The recovery of the work of eighteenth-century women authors, begun in earnest in the late 1970s, has been increasingly perceived as important over the years. Indeed, now we can even trace a history of the development of this recovery work. The novels by women reprinted by Virago Press in the late 70s and early 80s and by Pandora Press in the mid-80s represent the early stages in this recovery process. The Virago/Pandora editions of this period were quickly and cheaply produced, the main objective being to get the "lost" material of these eighteenth-century women writers out as soon as possible, making the works accessible to the general public and especially to students. The subsequent editions by Penguin and Oxford of some of the primary works of the more famous writers move a step further in that they include prefaces that take into account what Ros Ballaster calls the "revision generated by feminist critical debate" (348). Very recently, in the late 1990s, new scholarly editions that aim to contextualize these eighteenth-century novels by women have sprung up through the efforts of publishing houses such as the University Press of Kentucky and Broadview Press.
The ultimate goal of all these presses is a noble one: what Ballaster calls the "much-underrated task of establishing a secure textual canon for future study" (349). It is the "security" of this textual canon with which I am primarily concerned here. If the works of women like Sarah Fielding, Eliza Haywood, and Clara Reeve are to take their places beside the accepted, canonical works of such writers as Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, and Daniel Defoe, they must be treated by editors with an equal respect. Established editors have long since acknowledged the necessity for minimal editorial intervention regarding canonical male authors. J.D. Fleeman's conscientious treatment of the works of Samuel Johnson is almost legendary, and even as early as 1985 Fleeman asserted the importance of not "imposing compositorial regularity on a text which retains something of the characteristic parts of Johnson's composition" (lix). It has taken longer, however, for the texts of women writers to be treated with the same editorial seriousness. The tendency of many modern editors to tamper with the substantives and accidentals of a novel written by a so-called "unlearned" woman such as Fielding or Reeve is a regrettable one, for in intervening an editor is imposing his or her views about what is "correct" or "incorrect" on an eighteenth-century woman's writing. In altering the text, the editor is thus making it conform to other tastes (usually his or her own) or to other needs (the student's, for example, or the casual reader's), and allowing these tastes and needs to take precedence over the most important part of the equation: the voice of the author herself.
This essay will discuss two examples of recent editions (Peter Sabor's 1998 edition of Sarah Fielding's David Simple and Kathryn Sutherland's 1996 edition of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park) that have endeavored to convey the author's primary utterance as closely as possible. Such editions have a strong expressive advantage over those based on a revised, corrected second edition, and they also reveal a much greater sense of editorial responsibility to the text itself and to the woman who wrote it. Editions like Sabor's and Sutherland's serve to emphasize the desirability of minimal editorial intervention as a general principle, and I argue that this general principle is of particular relevance to other texts as well--specifically, to two novels of Clara Reeve: The Champion of Virtue (1777) and The School for Widows (1791).
Henry Fielding's Preface to his "Revised and Corrected" edition of his sister Sarah's David Simple (July 1744--first edition published in May of the same year) may be found objectionable by modern readers on many counts. Almost from the first word one reads--PREFACE printed in bold block letters at least five times the size of the others on the page--one is struck by the force of egoism behind the words. …