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Dr Alexander Bubb and the Victorian Reader

18 May 2018 A few months back Dr Alexander Bubb was understandably annoyed, on opening a book he had purchased from an online antiquarian bookseller, to find that he had been tricked by a false description – but he never returned the book, as it turned out to be packed with fascinating annotations that gave him fresh insights into the world of the Victorian reader. The serendipitous find fuelled Dr Bubb’s purchase of antiquarian books and he has continued to build his own ‘Victorian Bookshelf’ during his year as a Trinity Long Room Hub Marie Sklodowska-Curie Co-Fund Fellow.

The book in question had been presented online as belonging to a well-known nurse in the First World War: Winifred Carruthers, known as ‘Australia’s Florence Nightingale’. It was immediately evident to Dr Bubb that it had belonged to another, more obscure Winifred Carruthers who lived in Ontario, Canada. Her beautifully-illustrated edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was inscribed as a gift from her fiancé and, like many Victorian general readers, she had carefully annotated individual quatrains, comparing the text with other translated versions in what Dr Bubb describes as ‘a scrupulous hand’.

Winifred’s book is a typical example of Dr Bubb’s research focus: the many translations of the global literary canon aimed at the general Victorian reader, some of which became bestsellers and remained popular into the early years of the twentieth century. He is ‘trying to bring to life - to recover - a substantial subset of Victorian reading culture which has now mostly been forgotten. Trying to determine what motivated the translators or rather paraphrasers who projected these popular translations, the strategies they adopted to make these translations accessible and appealing to a general reader – and what that general reader got out of them.’

Dr Bubb is, then, investigating the phenomenon of Victorian global literature translations from both sides: the translators and publishers who produced them and the general readers whose appetite for these books drove the market. He began work on this area during his three years as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Kings’ College, London and came to Trinity with a clear idea of how to clarify all his remaining research questions and write a book, the working title of which is ‘Building the Victorian Global Bookshelf – popular translations of Oriental classics for Victorian readers’.

Research trips in recent months to Australia, Scotland and the US have helped Dr Bubb to build an understanding of how the market for these translations developed and grew. In the early nineteenth century, English translations of global literature were mostly aimed at those engaged in the British imperial venture: officials of the East India Company, or others travelling in the military service or as missionaries.

As Victorian curiosity about the wider imperial dominions grew, translations aimed at a more general reader began to appear, but books were still relatively expensive and the earlier editions did not find a wide readership: for instance The Rose Garden of Persia, an 1845 anthology edited by Louisa Costello (who was, says Dr Bubb ‘the impecunious daughter of an Irish army officer who was obliged to support herself by her pen’), although produced by a mainstream publisher did not sell very well. As Dr Bubb explains ‘it is quite expensive...there is not yet a wide market and the publishing mechanisms are not yet in place to disseminate this kind of book.’

A research trip to the National Library of Scotland to explore the John Murray Archive yielded valuable detail on how the landscape shifted in the subsequent years. John Murray was the oldest independent family-run publishing house in the world when it was sold in 2002. Seven generations of meticulous and carefully-archived recordkeeping include a year-by-year picture of how these Victorian translations were produced, priced and sold. Fifty years after Costello’s book struggled to sell, John Murray was producing inexpensive (one- or two-shilling) translations of classics from a variety of languages in a popular series called ‘The Wisdom of the East’.

Growing curiosity about other global cultures and the accessibility of these translations drove the market, with the result that most of the canonical poetry and fiction, philosophy and scripture in Persian, Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese and other Asian languages was translated into English and most late-Victorian readers had at least a smattering of these translations among their bookshelves. Many, like Winifred Carruthers, became very familiar with certain texts and collected different translations, annotating and cross-referencing their copies. Today, these annotations often result in affordable prices even for Victorian books, since many purchasers prefer pristine copies, but for Dr Bubb the personal annotations provide him with reliable data as well as insight into how Victorian readers enjoyed these texts in different ways:

‘Annotating is not a homogeneous practice, people are annotating for different reasons. Maybe gathering notes for a book they’re writing… or they’re annotating for their friends to whom they will pass on the book. But most of the books in my collection, it’s not this kind of strategic annotation, it’s mostly just as an aide-memoire, thoughts, comments, little private jokes, sometimes links to other books they’ve read.’

‘The Victorian Global Bookshelf’ was the name of the well-attended lecture and workshop given by Dr Bubb in April at the Trinity Long Room Hub and the TCD Library. Stories of the men and women who produced these translations and their publishers and how their books were edited, translated, bound, illustrated and priced to appeal to general readers, gave a fascinating glimpse into the world of Victorian publishing. And in the workshop, personal copies owned and annotated by Victorian readers brought to life how these books were read and used by their first owners.

In his remaining months at Trinity Long Room Hub, Dr Bubb will continue work on his forthcoming book. Of his time at the Hub, Dr Bubb comments: ‘I’ve been really impressed by how the Hub functions as a research institute: it combines the ideal qualities of having a strong community focus and a very active research environment. It’s a place where people are coming from different parts of the world, their trajectories are intersecting, there are always new faces around the building and new people to talk to. The really crucial thing, I think, is that the PhD students have their space on the top floor, they’re really the engine of the building, and there’s always a living community present in the building.’

Dr Bubb's Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund Fellowship for 2017-18 is in collaboration with the Trinity College School of English and the Manuscript, Book and Print Cultures research theme.

Cofunded by the Horizon 2020 Marie Sklowdowska-Curie Actions, this fellowship scheme builds on the Trinity Long Room Hub’s existing Visiting Research Fellowship programme which has hosted over 140 fellows from 25 countries to date. The call for 2019-2020 Fellowships will be launched in August 2018.

More information on forthcoming events at Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute.

Contact: Niamh O'Flynn, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | | 01 896 3895

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