18th Century Periodicals and the Digital Realm: A Research Assistant’s Perspective

No part of modern Literature seems to us as rich and fertile as the Novel”: this passionate judgement opens up the long review of Elizabeth Inchbald’s 1791 novel, A Simple Story, appeared on the Venetian periodical Nuovo Giornale Enciclopedico in January 1795. Significantly enough, this article is one of the earliest examples of a literary review as such, it is a judgement on a literary genre that was then in its earliest stages of life, and was penned by Elisabetta Caminer Turra — writer, editor, publisher, translator, and the first female journalist in Italy. As I started working as a Graduate Research Assistant for the DH project Transcultural Journalism in the Long Eighteenth Century, I have begun to discover the fascinating complexities of this reality where the novel as a genre, the review, and the roles of author, translator and reviewer were just beginning to shape themselves into what we know them for. Going through the material that my supervisor, Prof. Sandra Parmegiani, has been collecting through the years in archives and libraries, I have had a chance to read what Silvio Pellico had to say about Byron’s The Corsair; to trace the direct connection between an Italian review of a British novel and its source, copied word for word from a French journal; to look in vain for the original titles of works now lost forever; or to find them translated and reworked into completely different novels. All this material, in the form of notes, photographs and bibliographies, is the record of a complex and still largely invisible network along which novels, their translations, and their reviews travelled in 18th century Europe: and bringing it to light in a way that can effectively reflect its interrelated structure is precisely the aim of the Transcultural Journalism digital project, and of my work as a Research Assistant.

My main task so far has been the population of a relational database created for the project, by integrating entries with bibliographic information, photographic reproductions, transcriptions, translations, and annotations. Each entry within the database, in fact, refers to a different review, announcement, or mention of a British novel on the pages of an Italian periodical. All of them contain the bibliographic information on the first edition of the reviewed novel, on the specific, foreign edition being reviewed (when applicable), on the periodical where the review has appeared, and on the periodical which has served as a source for the relevant review (again, if applicable). All entries also include images of the material reviews, as well as their transcription and translation. This facilitates the exploration of the connections that were being established between the various European periodicals of the time, as well as of the ways in which novels were transmitted, perceived, and proposed to different readerships. However, the insertion of a matter as ambiguous, new, and unstable as 18th century literary reviews within the flexible, but necessarily and sometimes too solidly coherent structure of a digital database poses problems, too. In Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, an investigation of how categories shape and are shaped by all aspects of human interaction, Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star argue that “categories are historically situated artifacts and, like all artifacts, are learned as part of membership in communities of practice” (285). This interestingly reflects upon a seemingly insignificant detail, which I have been faced with as I started navigating my way around the 18thPress database. Given the widely varying lengths and scopes of the pieces collected in the database — which range from a few lines of mere mention, to many pages of analysis —, it has been deemed necessary to signal this difference by categorizing entries into “Announcements” or “Reviews.” This apparently simple distinction, however, becomes more ambiguous once applied to 18th century articles: while “Announcements” may often express clear, although brief, judgements on the quality of a novel, more long-winded “Reviews” may instead limit themselves to a detailed summary of its plot. The very idea that stands behind the category of “Review,” then, is a “historically situated artifact,” which inevitably implies a gap between the seamless expectation of a drop-down menu in a database and what it attempts at defining: that is, the cultural product of a different historical and social context. An announcement of a recently published text, then, may be a simple sentence, entirely extrapolated from a longer French article about the same novel; while a review may provide readers with all the details of a novel’s finale — something which we would  certainly not find in our own journals’ literary news.

These seeming details are, then, centrally important, and they hold within them the necessary correlation between structure and interpretation that is at the core of Digital Humanities projects. In fact, the field of the Digital Humanities has opened up promising new pathways for archival work, providing researchers with flexible tools for storing, accessing, sharing and organizing data. Yet, there is always a dimension of compromise, of reflection needed, which can mediate between the “Digital” and the “Humanities,” and allow for discovery. As I go along with my current objective — populating the database with a sample of complete model entries — I welcome similar opportunities for uncertainty, which are interesting opportunities for exploration of the cultural reality of late 18th century Italy, and its reception of the foreign novel.

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