In the second part of his investigations into the ways in which the books in St Andrews’ University Library were used in 18th century, Matthew Sangster reveals more scurrilous student scribblings…
Read Part One here.
Who Watches the Watchman?
As well as using the books to attack each other, the students also employed marginalia to vent their frustration at the university authorities. William Vilant, the librarian between 1768 and 1788, seems to have been a figure who inspired particular hatred. During his tenure, the students conducted a guerrilla war with him through the pages of the library.
In Henry Fielding’s Miscellanies, a student attests that ‘Punctum Vilant is an illtongued illnatured Brat and is certainly unclean in Heart’. rPR3454.M5D43, Vol. 2, p. 258.
In Joseph Addison’s Works, Vilant is called a ‘Viper’ and a ‘son of a Snake’ for obstructing a student’s access to the library’s resources. sPR3300.D21, Vol. 2, p. 21.
In Tobias Smollett’s Don Quixote translation, the knight and the hapless librarian are made equivalent: ‘Vilant Don Quixote De La Mancha’. sPQ6329.A2S5, Vol. 2, inside back cover.
The Proper Use of Language
Books were also used by the students to demonstrate their superior accomplishments. In particular, many annotators were keen to correct authors when their grammar slipped, probably mirroring the corrections made to their own compositions by the professors.
Against Jonathan Swift’s ‘We have drove Popery out’ in his ‘Squire Bickerstaff Detected’, an irritated student has written ‘John should have said driven but elegance and propriety were not to be expected from him’. sPR3724.M4D27, Vol. 1, p. 301.
Tobias Smollett is corrected in his translation of Don Quixote for writing ‘again, remounting’, the commentator pointing out that ‘again & the re [at] the beginning of the next word are synonymous terms’. sPQ6329.A2S5, Vol. 2, p. 90.
A student annotator in John Moore’s gothic novel Zeluco corrects Moore’s slightly archaic use of ‘incur danger’, preferring his own ‘expose himself to danger’. sPR3605.M5Z4, Vol. 1, p. 69.
Corrections could themselves be corrected; against an annotation nonsensically changing ‘carelessness’ to ‘carefulness’ in Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, a fellow student has written, ‘he must be a fool who attempted to correct the author when he was in no error’. sPN187.B6D85, Vol. 3, p. 69.
In some works, grammatical disagreements could be surprisingly gracious. In Edward Young’s long and solemn poem The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality, where one student has mistakenly changed an ‘it’ to a ‘them’, another hand gently asserts that ‘them is quite right’, adding a further note to explain that the subject of the sentence in question is the plural ‘Revolutions’. sPR3782.N5A1D43, Night 5, p. 12.
Knowing the World like Men
Other marginalia in the library books perform explicit displays of knowledge, with annotators responding to the tests implied by texts’ omissions or circumlocutions.
A student punctures the polite veils in John Moore’s Zeluco by glossing ‘was not afraid to give him that species of satisfaction’ with ‘dueling’. sPR3605.M5Z4, Vol. 1, p. 205.
In Swift’s prose burlesque ‘An Account of Wood’s Execution’, a student not only demonstrates that he knows that the ‘A—’ in the line ‘I’ll make his A— make Buttons’ stands for ‘Arse’, but also suggests that the line would be better if the word ‘make’ was replaced with ‘s****’. sPR3724.M4D27, Vol. 5, p. 313.
Sometimes, annotators even went so far as to leave tests of their own for future readers – below a pencilled line of Latin scrawled into Zeluco, its writer has added, ‘If you whoever you are cannot explain and translate the above line I say you are nothing but a blockhead’. sPR3605.M5Z4, Vol. 2, p. 301.
Sometimes, annotators’ notes reveal the systems of value by which they judged what they read, often evoking a rather different set of categories than those employed by 21st century readers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a significant number of marginal comments about the nature of good writing and thinking in Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, one of the period’s most successful treatises on how to communicate effectively.
Against the opening paragraphs of Blair’s lecture on ‘Beauty, and other Pleasures of Taste’, an approving hand has written, ‘Blair thou makest good remarks. You must have had good taste great judgement & a sublime understanding’. sPN187.B6D85, Vol. 1, p. 101.
