Once upon a time, the story goes, there was a mysterious tribe called the New Critics who believed that there was something outside the text. Not only was there something outside the text, almost everything that was was outside the text, their particular object of devotion. One cannot serve two masters; from the text emanated all truth, but from outside the text illusion, with its distractions and deceptions, constantly threatened the text’s divine incarnation, the Work.

And then one day, a boy named Jackie was born.

Okay, enough. There is nothing outside the text, we get it. But what does that mean? For most of us in our tribe , the critique of positivist inquiry merely manifests itself in a common-sense credo that a text must be studied alongside its context, and this context can be understood in a bunch of different ways. It’s something I believe in, strongly, and it’s why I chose to read twenty-two different British periodicals that were published in 1851. This was the year of the Great Exhibition, and I would learn about its context. And yet, daunting as this task has been given the time my procrastination had left me with, it’s only a tiny, tiny tranche of the Mid-Victorian periodical press which, to my mind, offered the best access point to the Context of those Mid-Victorian Texts I so love to hate to love.

I’ve undoubtedly learned a lot of contextual stuff, like the fight to stop the duties excised on paper, advertising, newspapers, and windows; like the overwhelming optimism of the period; like the fascination with how things were put together and with the less tangible workings of mesmerism/electro-biology/animal magnetism/the od force; like the pervasiveness of poetic utterance; like the murmurs from America of Bloomerism and Female Emancipation; like the recent publication of a newly revised edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey with a preface by Currer Bell, authoress of Jane Eyre, relating the deaths of her sisters “Ellis” and “Acton”; like the tendency of writers to pepper their prose with pedantic displays of parallel structure.

What’s been most interesting, though, is how it’s problematized my idea of what a context is. If I started out seeking to find out more about the content of this grand context, I’ve ended up wondering more about the context of this context. Everything that I just listed is content: it’s text. There is nothing outside the text. If the context is not outside the text, it would make sense that the context too would be text. What if, though, we thought about context as something not necessarily outside the text, but not text at all? By this, I don’t mean social dispositions, or structures of feeling, or things in the air, but something quite concrete, like the price of a periodical, or its circulation, or its mode of circulation (at railway stalls, at coffeehouses, at libraries, at reading clubs), or its profit margin, or the paratexts left out at the binding stage (usually containing advertisements which are incredibly helpful in thinking about target demographics).

I mean, given a bunch of text, I might be able to infer a target readership based on certain cues, but if I knew it sold for three half-pennies once a week, or cost two shillings once a month, that context could very well give me more information than the actual content. And then, what difference does it make if each number (issue) has the price listed on the front page, or if the price is nowhere to be found. I’m particularly frustrated/intrigued by The People’s and Howitt’s Journal, a short-lived weekly periodical targeting pro-peace, anti-slavery, working-class or working-class-positive readers. In the microfilm of the bound volume, the price is not listed. In fact, it’s not even clear where one number starts and the other begins. Was this how it was sold? Is the provenance of the bound volume different from the individual numbers? I know that periodicals often came in wrappers that were discarded in the binding process.

Peter D. MacDonald in the Jan 2006 PMLA pointed out that GCS’s endlessly repeated translation of “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” is “clumsy,” since it misses the literal meaning of hors-texte, the non-paginated plates with illustrations on them which are inserted into books. The hors-texte is part of the book–a very marketable part of the book no matter what century you’re in–but, quite literally, it doesn’t count. And it’s an expensive part of the book. At MLA, I ordered Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian Glassworlds, which won the big prize–big up for Victorianists!–it was OUP-pricy, but hey, I thought to myself, lots of illustrations! I wonder if it’s worth thinking about bringing back the hors-texte, in particular the context that is material and/or economic, as something that’s not part of the text or content as we usually define it, but that isn’t part of the context which we usually think of in discursive or semantic terms.

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