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New Texts and Textual Scholarship in British Literature, 1780-1830 - A Special Issue of Romanticism On the Net

  • Anthony John Harding

…plus d’informations

  • Anthony John Harding
    University of Saskatchewan

This special issue of RoN takes as its starting-point an ostensibly straightforward question: What new texts will shape discussion of British literature 1780-1830 in the first decade of the twenty-first century? Simple as this sounds, the term "new" as used here has raised some important questions. While it is almost commonplace to claim that the topic of a scholarly monograph or the critical perspective advanced in a journal article is "new," as applied to the texts that we study the term has special significance, and obvious implications for teaching as well as research.

A text may be "new"—or its editors may claim newness on its behalf—in one or more of several senses. It may be newly edited in toto from manuscript. It may have been re-edited with substantial changes from previously published versions. Or it may have been recovered from among the less-read literature of the period and may therefore be "new" in the sense of being wholly unfamiliar to all but a few specialists. These approximate definitions do not exhaust the possible implications of newness, however, since reconsideration of the "new" in Romantic-period texts can extend to questions about the nature of literary production, and of textuality itself. The widespread use of electronic media has increased our awareness of the material nature of the printed book, and this affects the reception of the printed text. Recent developments in textual scholarship (such as discoveries about the extent of collaboration between members of the Shelley-Byron circle) are changing our perception of the writing of this period. These developments also raise some very practical questions. How can editors best represent the known versions of literary works, in texts for students' or scholars' use? How will textual scholarship continue to reconfigure the anthologies, paperback editions, and other resources used in teaching the literature of the period?

The interdependence, in the current academic marketplace, of texts used in the classroom and the production of a major scholarly edition is a leading theme of Susan J. Wolfson's "Editing Felicia Hemans for the Twenty-First Century." Hemans's work, from being nearly invisible in the critical landscape of the 1970s—mentioned, if at all, only to be contemptuously dismissed—has rapidly become the subject of conference sessions, collections of essays, and special issues of journals. This revival of critical interest both feeds on and in turn gives support to the increased representation of Hemans's work in such anthologies as McGann, Mellor and Matlak, Perkins, and Wu. But the picture Wolfson gives is not one of triumphant progress towards the full recuperation of Hemans's work.

The feminism of the 1960s and 1970s dismissed Hemans's poetry as "facile" and Hemans herself as the kind of female author to be strenuously repudiated: long-suffering, affectionate rather than passionate, supremely feminine, rather than feminist. But as Wolfson shows in convincing detail, these characterisations were based on an uncritical acceptance of the Victorians' own remodelling of Hemans, a Mrs. Hemans reconstituted for the Victorian marketplace. Leading feminist scholars like Ellen Moers and Germaine Greer did not bother to read the works that were absent from Victorian editions, thereby ignoring precisely those works that would have shown Hemans's more troubled and contrarian facets. Yet the attempt by scholars of the 1980s and 1990s to reassess Hemans's significance has continued to be hampered, Wolfson argues, by the lack of a reliable critical edition.

If the modern editor of Hemans faces virtually an open field, as long as she can persuade a publisher to take on the project, the modern editor of Percy Shelley confronts a very different situation: widespread recognition of the poet's lasting significance, but an exceptionally complex, conflicted, and ideologically-fraught textual tradition, in which the protective attitude of the Shelley family, the poet's iconic status among nineteenth-century radicals as a radical thinker, and the contrary nineteenth- and twentieth-century view of him as an ethereal, Platonizing spirit who disdained such earthbound concerns as punctuation and grammar, have all played their part.

Taking his cue from Rachel Blau DuPlessis' remark that any text "contains, and is the result of a workshop...the work of several hands on deck," Neil Fraistat in "The Workshop of Shelley's Poetry" gives a concise summary of the history of Shelleyan textual scholarship. He emphasizes how successive editors have intervened to create the texts that they felt Shelley might have wanted, or ought to have wanted—even to the extent of lifting lines out of a prose letter and printing them as blank verse, thereby creating a new "poem" that takes its place in the canon. The aim of the Complete Poetry Fraistat is co-editing with Don Reiman is to "[recover] the historical status of all of Shelley's poetic texts." This means—in contrast to the Matthews/Everest edition, which juxtaposes completed poems with drafts and fragments close to them in date—distinguishing completed poems that Shelley released to a contemporary audience from drafts and fragments that he withheld from public view, or left unfinished at his death. It also means giving the primary variants of each text, enabling the reader to grasp what Fraistat calls the "biography" of the poem. The typical Reiman/Fraistat version of a work, then, will be "historical" in the sense that it will be "a critical redaction of a single version that Shelley chose to release to a particular public on a specific occasion." Fraistat also emphasizes that this edition will respect Shelley's own choices in matters of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and the "internal arrangement" of the nine volumes of work published in the poet's lifetime.

When there is no rich tradition of critical and textual study developed over many generations, when there is not even an approximate consensus about which works to include in a "Selected Poems," the prospective editor is more nearly in the position of scholar-adventurer, working without a map or compass. This role brings the thrilling sense that one may be initiating the launch (or re-launch) of a reputation, and it may even bring what Judith Pascoe describes as the "eureka" effect, when the miles of microfilm yield hidden treasure. Yet, as Pascoe also points out in "Mary Robinson and Your Brilliant Career," along with the sense that one's contribution to scholarship may put a little-known author back in the canon comes the chastening sense that the editor of an author like Mary Robinson needs help—the kind of help that can be provided only by fellow-scholars investigating the production history of poems, discovering letters and other documents, and generally giving her the same "quality time" that has been bestowed so liberally on canonical Romantics.

