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Style, inc. Reflections on 7,000 titles

The British novel, from 1740 to 1850. Peripheral, often despised at the beginning of the period, by its end the novel has moved very close to the core of the national culture. So, this is an important century, for this literary form. But, truth be told, the historical framework of this study has been largely dictated by an extrinsic reason: unlike earlier and later periods, from 1740 to 1850 we have very good bibliographies. Which is to say, good lists of titles; in a few years, we will have a digital archive with the full texts of [almost] all novels ever published; but for now, titles are still the best way to go beyond the 1% of novels that make up the canon, and catch a glimpse of the literary field as a whole. And then, titles are not just a good research tool: they are important in themselves – Walter Scott’s first word as a novelist, literally, was “title” [“The title of this work has not been chosen without the grave and solid deliberation…”] – and they are important because, as Claude Duchet has put it, they are “a coded message – in a market situation.” A code, in the market: half sign, half ad, the title is where the novel as language meets the novel as commodity, and their encounter can be extremely illuminating. In what follows, I focus on three moments of this history: first, I describe a major metamorphosis of eighteenth century titles, and try to explain its causes; next, I suggest how a new type of title that emerged around 1800 may have changed what readers expected of novels; and finally, I make a little attempt at quantitative stylistics, examining some strategies by which titles point to specific genres. Three sections; three pieces in the large puzzle of the literary field.

The major metamorphosis of eighteenth century titles is simple: in the space of two generations, they become much much shorter. In figure 1, where their length is measured in the number of words, the median oscillates between 10 and 20 words for the first 25 years; it drops quickly to 10, around 1770; then to 6, by 1790; and it remains there [with minor ups and downs] until the mid-nineteenth century. From fifteen-twenty words, to six. And titles don’t just become shorter, in the course of these 110 years, they also become much more similar to each other: in figure 2, the steep drop of the standard deviation [which measures the degree of variation within a system] indicates precisely how rapidly the range of options is shrinking. To understand what this means, look at the distribution of mid-eighteenth century titles in figure 3: many of them are already quite short, with between 1 and 10 words, but there is still a lot of variety, with plenty of titles which use 15 words, 20, 25, 30, 40, or more. A hundred years later [figure 4] this “tail” is gone, and long titles have virtually vanished. It’s not just that all titles are becoming shorter, in other words; it’s also that a certain type of title disappears altogether. How long is “long” is of course an open question, but if we set the limit at 15 or 20 words – which is quite long, for a title – then long titles were between 40 and 60% of the total in the mid-eighteenth century [figure 5]; by 1800 their number had already dropped to 5-10%; eventually, they just disappeared.

Why? And, before coming to that, what were they like, those long titles – what did they do, with all those words? Usually, they provided a summary of the novel: A letter from H—g—g, Esq; One of the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber to the Young Chevalier, And the Only Person of his Retinue that attended him from Avignon, in his late Journey through Germany, and elsewhere; Containing Many remarkable and Affecting Occurrences which happened to the P-- during the course of his mysterious Progress. To a Particular Friend. Today, this sounds odd; but actually, a summary at the beginning of a novel makes sense: a novel is a narrative, and the title – the title-page, here one sees why books needed a whole page for their title – the title-as-summary was a shorter narrative: it presented the main events of the story, the characters, the setting, the ending. It made sense. But, the cultural ecosystem was changing in a way that was incompatible with it: in the course of the eighteenth century, the publication of novels in Britain grew dramatically [figure 6], from a few books a year in the early decades, to 25 or so in mid-century, 70-80 around 1800, and about 100 a year in early Victorian times. And as more novels circulated, two things happened. In the third, and even more so in the fourth quarter of the eighteenth century, the Monthly and other magazines started to publish reviews of many new novels, making title-page summaries somewhat superfluous: as the literary system grew, in other words, some of its functions became more specialized, “freeing” titles from having to provide a detailed description. And then, as the number of new novels kept increasing, each of them had inevitably a much smaller “window” of visibility on the market, and it became vital for a title to catch quickly and effectively the eye of the public. Summaries were not good at that. They were good at describing a book in isolation: but when it came to standing out in a crowded marketplace, short titles were better – much easier to remember, to begin with [but not only]. That’s why long titles disappeared: because between the size of the market, and the length of titles, a strong negative correlation emerged: as the one expanded, the other contracted. Nothing much had changed, in the length of titles, for a century and a half, as long as the production of novels had remained stable around five or ten per year; then, as soon as publishing took off in earnest, titles immediately shrank [Figure 7]. By 1790, their “quantitative” transformation was virtually complete.

