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Laura Blair (QMUL): “Brought from darkness into marvellous light”: Religious writing and the ‘captive audience’ of British lunatic asylums.

With public funds being utilised for essential aspects of the management of lunatic asylums, staff interested in their patients’ intellectual wellbeing often found themselves with a limited library budget. These funds needed to stretch as far as possible, for as many patients as possible, and so doctors and chaplains resorted to the most penny-pinching means available. Groups such as the Religious Tract Society took advantage of the lunatic asylum’s need for books to offer bulk deals too good for the asylum management to turn down – or even simply donated their work. As they had targeted other ‘captive audiences’ such as the “soldier […] in his barracks; the prisoner in his cell, the afflicted in the hospital, the indigent in the poorhouse & the coast-guard at his lonely station,” these groups sought to provide for the lunatic in the asylum. In the asylum population, those promoting religious writing found an audience who often had little choice about the books on their shelves. What did they offer, and what were their aims in involving themselves with the patient library?

Laura Blair is a PhD candidate in History at Queen Mary, University of London. Her Wellcome Trust-funded research project examines the role of reading within the therapeutic regime of the nineteenth-century lunatic asylum. She is currently on Secondment to the Museum of the Home in East London, where she is working with the Museum’s collection of books relating to health and the home.


Charley Matthews (University of Edinburgh): “I feel the mind enlarging itself while reading”: Anne Lister, reading, and genderqueer knowledge


As Feminist book historian Kate Ozment recently pointed out, Western practices of book history originate from circles of wealthy, white, male book collectors in the nineteenth century, producing a set of scholarly values that prizes the expensive and well-preserved codex, traceable provenance, and stable (male) authorship. This set of values has recently been dubbed "biblionormativity" by historian of the trans book Kadin Henningsen. This biblionormative paradigm risks excluding more marginalised people from book histories, as disenfranchised groups are more likely to interact with printed materials in ways that are ephemeral, collaborative, clandestine, and improvised. Queer people are one group that has long produced extra-institutional printed knowledge and interacted with textual material via queer critical reading practices. However, because of historical archival biases, evidence of queer reading prior to the twentieth century is assumed to be difficult to recover. This paper will introduce how one queer nineteenth-century landowner, Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, creatively read and used books and periodicals to produce their own repository of genderqueer knowledge. Through this case study, I suggest that archival work can be combined with quantitative digital methods to produce queer book histories.


Charley Matthews is a PhD student in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Their AHRC-funded thesis aims to recover the reading practices of queer women and gender-nonconforming people in nineteenth-century Britain. They have previously spoken at conferences run by SHARP, by the USTC at the University of St Andrews, and by the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh. Their research interests also include digital humanities, publishing history, narratology, and the novel.




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