The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Robin Kinross

Novels are written in prose rather than in verse. This simple insight promises to stimulate philosophical and historical investigations into the nature of the form. But any description of what the pages of almost every novel look like is so far largely missing. When a novel's typography is mentioned it is usually to point to pages that depart in some way from the norm. The normal page is one in which lines of text are arrayed under each other to form a rectangular block surrounded by sufficient margins of unprinted paper. Outside this block of text there will be page numbers and, often, headings or “running headlines” that give the title of the book and the chapter.

Unlike verse, a line of text in a novel does not contain meaning. The breaks at the end of a line happen more or less arbitrarily, governed only by whatever rules are being followed for where to break a word, if a word has to be broken. In a novel the lines of text will almost always be justified. By varying the spaces between the words they will have equal, constant length. A page will be brought to an end at its last line. The attention of the typesetter, or whoever is making the blocks of text into pages, is brought to bear only when one line of the prose-unit, typically a “chapter,” is left stranded at the top of the following page. Computers now assist in these processes.

Pages made in this way become containers for the flow of text. The writer writes it; the typesetter pours it into these molds. The resulting page will be a fairly robust and unremarkable device that suits and, to some extent, makes the novel possible. Because the strict, unvarying visual form does not carry meaning, many things can happen in the imagination of the writer and the reader. Standardized pages accommodate both “large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary,” and the short, tight, slim texts of twentieth-century modernism (Henry James, 1908, Tragic Muse, Preface).

Yet there is more to say, particularly about the ways in which a text is embodied in apparently mundane pages. As the historical bibliographer D. F. McKenzie argues convincingly (1999, 2002), the form of the book and of the text plays a constituent part in its meanings. Pour the text into another mold of different letterforms, different sizes, different spatial configurations, and the meanings of it will change. McKenzie's examples are mainly of poetic and dramatic texts in which typographic form is more meaning-charged than in the continuous text of the novel, but these ideas apply equally to prose works.

Meanings in the Normative Page

Printed text carries its history with it, visibly, and in its touch and smell. From picking up the book and looking into its pages, without reading a title or an imprint page, one will usually be able to tell by what processes the text was set and printed, and when and where it was made. Any published novel will have that particular embodiment.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe helps make some of the necessary distinctions clear. Henry Clinton Hutchins established the early bibliographical history of this work in 1923. Compare the first four licensed English editions of Robinson Crusoe, all published in 1719 by William Taylor (see fig. 1), with two pirated editions of that same year: the so-called “Amsterdam” coffee-house edition and the “o” edition. The licensed editions are typographically unremarkable, normal products of the English printing and publishing trade of that time (see fig. 1). The unlicensed editions reveal the nature of their publication in the rougher quality of their typesetting and printing. In the case of the “o” edition, named after its misspelling on the title page, The life, and strange surprizing adventures of Robeson Cruso, mariner, the typesetting is wild, evidently done on the cheap and in a hurry. Type of different fonts and styles is set together, and there are parts of the text in which italic is used only because there can have been no roman to hand. The only meaning to read into the typography of these pages is “unlicensed.”


Figure 1 Typography in a 1719 edition of Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (London: William Taylor), illustrates the normal product of the English printing trade of the time

In 1743 a French translation of Robinson Crusoe was published in Amsterdam by Zacharie Chatelain. It looks different from the English editions of the time. This is partly, of course, because the language of the text is now different. Put the text into another language and the visual appearance of it must change, however well the meanings of the text have been captured by the translation. But further, the conventions of French typography (émigré French, in this case) were slightly different from those of English typography. The type is a little larger, the lines are a little shorter, and the title page is more grandiloquent.

In 1883 the London publisher Elliot Stock issued an edition described on its title page as “a facsimile reprint of the first edition published in 1719” (see fig. 2). On looking at these pages, someone familiar with the first edition might easily believe that the 1883 edition is indeed a reprint of the original made by photographic methods. Its text matches the book of 1719 line for line, page for page, word break for word break. But a more careful look shows that, though the type used is a close match for the original—Elliot Stock used a revival of an eighteenth-century model similar to the Dutch type used by Taylor in 1719—the type is too smooth, too regular, too evenly printed to be the product of the worn type and wooden presses of seventeenth-century printing. This was a painstaking emulation of the original setting using the best tools of late nineteenth-century small-industrial production. The typesetting was almost certainly done by hand rather than by the powered machines that were just then being developed. The Elliot Stock edition is eerily reminiscent of the book of 1719. Its text seems to match its model in every detail of setting and spelling; the long s's and ligatured characters are faithfully copied. Apart from a few inevitable errors, it can be considered the same as the text of the 1719 edition. And yet, it is quite distinct. Every character and every space is different. The paper is machine-made rather than handmade. The image of the characters is regular and light where the original image is ragged and imperfect. The book speaks of “England in 1883”: of the attempts to recover and preserve historical artifacts by imitation, using the latest technologies.


