Editing Women

Article excerpt

It is not only a laborious but a very humble office to correct the writings of another.

R. L. Edgeworth(1)

Until the 1970s, few academics in most English-speaking universities expected to teach more than a handful of women writers, virtually all of whom were nineteenth- and twentieth-century novelists. Otherwise the work of dead women poets, letter-writers, historians, polemicists and scores more worthwhile novelists was not available to be taught. It had never gone into classroom editions, which must be both cheap and accurate. Well-thumbed Victorian copies, weighting the shelves of British second-hand bookshops, were cheap all right, but it was hard to tell if a particular text was the "right" one, or if it had cuts or additions or was otherwise embarrassingly at odds with other available versions. Pioneer feminist critics of the 1970s could trumpet the qualities of some of these now-neglected writers, but not teach their extended oeuvres. And, crucially, while any newly-recovered woman's text remained unestablished it proved hard to subject it to that subtle, observant attention that invites the reader to work alongside the critic.

Early Burney, Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf were reasonably well off from the fifties to the seventies, to the extent that they were quite as available and in demand as male novelists. But the same was not true of a sizeable group of women writers of equal or near-equal status - Behn, Astell, Wortley Montagu, Edgeworth, Baillie, Mary Shelley, Hemans, Martineau, Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti and Nightingale. While their texts remained unsecured and most of their works unavailable to modern scrutiny, these women continued to be viewed by most of the academy as second-class citizens of the republic of letters. Even feminist critics adopted a view which is not always grounded on historical evidence, but on the impression left by modern publishing facts: the view that until our time women have been largely excluded from that republic.

Canonicity is too often treated as the monolithic construct of Society, Culture, Patriarchy, the Academy: the rationalizable policy of an elite group with a clearly-defined interest in maintaining its position. Undoubtedly male dominance of first nineteenth-century journalism, then the twentieth-century academy, posthumously distorted the nature of general culture by favoring difficult and cross-referential writing. Even so the most powerful constraints on the syllabus now (and, come to that, late-Enlightenment and mid-Victorian periods of the "rise" of the professional woman writer) surely follow from the commercial needs of publishers. Recent takeovers and mergers in publishing, developments which disadvantage both the small inefficient "art" publishing-house and the small-circulation title, are in principle nothing new. Classic or not, a minority book is one that current commercially driven publishers aren't going to rush to keep in print. Their predecessors may look more disinterested: more traditional libraries still after all display massive and definitive biographies, letters and collected works of, say, Horace Walpole or Carlyle. The money to pay for these was got back from grants, gifts, and very high prices for the set, to be found by libraries or by well-off individual scholars. Now there are not enough well-endowed libraries to sustain multi-volume editions and academic biographies.

Feminist critics usually have democratic instincts, and have to date shouted louder for cheap reading-copies, such as those obtainable from the Brown data-base, than for pompous editions. Indeed the latter have scarcely seemed a realistic possibility, in an age when the 50-volume Wordsworth looks an extravagant anachronism, and when such money as there is goes into still-experimental electronic editions. So we don't complain enough that most publishers, even the leading university presses, won't put up money or even encouragement for any but the most familiar woman's title - even though every large-scale conference proves the growth of interest in the field. …