Saturday, June 14, 2008

Jane Austen and the case of the tea and crumpets

'Do you miss teaching?' a friend asked the other day when I was reminiscing fondly about some tutorial-room occurrence or other, and the answer was a qualified No. But every now and then I see or hear something that makes me think 'If I were still teaching ...', and checking out the blog of the admirable and formidable 19th century scholar Ellen Moody this morning gave me one such moment.

If I were still teaching, and especially if I were still teaching the subject I always loved teaching most, 'Women and fiction in the 19th century', in which almost every student almost every year was highly motived, highly literate, enthusiastic and self-starting, I would use this post of Moody's to take advantage of the current enthusiasm for all things Jane Austen and introduce my students to the concepts of textual scholarship, practical semiotics, academic disagreement over facts and the interpretation of facts, the history of feminism, and the uses of literature in the study of social (and other) history and historiography.

Not even the ill-advisedly pejorative use of the word 'catty' would discourage me from using this post as a teaching tool. It's a dense discussion of scholarly detail and disagreement, but it's lavishly illustrated with some quite wonderful pictures to help you get your breath and keep up. And, like the great scholar she is, Moody provides a summary overview before going into detail:

A few days ago now I posted about the controversy among Austen scholars over Chapman’s 1923 scholarly textual editing of all Austen’s novels. The question as I understood it was, Are the differences between the original published texts and Chapman’s edited versions so frequent and pervasive to leave a different impression and change the meaning or feel of Austen’s texts significantly. ...

I’ve come to the conclusion there’s more than a debate over which copy text to use going on here; the conflict is also between different agendas which shape how the different groups want to understand Austen’s life, political outlook, the history of the biography, and conservative, kitsch or heritage-style Janeism. In brief, Kathryn Sutherland, Claudia Johnson, and others abjure a perceived picturesqueness & tea-and-crumpets quaint feel in the original Oxfords; they argue strongly against a complacent Janeism & patriarchal elitism, which they think Chapman’s edition helps sustain. They’re indignant at how he accepted the Austen family censorship and shaping of Austen’s life. By contrast, the individual editors of the Cambridge edition (which includes Deirdre LeFaye) and Janet Todd are comfortable with Chapman’s choices for basic text, his scholarly decisions (which they build upon, together with the over 80 years of scholarship since says Todd), and paternalistic conservative outlook (at least no one seems to mind it). ...

Have I ever said that my Austen books fill a 7-shelf 3 feet-across bookcase. I have it in my room. As I also keep my Trollope books in my room (in a similar filled bookcase), I have these beloved books near me. As a friend said, Close at hand, near to heart.

15 comments:

Helen said...

Not even the ill-advisedly pejorative use of the word 'catty' would discourage me from using this post as a teaching tool.

Yes, I can see how that would have stung.

Zoe said...

Beg pardon for OT, Pav, but I think you would enjoy this post by Miss Schlegel hugely, if you have not already.

Bernice said...

"It’s sometimes true the author’s first text was the superior one; sometimes the last corrected one is. It’s a matter of judgement and taste."
So the text is not immutable, but a shape-shifter then? By virtue of taste?

Ampersand Duck said...

Oh god, Bernice, don't go there. There are trenches dug between scholarly editors warring over that issue... very much like history wars. In fact, to get the general gist, watch this (I've been watching it at least once a week since Laura posted it and it doesn't stop getting funnier or more true)

Pavlov's Cat said...

Bernice, I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at there. It's not entirely clear in the way she phrases it, but I read Moody's point as being that if there are two or more authorial versions then an editor has to choose which one to use in a new edition, and that's where is must become a matter of judgement (and 'taste' if they must), because what else is there? Moody makes what I think is the very powerful point that 19th century women authors often watered down and bowdlerised their work for second editions, after they had been suitably ticked off and chastened for being unwomanly or coarse or whatever.

It is actually true that the text is often a shape-shifter. I'm currently working on a team putting together a big anthology and several of the items I chose for inclusion had been published in at least two different versions, one of them in three (once in a magazine, once in a collection of short stories and once as the opening section of a book), all substantially different texts. I know this writer and his work needs a lot of copy-editing, so all three versions would have contained substantial editorial intervention.

That is, it was a particularly mutable text and I had to make a decision about which version to use, and I suppose to some extent that must have been a matter of taste. (I'm fairly sure Moody is using the word 'taste' in a denotatively neutral kind of way.)

Bernice said...

Twas the word "taste" that had my hair standing on end - clarification gratefully accepted. I would expect Moody's (or other's of her calibre) choices to be based on nuanced and close readings, historical knowledge, text & reading knowledges, and was a bit taken aback at "taste" getting a running.

Bernice said...

Damn - apologies re extra apostrophe - especially in light of the later post...(slinks off, carrying tail twixt legs..)

Pavlov's Cat said...

Hahahahaha -- no, it's only writers and editors for book publication who aren't supposed to get these things wrong, not ephemeral blog commenters. I had to really think about that apostrophe, too, in the context of your sentence. It'd probably be "... or others' of her calibre ..." -- it's still possessive, just plural.

lucy tartan said...

Ellen is commenting on the Cambridge edition of the works of Jane Austen - you can now buy the whole set of ten volumes for the entirely reasonable and affordable and realistic price of a thousand pounds sterling. Because of this not many people have had a chance to see them and use them. Once they go into paperback and circulate I think there will be less arguing about either their merits or the transparency and good faith of the editorial decisions and principles adopted.

On the 'taste' or 'preference' issue, a few points:

I agree with &Duck, it's really best not to go there. Positions do get entrenched, people become vindictive and hostile (though in this specific case, not everyone has been equally unfriendly) and ultimately, it all amounts to trivial, forgettable stoushing, best not dwelt on if that means less time is available for more essential aspects of literary study.

There is only a real question about which edition to follow with Mansfield Park. And it is a real question, with pros and cons for each option. FWIW the Cambridge edition reproduces the later text, because we know Austen used it to correct mistakes and printer 'corrections' in the first one, but it also prints all the variants at the bottom of each page so that ultimately the reader has access to all the evidence.

I have no time at all for claims that Chapman's edition has a nostalgic or circumscribing agenda. I know those claims are uninformed - about how careful and cautious Chapman's edition is, and how well it balances readerly enjoyment with good scholarship. For tea and crumpets and projections of fussy femininity see the editions publishers were doing just before Chapman's appeared.

I worked for two years for the editor of the Cambridge MP, and he allowed me to edit the text of Lovers' Vows which is printed in it.

Pavlov's Cat said...

I know almost nothing about the stoushing qua stoushing, only that the precision and detail of the Ellen Moody post in following the stoush made me almost nostalgic for academia. However trivial the stoushers' differences in the real world, I still think this post would be a good object lesson at least for undergraduate students, most of whom have no idea of what goes on behind the scenes of their set texts.

Zoe -- thank you for the link to Miss Schlegel and her faithful hound. I really should read that blog more often.

lucy tartan said...

I understand that, Dr Pav. Bernice's entirely justified comment about taste made me decide to comment even though it really wasn't to the point of what you've written. I just wanted to muddy the waters a little.

I think students can and should learn the habit of scrutinising their texts but initially at least they can do this by studying the editions they use just as editors have to do. If they really get into the issue, they'll figure out the personalities and agendas stuff on their own.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Yes, I'd thought that it was probably the implications of "taste" that got Bernice going there, and rightly so as you say.

Also, I found the history wars YouTube thingy painfully close to home, even after ten years out of the academy.

Ann O'Dyne said...

a person described as 'catty' could
merely mean they were having a

"HISS! (scratch) "
moment, and all the best cats do you know.

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