I often worry slightly that I own too many books—and then worry about the fact that I worry about owning books, when they’re really only material objects on one plane of existence (the plane of existence, unfortunately, that requires bookshelves and wall space).
Part of my problem is that I’m fascinated by textuality, by textual scholarship, by bibliographies and reference texts—including one, rather embarrassingly, called Who’s Who in Enid Blyton—and by the textual development of stories.
This fascination is integral to my ability to perform the kind of textual criticism on which my work centres, but it also means that I end up owning multiple copies of certain novels.
This afternoon, I moved a bookshelf from the study to the spare room, as part of the ongoing process of opening up the study and making it a more congenial workspace. In the process, I came across such a wide range of multiple editions that I somewhat horrified myself, and ended up getting Nick—slightly melancholic himself, being unable to defeat a boss demon in Diablo—to keep a list for me. (Not, as it turned out, the best idea: I ended up slightly hysterical at the thought of my profligacy, while Nick eyed his vast collection of Doctor Who Target novelisations and sighed.)
But here’s a brief list, anyway.
William Beckford’s Vathek.
I own four copies of this work: an Oxford World’s Classic; a Penguin, complete with additional Beckford stories; another Penguin, in a volume called Three Gothic Novels (which is also the reason why I own two copies of Horace Walpole’s The Castle Of Otranto, and far too many copies of Frankenstein); and a gorgeous Broadview edition of Vathek, with The Episode of Vathek.
The problem is that I can’t remember if there even were alternate editions of Vathek or whether I simply own four copies of an identical text, which would be less justifiable.
They do all have different textual apparatuses (except, perhaps, for the two Penguins) and I did need the novel as literary context for the last chapter of my M.Phil. But did I need four copies?
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
I also own four copies of this, including the Broadview and the Norton. At least in this case, there are two alternate texts—1818 and 1831—and this was the work on which I produced my first major piece of criticism, my Honours thesis, all those years ago.
But I don’t think that’s the reason why I keep buying it—it’s just such a fascinating, complex, tragic novel, and so thoroughly shocked and surprised me when I first read it that I can’t help but buy any edition that might have new footnotes.
(On that note, I can offer in my own defense the fact that I have not replaced all my old Penguins with the new Penguins, even though the new ones have entirely fresh critical apparatuses by scholars who aren’t all died-in-the-wool Leavisites. I think that’s fairly restrained.)
I also own at least three copies of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—I realised while Nick was making the list that there might be another copy somewhere, and indeed the entire list-making process was punctuated by me saying “Did I say three copies of that book? I’ve just found another one.” It would only have been two, however, if I hadn’t had to buy a recent Penguin when I last taught Gothic Lit., so that the students and I would literally be on the same page.
I’m not even going to mention how many copies of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women I own—but, to balance that, I don’t own a single copy of any of the film versions.
Nick’s face fell at the last Lifeline BookFest when he asked what I’d bought and I pulled out another translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. But that one was H. C. Cary’s translation from the early nineteenth century, and I really did need it to balance my translations by Mark Musa and Dorothy L. Sayers. I also used Cary as my translation for my M.Phil, but that’s not much of an excuse, since I submitted that four years ago.
I discovered two copies of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss today, as well—and, Victorian scholar though I may be, I haven’t even read the book. Yet.
Ditto Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Cervantes’ Don Quixote—two copies of each—although I swear I am going to read the latter one day. After I have, I may even get around to reading Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, of which I thankfully only have one copy.
I don’t think I need to justify owning three copies of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, do I? Or two copies of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights?
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, on the other hand—I’m not sure I want to confess this, but I don’t actually like it very much. Or, rather, I don’t like Jane very much. She’s so dreary. Still, it’s worth it for the sake of Rochester.
I’m not apologising for my two copies of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, because that’s a great book. I’m a little uncomfortable with my TV tie-in edition, now, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it—it’s got Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw on the cover. I’m not that strong-willed.
I probably don’t need two copies of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, though. Or three copies of Northanger Abbey. Or two copies of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde; one isn’t even a critical edition, and the texts are identical, so I can’t begin to justify that. And I can’t remember why I own four copies of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk—although the texts do vary.
I can justify my two different versions of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, though. I bought a cheap-and-nasty copy—one of those awful 1960s hardbacks, with the heavy black line drawings picked out in one or two colours, usually purple or red, and a plasticky cover—at a BookFest some years ago, just to have the stories.
(Although, in retrospect, I’m not sure why—I rarely re-read my Andersen, because the stories are so depressing, and often cruelly arbitrary. A little like Wilde’s fairy tales, but without Wilde’s language.)
Then, I came to write the second chapter of my Ph.D., and I realised I needed a different translation of the tales to make my argument—these are the tales with the half-naked princess illustration, by the way.
I couldn’t isolate the exact translation that Eliza Winstanley had used as the basis for her adaptations, so I chose the most contemporaneous; Henry W. Dulcken, who published his translations in 1864-1866.
(Actually, his translations are extremely complex, in how they navigate between Andersen’s casual taking-the-Lord’s-name-in-vain and Dulcken’s middle-class, English, mid-nineteenth-century audience’s distaste for seeing the name “God” in a fairy tale—Kirsten Malmkjaer’s work on this aspect of his translations is fascinating.)
So I bought a copy of Dulcken’s translation, and I thought I’d get rid of my old, plasticky book.
But when I took it off the shelf, I saw that it was Mrs E. Lucas’s translations, which I knew from Viggo Hjornager Pedersen’s Ugly Ducklings? was much later but still a nineteenth-century translation. And my resolve to remove it from my shelves entirely disappeared.
I can’t believe that we live in a world where it’s wrong to want to own multiple nineteenth-century translations of a Danish writer’s work because the differences in the translations tell us so much about the market for which they were produced.
And, anyway, I’ve never complained about Nick’s Doctor Who novelisations.