Monday, May 9, 2011

The friends of liberty

Joseph Hunter, a little remembered Yorkshire antiquarian, died 150 years ago today. He started to keep a diary with some determination - perhaps to follow the example of Ralph Thoresby, another antiquarian who lived a century earlier - but doesn’t seem to have continued keeping it for long. Nevertheless, it provides some illuminating detail for those who study the history of reading.

Hunter was born in 1783 in Sheffield, the son of a cutler. Educated at Attercliffe, he later studied theology at New College in York, becoming a Presbyterian minister in Bath in 1809. He married Mary, daughter of Francis Hayward, and they had six children, of whom three sons and a daughter survived Hunter himself. A long-term interest in antiquarian studies led him to be appointed, in 1833, a sub-commissioner of the Records Commission to London. Five years later, he became an Assistant Keeper of the Public Records. He wrote much on history and archaeology.

After his death - on 9 May 1861 - a large number of his manuscripts became the property of the British Museum, the most important of which is a volume of some 650 pages completely filled with pedigrees of families based in Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire. Wikipedia and the website of St Mary’s Parish Church, Ecclesfield, have short biographies.

Early on in his life, when only 23, Hunter decided to become a diarist, but he left behind less than a year’s worth of entries. Arthur Ponsonby, author of English Diaries, describes Hunter’s diary thus:

‘He notes the lectures he attends, the people with whom he has conversations and to whom he writes letters, sermons he hears, the establishment of ‘a society of literary conversations’ where they have a debate on a universal language; an attack of a severe cold (‘believe t’is epedemic and what is called influenza’) a tea-party where the conversation is ‘merest chit chat and scandal,’ etc. It would almost seem as if he were settling down to be a diarist when he begins describing people, for instance George Dyer, ‘a strange quizz, such a rough head of hair was never seen, but an entertaining fellow, takes snuff to wean himself from smoking.’ But after recording immense lists of books he is reading he breaks into a sort of shorthand just to give the division of the day, every hour of which is occupied in the study of Greek, Hebrew, mathematics, etc. and on September 20 he leaves off for good.’

Stephen Colclough, however, in his essay entitled Readers: Books and Biography contained within A companion to The History of the book edited by Simon Eliot and Jonathon Rose (published by Blackwell in 2007) makes good use of Hunter’s diary. Here are several paragraphs from his essay (available at Googlebooks).

‘. . . Institutions of reading (such as subscription libraries) helped to shape individual reading practices by encouraging the public discussion of texts. Several readers who were members of such institutions left records of their readings. The diaries of one such reader, Joseph Hunter, reveal that it was possible for a member of such an institution to interpret text in ways that were fundamentally opposed to the rules that governed their reading community.

During the late 1790s, Hunter was a member of the Surrey Street Library in Sheffield, Yorkshire. Surrey Street was a subscription library owned by its members. Members were charged an annual fee of one guinea, and both they and the books that they ordered had to pass the scrutiny of the library committee to be admitted. As Hunter records, he made frequent trips to the library to borrow a wide range of texts, including novels and magazines. The Analytical Review was a particular favourite, and he made notes on its contents and read texts, such as Robinson’s The Causes and Consequences of English Wars (1798), reviewed in its pages. However, in the autumn of 1798 the committee decided to remove many of the texts associated with the contemporary radical movement from its shelves. As Hunter noted on October 31, 1798: ‘[I] brought the 2nd number of the Anti-Jacobin Review & Magazine, which is got into the Surry Street Library instead of the Analytical which they have turned out. It is a most virulent attack upon all the friends of liberty or jacobins, as they are pleased to stile them; it is ornamented with caricature prints’.

Conservative writers viewed the Analytical as an important source of opposition to the war that Britain was fighting against France in the 1790s. . . The library committee may well have excluded the Analytical because it wanted to disassociate itself from opposition to the war against France, but the effect on Hunter was to make him aware of his own position as a member of an audience that was under attack. He is referring to himself as one of the ‘the friends of liberty’ in this passage from the diary, and it is from this position that he completed an oppositional, or resisting, reading of the contents of the Anti-Jacobin.

As this example suggest, Hunter’s diaries provide an important account of both the range of his reading (which included everything from ephemera to novels) and of the variety of strategies that he used to make sense of the texts. He even noted the presence of posters for political meetings in the streets and that he had seen men reading seditious periodicals at work. Such autobiographical documents are an important source of information about how texts were used. They provide vital evidence about reading as an everyday practice (sometimes passive, sometimes, as in his reading of the Anti-Jacobin, resisting) that cannot be recovered from inert sources such as publisher’s records. Hunter’s diary records that he was exceptionally well read in contemporary texts, but he was also exposed to older texts which he borrowed from his guardian or bought second-hand.’

Finally, it is also worth noting that Hunter edited and prepared for publication the diaries of Ralph Thoresby, another northern antiquarian who was born more than century earlier than himself. (See The Diary Junction for details.)

No comments: