Two Penguins enter, one Penguin leaves

I mentioned in my previous post that I recently read and greatly enjoyed Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, unfinished though it may be. Part of my enjoyment of it–indeed, of my pleasure in all the Victorian door-stoppers I’ve made my way through in the past 18 months–was reading every single footnote provided by the hardworking editors of my reading copies.

I think all or most of my Victorian novels have been either Penguin Classics or Oxford World Classics, and that’s been intentional. I took only two half credits in Victorian literature in all my time in university and I didn’t feel I could read these novels “blind” as it were. I needed editions done up by experts in the field so I would know both what the books and I were about while I was reading them. Really, it’s been amazing–like studying for a comprehensive exam in Victorian Lit that I’ll have to write no sooner than, say 2025. It’s been informative, leisurely bliss.

I haven’t been satisfied at every footnoted turn, of course; things that should have been footnoted but weren’t–for example, ALL that French dialogue in Villette–have left me scratching my head more than a few times. But imagine my surprise, my horror, my disappointment, and indeed my scorn when a goodly number of pages into George Gissing’s The Odd Women (Penguin Classics edition) I realized there were no footnotes at all. I stared in distraction, at nothing; I bit my lip absently and wrung my hands hardly; I gnashed my teeth just a little, but then I remembered I both need and like my teeth and I stopped.

I fell to thinking. I realized something very unusual for me: I had no idea where this book had come from. I didn’t know how long I’d had it. I could recall packing it and unpacking it through a number of moves, and that was all I knew of its mysterious appearance in my collection. The mystery was soon solved, however, when I discovered the receipt tucked between some pages near the end of the novel. It informed me that said book was purchased at Novel Idea, 156 Kingston Street, K7L 1B1, at 10:47 am on July 27….2002. I’ve been carrying this book around for 10 years; the shame of it all temporarily distracted me from the larger issue of the lack of editorial presence in this volume. It reminded my why I began 2012 committed to buying no books this year, and how spectacularly, show-stoppingly, thoroughly I have failed; but more on this anon.

The Odd Women is afflicted by a significant and disheartening editorial absence, my friends. One of the main characters, Virginia Madden, is a vegetarian. Questions: What would inspire such a choice in the late 18oos? Is this likely a moral, religious, or health choice–or is it, perhaps, simply a function of poverty? Maybe she simply nurses a deep and abiding crush on P.B. Shelley? How would other people at the time have looked upon such a choice? What the hell besides bread and cheese (and brandy!) would she have eaten? A quick Google search, of course, answers most of these questions (and some surprise me incredibly–the British Vegetarian Society has been continually in action since 1848!!) but I like not to adulterate my reading with an excess of trips to the Wikipedia.

Other questions: Miss Barfoot runs a sort of school teaching women of a certain class what are essentially secretarial skills, including typing. My first question being, of course, “There were typewriters in the 19th century??” Well, this is perhaps not surprising but no Victorian novel I’ve hitherto read has seen fit to espouse any technology more advanced than whalebone corsets, guns, and smelling salts. Background, please, Editor? “Sorry,” Dr. Showalter says as she waves dismissively, “I am too busy for such trifles.”

Now, it may be that much of this and many other historical tidbits are dealt with in the introduction. But you know I can’t read the introduction until I’ve finished the novel proper! Introductions almost invariably contain plot details that I absolutely insist on not knowing until I read about them in the unfolding of the plot in the bloody book. Verdict: I’m really enjoying The Odd Women but I feel as though I’m reading in a badly lit room.

Now, Wives and Daughters: Pam Morris provides a seriously robust editorial map to help laypersons like me through the maze of an unfamiliar past. I adore her. But she does make one critical error: she sometimes includes references to future plot details in footnotes. Dr. Morris! Footnotes in novels are for explaining historical details, allusions to/quotations from other texts, geographical information, etc. They are NOT for telling me 50 pages in that the heroine is going to fall in love with my Lord Muck-Muck and that he will not immediately reciprocate. This is especially egregious given that Dr. Morris was so thoughtful as to suggest that I might want to save the Introduction for later because she gives the whole damned story away there.

That said, I’ll take Morris’s sometimes over-excited intrusions over Showalter’s radio silence any day. My biggest question is this: why did Penguin okay such a paltry offering from Showalter? Was her name more important (because she is, really, a big damned fish in a large but crowded and somewhat incestuous academic pond) than the end product? Because I have no doubt any number of highly qualified and newly minted PhDs in Vic Lit would have done a dirty deal at any crossroads you might care to name to have gotten their hands on this editorial job.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. heidenkind says:

    I’m pretty sure I have books in my TBR pile that are 10 years old, too. Or more.

    Vegetarianism… I don’t know about the late 1800s, but in the Edwardian Era vegetarianism was popular among suffragettes and there were several vegetarian restaurants in London that catered to women. Was Virginia a suffragette (or whatever the late 1800 equivalent was)?

    1. Colleen says:

      She definitely wasn’t a suffragette; she was an unemployed alcoholic!! That’s really cool about those early veg restaurants in London, by the way.

  2. Biblibio says:

    I’m a pretty big fan of footnotes, often even in books that wouldn’t traditionally require it (I’m mostly thinking of modern translated fiction, in which I’ve found footnotes to be particularly useful in explaining a specific translation, or a specific bit of culture gap). I can see where you’re coming from with The Odd Women. I can’t imagine why Penguin would forgo footnotes for it…

  3. Colleen says:

    I enjoy footnotes in translated works too but I don’t often see such editions. We must be reading different works in translation. šŸ™‚

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