George Justice, Editor

Gothic Editions

The Monk

By Matthew Gregory Lewis.
Edited by D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf.
Broadview, 2003. 479 pages.
2 B/W illustrations. Paperback. $9.95.

Northanger Abbey (Second Edition)

By Jane Austen. Edited by Claire Grogan.
Broadview, 2002. 280 pages.
9 B/W illustrations. Paperback. $7.95.

Reviewed by Erik Simpson.

When the oafish John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey declares that “there has not been a tolerably decent [novel] come out since Tom Jones, except The Monk,” Austen means the reader to understand Thorpe’s pronouncement as a stark demonstration of his vitiated taste and therefore of the danger he poses to the impressionable heroine Catherine Morland. In these worthy additions to the distinguished Broadview Literary Texts series, D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf, editors of Matthew G. Lewis’ The Monk, and Claire Grogan, editor of Mansfield Park, have created editions that work best to illuminate moments such as Thorpe’s comment, where an explanation of the literary and cultural context of Britain in the 1790s allows modern readers to understand works that could otherwise alienate them because the texts’ allusiveness and humor depends so heavily on contemporary context.
Macdonald and Sherf explain the literary strategies and cultural impact of The Monk clearly and efficiently in their introduction. It describes the personal issues (Matthew Lewis’ sexuality and his ownership of Jamaican slaves, for instance) and literary-historical contexts (the French Revolution and its aftermath, Ann Radcliffe’s brand of gothic novel, The Monk’s reviews and adaptations) that produce most of the current interest in the novel. One could hardly ask more of 20 pages aimed at a general reader. An appendix called “Critical Reception” works similarly well; in only 23 carefully selected pages of text, it conveys not only the engrossing details of The Monk’s immediate reception (Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “We stare and tremble”) but also the ways in which reviewers treated gothic fiction in general. Here we understand the extent to which major figures of the age, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Coleridge to Radcliffe, engaged The Monk. Macdonald and Sherf also provide some of Lewis’ source materials for the novel and a useful collation of the revisions he made as he retreated from the scandalous first edition, which serves as the copy-text for this and all other modern editions.

The utility of the edition’s attention to popular adaptations of The Monk is less clear. The introduction’s catalog of popular responses to the novel gives readers a sense of their scale and could provide scholars a useful starting point for further research. The 37-page appendix devoted to reproducing three adaptations of The Monk, while entertaining, would serve most readers better if, like the appendix on the book’s critical reception, it demonstrated Lewis’ impact on better-known works of 19th-Century British literature. The introduction closes with a list of British and Continental writers whose work owes a debt to The Monk. This reader would prefer that the pages of the appendix flesh out the novel’s more literary legacy, but the contrary decision does little to detract from this fine edition.

Where The Monk requires its editors to explain the logic of archaic excess, Northanger Abbey invites the editorial decoding of the contemporary social world revealed in the characters’ conversations. Lewis creates effects with demons, Austen with street addresses. Grogan’s annotations of Austen’s prose range from serviceable, as in the case of simply pointing out the author and year of The Monk when John Thorpe endorses it, to outstanding, as in the case of the detailed explanation of General Tilney’s false modesty regarding his pineapple production—in reality “an astonishing feat of fruiticulture,” as Grogan puts it, drawing on Richard Bradley’s 1726 essay “A Particular Easy Method of Managing Pineapples” and Pope’s 1731 Epistle to Burlington. The reader of Grogan’s edition will encounter similarly useful information throughout the novel, with special emphasis on the buildings, conveyances (illustrated in a pictorial appendix), and neighborhoods of Bath. The edition’s appendices also include helpful maps of Bath and its environs.

Grogan’s introduction draws out the prominent theme of reading in the novel, often insightfully, but it sometimes tends more to argumentation and documentation than introduction. For instance, the annotation to Austen’s famous defense of the novel on page 59 of this edition appears nearly verbatim as a paragraph of the introduction on page 14. (In the introduction, it reads, “Many women novelists portray heroines who mock or abstain from novel-reading [Hervey Louisa I:38-39, Williams Julia 2:48] or who read novels with disastrous consequences [Opie Adeline Mowbray I:55, Hays Memoirs of Emma Courtney I:25, Wollstonecraft The Wrongs of Woman I.89].”) Although an excellent footnote, the sentence is not only redundant here, but also too heavily documented and too lightly explained to stand alone as a paragraph in the introduction, which could generally benefit from a more clearly and broadly introductory approach.

Both of these books are valuable teaching editions, especially for courses exploring gothic conventions across novelistic genres, and specialist readers will find new insight and fresh source material in both. They contribute substantially to modern readers’ understanding of what in these novels has fascinated, horrified, or charmed previous generations.

Erik Simpson teaches 18th- and 19th-Century British literature at Grinnell College.

JASNA News v.20, no. 3, Winter 2004, p. 21

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