Surprenant_Pet Book Report #2: Helen by Maria Edgeworth

While the copy of Maria Edgeworth’s Helen I’ve been visiting in the NEU archives may not exactly have anything particularly remarkable about the way in which it was printed (cheap paper with cardboard covers), it is interesting given our discussion of writing for a public and what constitutes publication.  Given the outward appearance of the book, with it’s striking blue covers, gilded edges, and marbled panels,  it seems like publisher Richard Bentley was attempting to make Edgeworth’s novel appear as something it was not, given her target audience.

Reading a few lines from Wikipedia about Edgeworth’s works, many of her novels tended to be didactic in nature. With Helen, Edgeworth deliberately tried to scale back her moralistic overtones. This had led me to wonder whether or not the the flashy appearance was deliberately created so that a potential reader might forget that he/she was reading and Edgeworth novel. Being her last novel, it was published toward the end of her career, and by then, her work would have garnered a reputation.

Given our discussion of Harold Love’s “‘Publication in the Scribal Medium,'” I think it may be worth considering the role that a large publisher plays in the distribution of a final product/novel. Edgeworth wrote a novel, but then her publisher made decisions about how that novel would be delivered, and who the novel would reach based off of those delivery methods. Love notes that there is contention between what constitutes public and private publication (40). For a writer, it would seem that once a manuscript is completed, it has been privately published, an end-product created for its own sake. In the hands of the publisher is where the truly public publication of the novel has the potential to take on a completely different meaning.

Different meanings within one text also jumped out at me when we were discussing the hybrid print/manuscript book at the BPL. With a newer form of publishing taking trying to mimic an older form of publishing, a book like Helen seems to fit right in. Helen, as an object, doesn’t quite seem to fit the mold of an Edgeworth novel, and the hybrid book isn’t exactly a printed book or a manuscript. This duality between the texts seems to reflect the advancement of technology at the dawn of the print age, and even in our current Information Age.  I can’t remember who brought it up, but the idea of mediums coexisting to produce work in its best form is precisely  what Zeynep Tenger describes on page 1035 in regard to aesthetics. It seems that aesthetics serve the very important purpose of defining how the work will best be displayed. For Bentley, a bright, gilded cover was what would accompany the text of Helen, but this is again problematic given the actual contents of the book.

The idea of aesthetics and their effects on the publication and reception of a work brings to mind a degree of Marxist inquiry, which I can’t exactly wrap my mind around just yet, but I’ll hopefully resolve it with some time. A novel is produced, and then it must be distributed if it is to be of any monetary worth. This brings up a whole slew of questions regarding art and what it means, but I think that’ll have to be fleshed out in a future post.


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