Letter from the Editor


Travelers in a Strange Land

The opening sentence of L. P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between (1953) suggests that we'd be wise to carry a passport when reading English fiction before 1914: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” They do, and to read English fiction more than a century old makes tourists of most of us. As with all such travel, a guidebook deepens our understanding and with that our pleasure.

The BookDoors In Context editions' approach is interdisciplinary, the writing clear and jargon-free, the discussion grounded in scholarship. We aim to give the reader the knowledge an informed native of that place and period had naturally. At its most basic that begins with the vocabulary a native possessed and extends to familiarity with everyday matter such as money—not just what a half-crown or guinea is worth but what a house servant, governess, or curate earned, what it took in pounds sterling to be called a “gentleman,” and what were considered acceptable sources for his income. (BookDoors converts old £s into current $.) The native knew the varieties of religion stretching from High Church Anglicanism to the many Dissenting sects, had a general understanding of the astronomy, geology, and biology of the day, was perhaps intrigued by mesmermism and phrenology, could deduce a man's politics from his dress, and knew who was “respectable,” who not, and just what that potent word meant.

Great authors make their novels easy to read. The surface tension created by an engaging style, fine plot, and intriguing characters keeps the reader afloat. Yet the sparkle on the surface may blind us to what's going beneath. Austen's courtships glitter with wit and charm, but we sense that love in Austen is quite cool and not hormonal (or when hot disastrous). It is cool because love in Austen includes matters of class, money, and aspiration—and the probability of children. Courtship is only the scintillating prelude to Austen's deep subject, marriage, for the children will be the present's promise to the future. Austen is always thinking ahead.

Her contemporary readers knew who the gentry were, what the class's origins and historical obligations were, and the extent of their political power in 1815. Austen is suspicious of the aristocracy, who at this period were often flamboyantly self-indulgent and licentious, the Prince Regent the incarnation of much that she believed threatened the kingdom's wellbeing. England's prospects for stability and order amid a period of unprecedented social change rested, she believed, on the landed gentry's sons and daughters of marriageable age.

Yet the gentry's current moral condition and their seeming indifference to their responsibilities to the nation trouble Austen. She presents the manor house as a micro-polity whose management reveals the inhabitants' moral state. The outlook is precarious, because the fathers are almost always weak or self-indulgent and seem indifferent to the fact that the future not only of their family but also of the nation is being cast in their drawing-room. Fortunately their sons and daughters are often wiser than their parents.

That's a motif that runs through nineteenth-century English fiction from Austen to Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh and looms particularly large in Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Mary Shelley's novel requires a very different order of knowledge from Austen's, though they are writing contemporaneously. Shelley is responding to another facet of the age, that in which science's promise appears both limitless and terrifying. Galvanism threatens conventional notions of life's origins. The capture in 1800 of the feral Wild Child of Aveyron (c.1788-1828) offered the promise of empirical evidence as to what knowledge, if any, we are born with and how we learn. The physician who adopted the child and named him Victor (Dr. Frankenstein's first name) was a precursor to Frankenstein.

Some background in intellectual history reveals how revolutionary Frankenstein is. Shelley has the Monster challenge a cardinal tenet of much Western moral thought: the claim that being virtuous alone guarantees our happiness. The Monster inverts this when he implores his creator, “Make me happy, and I'll be good.” But Frankenstein loathes his deformed creation, partly because it reflects his own surgical incompetence. There is, too, an autobiographical element. Shelley's mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Mary, whose own first child was born two months prematurely in February, 1815, and died within days, leaving Mary in an acute depression. Compounding her grief was the fact that Shelley's wife, Harriet, had a son in 1814. Mary did bear a son in January, 1816, some six months before the novel's outline appeared in “a waking dream” that wove together salient features of her times and her personal life.

The Dickens world is the world, a labyrinthine biosphere of some 1000 characters, among whom is a disproportional number of bad dads (Dickens's own father was the model for Micawber). The weakness of the fathers results in the children having to sacrifice their childhoods so as to parent their elders. Dickens is both a recorder and a reformer, possibly the most influential of his age. He documents the generally wretched conditions of the working classes in their slums, against which he counterpoints the ruddy self-satisfaction of the middle classes and the lassitude of the titled. His scope is panoramic, his knowledge of everyday life encyclopedic—workhouses, prisons, schools, the law and the courts, factories, Dissenting chapels, Parliament (the Circumlocution Office), river life, and philanthropies. A good guidebook shows how Dickens's exuberant fictions reflect the grim realities of his society.

Any guidebook is only as helpful as it is easy to use. BookDoors has customized the ebook to serve readers of different ages, experience, and expectations, from the casual reader to the teacher and scholar. The user chooses what sort of annotation to open because each has an identifying superscript: “W” defines a word or idiom; “H” indicates the annotation contains historical information and matters of fact; “D” stands for discussion and commentary. (The home page's “about>How BookDoors Works” elaborates.)

Because the ebook allows for the range and flexibility no annotated print book can have, we've been able to divide the annotations into categories such as “Amusements,” the “Body,” “Love and Marriage,” “Manners and Morals,” the “Mind,” “Religion,” and fifteen more. A reader can view all that apply to that novel or to any other In Context edition. The website's Research function enables the reader to type in, say, “piano”: 391 results, spanning the entire BookDoors library, each reference attached to the passage in which it appears. “Egotism,” central especially to George Eliot's fiction, occurs twenty-three times.