The market expands, and titles contract. Figure 8 shows the temporal correlation of the two processes; a closer look at the market, adds a specific causal relationship. Because “market”, in the late eighteenth century – when readers almost never bought novels – really means: circulating libraries. Commercial enterprises, which disseminated the novel throughout Britain [and France, and Germany: one of Brecht’s early plays, In the Jungle of Cities, opens in one of these libraries], and whose catalogues have frequently survived until today. Catalogues: lists of titles. But not quite the same titles we find in Raven and Garside. In Sander’s library, in 1780s Derby, Capacity and Extent of the Human Understanding; Exemplified in the Extraordinary Case of Automathes: A Young Nobleman; who was Accidentally left in his Infancy, upon a desolate Island, and continued Nineteen Years in that solitary State, separate from all Human Society. A Narrative abounding with many surprising Occurrences, both Useful and Entertaining to the Reader, becomes: History of Automathes, A Young Nobleman. At Phorson’s, in Berwick, in 1790, Unfortunate Sensibility; or, the Life of Mrs L*****. Written by Herself. In a Series of Sentimental Letters. Dedicated to Mr. Yorick, in the Elysian Fields becomes Unfortunate Sensibility. At Sael’s, in the Strand, in 1793, Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle becomes Emmeline. And so on.

A coded message, in a market situation. And the key institution of the market takes the code, and compresses it: typically, to a proper name. Libraries couldn’t waste space on a catalogue page; they didn’t want any confusion between this novel and that; the spine of the book had only room for a few words anyway; and then, readers were getting used to novels, and needed less “guidance” from titles. So, the average length decreased, long titles disappeared, and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, titles with only 1, 2, or 3 words multiplied rapidly [figure 9]: they were 5% in the 1740s and 50s, but by 1800 they were already around 20-30%, and had completely traded places with the long titles which had been their predecessors [figure 10]. It’s the same thing that happened in advertising a hundred years later, when the detailed descriptions of the nineteenth century were replaced by the evocative oblique brevity of today’s ads; literally the same thing: title-pages with long summaries of novels were often used as flyers, and pasted around to advertise a book. But short titles, as we will see, were not just better titles – they were better ads, too.

Titles allow us to see a larger literary field, I said at the beginning of this article; and the first thing we see in this larger field, at this moment in history, is the force of the market: how its growth creates a major constraint on the presentation of novels. This of course doesn’t mean that all titles gave the same answer to the pressure of the market; but it does mean that they all had to face the same question: How could one shorten a message – without losing information. There was a lot of information in summaries: what happened to it? Was it – gone? reformulated? replaced by something else? I will return to this in a moment; now let me close this first section by acknowledging a limit of this article: I began by showing the average length of titles, but I then shifted to very long and very short titles – and I did so, because these trends are much more dramatic than the slow decline of the average, and thus also much easier to talk about. Which is not exactly wrong [after all, those trends are real!], but, even aside from a question of completeness – of the 7,000 titles in the study, around 900 are “long”, 1,600 “short”, and 4,500 somewhere in between – the focus on extremes misses a decisive aspect of quantitative work: what really counts, here, are not a few major and rapid changes, but many small and slow ones. But the trouble is, we literary historians don’t really know how to think about what is frequent and small and slow; that’s what makes it so hard to study the literary field as a whole: we must learn to find meaning in small changes and slow processes – and it’s difficult. Especially so, in the case of titles: which are by definition the most public part of a book, hence the most subject to censorship: what we find in titles reflects the “legitimate irradiation” of existing ideas, wrote, Jean-Louis Flandrin, and it’s true, titles are so “respectable”; and again, how do you make respectable messages interesting ...

