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The creation of a literary edition for teaching purposes has been something of a science for many years. As a perusal of the course texts at my university’s bookstore confirmed, there are specific functions that most reputable presses wish to see addressed, as well as particular requirements for appealing to instructors considering the texts for different types of courses. Editions are expected to have a table of relevant dates, an introduction, annotations to the primary text and a list of suggested further readings. As scholars working on the nineteenth century know, however, many sciences have also proved to be highly experimental, indeed creative. Similarly, the key questions that presses ask those who wish to edit a work is why a new edition of a particular work or set of works is needed and what innovations the prospective editor might have with regard to their envisioned product. These questions are especially important with regard to popular canonical texts.
Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, can already be found in both scholarly and mainstream editions, on its own and combined with other writings by Wilde. It exists as a play, a film, an illustrated novel, a graphic novel, an e-text and an audio text. At the moment, I can get a copy for the price of a medium latte or pay around $85,000 for Will Rothenstein’s signed, gilt-edge, first-impression first edition, still in its green morocco solander box. With Andrew Elfenbein’s 2007 edition of Wilde’s novella for the Longman Cultural Edition series, the key question then is whether it stands out in any way among all the options.
Most scholarly editions intended for the classroom are, like Elfenbein’s, well edited and annotated, and more than satisfactory for standard post-secondary teaching purposes. The Longman edition, like many others, contains a list of key historical dates, complemented by brief explanations of the relevance of some of the more important ones. While the edition includes some less obviously relevant and unexplained items–such as the years in which Adolph Hitler and Eleanor Roosevelt were born–Elfenbein has done a better job than most in keeping the intended audience of students in mind not only in selecting occasions to note but also in situating them in relation to Wilde.
Elfenbein’s introduction offers readers unfamiliar with the author and his era sufficient biographical information and no more, which is appropriate in light of the fact that so much is readily available elsewhere. Students would be well energized by the subjects addressed in the introduction, as well as the contextual materials that make up over a quarter of the book and are divided into the categories of “Textual Issues,” “Victorian Reactions to The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “Aestheticism,” “Science” and “Love between Men.” The consideration of time and aging in the introduction is original, while the familiar topics of genre and publishing history are particularly well explored. Elfenbein includes, for example, segments of Wilde’s revisions for the 1891 edition, as well as an illustration of the original title page for Dorian Gray, along with the advertising of corsets, “medicinal food” and other items that appeared on the accompanying page of the first publication. These advertisements are tantalizingly crammed with small print, but are partially illegible in this edition, which is especially unfortunate as Elfenbein does a fine job of placing Dorian Gray within the context of consumerism.
Elfenbein makes a particularly thorough effort at situating Wilde’s novella within a gay context. The homoerotic culture in which Wilde participated is highlighted by the illustrations, which include Charles Rickett’s depiction of a sleeping faun for Swinburne’s “A Nympholept” and an allegorical self-portrait by Simeon Solomon. The selection of Ricketts’s piece is well explained, but that of Solomon is not as obvious and Will Rothenstein’s painting of Charles Conder is even less so. The selective comparison of the 1890 and 1891 editions of the novella is intended, Elfenbein notes, to focus on issues of sexuality, and he also presents material from the court trials and a collection of excerpts under the category of “Love between Men” that includes writing by John Addington Symonds, Richard St. John Tyrwhitt and Havelock Ellis. Walter Pater’s “Conclusion” to The Renaissance is also available in the section on “Aestheticism,” along with excerpts from Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours and Wilde’s “Decay of Lying.” Elfenbein’s edition works as an undergraduate teaching text because it supplies sufficient secondary materials and explanations for developing four solid areas of discussion, but the text stands out because it constructs these contexts through suggestive explorations that are often refreshingly original.
Like Elfenbein’s edition, Susan J. Wolfson and Barry V. Qualls’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Secret Sharer, and Transformation: Three Tales of Doubles includes a table of dates, selection of illustrations and suggestions for further readings. The book’s aim, however, is somewhat different. It is, as the editors state, a collection of stories about human doubling. The three primary texts and supplementary materials coalesce specifically around psychological notions of the double and the other, making the book particularly appropriate for courses in science and literature. The suggested additional readings reinforce this theme, rather than propose alternatives.
In addition to Mary Shelley’s “Transformation” (1830), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer (1909), Wolfson and Qualls offer Shelley’s poem “Absence,” part of her 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, two excerpts from Charles Darwin, ten poems from Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, his “Chapter on Dreams,” an extensive collection of commentary on Jekyll and Hyde up to recent times, an excerpt from Max Nordau’s Degeneration and letters and reviews dealing with The Secret Sharer. The inclusion of one of Shelley’s poems and some of Stevenson’s was an enlightened choice that allows some interesting cross-genre comparisons.
Of the 239 pages of this book, 132 are explicitly connected to Stevenson, 56 to Conrad and 28 to Shelley. This emphasis encourages one to see Shelley’s and Conrad’s writing as contextual material for Stevenson’s work, an approach encouraged by the editors’ decision to list Jekyll and Hyde first in their title. Nevertheless, this edition would perhaps not be the best choice for an edition of Stevenson’s novella because its editorial purpose does not include addressing various approaches to the author’s work. Nor does it take fully into account the extensive amount of research that has been done on the author over the last 15 years, especially in the fields of postcolonial studies, sexuality studies, gothic studies and children’s studies.
The editors’ aim was not to publish an edition focussing on any one text or author. Rather, they wished to address a concept popular in nineteenth-century British literature–that of the psychological double. In that regard, Wolfson and Quall’s edition is an innovative experiment. With its emphasis on the field of science, the work actually partners nicely with Elfenbein’s edition, which also includes a contextual module on science. It is encouraging to see that, despite the creation of scholarly editions having itself become in large part a science, some of those who take on the task retain something of the experimentation and creativity associated with the arts.
Dennis Denisoff is a Research Associate in the English Department at Ryerson University, Toronto. In addition to authoring scholarly monographs, he has edited Queeries: An Anthology of Canadian Gay Male Prose (Arsenal Pulp, 1993) and Victorian Short Stories (Broadview, 2004), and co-edited George Du Maurier’s Trilby (Oxford UP, 1995).