Bonny Banter with Barbara M. Benedict

This year, one of our plenary speakers is Barbara M. Benedict. She is an accomplished scholar who has written many books and teaches at Trinity College in Connecticut. We caught up with her to learn more about her work and what to expect from her talk. Which Austen or Shakespeare character is she most like? Read on!

Photo courtesy of Barbara M. Benedict

In your book, “Making the Modern Reader: Cultural Meditation in Early Modern Literary Anthologies,” you explore how 18th-century anthologies grouped books and made them more accessible to readers. What inspired this project?

Actually this book sprang from my first book, “Framing Fiction: Sentiment and Style in English Prose Fiction, 1745-1800,” which explored the rhetorical and ideological inconsistencies in early sentimental fictions. When I was researching that project at the British Library, I found that many vignettes, patches and snippets from these novels had been published separately in collections aimed at readers looking for a quick, sentimental fix (since the novels themselves tended to be very long). The result was that I started researching this new form of publication: the anthology, a compilation of literary tidbits by different authors. However, “Making the Modern Reader” was a very difficult book to write because no one really believed that anthologies or any kind of literary collection was a genre at all, let alone worthy of study. Instead, critics and scholars sought to trace the authorship and genesis of each specific item in an anthology, irrespective of its appearance in this new form of publication (which was at the time termed a “miscellany”). In the 18th century, a miscellany could contain literally hundreds of snippets of songs, extempore verses, poems, excerpts and prose sketches from dozens of different known and unknown authors and genres — plays, epics, songbooks, poetry collections—new and old. Furthermore, the Indexes often did not accurately list the contents, so I had to go through dozens and dozens and dozens of these books page by page. Moreover, anthologies or miscellanies spread beyond literature to collections of essays, biographical sketches, scientific papers and so on, so the project became rather daunting. And very hard on the hands. But I did find that this new form of publication promoted or entailed a new form of reading: quickly, episodically, casually — very different from the kinds of reading long novels demand.

How did you go about researching this topic?

With courage and obstinacy and a grant from the NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] for a year’s paid leave from teaching. It was extremely tedious and I often lost hope, wondering whether there were a there there. The actual process involved spending six weeks or so each, supported by grants, at research libraries here, in Scotland and in England, where hoards of these previously ignored books were held—the Clark in Los Angeles, the library at Hamilton in Ontario, the Newberry in Chicago, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, Yale’s Sterling library (which has since spirited them away from the open stacks and hoarded them in the rare-book Beinecke library)—plus the year’s grant to the British Library. I read and recorded the contents of each collection, compared them to the Indexes and to each other, and researched the authors and publishers and processes of publication at the time. I found many disparities and recontextualizations in these collections that resulted from editorial comments, organization, editing and reframing, all which refigured literary texts so that they seemed to mean quite different things, depending on the publisher’s bias and the context. Thus, I discovered that the form allowed editors to reinvent staple literary works for new audiences. I concluded that the reason this form emerged during the Restoration and flourished in the 18th century lay in the changing political and publishing climate occasioned by an inexpensive printing press and a new, literate audience of divergent religious and political views, all hungry for accessible forms of the emerging literature.

You also wrote “Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry,” which explores the concept of curiosity and how sometimes it is considered a virtue and other times it is not. How have attitudes towards curiosity, and being curious, changed between Jane Austen’s time and ours?

Less than one would think, as a matter of fact. In the period before Austen, the birth of science and empiricism valorized seeking, asking, looking — the inquiry associated with the respectable form of curiosity — but this changed as science lost prestige and morality became a public watchword. Thus, in Austen’s time, the morally repressive atmosphere of the later 18th century somewhat stifled the neoclassical endorsement of curiosity. Instead, the old, biblical association of curiosity with seeking to winkle out God’s secrets for nefarious ends gathered more strength, propelled by the loss of belief in science’s efficacy and nobility and the rise of the Romantic thrust toward emotion and sensation. This was especially true because of the association between naughty, impertinent or even wicked curiosity and women like Pandora and Eve — which has always existed in Western culture. This also was intensifying as women gained more, and thus more threatening, public power in politics and publishing. Women like Mary Wollstonecraft (if there really were any; she was remarkable) were figured as curious (impertinently inquiring) and curious (a strange object ripe for inquiry) because they ventured into male purviews in publishing and in their sexual attitudes. Even though curiosity in the last hundred years has crawled out of the shadow of disapproval more and more as science becomes more and more important in the Western world, nonetheless the subterranean current of derogating curiosity as an expression of impertinence, cultural ambition to transcend your appointed place, or gossip-fueled malice intended to pry into your neighbor’s affairs and spread rumors persists. The defensive overlap between inquiring people and objects of inquiry — the tendency to turn people who question the status quo in their actions, dress, speech, race or attitudes — exists everywhere in the modern world.

