Private Vs. Public Space and the Book

I like what Stauffer says about books being artifacts of private and public history, exchange, and encounter. In particular, I find the question of private and public space, as they relate to the book-as-artifact, very interesting.

For example, Stauffer mentions, in the Atlantic article, a women who wrote a eulogy for her daughter in an edition of Felicia Hemans’ poems:

“Stauffer gives a poignant example. A woman named Ellen received a book by the sentimental poet Felicia Hemans. Years later, her seven-year-old daughter died, and she adapted lines from Hemans to create a memorial¬†inside the book. Mary, Mary, Mary.”

For me, an interesting question this brings up is: To what extent could we consider this a private act of mourning, considering that it was written in the pages of a book, a publicly inflected item? Moreover, what expressions of grief are allowed in the space of the book that are perhaps disallowed elsewhere, if we take the 19th century’s strictures on mourning into account? Is the sentimental book a vehicle for a private-public hybridization of mourning that would not be possible in other spaces and contexts? If so, the book-as-space-for-mourning serves social functions that we have yet to fully ascertain.

4 thoughts on “Private Vs. Public Space and the Book

  1. Catherine Engh

    Hi Austen.
    It does seem like the space of the page, in the example of the Felicia Hemans book of poems for instance, exists somewhere between the private and public spheres. My first instinct is to think of the margins of published works as more private than public. But, of course, the 19th century books of interest to Booktraces are now publicly available–and becoming less so–in libraries. So the question of private/public is, as you suggest, not simple; it seems like time plays a role in making private books public.
    I don’t know much about 19th century strictures on mourning, but I think that the question about what sort of constraints were placed on public expression in the period–and who was most constrained–is an important one. I noticed that many of the examples of marginalia recovered by Booktraces was left by women–the lament for a dead child in ‘The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans,’ the needle and thread in ‘The Letters of Hannah More to Zachary Macauley’ . I couldn’t help but think of the space of the margins as a kind of metaphor (this is a bit reductive, I know) for the exclusion of these women–the work they did, the children they raised–from the public sphere and the historical record. As you say, it’s as if these margins were a space for self-expression that may have been disallowed–or allowed but stigmatized–elsewhere.
    It seems like Booktraces is a massive undertaking, but I’d like to support the project if I ever have the time!

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