[This review first appeared in Albion 34 (2002): 145-47.]
Reading this massive scholarly tome — it's a good 2 5/8 inches (or almost 7 centimetres) thick — prompts several reflections about this particular text, the state of Victorian studies, and the relation of our scholarly enterprise to the book as both thought form and information technology. First things first: Three cheers to Victor Shea and William Whitla for producing an absolutely brilliant work of scholarship. Their exercise in intellectual archaeology permits twenty-first century scholars to read and understand a once controversial, subversive text within the cultural ecology that gave it meaning. In anthropological terms their efforts have provided a very thick description of a key event in Victorian culture. As the preface correctly explains, Essays and Reviews struck many contemporaries "as a pivotal moment. . . in fields as diverse as theology, religious and ecclesiastical history, biblical studies, education, law, science, politics, and literary criticism" (ix).
The very massiveness of editorial notation and other aspects of the apparatus communicates a great deal about our relation to the original readers of this volume — in particular about our obvious intellectual and imaginative estrangement from them. The authors of the seven essays that make up Essays and Reviews "belonged to the Broad Church party of Anglicanism, a loose affiliation of liberals who wanted changes in doctrine and reforms in institutions based on advances in new fields of knowledge, including modern biblical hermeneutics" (7).This gathering of staid academic essays struck so many contemporaries as profoundly subversive precisely because it asked questions that were not supposed to be asked at all in an age when denominations from Evangelicals to Roman Catholics assumed that (as a standard text for ministerial students put it),
The BIBLE is none other than the Voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne — Every book of it — every chapter of it — every verse of it — every word of it — every syllable of it — (where are we to stop?) every letter of it — is the direct utterance of the Most High! The Bible is none other than the word of God — not some part of it more, some part of it less. [Burgon's Inspiration and Interpretation, I, 6; quoted from my Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin, 1971]
Essays and Reviews, like Bishop Colenso's The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined, which appeared a few years later, eventually succeeded so well in changing basic attitudes toward scripture that contemporary students of Victorian literature find it difficult to see what all the fuss was about. We have hardly become more tolerant, as any reader of contemporary critical theory can readily attest. Typically modern reactions to works like Essays and Reviews derive less from true liberality than from sheer ignorance of the religious dimensions of Victorian culture. Several decades ago I pointed out that almost all of us read Victorian fiction and poetry in the manner of someone trying read texts in a language whose only dictionary is missing entire sections. All major and minor Victorians, including many atheists like Swinburne, not only knew their Bibles, often virtually by heart, but also read them in terms of extraordinarily sophisticated interpretative methods now known only to few scholars.
In this situation, what is an editor to do? Here in brief is what Shea and Whitla did: After explaining their editorial procedures, they included what is essentially an entire book as introduction; the five "chapters" of this introduction take the form of (a) an attempt to position Essays and Reviews culturally, (b) an explanation of the origins and publication of the volume, (c) a discussion of its reception, (d) 70-odd pages of introductions to each author and his essay, and, finally, (e) an essay on "the Broad Church Compromise." The second part of the edition, which occupies almost 500 pages, is devoted to heavily annotated presentations of the controversial essays themselves. A third section, "Documentation," includes a chronology, prefaces to American editions, crucial materials about the various heresy trials the authors endured, satires by Lewis Carroll and others, and so on. Four appendices include publisher's records, outlines of each essay, a finding list of letters and diary entries about Essays and Reviews, and a bibliography of responses to the volume. "But, wait," as those who advertise gadgets on late-night television add, "there's more!" The edition closes with another hundred pages (!) devoted to a list of works cited and an index each for biblical passages, persons, and subjects. (I'm exhausted just listing the contents of the volume.) But, again, there's more here than just quantity: Shea and Whitla's edition, whose sheer bulk is daunting, have filled it with fascinating, informative, essential information. The introductions and footnotes are, quite simply, a treasure trove for students of Victorian culture.
And yet 100 or 120 years ago, almost no one would need much of this magnificent apparatus. What does this fact tell us about Shea and Whitla's wonderful edition, which is at the same time a reductio ad absurdum of scholarship and a work of brilliance? Samuel Johnson pointed out that texts become obscure and need new annotation every 50 or 70 years because their original contexts are forgotten by all but a few. The Shea and Whitla edition shows us in starkest outline how much we have forgotten, how little people of the twenty-first century remember about the nineteenth.
As a solution to the problems posed by our ignorance Shea and Whitla have produced this massive tome, which is so heavy that it recalls those volumes chained to benches of medieval and renaissance libraries. Essentially, they have created an archive-in-a-book that shows the strengths and weakness of the scholarly book as a form of information technology. Like many books created in the days before high-speed printing, such as those histories of a nation or subject that begin at the creation of the world, this one attempts to include all necessary information about its topic between two covers. The cultural situation Shea and Whitla address — that is, our general ignorance of the context of this text — demands such a volume, but they give us so much in a single book that it calls into question the form of the book itself. Essays and Reviews: The 1860 Text and Its Readings was issued by the University of Virginia, the institutional home of Jerome J. McGann, who has proposed that digital scholarly archives replace scholarly editions. Here is a volume, if one ever did, that cries out for translation into hypertext, and one hopes that the publisher will consider issuing it in full electronic form. Until then the editors are to be congratulated and thanked for creating such a complete, beautifully written archive-in-a-book.
Essays and Reviews: The 1860 Text and Its Readings. Edited by Victor Shea and William Whitla. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2000. Pp. Xxiii, 1057.ISBN 0-8139-1869-3.$90.00
Last modified 8 July 2004