Thesis Title: Reading aloud? Elocution manuals and reading practices (1750-1800)
Supervisor: Professor Abigail Williams
Research Interests: Eighteenth-century British literature; elocution books; the history of the book; theatrical culture and performance; the history of reading; Thomas Sheridan; spouting clubs.
My thesis examines eighteenth-century elocution manuals: instructional works concerned with the practice of reading aloud. The term 'elocution manual' is a retrospective one, but it is useful in identifying instructional texts designed to aid the performance of reading aloud in social settings. The instruction such books provide is not limited to practical instruction in reading aloud, as outlined by the tenets of the elocution movement; elocution manuals also concerned themselves with broader issues related to the value of reading literature in English, sociability and politeness, and the relationship between print and various types of theatrical and oral performance. In particular, works offering elocutionary education were highly sensitive to the limitations of print in instructing oral performance.
By offering close-readings of elocution manuals alongside other forms of contemporary evidence of elocutionary practice, my thesis proves that the eighteenth-century understanding of the relationship between print and orality was more complicated and sophisticated than has been acknowledged by previous scholars. Elocution manuals had to navigate the internal contradiction inherent in their form: these are texts which argue for the superiority of oral performance over the written text, whilst being printed texts themselves. Oral performance, these texts argue, cannot only be taught through books. Elocution manuals give material form to the intersections between literacy and orality, as their professed purpose was to direct oral reading performances. As historical artefacts, they offer alternative ways of thinking about the relationships between print and performance. Elocution books in particular function as sites of aurality (a combination of the written and the oral) by fostering practices of reading aloud where the reader uses their voice to produce a version of the text from print. Writing, then, can function to produce a voice, as well as to represent one. My thesis explores some of the complexities of this dynamic between print and orality, acknowledging that eighteenth-century readers and writers were sensitive to its intricacies.