Figure 2 Typography in the 1883 “facsimile” edition of Robinson Crusoe (London: Elliot Stock) is similar, yet every character and every space is different

How and to what degree one can copy an original are issues of constant concern to anyone editing historical texts. The line-for-line emulation practiced in the Elliot Stock edition is usually a step too far. Labor costs will hardly ever allow it. But how far should one go in copying orthography and spelling? In the University of Florida Press and Penguin Classics editions of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (ed. Melvyn New and Joan New, 1978, 2003)—a work that has come to be a primary instance of the typographically conscious novel—the different kinds of dashes used in the first printings of the book are faithfully copied. The nine volumes of the novel, issued over eight years (1759—67) by three different printer-publishers, use dashes of different lengths. It is hard to see any consistent system at work in their deployment by any of these printers. The first two volumes, printed by Ann Ward in York and thus near at hand to Sterne, are especially idiosyncratic in their use of a series of hyphens for a dash. Two, three, or four hyphens may be set this way, but elsewhere dashes of varying lengths are used. One can guess that a certain size of dash was employed ad hoc to help out with the justification of that particular line. If a long dash would not quite fit in a line without causing problems, then a shorter one might be used. If the modern edition is not following the word and line breaks of the original, the necessity behind that choice of dash is lost. The fact that the modern editions are set without any attempt at imitation of the original type or the original paper, as in late nineteenth-century facsimiles, further undermines this partial attempt at typographic emulation.

Author and Typesetter

Any attempt to assign meaning to typographic effects in a novel based on the size or style of letters or the use of marks, symbols, or the spaces that are the repertoire of typography will need to be aware of what was within the scope of the writer at that time and in that place. What sort of communication did the author have with the publisher and the compositor of the novel? The liveliness of the pages of some eighteenth-century novels seems to derive from a number of factors.

During the eighteenth century, relations between authors and those making the books could be quite close. The publisher and printer were usually the same person. In the exceptional case of Samuel Richardson, the author was a printer and publisher by trade. Richardson would have been able to oversee the production of his own novels, though some editions were put out to other printers. In her work on English novels of this period, Janine Barchas treads carefully. She notices the graphic and typographic effects and considers what part they might play in the design of the novel, but she holds back from any historically unsupportable interpretation. In her study the term “graphic design retains its literal meaning as the intentional use of graphic effects for novelistic purposes. For example, the decorative pieces that are used to show a gap in the time of the novel could perhaps have been chosen to match the scene and characters of that moment in the story, or they could merely have been taken by the compositor from what was available in his case of ornaments on that day. These ornaments were, after all, stock devices, designed for a wide variety of uses and not made especially for the work in question.

As publishing and printing began to separate into two distinct practices, so an author's ability to take part in the design of pages diminished. The larger the publishing firm, the less input authors could have in how their books would be made. This widely recognized standardization of book design was reinforced by technical changes in text composition, above all the introduction of powered text composition, which began in the closing years of the nineteenth century in the U.S., Western Europe, and the territories of the British Empire. But already with handset type, in printing offices of even moderate size, the work process had to be split between compositors and thus needed to be governed by common standards and routines. Another less recognized factor in this process of normalization was the growing use of typewriting machines by writers, secretaries, and copyists. With the waning of the handwritten text, the possibilities for graphic effects decreased. Any special desires that an author or publisher might want would need to be drawn by hand in a “layout,” a mimetic instruction for the printer's compositor to follow. Wytze Hellinga published a suggestive survey of over five hundred years of surviving material evidence of “copy,” the author's text with any instructions for typesetting or layout, and “print,” what this copy became.

In his discussion of what he calls “the revolution in the layout of books in the eighteenth century,” Nicolas Barker reluctantly adopts the term “layout” in preference to “typography” to describe what others in and outside of France have sometimes called mise en page (127). He thus passes over the narrower specialist sense of layout as a plan used to convey instructions. (This short text was written as a lecture for the same 1977 conference at which McKenzie first gave his paper on typography and the meaning of words.) Barker of necessity uses a broad brush. He sketches the national styles of page design in France, Germany, and England to show how simplification and standardization changed from Baroque elaboration of the display elements of a text to the plain, undecorated pages that we can now see as beginning the modern style. The prosaic pages of novels are hardly touched on in Barker's rapid survey, and his propositions have never been taken further. His analysis needs display pages, especially title pages, with which to work, while remaining silent on the rest of a book.

In the twentieth century, publishing and printing procedures became ever more routinized and divided. Publishers typically became parts of conglomerated firms, and printers became not much more than a means of duplicating the files of data that these publishers supplied. Although novels of eighteenth-century typographic exuberance have sometimes been attempted under these conditions, their effects have been hampered by the fact that the final process of producing pages has not been in the author's hands. The ease with which a Richardson or a Sterne could deploy such effects has gone; it cannot be re-created or emulated with the present materials of typography and book production. Some writers are now beginning to bypass conventional publishing and printing processes by preparing PDF (portable document format) files of their pages to be downloaded from websites or issued in the single copies or small runs of “print on demand” editions. The production of pages is in the hands of the writer as it never was before, though writers would do well to seek the help of typographers for advice and final execution. Whether the resulting pages carry plain prose or semantically shaped configurations, such routes to publication open the way for texts that would not otherwise be duplicated and distributed.

SEE ALSO: Author, Editing, Paper and Print Technology, Reprints.


1. Barchas, J. (2003), Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel.

2. Barker, N. (1981), “Typography and the Meaning of Words,” in Buch und Buchhandel in Europa in achtzehnten Jahrhundert, ed. G. Barber and B. Fabian.

3. Ginsburg, M.P. and L.G. Nandrea (2006), “The Prose of the World,” in Novel, ed. F. Moretti, 2 vols.

4. Hellinga, W.G. (1962), Copy and Print in the Netherlands.

5. Hutchins, H.C. (1925), Robinson Crusoe and Its Printing.

6. McKenzie, D.F. (1999), Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts.

7. McKenzie, D.F. (2002), Making Meaning.