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Reading it Wrong: Misunderstanding in Early Eighteenth-Century Print Culture

Tuesday 5 November 2019, 4.30PM

Speaker(s): Professor Abigail Williams (University of Oxford)

Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies Research Seminar

‘Qui legit intelligat’ (Matthew 24). Or not.

Reading wrong is a creative act, and an historical reality. It is both purposeful and accidental. It is practised by those who know too much, and those who know too little. I am interested in the evidence of readers who do not echo what we think of as the meaning of a work, and in writers and readers who misinterpret the text before them. In this paper I will explore how error, confusion and misunderstanding might offer a corrective to our sense of how texts landed in their own time; to our sense of certainties. Where does the history of getting it wrong fit into the history of reading?

The early eighteenth century sees the birth of commercial print, the professional author, accessible literary criticism, the non-expert literary reader. The birth of the republic of letters as we know it, a world in which readership was both more numerous and more unknowable than ever before. It represents a seismic shift in the ways in which writing was produced and consumed – and as I shall show, that played out in a rich history of misreading. The early eighteenth century is an era of politically topical and encoded literature; works that were super-referential, densely keyed into their moment and context. Yet it was also an era of new readers, new forms of circulation. This context created a particularly acute sense of puzzlement and confusion around the meaning of books. We need to stop seeing the densely allusive and often recherché texts of the 18C as a closed circuit of communication which we have to try to tap into. The modes of irony, code, allegory, satire that flourished at this time are creative forms dependent on clear social bonds and shared values. Yet this was precisely the moment at which those shared bonds and understandings were under pressure. In this paper I aim to put the evidence of the reception of literary texts alongside the archival evidence of their readers to start to open up the lost history of misunderstanding. In examining the reading histories of texts which are neither time transcendent nor universally understood in their own time, we gain historically nuanced insights into some of the big questions of literary history: meaning-making, intention, interpretation.

Abigail Williams is Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of Oxford, and Lord White Fellow in English at St Peter’s College, Oxford. She is the author of Poetry and the Creation of a Whig Literary Culture (Oxford University Press, 2005) and The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home (Yale, 2017) and editor of Jonathan Swift’s The Journal to Stella: Letters to Esther Johnson and Rebecca Dingley, 1710-1713 (Cambridge University Press, 2013). She also led the Leverhulme-funded Digital Miscellanies Index, an online database of the contents of 1500 poetic miscellanies ( She is currently completing Reading Wrong (Princeton, 2021), a study of eighteenth century misreading. 



Location: K/G07, King's Manor

Admission: All Welcome