Difficulties of a different sort face an editor or co-editor of the selected paperback edition of a (supposedly) canonical author. One thing that Nicholas Halmi's essay on the Norton Critical Coleridge demonstrates, indeed, is how a romantic-period author can strangely achieve canonical status even though very few of his writings have been firmly and indisputably accepted as canonical. Halmi argues that what he describes as the "pedagogical canon" of Coleridge's prose is very far from representing the full significance of his work—for us, or for his contemporaries. The case of Coleridge is in fact an example of how critical tradition forms its own canon by ruthless and ultimately self-serving selectivity. The Norton edition (Halmi promises) will offer not only selections from Biographia but also from the fugitive writings—marginalia, table talk, fragmentary works, notebooks. Halmi also grasps the nettle of Coleridge's plagiarisms, indicating that this edition may well mark a new, more frank, less defensive editorial handling of this prickly issue. Here, as in most matters Coleridgean, the peculiarly contested nature of the text itself makes the "new textual scholarship" involved in its reproduction all the more significant.

Another "new" understanding of textuality is invoked in Lisa Vargo's account of the Anna Letitia Barbauld web page. While editors of print editions look nervously over their shoulders and wonder whether the Web will eventually make their work redundant, scholars who choose to devote some of their time to creating Web-based texts are discovering how the Web can make neglected or unknown works quickly available for study and critical comment, thus providing at least part of the answer to the problem Judith Pascoe identifies—the absence of a substantial body of critical opinion about less-read authors' works. Vargo also explores how a Web-based presentation of the work of a writer like Barbauld arguably returns her writings to something more like their due status. Web-based presentation reveals, through high-resolution visuals but also through the fluidity and interconnectedness that constitute the peculiar advantage of the web page, both the material features of Barbauld's texts and their manifold interconnections with other works of the period.

The critical reputation of James Hogg has languished for almost as long as that of Barbauld, but for quite different reasons. Where Barbauld was unfairly dismissed as a prim moralizer, nineteenth-century editors like the Reverend Thomas Thomson considered James Hogg's works to be immoral, uncultivated, and even boorish. Consequently the texts were thoroughly bowdlerized, offering what Douglas Mack describes as a "bland and neutered" version of Hogg's work. At the beginning of the twentieth century, not surprisingly, Hogg was generally dismissed as a minor figure. It was not until 1947, when the Cresset edition of Justified Sinner appeared, that his reputation began to revive. Mack traces the development of the Stirling/South Carolina edition (which began publication in 1995) volume by volume. Each newly-edited work poses its own unique problems and reveals unsuspected facets of Hogg's literary range and accomplishment.

Three more male writers whose work is overdue for reassessment constitute the focus of the penultimate essay, "Representing Some Late Romantic-Era, Non-Canonical Male Poets." As her essay on Hemans has already demonstrated, Susan Wolfson's credentials as a rehabilitator of neglected female poets are beyond dispute, but the beginning of her second contribution to this issue of RoN shows first of all how the enormously successful reintroduction of women's poetry to the canon of Romantic-period literature, since the 1970s, has tended to banish from the anthologies male poets like Beddoes, Clare, Campbell, Hood, Hunt, Landor, and Praed. Still, the laudable aim of seeing justice meted out, or decades of critical neglect compensated for in some ideal higher court of literary opinion, does not in itself constitute a reason for a new edition, as far as publishers are concerned: they tend to ask awkward questions like "who's going to buy new editions of these poets, and why?" Thus Wolfson's essay focuses on the appeal to the modern reader of the works of three "non-canonical" male poets, Thomas Hood, Winthrop Mackworth Praed, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Wolfson particularly singles out their varied involvement in the "material culture of publication" (gift-books and annuals, newspapers and magazines), their keen, unconventional humour, ranging from gothic-grotesque humour (Hood) to needle-sharp Austen-like social satire (Praed), and their outsiders' askance view of mid-nineteenth-century society. This will clearly be a "new text" to enjoy and to keep accessible, ready to be thrust into the hands of students and colleagues who don't believe romantic-period writers had a sense of humour.

Finally in this issue of RoN, James Powell outlines the considerations that publishers—especially publishers of scholarly editions—bring to bear in evaluating proposals for the publication of newly-edited texts. Readers of RoN who themselves may be thinking about taking a proposal to Pickering and Chatto, or any other publisher, could well approach this essay as essential reading. Even those of us not currently thinking of proposing a "new text" will find Powell's straight talk about scholarly publishing, about which editions get published and why, edifying and informative.

This special issue of RoN originated in a special session of the 1999 conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The theme of the conference was "Romanticism and the New." One paper originally delivered at that session, Nicholas Halmi's, is published here for the first time. I am grateful to the organizers of the conference, Judith Thompson and Ron Tetreault, for the opportunity to mount a conference session that encouraged discussion not only of colleagues' scholarly and critical interests, but also of issues in current textual scholarship (including the usefulness of various forms of electronic text), and the changing scholarly and pedagogical needs of the profession. I would also like to thank Sharon Ford and Pat Harpell, University of Saskatchewan, for helping me to negotiate the technical complexities involved in collecting and assessing submissions for an electronic journal.