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Sarah C. E. Ross and Paul Salzman, eds., Editing Early Modern Women
by Elaine Hobby

Editing Early Modern Women, edited by Sarah C. E. Ross and Paul Salzman, Cambridge UP, 2016. xii + 300 pp. ISBN: 978-1107129955. $104.00 cloth. 

This book does exactly what its jacket blurb promises. Its essays, which are all newly written for the collection, provide 

a comprehensive exploration of the theoretical and practical issues surrounding the editing of texts by early modern women. The chapters consider the latest developments in the field and address a wide range of topics, including the “ideologies” of editing, genre and gender, feminism, editing for student or general readers, print publishing, and new and possible future developments in editing early modern writing, including digital publishing. 

After a useful Introduction from Sarah C. E. Ross and Paul Salzman surveying its contents, the collection consists of 13 essays by many of those well known for their editing of Early Modern materials, and/or for their theoretical reflections on editing principles and practices: Diana G. Barnes, Danielle Clark, Elizabeth Clarke, Marie-Louise Coolahan, Susan M. Felch, Pamela S. Hammons, Mary Ellen Lamb, Leah S. Marcus, Elizabeth Scott-Baumann (writing jointly with Sarah Ross), Suzanne Trill, Ramona Wray, and Marion Wynne-Davies. Authors and topics discussed include Elizabeth Austen, Elizabeth Cary, Elizabeth I, Anne, Lady Halkett, Lucy Hutchinson, Katherine Philips, Mary Sidney, Elizabeth Tyrwhit, and Mary Wroth (and more briefly, Anne Bradstreet, Margaret Cavendish, and Hester Pulter), and the editing of letters, plays, and poetry anthologies, as well as editing in the digital age. Especially helpful is the care that the authors have taken to place their discussions in the wider context of scholarly work on their author or topic, ensuring that these essays provide rich contexts for their critical and theoretical paradigms. Most notable for this reader was Marie-Louise Coolahan’s outline and analysis of the complexities entailed in editing Katherine Philips’s verse, due to the range of its witnesses; and Mary Ellen Lamb’s placement of her own edition of Mary Wroth’s Urania in the context of analysis of the romance genre and feminist criticism more generally.

Several key questions that are important to Early Modern studies specifically, and to editors more generally, are discussed repeatedly and with appropriately diverse conclusions: whether to use original or modernized spelling and punctuation; the factors involved in selecting a copy-text; the imperative to consider questions of genre when providing editorial headnotes and glosses—and the frequent discovery that the particular genre has no recent critical history, given the propensity of Early Modern women writers to deploy genres disregarded by today’s literary canon. Especially provocative on all these matters is Ross and Scott-Baumann’s fascinating account of the decisions involved as they worked on their edition of Civil War poetry. Also addressed repeatedly is the history from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth of editing Early Modern women’s writings, adding much to what was previously known about the role of such editors in developing current understandings, especially in the chapters by Barnes, Danielle Clarke, Wynne-Davies.

An aspect of this book that readers will much appreciate is the fact that its authors have clearly read one another’s contributions, and make explicit connections and cross-references between their discussions. This will enable any reader who has sought it out because of an interest in a specific writer (which will surely be the case for most) to find related analysis and information in other chapters that they might not otherwise have read. Pre-eminent in this regard is Editing Early Modern Women’s final chapter, Pender and Smith’s discussion of editing in the digital age, which surveys key questions and solutions raised by the book’s contributors whilst placing those in the wider field of current approaches to editing. Pender and Smith then go on to consider more generally editing’s digital dimension—including recent discussions of the problems of expense, accessibility, and longevity, as well as the positive potentials of digital methods and archives.

