A very long list for the hopelessly canonic

The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature
June 8, 2001

There are those, in other respects of scholarly bent, who never refer to reference books - at least in the familiar phrase of Mary Crawford's "never of conversation, which means 'not very often'" (in Mansfield Park ). This reluctance can hardly be justified, but may contain a suspicion of "prospects" of barren "positivistic" deposits of hard fact (formally pronounced useful but proving to be, in fact, useless). These were probably made available by those crew-cutted scholars with briefcases who so dismayed the Bohemian couple in Margaret Atwood's story "Hair Jewellery". This reluctance might also encode Ted Roethke's excellently phrased fear of "a rat-trap sensibility" that "slams down on a subject, maims and kills it, but retains it".

Then again, a bibliography - especially in its third edition, like this one - seems to announce inclusivity, not exclusivity, and there are those of us, fortunately including Frank Lentricchia, who find themselves to be "hopelessly 'canonic'". Canons, incidentally, seem to attest militant highbrowism, but are in fact suspiciously friendly to those who read slowly and require merely to be told what to read. Canonicity may be exclusiveness on principle, but a canon, as Frank Kermode has reminded us, is, etymologically speaking, simply a list.

But lists always exclude, even when trying to be inclusive and apparently succeeding beyond one's wildest nightmares, as here. The penumbra of canonicity falls on the most innocuous as well as the longest book list, and although this book is 2,995 pages long, it seems likely that hundreds of Victorian novelists, for example, are still missing, presumed hacks. To be fair, editor Joanne Shattuck, from the impressive Victorian Centre of Leicester University, whose bibliographic skills were originally fostered by Lionel Madden, has an intelligent awareness of such problems: "Any bibliography which aims to be comprehensive is implicated in the formation of a canon, however unofficially." That seems hypersensitive when many of the entries will be new names conducting to "new thresholds, new anatomies", but a stronger move to canon formation here might lie in base measurement - tales told by column inches, or better still just columns, which may attest to something, even if only to what Milton described as "popular noise".

As you might have guessed, Dickens is the winner here with 92 columns, and this bibliography wonderfully includes not merely dramatisations and adaptations, but "Studies and biblio-graphies of Adaptations" (Patrick Scott is the heroic compiler). Incidentally, the combined Bront s make a mere 33 columns, a surprising result. Jane Austen has only 14. And why does Browning so hugely exceed the brilliant, if wayward, Coleridge with 40 columns to his 25? And, for that matter, why does Shelley, Marxist avant la lettre and poetic tutor to talents as various as those of Browning, Hardy, Wallace Stevens and Yeats, have a mere 18 by comparison?

A particularly admirable feature of this bibliography is that it defines "literature" in a broad sense with which both the Victorians themselves and modern theorists would presumably rejoice to concur. Apart from the entries for poetry, the novel, drama and non-fictional prose, "literature" includes history, philosophy and scientific writing, and sections on religious studies. Travel and the literature of sport and education and on newspapers and magazines are included as part of the taxonomic magnanimity. Introductory sections on "Book production and distribution" and "Literary relations with the Continent" are highly serviceable and might constitute a breeding ground for intelligent research projects.

Chronology is characteristically procrustean and its apparent "wiry bounding line", in Blake's idiom, brings fuzzy logic, in the form of the omission of Blake himself, for example, mechanically severed from soulmates such as Shelley. GBH is done, too, with the omission of GBS, while Yeats, also promoted to the 20th century, was born in 1865 and his formation surely that of a Pre-Raphaelite of sorts.

A slight quirkiness or crankiness results from the up-to-date listing of textual and biographical criticism, while recent critical commentary "proper" is surrendered to the brave new world of electronic "replicants".

In fact, for those who actually read in a spirit of quirkiness (or crankiness) and are happy to pull out the quite frequent plums of pleasing eccentricity, the bibliography is surprisingly beguiling. I must include here Joanna Baillie's hubristically programmatic project of "a series of plays: in which it is attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mind. Each passion being the subject of a tragedy and a comedy." For a peep at the mischief of "international relations", an American, a Mr Carey, muses on "How to Out-do England without Fighting Her", published in 1865 (not having a civil war might help). Under Sir William Schwenk Gilbert we learn that "Ruddygore" was altered to Ruddigore after the audience response to the first production (one wonders how exactly this manifested itself). There is also a fascinating-sounding "History of Ink".

The scholarly expertise brought to bear on this enterprise is of course hugely impressive. Andrew Brown's on Bulwer-Lytton is a notable example, and Simon Gatrell's 14 serviceable columns on Thomas Hardy is well worth mentioning in dispatches. As a hyperactive octogenarian, Hardy might have thought that little enough.

Thanks to what Hardy called the "world wide web" (see The Woodlanders ), this mighty tome might seem like a last cavalry charge of printed bibliographical scholarship, but on its own ground it is unchallengeable and, given the expertise, it may indeed (quite unironically of course) be called "a snip at £130".

Edward Neill teaches literature at Middlesex University.

The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature: Volume Four: 1800-1900

Editor - Joanne Shattuck
ISBN - 0 521 39100 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £130.00
Pages - 2,995

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