Surprenant_Pet Book Report #3: Helen by Maria Edgeworth

Given our class discussion regarding the varied appearances of Shakespeare’s plays, the idea of the “unstable text” stuck out to me while reading de Grazia and Stallybrass. The authors cite the publication of Michael Warren’s The Complete King Lear,  noting that “while aiming to reproduce the ‘ideal text,’ their very number and variety through the centuries approximate the instability of the early playtexts” (261).  To call something “complete” almost seems to create a sense of lacking in a text. As we were able to observe with Hamlet in class, publication date and reception date of a text factor in to how it was received and how it has been transmitted throughout the centuries.  The idea of “transmission” is interesting as well, because a text that is directly produced by the author is only “direct” in his original thoughts. Editorial choices have been made since Shakespeare first put pen to paper, and I think that we have to accept that there aren’t necessarily definitive texts, but rather a texts that editors have manipulated to bring out the portions of the text deemed worthy.

In context of my pet book, a quick search online of Barnes and Noble’s offerings yielded several editions of Helen, many of which were published in the last five years.  There are a few scholarly  copies, as well as an illustrated edition, which I find interesting given the woodblock stamps that appear in the 1838 edition I’ve chosen. This speaks to the de Grazia and Stallybrass’s notions of official texts. In referencing Othello, the authors argue “Like the names of characters, the name of the playwright is itself a variable material sign inscribed in books, not a fixed essence that lies imperceptibly behind the text” (275). The name of the author can essentially be applied to any text, and then it is accepted as a text by that author. The author’s name on a text does not, however, mean that the given text belongs to said author. It is, to use de Grazia and Stallybrass’s theme, only material. These new editions of Helen that have been produced in the past couple of years have Maria Edgeworth’s name on their covers, but they do not necessarily reflect her original intention. This isn’t to say that we should only be paying attention to what the author intended, but rather it lends itself to the idea that there isn’t ever truly a “clean” text without some editorial marks. The closest thing to a pure text that looks like what Edgeworth intended is probably an early printing like the one housed in special collections. Over the years, the scholarly editing and additional content presents the reader with framework in which to read Helen, not to accept the text as-is.

As Professor Boeckeler discussed in class, the works of Shakespeare are somewhat muddled in that folios and quartos have been published “officially” without knowing that the other copies existed. While this is certainly notable for Shakespearean texts, I think that applying the idea of the non-existence of “one true text” to other texts will prove interesting. I’m hoping to find some more answers to questions of publication history during my visit to the archives and perhaps tracing whether or not significant changes have been made over the years.

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