Very short titles: 1, 2, or 3 words. Where the question that interests me is, How can a couple of words stand in for hundreds of pages? What does it mean, that they should do so? For summaries, it’s clear: they are scaled-down versions of the whole story. Two words? So, I started looking at these short titles, and found three main clusters within the group: proper names [Octavia; George Barnwell], which make up around one third of the total; the article-noun [The Steam-Boat; The Smuggler] and article-adjective-noun combinations [The Tuscan Vase; The Invisible Gentleman] just below 30%; and conceptual abstractions [Fatality; Enthusiasm not Religion] around 10%. “A large change in size inevitably carries with it a change of form””, wrote J.B.S. Haldane, and here one sees how right he was: a title with twenty words and one with two are not the same creature, one larger and one smaller; they are different animals altogether. Different styles. There is a “less is more” elegance to short titles – Persuasion; Emma; Mansfield Park – that was unthinkable in summaries; there, the aim was to squeeze as many things as possible into the front page – more is more, as it were – and if the title turned out to be a mess, so be it: Robinson Crusoe’s mentioned an episode that doesn’t even appear in the novel [An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by PYRATES: pyrates? what pyrates?] – it didn’t really matter. But a short title is a delicate structure, sensitive to every small change. Consider the article-noun, and article-adjective-noun combinations: similar forms, similar semantic horizon – The Monk, 1796; The New Monk, 1798 – and so at first I assumed that the adjective wouldn’t change much: the monk and the new monk: big deal; the adjective would specify the noun, as adjectives do, but no more than that. And instead, it turns out that the adjective does not specify the semantic field; it transforms it. In the article-noun combination, half of the titles describing a social type evoke an exotic-transgressive field – The Fakeer, The Vampyre, The Fire-eater, The Pirate, The Sabbath-Breaker, The Spectre, The Rebel, The Epicurean, The Mussulman, The Libertine, The Parricide … – and only a small minority evokes the idea of the ‘familiar’ [wife, brother, father, daughter, etc]. But when an adjective is added to the title, the ratio is exactly reversed [figure 11]: fakeers and libertines drop from 50 to 20%, while wives and daughters rise from 16 to 40%: The Unfashionable Wife, The Discarded Daughter, The Infidel Father, The Rival Brothers, The Posthumous Daughter, The False Friend, The Maniac Father ... Without adjectives, we are in a world of adventures; with adjectives, in a destabilized domesticity. The adjective is the only change, but it changes everything. And of course, once you think about it, it makes sense: if all that is in the title is a noun, then that noun must guarantee an interesting story all by itself, and vampires and parricides are a very good choice; but if an adjective is present, then even the most familiar figures can be estranged into infidel fathers and posthumous daughters. The adjective relocates narrative from substance to accident, as it were. And again, it makes sense: the adjective introduces predication within the title, and predication is the germ of story-telling. “The wife” is a stable quantity; the unfashionable wife is a question mark: why is she unfashionable? what does her husband think? her daughters? This is why short titles are so interesting: they are on the border: between two and three words lies the invisible barrier that separates story-telling from – something else, which we’ll see in a minute.

Common nouns are frequent, in short titles, but proper names are even more frequent, especially at the turn of the century [figure 12], when one title in twelve [1786-90], then one in ten [1791-95], then almost one in seven [1796-1800], consists of a proper name, and nothing else: Emily; Henry; Georgina. The growth of the market forced titles to become shorter, and, as we saw in circulating libraries’ catalogues, proper names were a great way to do so: one word, and a novel was immediately singled out from the rest. Singled out, by pointing to its protagonist; a choice which was not inevitable – of the “six masterpieces” of the Chinese canon, for instance, none was ever shortened to a proper name, because none had a name in the title to begin with – but which has been typical of European narrative since Greek and medieval times [probably, because in our tradition the central character has always played a greater role]. And of course, in the late eighteenth century, protagonist mostly means female protagonist [figures 13-14]: a woman’s name, and often just a first name [figures 15-6]: Lucy, Caroline, Belinda, Emma ... Heroines who lack a last name: a very simple, very crude hint, typical of the British marriage plot [which reaches its apex in these decades]: they lack a husband. But the wider field charted in figures 13 through 16 also shows how quickly the gender asymmetry was reversed in the 1820s and 30s, and how frequent the heroine’s last name could actually be. In both cases, the main changes were almost certainly caused by shifts in the system of genres: the historical novel’s rise to prominence after 1815, for instance, with its mostly male heroes; or the marriage plot becoming embedded within genres like the Bildungsroman and the industrial novel, where the heroine acquired a public life, which was promptly mirrored in titles like Jane Eyre or Mary Barton. Again, see how much can be done with how little, in short titles: one word, and the image of the heroine rotates 180 degrees: from private, to public. Short titles were a constraint imposed by the market, yes, but the constraint could also be a fantastic opportunity for the literary imagination: the art of allusion, of condensation: the title as trope, ultimately. Odd twist: the market promoting – style.

