Archive Report #2

During another visit to the Boston Public Library, I decided that I wanted to explore their collection of Maria Edgeworth’s work a little further. With a large collection of her work, I was delighted to find that they housed the third of three volumes of an edition of Edgeworth’s Helen from 1834. Additionally, they are home to a copy of Edgeworth’s Letters for Literary Ladies, a collection of fictional letters concerning the benefits of being an educated woman. Both works are consistent in style and material presentation compared to the other Edgeworth artifacts I have observed. It seems that no matter the content, those who were publishing Edgeworth’s works wanted to maintain her image as a wise, all-knowing literary figure.

Looking over the third volume of Helen at the Boston Public Library, the first observation I made was that this printing of the novel did not include any imagery. The text was not ornamented in any way, while the copy of Helen at Snell includes two engraved illustrations at the beginning of the text. I have been viewing illustrations as a framing device, or a way in which the reader can be placed into the author’s intended fictional context. Without the images, it appears that the reader is given more latitude to interpret the text as he or she sees fit. While there was only one volume available in the collection, it is interesting to think about why separate volumes do not include imagery. Based on what was available, I am unsure of whether the full set included any imagery, but if the novel was produced in parts, it seems worth considering why each volume did not include some sort of framing image.

While an illustration could be viewed as a framing image, the outer appearance of the novel seems to frame the type of content contained within the covers. As is the case with other copies of Edgeworth’s work, this volume of Helen is presented in a way that suggests something valuable is inside. The front cover is marbled with blues, yellows, and greens. The spine includes pressed or tooled gold inlay with additional lace ornamentation. As a purely aesthetic object, it would appear quite nicely on a library shelf. However, the cheap, pulpy paper onto which ink from previous pages has bled suggests that the book was cheaply produced, and not the collector’s item it pretends to be. As a matter of authorial reputation, the book as an object keeps Edgeworth’s persona intact. The persona, as I suggested in my first archive report, seems to be something that was carefully crafted to serve an economic end. This is true in that the book looks expensive, but the actual quality of the material suggests that it was cheap to produce. With Helen being Edgeworth’s last novel, one that differed greatly from her earlier works, presentation remains most important, perhaps more important than the actual content within the book.

Comparing this volume of Helen to Letters for Literary Ladies further suggests a discrepancy in Edgeworth’s authorial persona. Helen is the type of book on which publishers take a chance, since the actual content strays from what has been created to surround the name of Maria Edgeworth. Letters for Literary Ladies, however, suggests that publishers see true value in what she written, and that they do not need to protect her persona. In these fictional letters, Edgeworth describes the virtues of a woman’s education as being important strictly to herself. As a woman, vocal on educational reform for women, she has a progressive voice. The fact that these “letters” are bound in an edition with deep red spine and heavy marbled cardboard covers that are decorated with gold inlay implies that these works were valued, perhaps more so than her novels that expressed more traditional points of view. It is interesting to note, however, that this copy of Letters for Literary Ladies does not include any publication information. City, company, and year are all missing. While this may have been published as a document with which her publishers agreed, readers were not able to discover who had published the volume in the first place. This tension is something that implies that whoever published this particular copy of Letters for Literary Ladies might have had some reservations about Edgeworth and the material she was producing. However, this does not answer the question of why Edgeworth’s books appear the way that they do as far as their misleading appearances.

A dignified appearance of Edgeworth’s works may suggest that, beyond Edgeworth’s valued literary persona, consumers truly enjoyed her work. As we discussed in class, the poem “Snow” was not particularly revolutionary in a literary sense, but it was, however, enjoyed by many and often reprinted, as well as pasted into scrapbooks. The same reasoning may be applied to Edgeworth’s works. While her novels may not have been anything more than didactic tales, an audience who enjoyed them existed. From a marketing standpoint, why would a publisher choose to ignore this group of people? In a similar way that Barnes and Noble produces elegant editions of popular books, Edgeworth’s publishers appear to have printed editions that consumers could enjoy and cherish as collector’s items. As I observed in my first archive visit, Edgeworth’s work appeared to contain valuable moral information for some, and was therefore worthy of being passed down. Creating editions of her work that look like special collections further capitalizes on this idea, even if the content within does not necessarily contain what scholars can comfortably call good literature.

From the different volumes of Edgeworth’s works that I have observed, it seems that she was treated more as a literary personality than a woman creating quality work. While Edgeworth’s works can be studied today for their literary merit, their initial publications imply that Edgeworth was a contemporary success story that would continue to make a profit for publishing companies. The formats in which her novels were published were intended to create the maximum buying potential among her audience. While some Edgeworth’s works that I have observed have been broken into parts, they do not necessarily represent seriality, but rather the similar economic principles that seriality employs. As pieces of popular culture, Edgeworth’s novels and other fictitious pieces needed to be crafted in a such a way that lent themselves to longevity on the market. With her persona of a woman who created worthwhile moral tales for children and entertaining novels for adults, Edgeworth’s publishers created a long-lasting household name.

Although I have only viewed a small portion of Edgeworth’s works, each of the objects I studied suggested that physical appearance was imperative to crafting an economically successful author. However, this outer appearance of the book was not necessarily indicative of what was inside. Edgeworth was known for writing didactic prose and children’s stories, so her persona became one of authority in the realm of morality and child rearing rather than high literature. With the publication of Helen, Edgeworth strayed from her previously successful moral prose into a more direct, literary style. The presentation of both versions of Helen that I studied show that the elegant decoration employed by her publishers help to keep a literary reputation intact, at least on the surface. Yes, there is the plain fact that making a book aesthetically pleasing is a way to make more sales. However, the variety of ways in which Edgeworth’s work was published suggests that, beyond making collector’s editions, her work had a certain image to uphold. To stray from that image would be to demystify her, along with economically efficient cash flow an Edgeworth story produced. The five pieces of Edgeworth’s works that I examined have created a story beyond the narrative written on the page. Her books as objects imply an entire publishing narrative that exemplifies economic necessity, authorial representation, and a way in which the author becomes deified through physical presentation. Helen and Letters for Literary Ladies appear not only as accomplishments within her literary repertoire, but also as economic reminders of what it means to be somewhat of a celebrity within a capitalist framework. No matter what Edgeworth’s own literary goals entailed, she had attained a status that warranted her works to be produced in a variety of ways. Diverse publication mediums and demand from devoted readers created a literary machine.

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