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Leah Price, The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel: From Richardson to George Eliot

Monday, April 19, 2004 - 10:33
Leah Price, The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel: From Richardson to George Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.  vii + 224pp.  $55.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-78208-2).

Reviewed by
Michael Gamer
University of Pennsylvania

Within a culture of the excerpt, the novel forms a test case. Few genres have been better placed to escape the anthology's sphere of influence. Sheer scale helps define the novel. So do the pace and duration of reading which the scale elicits. But the novel depends just as much on readers' resistance to those demands. Skipping (or anthologizing) and skimming (or abridging) have never been separable from a genre that cracks under its own weight. (5)

Leah Price has written an original and cogent book, one that will invite readers to find pleasure in their own habits of reading and compel literary critics to become more self-conscious about how, when, and why we quote, excerpt, and paraphrase. Reviewing a book whose chapters feature section headings like "The Ethics of the Review" (137) feels somewhat like responding to a dare, and my own opening epigraph (without question) has been selected with more than usual care after reading Price's clever and playful study. As it suggests, part of her aim is to expand our sense of the sheer range of anthologizing acts out there--from "[s]kipping (or anthologizing) and skimming (or abridging)" to extracting, compiling, indexing, and expunging--not to mention connecting these acts of reading to the material texts they produce. The analogies inscribed in such parenthetical shifts as "skimming (or abridging)" are key to the book's daring and pleasures. They also form the keystone of its project of combining studies in book history and narrative technique, and of shifting the focus of both critical approaches to readers. Thus, Price's introduction compares acts of anthologizing to those of literary reviewing, cinematic previewing, and quoting out of context, all of which "depend on a gentleman's agreement to take the parts of a work for the whole" (2).

In arguing that the anthology shaped the production and prestige of the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Price bases her notion of the anthology on the act of selection--that anthologies cull, abridge, and otherwise curb texts, and that such acts inscribe complex and contradictory assumptions about literary value. At once authoritative and derivative in their nature, anthologies embody these very ambivalences in their officious and dependent relations to their sources. With these axioms in mind, Price provides chapter-length treatments of Samuel Richardson and George Eliot, and shorter explorations of Ann Radcliffe, Walter Scott, and Susan Ferrier. This is hardly a representative group of authors by any principle of selection. But as the title of the first chapter ("Richardson's Economies of Scale") proposes, part of Price's rationale of selection depends on authors of stout literary corpuses, the sheer length of whose works invites precisely the skipping and skimming she contends to be inseparable from the novel. The first abridgments of Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison, after all, appeared during Richardson's lifetime, and Richardson's own addition of an index to the second edition of Clarissa suggests that he expected "readers would have forgotten the beginning by the time they reached the end" (13).

Given this choice of authors, The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel becomes an argument primarily about those writers who raised the prestige of the novel between 1740 and 1880. The inevitable anthologizing of such authors' works into Sentiments (of Richardson), Beauties (of Scott), and Sayings (of Eliot) becomes not necessarily a byproduct of novels in general but rather of those novelists whose work rendered the novel respectable. It is not surprising, then, that Price's four primary authors are famous at once for the length of their works and for their fame as aphorism-, quotation-, and epigraph-makers--and, if one includes Ferrier as a fifth author, obsessive ones at that. Hence the detailed chapters on Richardson and Eliot, those two exceptions to the rule that novelists are not worth quoting for their beauties, frame shorter treatments of three writers who were famous for quoting others: Ann Radcliffe for inserting her own poetry into her fiction and popularizing the use of chapter mottoes as "breaks" and "brakes" to the reading process; Scott for subverting these practices by often composing his own mottoes and passing them off as being written by others; and Ferrier for quoting so often and in such commonplace fashion that she stands, for Price, as the authorial embodiment of Austen's Catherine Morland, who quotes anthologized snippets without a knowledge of the texts or contexts from which she quotes.