The same book also examines curiosities, or objects for collection. What items excite your curiosity and do you have any collections you would like to tell us about?

Collecting is mainly about the triumph of imagination over time: anything that seems mysterious or foreign or reminiscent dimly, of something known and loved is grist for collection, but being small and portable certainly helps. Importantly, inquiring is about collecting knowledge: a friend of mine always used to say plaintively, “I want to know” when something puzzled him and I feel the same. And collecting things has always been a form of knowledge from the Renaissance cabinets of curiosity to today’s museums. Actually, I think absolutely everyone in the Western world collects something: a specific item (like representations of frogs or cows), or a class of things (like toys), or material (like porcelain), or memories (like photos or postcards), or books, paintings, objects of art, recipes, and the list goes dizzyingly on. My father, indeed, who was an anthropologist and the director of the Lowie Museum in Berkeley, California, did collect almost everything, but I try to limit myself. I love antique jewelry, which is a dauntingly expensive thing to have fallen for, and I have a topaz pendant from c. 1780 a bit like Fanny Price’s cross: wearing these things makes me feel as if I have a sensual connection to history. I also possess a small collection of eighteenth-century books, although I haven’t Marianne Dashwood’s ambition to buy up every copy for fear others may misread it. But I also do have a large collection of small boxes of various kinds acquired in my travels, made from titanium, wood, mother-of-pearl, inlaid ivory, porcelain, metal, bone, marble, paper, glass, stone, shell, etc. including china Battersea boxes from the late eighteenth century (although I have yet to acquire one of Tunbridge ware like Harriet Smith’s, in which she keeps her collection of relics from Mr. Elton). These function both as mementos in helping me to recall my adventures and the sights I have seen, and as objects of aesthetic delight: by comparing them, I experience the frisson of difference-in-sameness similar to that one gets looking at a picture of a scene one knows, or (harking to my "Making the Modern Reader" book) comparing two poets’ translations of the same Latin ode.

You co-edited the Cambridge Works edition of “Northanger Abbey” with Deirdre Le Faye. Why did you pick that book to work on and what was it like working with Deirdre Le Faye?

"Northanger Abbey" is the completed novel of Austen’s that most harkens to the neoclassical 18th century, rather than the Romantic Regency, and that includes the broadest of Austen’s literary parodies in its ridicule of Gothic fiction. Since she composed (and re-composed) it over such a long period, it also represents the shift from the old to the new, and the resulting tensions in value and attitude — a dynamic that has interested me since I wrote my dissertation on “The Tensions of Realism in Defoe, Fielding and Austen” in the last millennium. I love the narrator’s pseudo-apologetic irony on the process and difficulties occasioned by learning to be a heroine in the false world of literary romance; on the foolishness of Catherine’s shame at being flatteringly ignorant before Henry; on the sad truth that gratitude prompts Henry’s affection for Catherine — and so much more. The narrative tone is very like that of the mid-eighteenth-century novelist, Henry Fielding. I also like the bipartite structure matching the evilities of Bath, replete with charlatans and fortune-hunters, with those of "Northanger" under the thumb of a mercenary domestic tyrant. And I think it is the most personal of her novels, the one with the most open voice of Austen coming through. But actually, I didn’t choose it: I had written some essays about it and so Janet Todd (the general editor of the Cambridge editions of Austen’s works) chose me to edit it for her series. I was, of course, absolutely delighted. I didn’t actually work with Deidre much, since I was teaching in Rome at the time: she really did most of the footnotes and I wrote the introduction and critical reception.

What can we expect from your talk?

Fun, I hope! I am really looking forward to it. I want to show slides of some of the objects Shakespeare and Austen mention and discuss how and why they are important, both at the time of the authors’ writing and for the authors themselves — especially how both authors view the shift from locating morality and meaning in physical items as opposed to resting it in religious ideas. How are their views similar and different? How does the material culture itself and attitudes toward it of the Renaissance differ from or resemble that of the Regency? Are objects really vessels of meaning or are they symbols of moral misdirection? To Be Discussed!

What Shakespeare and Austen characters are you most like?

Oh dear: this is asking me to express my fantasies. I WANT to be Elizabeth Bennet, and modeled myself on her from an early age (indeed, since I am dyslexic and had trouble reading school books, I literally learned to read by spelling out the scene when Elizabeth rejects Darcy with my mother), but I think I just sounded like Lydia. Ouch. Probably, being bookish, I am most like Mary, which is a very lowering thought. Or perhaps like Darcy, without his justification. As an adolescent, I certainly felt like Fanny, but I suppose many girls do. Again, I WANT to be Shakespeare’s magnificent Portia from "The Merchant of Venice," defeating men in the courtroom with grace and eloquence, or Rosalind from "As You Like It," clever and witty and lovely and loved, but I am probably more like her rather colorless companion, Cecilia, staring open-mouthed at cleverer companions.