published by John Murray from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. He divides these paratexts into three broad categories: illusrations, indications of the author’s name, and front matter, which includes title pages and frontispiece portraits. In his analysis of each of these paratextual instances, Bell reveals the complex negotiations that accompany their very conscious construction, as well as the changes that result from changes in prevailing tastes, market conditions, or the proprietorship of the publishing house.

Bell’s close examination of John Murray’s paratexts reveals that their purpose is twofold. First, the publisher uses the paratext to enhance the authority of the texts he publishes. Second, and more importantly, he consistently attempts to play down the commercial and industrial nature of eighteenth and nineteenth-century publishing by framing the text as a form of direct mediation, as an earnest, honest, and, above all, unfiltered address to the reader. In John Murray’s hands, the paratext appears as a deeply paradoxical thing, then: its existence disproves its argument.

Professor Bill Bell is Professor of Bibliography at the University of Cardiff, and the founder of the Centre for the History of the Book.

Report by Dr Brecht de Groote, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh.

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