Price's primary aim is less to provide a broadly historicized account of novelistic form than to explain the anthology's relation to it--a relation governed, she argues, by the "logic of the exception":

For a novelist, to be excerpted is sometimes an honor (as for Richardson), sometimes an embarrassment (as for George Eliot), but always an anomaly. Yet as I'll suggest, precisely because anthologies tend to derive their raw material from more esthetically and morally serious genres (epic, lyric, essay), the novel tests the anthology's power. By salvaging anthology-pieces from their low origins, editors prove their authority to grant personal dispensations from generic rules . . . . Anthologies' logic of the exception does not simply demarcate quotable passages from the bulk of the novels in which they originally appeared. It also distinguishes anthologized authors from the mass of novelists, and the readers of anthologies (or reviews or criticism) from the novel's mass public. (6-7)

Richardson and Eliot thus do not open up anthologies to other writers of fiction so much as take on the status of exceptionality, their writings transformed by anthologists so as to separate them from the common herd of novelists. How this process of distinguishing is extended to readers is demonstrated persuasively in the chapter on Richardson, which begins by examining the organizational strategies of the first abridgments and selected excerpts of Clarissa. Whether reducing epistolary form to third-person narrative, providing thematic indices, or selectively re-organizing its base text alphabetically into collections of moral sentiments, such texts in Price's account highlight tensions already present in the novels themselves. Her readings of Richardson and his anthologizers show both grappling with how to police readers greedy only for plot--a concern that leads Richardson to question not only where the literary value of his story lies, but also the nature of his own role as the "editor" and compiler of his works. As a result, both Clarissa and Grandison explore issues of cultural value and literary property, particularly the relation between the epistolary novel's many signers (of letters) and the power of the editor who selects, compiles, and introduces them. When Price examines the series of abridger-editors who, over the years, selected what in Richardson to keep and what to cull, she finds "successive generations' unspoken assumptions about the most efficient way to convey information, and indeed about what counts as information at all" (13).

Price thus reads the texts of Richardson's various anthologizers also as more general responses to epistolary form, their strategies providing clues to the waning of the epistolary novel's popularity as the nineteenth century turned. As she demonstrates, such axieties over the reading process certainly guided later eighteenth-century commentators on Richardson like James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, and Clara Reeve, all of whom defended the epistolary novel's tendency to prolixity by insisting that one did not read Richardson "for the story." These same issues also appear to have guided later abridgers of Clarissa, who only began preserving its epistolary form "when the novel in letters was safely dead. The letter became legible only as a historical relic" (50). Taking up this question of the death of epistolary fiction, the chapter concludes with a coda on Scott's Redgauntlet (1824), Price reading it as a "Literary-Historical Novel" because of the self-consciousness with which it moves from epistolarity to journalizing to third-person narration. At once a commentary on and a mimicking of the history of the novel, Redgauntlet enacts in a single text the same literary history Scott constructs on a grander scale through the Ballantyne's Novelist's Library (1821-24), which canonized the epistolary novel of Richardson even as it ended with the third-person narration of Ann Radcliffe, thereby banishing epistolarity to a dead literary past.

Impressive as the chapter on Richardson is, I found the treatment of George Eliot in chapter three ("George Eliot and the Production of Consumers") equally compelling. Focusing on Eliot's dealings with her fan and anthologizer, Alexander Main, Price contends that, just as anthologies shaped the development of the novel as a whole, so "Main's anthologies indirectly shaped the way Eliot's work was perceived… [and] redefined the genre of Eliot's oeuvre and the gender of its author, in contradictory ways: they canonized Eliot's novels by packaging her as a poet, and bracketed her with male predecessors by marketing her to women" (106). Price then makes a bold leap at mid-chapter, connecting Main to the many impostors who had plagued Eliot's early career successes either by claiming her work as their own or by passing off their own sequels and prequels as by her. In many ways, the rhetorical move resembles the first chapter's shift from abridgments of Richardson to Richardson's own anxieties over the status and authority of the epistolary editor-compiler. Even if one cannot finally believe the anthologizer and forger share the same cultural status, one still finds the analysis of each to be compelling, inventive, and fresh.

Standing as it does between the treatments of Richardson and Eliot, chapter two ("Cultures of the Commonplace") is less a single argument than a survey of anthologizing acts, from Vicessimus Knox's Elegant Extracts (1783) to Ann Radcliffe's poetic interpolations in the 1790s to Thomas Bowdler's ten-volume Family Shakespere (1818). The chapter opens by positing a fundamental change in the cultural function of anthologies after Donaldson v. Beckett (1774), the landmark case that ended perpetual copyright in Britain. Almost immediately, "[t]imely miscellanies of new works gave way to timeless gleanings from the backlist," the anthologist becoming an "amanuensis . . . represent[ing] a community instead of expressing a self" (68). With this shift in mind, Price turns to the figure of the Reverend Vicessimus Knox, whose Elegant Extracts (1783) became a standard textbook in schools and whose editorial practices became standard in nineteenth-century anthologies. Through her analysis, we find Knox's principles of selection and impersonal persona adopted not only by the Bowdlers and the Lambs for their collections of Shakespeare, but also by Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith, whose novels featured inset poems privileging lyric and whose chapter epigraphs stuck primarily to anthology-pieces by dead male poets of established fame.

