A Compendious System

3D front cover of Lectures on Natural Philosophy by Margaret BryanIn trying times for all but a few authors and their publishers, technology seems to offer new ways of getting into print (whether real or virtual). Print-on-demand, for example, makes feasible such projects as the Cambridge Library Collection (where our best-sellers are numbered in tens rather than hundreds of thousands), as well as author-published individual works. Publishing yourself on the web is easy and almost free of cost – though it should not be inferred from this that publishers can or should make all their content free to view, ignoring the considerable expense of peer review, editing, design and copy-editing, typesetting and proofing, publicity and marketing, all of which happens in exactly the same way whether the ultimate product is printed or online. Once a book is printed and distributed, that’s it, as far as the publisher is concerned (or at least until the reprint (we hope) or new edition (ditto)); whereas online publication requires continuous and continual maintenance of increasingly sophisticated delivery platforms which need to be available 365/24/7 – and IT staff need paying: most inconsiderately, they don’t seem to want to do it for love alone. (End of rant.)

Even before print-on-demand, so-called ‘vanity’ publishing was an option: the author pays the publisher to produce, and perhaps market, a certain number of copies of the book. ‘Vanity’ is of course a derogatory term, but it ignores the fact that, historically, ‘author pays’ was the norm. (Famously, Jane Austen’s father tried – unsuccessfully – to get Thomas Cadell to publish First Impressions (later reworked and renamed Pride and Prejudice) ‘at the author’s risk’, and it was not unusual for the author to pay for paper and printing – binding was frequently done to the specifications, and at the expense, of the individual purchaser.

Another publishing model which may be making a comeback is the subscription. In 2000 Stephen King attempted to publish a novel in instalments online: the reading public was expected to pay a dollar for each episode to keep them coming. After massive initial interest, the work was never issued in its entirety. But another way to go which I have seen mooted recently is the ‘real’ subscription model: put very simply, you advertise to your potential readership that you propose to publish a book; ask them to pay in advance for their copy; and if enough sign up, you may be able to cover your origination costs. Print (POD) as many copies as you have subscribers, and any subsequent extra sales will then (we hope) put you into profit. Henry Cooper’s three-volume Athenae Cantabrigienses of 1858 was one of very many books financed in this way in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in our reissue of Volume 1 we have included the printed ‘Prospectus’ which he circulated to attract subscribers.

It was usual in these circumstances to list the subscribers at the beginning (or end) of the book. The teacher Mrs Margaret Bryan does so in her Compendious System of Astronomy, published in 1797: the names are ordered by letters of the alphabet, but apparently in rank order inside each letter. Thus, ‘A’ begins splendidly with ‘His Grace the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury’, and ‘B’ with Right Honorable [sic] Lord Americus Beauclerk’. A whole extended Essex family (one assumes) named Nottidge subscribed –  Josiah and Mrs of Bocking, Thomas and Mrs (ditto), John-Thomas, of Trinity College, Cambridge (3 copies), Josiah junior, of Bocking, Reverend John of Aslington, William, of Russell Street,  London, and George of Warmingford. A number of Mrs and Misses appear, and several of the ‘misses’ have the address ‘Bryan House’: it is safe to assume that these are pupils at Mrs Bryan’s boarding school for girls, located first in Blackheath near London, and then at Margate, on the Kent coast.

Sadly, not much is known Margaret Bryan except her writings: the ODNB has her ‘flourishing’ between 1795 and 1816, but this is on the basis of the dates of her first book and of her move to Margate. (The Orlando Women’s Writing website has a bit more information, but mostly speculative.) Her engraved portrait, with her two daughters, appears as a frontispiece (and adorns our cover).  Most unusually for her time, she included maths and sciences as part of her curriculum, and this book (dedicated not to any of the usual suspects, like Sir Joseph Banks or minor royalty, but to her pupils) is a compilation of her lectures, though not just on astronomy. She begins with optics and the nature of light (using an argument also found in Paley and (later) in the Bridgewater Treatises): ‘Do we not perceive [the eye’s] fitness to the office assigned to it? and do we not from thence infer, the power and wisdom of that Being who constructed it?’ The second ‘lecture’ (of ten) is on the origin and history of astronomy (including the calendar), and the third on the Copernican system (including the recently discovered planet Uranus (here given William Herschel’s name for it, ‘Georgium sidus’)).

The work covers all aspects of astronomy, including the measuring of distances in space, parallaxes, the significance of the transit of Venus, gravity and weight, how to use an orrery, atmospheric pressure, the aurora borealis… It is written in an accessible, almost chatty, style, but the science is guaranteed by the approbation of Charles Hutton, whose letter to the author praising her work is reproduced in her preface.  She quotes from Newton, Flamsteed, Herschel and Halley, but also enlivens the discourse with poetry: Milton, Mrs Carter (who was a subscriber), James Thomson, Christopher Smart.

The final lecture ends with a valediction to her pupils in which she hopes that she has succeeded ‘in having excited your attention to those subjects, which will furnish you with arguments to confute the unbelieving – consolation to soften your sorrows – elevation of ideas to heighten your joys, – and with such a disposition of mind as will secure your happiness both here and hereafter’. The book however continues, with ‘Elements of trigonometry’, a section of trigonometrical and ‘celestial’ problems, and various tables and vocabulary lists to aid the student. Its success, and the endorsement by Hutton, seem to have encouraged Bryan to produce a second volume, in the same lectures-plus-appendices form: her Lectures on Natural Philosophy (1806) cover mechanics, pneumatics and acoustics, magnetism and electricity. What a pity that so little is known about the life of a woman who was clearly so far ahead of her time in her view of appropriate education for women.


This entry was posted in Astronomy, Biography, Education, Physical Sciences, Women's Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Compendious System

  1. Stephen Barber says:

    Famously, Dr Johnson’s dictionary was funded on a subscription basis, but by the time the book was published he had lost the list!

  2. Pingback: Inspiring Women | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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