The book is not perfect. Had it focused solely on the pre-Restoration part of the Early Modern period, the lack of essays devoted to Aphra Behn, or to Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, or to the profuse writings of women Quakers and Baptists could pass without comment. One way to create that improved coherence would have been to commission new essays on such topic—swelling the book’s length and thereby its expense. Alternatively, the Restoration material that appears in the book could have been excluded; but since this includes some of its most important discussions, that would have made no sense at all. Indeed, this aspect of what is missing from the book connects to one of its greatest strength—the clear picture it provides of how much research is still to be done. The scale of the archive of Anne, Lady Halkett outlined by Trill, and the delicious quality of Katherine Austen’s verse as presented by Hammons demonstrate not only that there is a very substantial quantity of writings awaiting their first editors or anthologizers, but also that the quality of what is newly emerging will challenge assumptions about what is worthy of study.

An important matter that Editing Early Modern Women will stimulate thinking about is whether the category of “feminist editing” or that of “editing women’s writing” is helpful, and if so, how. Certainly, feminism might guide scholars’ selection of the author or texts that they seek to edit, and might ensure that matters that were invisible in pre-feminist day—such as the nature of women’s work, or the complex social dynamics that are integral to the formation of “personal” relationship—are now addressed in introductory matter, notes and so on, as various contributors to this volume discuss. Similarly, feminism within the academy is essential—even now—if writings by women are to appear in the syllabus (and the problem in relation to newly discovered writings such as Katherine Austen’s Book M is all the more acute). But many of the challenges and joys of editing are the same, regardless of whether the text being edited is by a woman (or even, perhaps, whether the editor is feminist; having edited male-authored texts, I have a position on the first matter; I am not able to think myself into an imagined non-feminist identity, so really do not know about the second). It is those delights and conundrums of editing that, for me, make Susan Felch’s chapter in this excellent collection its star. As she analyzes what was at issue in her editing of Elizabeth Tyrwhit’s prayer book, Felch demonstrates how editors’ work repeatedly reminds them of “the contingency of all our scholarly assumptions” (25); this fine essay takes us on a journey of discovery that implicitly mimics the ways in which a text will disrupt the assumptions of a person who seeks to edit it.

A crucial repeated focus of this collection is editing’s relationship to university teaching: if a text or author is to be taught, an edition is needed; the desire to teach particular material is often the impetus that sets someone to work on an edition, and has substantial impact on the protocols established. Repeatedly, Editing Early Modern Women’s authors compare the choices made when working on such editions with the conventions that have grown up for single-author, “standard editions” of the kind produced by Oxford and Cambridge University Presses. Having recently embarked myself on the 8-volume Cambridge Edition of the Works of Aphra Behn, I am also aware of additional challenges and opportunities as new projects like my own—the Oxford Lucy Hutchinson and Katherine Philips, as well as the Cambridge Beh—are underway. Our Early Modern authors were immersed in their cultural and literary contexts in complex way—and in manners very different from one another. Those engaged in these Works are all aiming, though, to create editions that can become a fundamental point of reference for scholars in the fiel—whether that field be religio-political writings, or the complexities of manuscript circulation and the miscellany, or the professional world of London theater. Might it be that the Oxford Hutchinson or Philips, or the Cambridge Behn will become such a basic point of reference for scholars that wider changes in the canon—or at least the curriculum—will follow?

With that in mind, I want to reflect finally on a matter not discussed in Editing Early Modern Women that bears reflection. To what extent do the multiple pressures on academics today—form-filling, report-writing, providing detailed written feedback when marking, for instanc—serve to reduce the chances that any fundamental shift in what is taught is imminent? People teach what they teach because it is what they know, and they can teach the same again without having to spend time coming to understand a new text or writer. Certainly, as this excellent collection of essays shows, there is no shortage of alternative texts to study and teach, and “new” writers and their works are still being discovered. In this connection, the guidance Editing Early Modern Women gives on the scholarly contexts of the writings it discusses will be a valuable aspect of its design, providing would-be explorers with highly knowledgeable surveys of related criticism and theoretical questions. Meanwhile, anyone engaged in the extraordinary joy that is editing will find much to stimulate and challenge them here. 

Elaine Hobby
Loughbrough University


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Cite as:

Elaine Hobby, "Sarah C. E. Ross and Paul Salzman, eds., Editing Early Modern Women," Spenser Review 47.2.32 (Spring-Summer 2017). Accessed September 26th, 2018.
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