Editing Felicia Hemans for the Twenty-First Century[Record]

  • Susan J. Wolfson

…more information

  • Susan J. Wolfson
    Princeton University

Editor's Note

Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters and Reception Materials will be available in December 2000 from Princeton University Press (ISBN: 0-691-0529-5 - Price: US$49.50; £30). You can find more information about this edition at the Princeton University Press website.

I have just completed a major edition of Felicia Hemans from Princeton University Press (650+ pages), scheduled for debut for this year's MLA convention (Washington, 2000). This edition constitutes the first scholarly work-up of this important writer, and the most substantial collection of her works and letters ever to appear. Although my colleagues in the field (and a bit beyond) have been saying "it's about time!", our perspective could not have been more at odds with that of potential publishers back in the mid-1990s, when I began to test interest in such an edition. In the wake of fresh critical work on Hemans and her reappearance in the newer, progressive classroom anthologies, we academics thought the time was right and ripe for a modern, capably edited presentation to support our scholarly inquiries and critical discussions. Indeed, our need was painfully self-evident: except for a few unannotated facsimile volumes, Hemans was long, long ago out of print. The last single volume was Oxford's (1914, reprinted for a few decades after), and it was woefully inadequate, even when it could be had from a used-book dealer or library shelf. The new anthologies were some help, but not enough. We needed wider range of texts (especially the long poems) than what anthologies could reasonably provide; we also needed to establish, if not standardize, the texts (sifting errata from variants and explaining the latter); we needed the letters (from and to Hemans); we needed to be able to study her reception in her day and across her century. The relevant materials were scattered around the globe in various research-level libraries and archives, from California, to South Carolina, to Princeton, to Boston, to Oxford, to Liverpool, to London, to Edinburgh. Those with the good fortune to have access to major research libraries and archives, or funding for a series of nifty research-trips, were less handicapped, but even for these fortunate ones, basic editorial services were lacking. A generation or so ago, producing a capably researched, standard edition of an important writer (even a minor, but interesting writer [e.g. Praed]) was the kind of thing that scholarly presses did fairly routinely, did with pride. But by the 1990s, with decreasing library sales and escalating production costs, with the diminishing number of poetry-readers in society at large and even in academia, and with a sense, therefore, that an edition of a poet, let alone a coterie poet, did not promise profits, editors at these presses regretfully, politely, but firmly declined to take on Hemans. Among those I approached without success (sometimes without even reply) were Penguin, Longman, Kentucky, Cambridge, Oxford, Ashgate, St. Martins. The enterprising Broadview Press (which was sponsoring Judith Pascoe's admirable edition of Mary Robinson [1999], and Jerome McGann and Daniel Reiss's equally impressive edition of L.E.L. [1997]) was willing to undertake their kind of edition of Hemans, but they felt unable to supply any more pages than the best anthology selections already available from Duncan Wu, Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak, and Paula Feldman. A Broadview edition, I thought, would complement but not really provide an advance over these treatments: I had a choice of supplying a couple of long poems, but not much else, or several shorter poems, but not the longer ones; and if I wanted to include letters or reception materials, there would be even less space for the poetry. The profession (scholars, critics, graduate students) was ready for the next phase—a library-quality, sophisticated work-up, with the opportunity to present Hemans's important long works. I decided to risk preparing an edition ...