The market expanded, titles contracted; by 1790, as we have seen, the issue of length had been settled, and didn’t really change for at least sixty years. But something else did change, between 1790 and 1850, and the last type of title I will discuss in this section – abstractions – will help us to understand what. Abstractions were usually a single word [Generosity, Indiscretion, Independence, Delusion], or a conceptual pair [Liberality and Prejudice; Jesuitism and Methodism], and although they were never very frequent, in the first quarter of the century, and especially in the 1820s, they were not insignificant, thanks largely to the tireless Barbara Hofland, who in the five years from 1823 to 1827 published, one after the other, Integrity, Decision, Patience, Moderation, Reflection, and Self-Denial. And as you read these titles you realize that abstractions here really means – ethics. Nineteenth-century ethics; previously, abstractions had often emphasized moral violations [Disobedience, Indiscretion, Fatality, Retribution, False Gratitude, The Relapse, Conscious Duplicity…], but after 1800 it is the construction of the ethical that is highlighted [figure 17]: Self-Control, Conduct, Discipline, Correction, Decision, Reformation. Morality not as purity, but as work: one takes one’s own self and transforms it, in a process that is both spiritual and pragmatic. Hofland’s Moderation, wrote the Monthly Review in 1825, is “fabricated […] to […] strongly enforce a precept in morals of great practical utility”; and that moral precept fabricated for practical utility is great – it’s really the dawn of Victorianism.

When titles were summaries, they of course used verbs [The misfortunes in which this young woman has been cruelly involved etc. etc.]; but once summaries disappear, so do verbs [aside from the occasional Says She to Her Neighbour, What?], and titles like Patience or Moderation are the logical endpoint of the process: titles that sound more and more like nominal sentences. A grammatical form that “places the utterance beyond all temporal or modal localization, and beyond the subjectivity of the speaker”, wrote Benveniste in his classic analysis of this type of sentence: beyond subjectivity, beyond temporal localization … the telos of nominal sentences is the abolition of contingency: “they don’t describe a situation”, Benveniste again, “they posit an absolute” [142]. Self-Control; Patience; Integrity: they don’t describe a situation, not even in the minimal way of maniac fathers and unfashionable wives; they don’t allude to what happens in the novel, or to where and when it takes place; they posit an absolute, and that absolute is of course the meaning of the novel. This was the great historical achievement of abstractions: they made titles meaning-ful: nothing but meaning, as if the essence of the novel had been distilled and purified of all narrative contingency. And readers, faced with this type of title, have to change their expectations: the first thing they are told about the novel asks them to imagine, not so much a story, but the point of the story: the point of the story as a single, unifying concept. And this is important. That titles became short is interesting, yes, but in the end, So what. That by becoming short they adopted a signifying strategy that made readers look for a unity in the narrative structure – this is a perceptual shift which has persisted for two hundred years. And mediocre conservative writers did more to make it happen than anyone else.

