Skipping

Claudia Johnson

  • The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel: From Richardson to George Eliot by Leah Price
    Cambridge, 224 pp, £35.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 521 78208 2

Where other studies have examined the history of the novel in relation to romance, to the rise of the middle class or to emergent forms of subjectivity – the discours du jour – Leah Price looks at novels in relation to the history of the book, and to the proliferation of anthologies in particular. It is a refreshing change: most histories and theories of ‘the’ novel have not been very curious about what and how distinct audiences read. Price rectifies this inattention by reminding us that novels (or versions of them) were often anthologised. Most modern readers will never have heard of Beauties of Sterne, the Wit and Wisdom of Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot’s Sayings, or the Thomas Hardy Calendar, and the few who have actually looked inside such volumes will have done so only because the ‘real’ copy of the novel they were seeking had already been taken out of the library. Trained in a system which encourages the dutiful reading of complete novels, academically inclined readers consider these anthologies as quaint at best and, at worst, vulgar, even heretical. Price traces the origins of such attitudes, and shows how the rise of the novel has to do not with denunciations of class privilege, as is often claimed, but rather with assertions of privilege on the part of different sections of the novel-reading public. But she also examines the concurrent and interpenetrating careers of anthologies and novels to show not only how the former absorbed and transformed the latter, but also, and more strikingly, how the latter have uneasily contended with the former.

Price acknowledges that her arguments appear to be counterintuitive. The sheer size of novels would seem to make a mockery of the extract – the defining feature of anthologies. And because novels were commonly considered to corrupt morals, the enterprise of gathering instructive maxims and touchstones from them would have been doomed from the start. Observing that anthology pieces become virtually synonymous with lyric poems only in the late 19th century, however, Price demonstrates that anthologies played a crucial role in the novel’s ascent to respectability, though the early stages of that rise were marked by the tendency of anthologies to blur the distinctions between drama, novels and poetry by making everything read like instructive or inspirational lyrics. ‘In the hands of its editors,’ she writes persuasively, ‘the novel rose piecemeal: islands of lyric or didactic or sententious collectibles bobbing up occasionally from a sea of dispensable narrative. The novel could not have become respectable without the tokenism embodied in the anthology.’

Anthologies are not just a condition of the literary marketplace today (lamentably so for aspiring poets and playwrights), they are also a feature of the classroom – this is a format in which academic trends and the interests of the publishing business conspicuously converge. The purposes, premises and effects of anthologies have been at issue during the culture wars of the past decades, with some editors attempting to create new canons or restore old ones by reprinting hitherto ‘excluded’ or ‘forgotten’ writers, and others, like the former US Education Secretary William Bennett, fatuously asserting the existence of a common culture based on great texts which were claimed to have the power to inculcate wisdom and virtue in all readers, as if anthologies like his were the product of an apolitical consensus among the reading public rather than a political attempt to bring one about. Price uncovers the antecedents of these attempts in such anthologies as William Enfield’s The Speaker (1774) and Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s The Female Speaker (1811), which tried to shape the tastes of readers in progressive ways, or Vicesimus Knox’s many editions of Elegant Extracts, which claim that the selections are so self-evidently worthy as to be above controversy and the caprices of individual taste. At the same time, Price refuses to be limited by content-driven polemics, taking the anthology seriously as a genre that serves distinct publics. Equally attentive to the consumers as to the authors of books, she examines what the development of anthologies tells us about the status and stature of novels, about the ways different audiences read novels, and how the reading of novels emerged from and in turn reproduced fantasies about family, leisure, class and gender.

The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel opens with a brilliant consideration of Samuel Richardson’s career. In addition to writing three important and influential novels – which take the form of letters compiled, edited, arranged, prefaced, annotated or excerpted by an inscribed editor, and in which the appropriation and quotation of other people’s words is a vexed issue – Richardson was concerned about threats to his intellectual property. He wrote pre-emptive abridgments and anthologised versions of his own novels, and so is a perfect test-case for Price. Her book is rich in insights, among the most striking that the process of skimming is like abridging, and that the process of skipping is like anthologising. This observation is delightfully scandalous: very few people, and even fewer academics, ever publicly admit to being bored by long novels, to skimming them, or to skipping to passages which seem more interesting. Samuel Johnson’s admission that there were few books he felt compelled to read all the way through might license us to think of the length of Richardson’s novels as an inducement to skim or skip. Readers of Richardson – to say nothing of Radcliffe, Scott or Eliot – have not always submitted docilely to the distinctive demands of pace and duration that novels make, and abridgments and anthologies have been on hand to satisfy their craving for high culture on easier terms.

