"Wedded to Books": Bibliomania and the Romantic Essayists

In this paper the "bibliomaniacs"—the blue-blooded, well-heeled book collectors who scandalized and beguiled early nineteenth-century Britain with their acquisitiveness and possessiveness—prove to be key figures for contemporary scholars' histories of the literary canon and of the notion of the literary heritage. The annals of Romantic-period bibliomania can, Lynch proposes, help us understand how those histories might be rewritten, as chapters in the history of intimacy. The bibliomaniac's enthusiasm for rare books and, more generally, for book-objects rather than the texts they housed, assisted importantly in the processes that installed "literature" within the psychic territory of people's intimate lives. To support this proposition, Lynch looks at how the bibliomaniacs' materialistic book-love haunts the pages, as it does the lives, of the Romantic essayists—Leigh Hunt, Thomas De Quincey, and Charles Lamb specifically—who appear in her paper as the first professional "lovers" of literature. In an age when ideas of the literary canon had come to be articulated with new notions of a shared national culture that was every Briton's birthright, the bibliomaniac offered the Romantic essayist lessons in how to reprivatize the stuff of the public domain. Even as the essayists chastise the plutocratic book glutton for the irrefragable materialism that makes him a mere proprietor of books rather than a reader of texts, they deliver their own commentary on canonicity's incarnation and on the possessibility that helps render a canon loveable.