English Chapbook Literature, Popular Culture, and National Identity, c.1750-1832
The eight to 24-page chapbook has been somewhat neglected by historians of the ‘long’ eighteenth century, although a visit to British university collections and archives swiftly demonstrates an abundance of this source material. Printers in London, Newcastle, Nottingham and numerous other English provincial towns and cities were mass-producing chapbooks long into the nineteenth century, and their subject matter varied from abridgements of canonical works, to folk tales and song books. While definitions of the chapbook can vary, with religious or moralising literature either excluded or considered a separate genre, there remain sufficient examples of the chapbook outside of these categories to inform several fields of academic enquiry.
One such field, and the focus of my research, is British national identities.
When discussing national identity, much of the historian’s efforts are understandably directed towards dispelling myths, often those which form iconic chapters in the histories of nations. My research argues that, in the case of England, there are important elements of national myth and identity that have been neglected, or at least underestimated, by modern scholarship. Tales of folk history that remained commercially popular from the beginnings of print into the late modern period should not be dismissed lightly, as they portray a long-standing, and socially diverse, national culture. Chapbooks from the period of this study depict hard-working protagonists including cobblers and apprentices, Jack, of Jack and the Giants, and fenlander Thomas Hickathrift, as well as more familiar national figures, such as St George and King Henry VIII. This form of street literature tells of enduring folk heroes, with distinct positive qualities, and genuine widespread appeal.
There are intriguing complexities and divisions within Englishness depicted in street literature though, which my research will examine. As well as the recurrent interchangeable use of the terms England and Britain, illustrating England’s additional role as the kernel of an imperial power, there are a range of distinctive regional identities to be found within Englishness chapbook texts. Yorkshire, in particular, was increasingly the subject of songs and tales in the post-1800 literature, with fashionable London society often set in contrast to its grounded, plain-speaking heroes. Similarly, a fracturing of national identity along class lines is a noticeable trend in the chapbook, unsurprisingly given the politics of late-Georgian Britain. The emergence of chapbook songs emanating from and depicting specific working communities, most notably in the north-east, could also be identified as an early form of industrial class-consciousness expressed through popular culture.
In some respects it is the post-colonial analysis of subject nations which has also prompted the need for a re-examination of former imperial nations such as England. The use of an under-used yet far-reaching source material, street literature, is long overdue in adding to this scholarly debate.
Gervase will be presenting his work at the Festival of Postgraduate Research 17th May 2012 - view Gervase's festival poster.