However, on the opposite page, another student holds a rather different opinion of Blair’s talents: ‘The fellow who wrote that on the other leaf appears to be of bad taste to have had no judgement, nor understanding’. sPN187.B6D85, Vol. 1, p. 102.
A similar disagreement occurs a few pages later; responding to a student who has written that ‘Beauty and Elegance in Speech are desirable’, a grumpy compatriot has written, ‘That fellow is a stupid ass is not beauty & elegance in any thing whatsoever desirable’. sPN187.B6D85, Vol. 1, p. 107.
It was relatively common for students to leave short appreciations at the conclusions of the works that they read, providing their impressions for other contemporaries who soldiered through entire texts.
The final annotation in Blair’s Lectures offers enthusiastic but qualified praise for his project: ‘Upon the whole this is a very interesting Volume, it does the Author very great Credit – almost as good as Campbells’. sPN187.B6D85, Vol. 3, end of index.
At the conclusion of Edward Young’s long poem Night-Thoughts, a chorus of readers offer their pencilled responses. ‘A Logician’ writes that he ‘wld advise ev’ry Human Being to read it. The style is highly figurative, and it is very well suited to the subject.’ Another commentator adds, ‘I have perused this most excellent work and would recommend it to all serious and enquiring persons’ and a third writes that he ‘would advise Every anxious enquiring student to peruse it’. Evidently, however, not everyone agreed. The final commentator is dismissed in a final addition as ‘a mere babbler’. sPR3782.N5A1D43, Night 9, p. 146.
I have perused this most excellent work and would recommend it to all serious and enquiring persons”
Occasionally, more emotional reactions are recorded in the books, showing how the students responded to drama, desire and tension.
In Moore’s Zeluco, a pencilled annotation expresses horror at the character of the protagonist: ‘I cannot help saying that Zeluco was a very perfidious ingrateful and malicious villain so he was’. sPR3605.M5Z4, Vol. 1, p. 95.
Addison’s republican drama Cato is particularly rich in impassioned responses. At the conclusion of the play, a Mr ‘J. Scriptor’ offers the following summation: ‘A pretty affecting story, faith: poor Marcus I pity thy unhappy fall for thou dyedst in a noble cause: poor Devil’. sPR3300.D21, Vol. 1, p. 380.
Earlier in the play, one writer attempts to warn a character of his unhappy end: ‘Juba, you are damnably mistaken he loves you not no by George’. sPR3300.D21, Vol. 1, p. 325.
Perhaps the oddest annotations come from a student signing himself ‘a madman in love’, who adds words around printed character names to create the sentences ‘Unhappy MARCUS to love and not be loved’ and ‘Thrice Happy PORTEUS to love and be loved’. sPR3300.D21, Vol. 1, p. 331.
a madman in love”
The same annotator also seems to have been deeply offended by the actions of Sempronius and Syphax, two of the conspirators against Cato: ‘May the two traytors be unhappy in this world and damned in the next if there be another which’ – with possibly heretical words following blotted out. However, this kind of response was obviously slightly unconventional, as another annotator describes the writer beneath as ‘A damned whimsical Son of a Sea horse’. sPR3300.D21, Vol. 1, p. 330.
As these annotations demonstrate, the books that arrived in St Andrews as a result of the Copyright Act encouraged kinds of learning that the framers of the legislation might have been rather surprised by. However, they also show that the library did good service for a thriving community of contentious, pedantic and critical readers. While quite a number of the books that arrived during the eighteenth century have not survived, those that have and the records that were created around them demonstrate powerfully that rather than being solely a solitary activity, reading in eighteenth-century St Andrews was often an occasion for boisterous and impassioned social intercourse.
Dr Matthew Sangster
Lecturer (English Literature), University of Glasgow
The implications of these marginalia and of the other surviving records at St Andrews are explored more fully in an article in the Review of English Studies, ‘Copyright Literature and Reading Communities in Eighteenth-Century St Andrews’.