BookDoors' mission is to fill a void resulting from a broad cultural shift in the U.S. that has rewritten the syllabi of high schools and colleges. Reflecting important cultural changes, the present curriculum now emphasizes modern and often non-Western fiction. But until now the schools, colleges, and universities have been responsible for keeping alive a canon of literature and preparing readers to appreciate those works. Joyce's Ulysses (1918) would hardly be read without its first appearing on a syllabus. But it is no longer a given that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English novels will be on the syllabus. To compensate, BookDoors offers free the annotated editions online and charges just $3.00 for the download. We hope that the ebooks are affordable to much of the English-speaking world. Without the commentary that a fine teacher would have provided, these novels will succumb to being known chiefly through their movie or TV adaptations.

Seeing vs. Reading

Hardly a major novel of those two centuries has not been quarried for film or TV–from Robinson Crusoe and Tom Jones to all of Austen and Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and Rob Roy; from Jane Eyre, Pendennis, Great Expectations, Middlemarch to Trollope's The Way We Live Now, much of Henry James, and Conrad's Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness..

Yet no matter how fine the adaptation, and many are superb, the movie cannot replace the novel. Seeing at the movie's pace is passive while reading demands our intellectual engagement. A film lasts two hours, the BBC “mini-series” of Middlemarch lasts six. Reading the novel will take the best readers–and they are often the slowest–many times that. Throughout those hours the reader is actively visualizing the scenes and faces, drifting now and then into private thoughts, pausing to read a sentence or paragraph over, maybe reading aloud so as to catch the modulations in the narrator's voice. In fact much reading before about 1900 was done aloud. A passage from the King James Bible might be read in the evening to the family and servants and the novels of Dickens to a group of villagers in a pub. Or, commonly, a reader quietly mouthed the words, because the voice of Jane Eyre, Ishmael, and Conrad's Marlow is integral to the story. Orality is characteristic of much of this literature, Dickens especially, who would have us hear the Biblical resonance of Great Expectations' opening: “My father's family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”

Seeing, we cannot stop the action, which proceeds at the movie's or serial's pace. The scriptwriters and director have read for us, and the cinematographer tells us how and what to see. The novel has necessarily been abridged if not amputated to customize it for their medium. Moreover, the studio has reconstructed the novel to appeal to the current culture of a paying audience whose tastes and values differ radically from, say, Emily Brontë's.

Gutenberg II: Flood Tide–1815

The electronic revolution currently transforming texts of every sort is the third since the Middle Ages, the first being the invention of print in about 1440 and its first triumph, the Gutenberg Bible. The second was a result of the Industrial Revolution, which began in England around 1750 and transformed methods of printing, the production of newspapers and books, and their dissemination. One effect was to make printed matter cheaper and therefore more influential. Austen describes in Emma her shock at "this age of literature," by which she means the flood of works, many by women, owing to industrialism's democratization of authorship.

Sales to a public hungry for news and views were prodigious. Tom Paine's The Rights of Man, Part 1, sold 200,000 copies in England between 1792–3, and even that figure grossly understates the audience's size, since a single copy was often read by multiple readers. The numbers are all the more extraordinary when we note that the population of England was then under ten million. Histories, dramas, poetry, the personal essay, and novels flooded the culture–Gothic psychological thrillers, novels of manners, sentimental novels, fantasy and science fiction such as Frankenstein, historical novels and realist novels. Many of these works were also available through the burgeoning rental libraries. Stirring hymns, products of the Methodist Revival, cross–pollinated with lyric poetry and the new children's literature to produce poems such as Blake's beautifully illustrated Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789-94), and other vernacular elements influenced Wordsworth's and Coleridge's stunning Lyrical Ballads (1798). Hannah More's Cheap Repository Tracts sold two million (!) copies between March 1795 and March 1796, stemming the drift toward revolution and atheism. Manifestos and such works as Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and William Cobbett's Political Register (1816) aimed to inform and arouse, and did. Austen, writing anonymously, "By a Lady," added a crystalline voice to this diverse chorus.

Gutenberg III

Like Jane Austen we, too, live "In an age of literature"–that of bloggers, twitterers, wikis, self–publishers, and websites such as BookDoors.com. But in one of those caprices of history, the present is looping back to the past. Our word "text" comes from the Latin textus, a "web," a "weaving." Readers of Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Gaskell, or George Eliot may see a parallel between the Web and the cottage industry of independent handloom weavers (such as Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe,1861) who supported themselves by working at home. That ended when the Industrial Revolution annihilated cottage industry, sucking the weavers and their families into factories and towns whose conditions were inhuman.

Their looms have re-emerged as our computers, which spin digital texts that encircle the globe. But the Web is also a wave that we "surf." Austen's flood tide of print is ebbing beneath us, carrying away palpable books. Yet in their wake, that word elegiac, appears the annotated ebook, a marvel as a guidebook. The latter were once called vade-mecums (vah-day-may-comes), “A book or manual suitable for carrying about with one for ready reference” (OED), vade-mecum being Latin for “go with me.”

--Richard Fadem