I have discussed abstractions next to proper names, because they both make for very short titles; but, clearly, their relationship to plot is completely different: proper names are a part of the story, whereas abstractions are an interpretation of it. It would be tempting to say that names have a metonymic relationship to the novel, and abstractions a metaphoric one; but if characters’ names [and the – rarer – place names like Minerva Castle or Mansfield Park] are indeed metonymies of the plot, abstractions are not quite metaphors, and in fact it is curious how few metaphors are there, in these 7,000 titles. By the end of the century they are everywhere [The Belly of Paris; The Doll; Ghosts; The Octopus; Heart of Darkness; The Beast in the Jungle], so they must have taken root sometime in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, and the glimpses one gets suggest a lot of hesitation on the part of writers: Gaskell shifting at the last minute from Margaret Hale to North and South [proper name to metaphor]; Dickens doing the opposite, from Nobody’s Fault to Little Dorrit. Announcing a story with a metaphor must have seemed strange – and it is strange: if abstractions are removed from the plot, then metaphors are twice removed: interpretations that require an interpretation, as it were. But it is precisely because of this “difficulty” of metaphors that holds the secret of the title-as-ad. Eighteenth-century summaries told readers a lot of things about the novel, yes; but they never really engaged their intelligence. And instead, by puzzling and challenging readers, metaphors induced them to take an active interest in the novel from the very first word. If you are trying to sell a product, that’s exactly what you want.

Summaries, adjectives, proper names, nominal sentences, metonimies, metaphors … In a minute I will turn to articles [and am thinking of sections on conjunctions and participles.] This is a quantitative study: but its units are linguistic and rhetorical. And the reason is simple: for me, formal analysis is the great accomplishment of literary study, and is therefore also what any new approach – quantitative, digital, evolutionary, whatever – must prove itself against: prove that it can do formal analysis, better than we already do. Or at least: equally well, in a different key. Otherwise, what is the point.

As the market expands, titles contract; as they do that, they learn to compress meaning; and as they do that, they develop special ‘signals’ to place books in the right market niche. “Had I, for example, announced in my frontispiece, ‘Waverley, a Tale of other Days’, must not every novel-reader have anticipated a castle scarce less than that of Udolpho […] a ‘Sentimental Tale’ would […] have been a sufficient presage of a heroine with a profusion of auburn hair […] ‘a Tale of the Times’ [of] a dashing sketch of the fashionable world”… Tale of other Days, Sentimental Tale, Tale of the Times: that these words would make readers think of specific genres is of course true – and trivial: it’s obvious. The code may be in the market, but it remains transparent. And instead, the interesting cases are the opaque ones: where the signal works, and we somehow know what kind of a novel we have in our hands, but we don’t know why we know it, because it is all conveyed by traits that escape our attention; “subliminal”, as we used to say.

Let me illustrate this point with two genres – the so-called anti-jacobin and ‘new woman’ novels – that are separated by a hundred years: two explicitly ideological genres, which rely heavily on contemporary politics, and whose titles have thus a lot in common – except for one detail. Among anti-jacobin titles, 36% begin with the definite article [The Banished Man, The Medallion, The Parisian, The Democrat] and 3% with the indefinite; a result which is perfectly aligned with the rest of the field, since at the time the overall frequencies are 38 and 2. New woman titles, no; the definite article is obviously still present, in 24% of the cases, but the use of the indefinite leaps from 2, or 3, to 30% of the cases [figure 18].

Now, this is odd, not only because it is completely out of scale with anything else I have found, but because in many other ways the conventions of the two genres are quite similar. The democrat; A blue-stocking: two well-known figures of the contemporary political scene; why is the article different? The infidel father; A hard woman; the same grammar, the same dissonance between adjective and noun; why is the article different? What do the articles do, that they need to be different? An essay by Harald Weinrich offers an answer; for Weinrich, the starting point to understand linguistic categories is always the text, and, since all texts are linear, “there are always two main directions in which the attention of the reader may be directed”: backwards, or forwards: backwards, towards what we already know from the text, and forwards, towards what we don’t. And the simplest way to alert the reader’s attention is – articles: the definite article announcing a noun as something that we already know [thus directing our attention backwards]; and the indefinite suggesting the opposite: Take heed, here comes something that you haven’t encountered yet. The first time the wolf appears in Little Red Riding Hood it is “a” wolf; afterwards, “the” wolf, forever. So: A Girton Girl, A Hard Woman, A Mummer’s Wife, A Domestic Experiment, A Daughter of Today, A Semi-detached Marriage: what the article “says” is that we are encountering all these figures for the first time; we think we know what daughters and wives are, but we actually don’t, and must understand them afresh. The article announces the novel as a challenge to received knowledge. And instead, “the” democrat, “the” parisian, “the” infidel father… we know these people! Anti-jacobin titles don’t want to change received ideas, they want to use them: the French revolution has multiplied your enemies – beware.

