This account relies very largely on my memory, which is notoriously unreliable. I should admit this up front, together with a request for modifications and corrections from anyone who remembers better.
As I recall it, Novels on Line began, like most things Chawton House Library, as a gleam in Sandy Lerner’s eye, a desire to take the very rarest novels in the collection and make them accessible to those who otherwise could never hope to read them. I forget the date of the first gleam, but it was before the existence of ECCO, or Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, which was first published in 2003 (making 136,000 texts available) and has been expanded since.
Access to historical texts is seldom simple, and anyone reviving these texts will have their own agenda about which texts to choose. In 1982, The Eighteenth Century microfilm collection began, but reading on microfilm is no fun even if your university library has the equipment, and the sense not to position it in direct sunlight. The Eighteenth Century began with “first and significant editions” only, with 28 writers deemed, exceptionally, major enough for other editions to be offered as well. The 28 were naturally all male. In offering texts by women, Novels on Line aimed to redress an imbalance.
When The Eighteenth Century was succeeded by ECCO, launched by Gale at the 2003 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) conference, I remember some colleagues who wanted university libraries to boycott it as too expensive. It raised the idea of what was acceptable for subscription costs for digital resources to a whole new level, and contributed to the impoverishment of scholarly libraries in general. I don’t remember that a boycott ever got off the ground, but the issue of expense remains. Not every university or college can afford ECCO, and not every scholar belongs to an institution either poor or rich. Chawton Novels on Line were to be, and are, free at the point of use.
The texts in ECCO are photographically reproduced: fine for most scholars and students, once they understand the meaning of the long “s”, can recognize a ligature, and cease to be boggled by unfamiliar spellings—unless the novel in question was very badly or cheaply produced in the first place, or the photography was deficient in clarity or completeness. But for scholars doing computational stylistics on the one hand, or on the other hand for readers wanting a novel that is more transparently kin to the novels of today (rather than apparently wearing fancy dress), nothing can equal a transcript. We were fortunate in finding volunteer transcribers, and rather than asking them to laboriously proof-read their every word, we commissioned two parallel transcribers for each novel, and relied for catching typos on digitally comparing those points where the two transcriptions disagreed.
For selecting novels we used OCLC WorldCat, which lists libraries that hold a book or edition, to identify Chawton’s unique copies. “Unique” means here the only copy known to exist in the world. CHL’s many inscribed volumes (like a presentation copy of Mary Leadbeater’s Dialogues among the Irish Peasantry, which she presented to the Solicitor General, thereby staking her claim to influence public policy) are unique too, but not in a bibliographic sense. “Unique” in the sense of the only one is of course a provisional status, lost when a previously unidentified copy suddenly emerges from hiding in some attic or cellar. We therefore included very rare titles as well as those deemed to be unique.
Rarity is not quantifiable. If no copy of a book exists outside North America it is rare to Brits or other Europeans. Nor is it the only criterion. From the first we also considered the even less quantifiable quality of historical or literary interest. Consider Sarah Green’s Romance Readers and Romance Writers: A Satirical Novel (1810). There were known copies at two major libraries, the British Library and the University of Virginia (remember this was before the Chawton House Library Series facsimile edition which appeared two centuries after the original), but Sarah Green herself was (and still is) so under-researched, and this novel stands at such a fascinating generic intersection (the gothic or “horrid”, the burlesque or literary satire, the novel about women reading novels, the novel of literary history including women’s literary history) that making it widely accessible was (as we say now but would not have said then) a no-brainer.
So, gradually the present list of Novels on Line accumulated. First on the list (a position bestowed by its anonymity) is A New Atalantis (1760), whose title constitutes a rare homage to Delarivier Manley, who died in 1724. Transcription for Novels on Line of The Inhuman Stepmother, or the History of Miss Harriot Montague (1770), began on the basis that this was a rare anonymous work. During the process, the transcriber, Bonnie Kulik, realized that it is a bare-faced plagiarism of The Life of Charlotta Du Pont (1723), by Penelope Aubin, who died in 1738. This was an exciting moment of well-deserved reward for a volunteer transcriber, and it exemplifies just one of the several ways that this collection is serving research as well as reading for pleasure.
Named authors now on the list include Aubin for one of the novels she actually meant to publish, and many more unfortunately obscure writers whose literary quality or historical interest make them share Sarah Green’s potential appeal to scholars looking for research subjects: Anna Maria Bennett, Mary Charlton, Jane Harvey, Anne Hatton, Rachel Hunter, Frances Jacson, the first-name-less Mrs Martin, Elizabeth (Byron) Strutt, Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson. Other readers might well select quite differently. For the future, the combined rarity-and-interest criterion is far from exhausted, whether we continue to apply it to individual texts or to authors’ oeuvres.
Novels on Line is useful to many scholars working across the field of long-eighteenth-century fiction. If it helps to produce just one critical-historical monograph devoted to just one of these undervalued, novelists, as well as hopefully dozens of engaged readers for her, it will have succeeded even beyond the ambitions with which it set out.
Grundy received her degrees from Oxford University; worked for six years in Finland, London, and New York; and from 1971, taught at Queen Mary College (now Queen Mary and Westfield College), and London University. She then moved to Edmonton from Britain in 1990 after being offered a prestigious Henry Marshall Tory professorship.
Grundy says that over the years, she has drawn inspiration for her work through her love of teaching, the pursuit of knowledge, working closely with colleagues and friends, and the social aspect of the community of 18th-century studies. Her areas of research interest are women writers in English from the Medieval period through the long 18th century. According to one of Grundy's colleagues, Dr Juliet McMaster, "Isobel has an enviable grasp on a rich and complex period [the 18th century] … and her ability to call on vivid details of the period enlivens her teaching." Among her individual heroes, Grundy emphasizes two accomplished writers in particular: Samuel Johnson and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
With Patricia Clements and Susan Brown, Grundy established the groundbreaking Orlando Project, the first full, collaborative scholarly history of women's writing in the British Isles, and produced Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, published online by Cambridge University Press. In addition, she has authored an extensive biography entitled Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Comet of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press 1999), and was co-author/editor of The Feminist Companion to Literature in English.