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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.1 (2002) 123-126
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The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel:
From Richardson to George Eliot
The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel: From Richardson to George Eliot. By Leah Price. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. vii + 224 pp.
Thanks to Robert Pinsky, June Jordan, and other activist poets, what was once an elite lament--that "all too numerous trade-anthologies . . . turn poetry into an industrial packet-commodity"--is now a popular boast. 1 In her cogent analysis of the relationship between the anthology and the novel, however, Leah Price shows that this marketing device helped bring to maturity a neophyte genre: the novel itself.
Price argues that, excerpted in and shaped by the fragmentation of the anthology, the early novel became not only a commodity but a popular form. She chronicles and explicates how the novels of Samuel Richardson, Sir Walter Scott, and George Eliot lived a shadow life in gift books, collections, and cribs. She also documents cultural tensions between ways of reading. Price's central concern is the historical anxiety about where information, which she contends measures the value of reading, lies in a text, and she explores it by analyzing the tension between reading as engagement in narrative and reading as the acquisition of moral sentiments. In the process she unravels the gendering of Victorian literary politics.
In an introduction that outlines the ambiguity of the anthology as simultaneously an authoritative and a derivative form, Price probes the oscillation between skipping through a text, which embodies the discontinuity of anthologizing, and skimming it, which enacts the narrative flow preserved in abridgments. She suggests that anthologies gender this difference--although the gender assignments constantly change--while also capitalizing on it and proceeds, in the first chapter, to examine this manipulation of textual authenticity and authority in Richardson's novels and their nineteenth-century offspring. Intriguingly, Price traces the contemporary publishing friction caused by readers' desires for plot-spinning abridgments rather than [End Page 123] authenticity-laden anthologies within the text of Clarissa, whose characters obstinately refuse to edit their own letters. Price then argues that Sir Charles Grandison centralizes the issue of literary property that was marginalized in Clarissa and illustrates the confusion about whether the author or the editor owns the words of another. She concludes the chapter with an analysis of the strain between historical authenticity and literary efficiency in abridgments of Scott's novels.
Price finds that once the epistolary form indicates textual historicity in the Regency, anthologies become the voice of the people. At the same time, they create differences between audiences. Her second chapter elucidates some of the hybrid forms, exemplified by Vicesimus Knox's Elegant Extracts, Ann Radcliffe's epigraph-studded gothic fictions, and several editors' examinations of Shakespeare, that publishers contrived to control the audience. She suggests that while Radcliffe initiated the practice of sprinkling stories with verse extracts to enable her readers to distinguish themselves from one another and from prior audiences, Bowdler and others choreographed their editions of Shakespeare to cause a gendered and historicized differentiation in the audience. A splendid section on Jane Austen's use of Shakespeare as the expression of universal truth in Mansfield Park nonetheless might have recognized Austen's ironic disparagement of anthologies. Price's crucial argument that anthologies shaped the form of the novel gets short shrift: one wishes for an exploration of Radcliffe's style, since it features descriptive passages that mimic the beauties of the sentimental fictions of her time. 2
The final chapter locates a historical revaluation of plot in the figure of Eliot. By examining the marketing of maxims from Eliot's works in gift books and anthologies, Price chronicles her construction as a female sage. She also shows how Eliot interlards narrative with sententious passages to placate audiences impatient for them.
Employing histories of authorship, copyright, and publishing but eschewing narrative theory, this book revels in the ways that passages, under close reading, yield alternative meanings governed by context. Sometimes the...