What these acts of anthologization share is a preoccupation with a reading public perceived to be increasing in size and heterogeneity. One can only construct the image of "a national public brought together by shared reading of Shakespeare," Price wryly comments, once that name "[becomes] attached to a range of genres wide enough to distinguish one market niche from another" (77). It is here that we arrive at the center of the book's argument about what anthologies do to their authors. Admitting Shakespeare to anthologies, after all, no more opened anthologies' floodgates to other dramatists than admitting Eliot opened them to other novelists. Rather than democratizing literature by leveling hierarchies of genre, anthologies in Price's account perform the opposite effect: that of separating anthology-readers from common ones by placing owners of the Collection of Moral and Instructive Sentiments . . . Contained in the Histories of Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison (1751) above the plot-hungry consumers of Richardson's narrative fiction. In perhaps the boldest claim of the chapter, Price attributes the formal innovations of Romantic-period fiction almost entirely to the anthology:

Where Richardson had tried to enter the anthology, his successors could only enter into competition with it. Nearly every fictional subgenre to emerge at this moment borrowed the discontinuous structure of the anthology--and made a bid, at least, for its social functions. Some took on its ambition to compile a national literary memory, others its project of disciplining narrative greed, others its campaign against solipsistic reading. The gothic novel turned narrative into a hook to hang anthology-pieces on. So did verse like Charlotte Smith's punctuated just as regularly by short inset lyrics. The historical novel and the national tale of the following generation reduced plot to a filler for the interstices between verse epigraphs, snatches of oral ore, and excerpts from antiquarian documents (91).

Passages like this one come frequently enough to form one of the chief pleasures of the chapter. We find one equally dazzling only a few pages later, when Price attributes reviewers' hostility to skipping to the conventions of their own genre, depending as it does on the summary and the extract. Yet such rapid movement is not without its costs. Her decision to ignore Radcliffe's responsiveness to reviews and to treat her fiction as of a single piece, for example, produces an unnecessarily reductive reading--particularly in reference to The Italian (1797), which shows Radcliffe reacting to criticism of The Mysteries of Udolpho by scrapping inset lyrics but keeping chapter epigraphs. This struck me as a missed opportunity, since the difference in cultural status between quoted epigraphs and original inset poems is precisely the kind of question Price handles with such panache.

What is surprising in a book this capacious is Price's decision not to look to any of the various eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collections of novels other than (very briefly) Scott's Ballantyne's Novelist's Library (1821-24). Even allowing for her focus on hierarchies of genre and on processes of selection and expurgation, the absence is still palpable. Publications like Harrison's Novelist's Magazine (1780-88) and Barbauld's fifty-volume The British Novelists (1810) are as much selections as collections. The differences existing between these later novel anthologies and earlier eighteenth-century ones (which usually concentrated on shorter fiction from the Continent), moreover, would only bolster the argument of the second chapter, or even provide ample material for additional one. Perhaps a book of such originality and interest would only be weighed down by more material; but in this case I cannot believe so. When reading through Price's discussion on Richardson and literary property, one cannot help wanting to know how these same issues play themselves out in Fielding's heavily allusive fictions, in the (genuinely strange) later eighteenth-century editions of Robinson Crusoe, or in novels like Evelina (1778) and The Romance of the Forest (1791), whose respective authors, production histories, and stories thematize similar problems of ownership and executorship. In many ways a revised dissertation consisting of a short introduction and three chapters, The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel is an unnecessarily thin book. Its two sustained readings, superbly researched and genuinely insightful, cannot fully support the larger argument; unlike many books, this one's brevity is not a source of relief. Given the power of the writing and the analysis, its central question of how the anthology shaped the rise of the novel deserves fuller treatment. Price provides a blueprint and foundation, but the actual building is still in the planning stages.