But this alone does not account for the phenomena of abridgments and anthologies. Once again Johnson’s remarks are instructive, for when he observed that one must read Richardson for the ‘sentiment’, and not, on pain of being suicidally ‘fretted’, for the ‘story’, he called attention to two competing and gendered modes of reading, or (which amounts to the same thing) to two groups of readers who did not enjoy the same cultural authority. As Price demonstrates, during the 18th century narrative impatience – the drive to read rapidly and unreflectively for story, as Johnson would say, rather than sentiment – was associated with women readers. Male readers were credited with the capacity as well as the inclination to read discriminately and reflectively for what Richardson described as ‘the Pith & Marrow’, which was imagined to be distinguishable as well as detachable from the dross of narrative. The proliferation of abridgments and anthologies was thus not simply a matter of booksellers making a buck – though the commodification of high culture is of great interest to Price – but an attempt to serve distinct audiences with decidedly different ideas about novels and different pleasures in them.

As someone who took credit for developing a way of writing ‘to the moment’, Richardson might seem to be on the side of ‘story’, and indeed he dismissed his own alphabetically arranged anthology, Collection of Moral and Instructive Sentiments (1755) as ‘Dull Morality and Sentences … divested of Story’. Nor was he averse to satisfying some readers’ craving for swift and untrammelled ‘story’, although his seldom examined abridgment of his novels, The Paths of Virtue Delineated: or, the History in Miniature of the Celebrated Pamela, Clarissa Harlowe, and Sir Charles Grandison (1756), makes it clear that in dispensing with the prolixities of the epistolary style Richardson sacrifices the element that had made his novels so vivid and ‘to the moment’ in the first place. But Richardson’s novels are also infamously dense with the sort of indexical material – maxims, detachable and non-narrative sententiae begging to be excerpted – that we find in anthologies. Price convincingly argues that these non or even anti-narrative ‘sentiments’ are designed not to instil specific moral lessons but rather to regulate reading pace, to teach unformed and undisciplined minds how to read by slowing them down and thwarting their appetite for story. The tension between story and sentiment, with fast-paced abridgments, on the one hand, and ‘strategically boring’ anthologies, on the other, is thus a fundamental part of the structure of Richardson’s novels themselves.

Placing novels against the backdrop of Knox’s elegant extractions for ‘common readers’ and Bowdler’s anti-dramatic, atemporal redactions of Shakespeare for families, Price shows how anthologies began to influence the novel by briefly considering Ann Radcliffe, whose novels compete with anthologies by borrowing their discontinuous structure, their commitment to the quotable, their ubiquitous allusions to the ‘common’ heritage of Shakespeare, and their tendency to blur the generic distinctions between drama, verse and novel. As with Richardson, the formal elements of Radcliffe’s fiction – for example, its invention of chapter mottoes, its dependence on poetry and its expansive landscape descriptions – oblige the reader to pause from the demands of plot and suspense.

Price’s most revealing discussion centres on the novels of George Eliot and their uneasy relationship to Alexander Main’s selections from her work – The George Eliot Birthday Book (1878), Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings in Prose and Verse Selected from the Works of George Eliot (1872) and Wit and Wisdom of George Eliot (1873) – which were published at a time when the valences of story and sentiment were being reassigned and their public regendered. Probably the most quoted and quotable of all the English novelists, George Eliot appears to have written her novels with the expectation that they would be excerpted in anthologies. As the most extensively anthologised novelist, she achieved canonical status not only for the novel, which could no longer be deemed frivolous or unreflective, but also for herself, because such ample evidence of wit and wisdom neutralised the scandal of her private life. Yet at the same time as she became an honorary male writer, anthologies drawing on her work were being marketed principally for women. A century earlier they would have been targeted at men. Price takes due note of this change and its implications. Instead of being figured as plot-hungry and unreflective, female audiences were now cast as platitude-hungry and self-important, while male audiences were imagined to prefer action over sententious chatter, maxims and proverbs, and to resent the efforts of female moralism to discipline male narrative pleasure. Eliot’s career as an anthologised novelist takes us to a turning point in the risen novel, and to the appearance of readerly attitudes we can recognise as decidedly modern. Professional novel criticism, as Price observes, grew out of a regendering of narrative discourse – the scandal of Eliot’s career became not her personal life, but her excessive ‘intrusions’ in a narrative flow that should be continuous and ‘organic’. Expert novel readers distinguished themselves from middlebrows by steering clear of the sententious.

Observing how ‘a conservative hierarchy of genres gave way to a reactionary hierarchy of readers,’ Price insists that professional literary critics must not exclude themselves, their interests and their self-validating protocols from the histories of the novel they – or rather, we – write.