Here is a modest example of what quantitative stylistics could do: take those units of language that are so frequent that we hardly notice them, and show how powerfully they contribute to the construction of meaning. Which is also the point of my last example: a formula that, at first sight, looks as flat and uninspiring as could be: The Duchess of York, The Novice of Corpus Domini, The Heir of Montgomery Castle: let’s call it “the x of y”. As figure 19 shows, the formula has always been quite frequent in titles, never dropping below 10% of the total; but around 1800 its frequency increases, and if we look more closely at those decades, we find that the surge does not occur evenly everywhere, but is almost entirely concentrated in a single genre, which is the gothic. There, ‘the x of y’ appears three times more often than in the rest of the corpus [figure 20], which is too big a difference to be the product of chance,¬ especially since something very similar also occurs within the gothic itself: we all know that the word ‘castle’ was the shibboleth of the genre’s imagination, from The Castle of Otranto onwards; well, in gothic titles ‘the x of y’ occurs three times more often than ‘castle’.

But why? Castles in gothic titles, it makes sense. The x of y? Here semantics helps; if we look at the “x” in the formula, we find that ‘romance’ appears in 7% of the cases [The Romance of the Pyrenees], a cluster of genre indicators like mysteries, horrors, secrets, adventures in 13% [The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey], personal nouns in 34% [Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle], and space nouns in 41% of the total [figure 21]: from The Castle of Otranto in 1764 to The Mines of Wielitzka and The Rock of Glotzden a half century later. So, in three fourths of the cases ‘the x of y’ specifies an ‘x’ which is either a person or a space. And when we move from the subject of the formula to its predicate – from the x to the y – what we find is so striking that I don’t even need a graph to point it out: The Romance of the Pyrenees, The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey, The Orphan of the Castle, The Castle of Otranto, The Mines of Wielitzka, The Rock of Glotzden … in 82% of the cases, the y is a space: a person defined by a space, or, most frequent of all, a space defined by another space. The Castle of Otranto: a spatial noun specified by a place name.

There are many intriguing traits to gothic titles – this is the genre that discovers that readers like villains, for instance, and shamelessly parades them in titles – but space is really the cornerstone of the convention: place names are much more frequent than human proper names; spatial nouns like castle, abbey, forest, cave, etc., show up in 50% of the cases; and there are even other kinds of geographical signals, like A Sicilian Romance or The Danish Massacre. Nothing is as typical of gothic titles as this fixation with space; and of course this is true not just of titles, but of gothic novels: where space is dark, labyrinthine, cold; it imprisons, it terrifies, it kills ... “The x of y” takes this power of space, and activates it at two scales at once: human, and geographical. The Castle of Otranto: there is a building; there is a town; they are both gothic. Escape from the castle, you’re still in southern Italy. There is no way out.

“Literature is the fragment of fragments”, wrote Goethe in Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Wandering, the great sad novel of his old age: “the least part of all that ever happened and was spoken was written down, and of what was written only the least part has survived…”. “Of this history we possess the last volume alone”, wrote Darwin in The Origin of Species: “of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved, and of each page, only here and there a few lines”. There are differences, of course, between the history of nature and that of culture: the “fossils” of literary evolution are often not lost, but carefully preserved in some great library, like most of those 7,000 novels whose titles I have discussed here; but for the purposes of our knowledge, it’s as if they too had crumbled into dust, because we have never really tried to read the entire volume of the literary past. Studying titles is a small step in that direction.

See the complete version:
Franco Moretti, "Style, inc. Reflections on 7,000 titles", in Critical Inquiry (Autumn 2009).

SvD, November 2009

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