I am Professor Helen Small, specialist in English literature and editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of 'Wuthering Heights'. AMA!
I’m a professor at Pembroke College, University of Oxford, and an advocate for the humanities. I have been a professor of English literature for 22 years and I have edited several works for the Oxford World’s Classics series. I am delighted to present my edition of 'Wuthering Heights':
For the last three months I have been invigilating for the #OWCReads online reading group on @OWC_Oxford, helping them to get to grips with this novel - one of the most famous love stories in the English language.
Ask me anything about 'Wuthering Heights', literature or the editing process!
For more information about the #owcreads group: http://blog.oup.com/2015/02/oxford-worlds-classics-reading-group/
Social Media Verification: https://twitter.com/OUPAcademic/status/578915148993298432
We're closing down now, but thank you for all the wonderful questions!
There's a pretty standard list: strong academic record, good references, interesting and sufficiently focused project - which is doable in the time available (the timing varies significantly from country to country - in the UK it is 3 years). It needs to be ambitious enough to justify 3+ years full time work, have a visible research dimension, and be coherent in its own terms (why these writers on this topic? ... ). And it needs to be well written. Not least, it needs to genuinely interest you.
I'm studying to be a high school English teacher, so I'm curious: what is your favorite piece of literature to teach and why? I'm hoping to find something that's a little unorthodox for my 11th graders :)
Not one single piece, but one kind of teaching: putting a really good (preferably difficult) poem in front of a small group of students who've not seen it before and working through it with them. I've not had time in my schedule for ages to do this kind of close reading 'for it's own sake' with my college undergraduates, but I managed to carve some out this term and it was much the most exhilarating teaching I did in the term. We looked at a pretty wide range in 8 weeks: Roy Fisher, Denise Riley, Frank O'Hara, T. S. Eliot, Byron, Keith Douglas - pieces they were unlikely otherwise to have had time for in the syllabus. They loved it; I loved it. It's a great exercise in on-the-spot critical judgement, and honing your critical descriptive skills - and it can be made to connect closely with work they are doing in a more historical contextualised way for other courses. (Several of them went on to write about O'Hara, for example.) But if you are asking me which single text I most like teaching: it's a really hard call. Daniel Deronda, perhaps? Culture and Anarchy? but then I feel a strong tug back to the more contemporary poets even as I write this ...
do you have a favorite gothic romance?
I'm torn between James Hogg, Confessions of a Justified Sinner and anything by Mervyn Peake.
Hi Professor, thanks for doing this AMA. :)
I'm an English undergrad at the minute but hoping to stay in academia once I've completed my first degree and eventually hold a position like yourself. Could you tell me a little more about what your career involves on a day-to-day basis? Is there any advice you might give to someone considering entering the same field? Do you enjoy what you do?
Thanks for your time!
Best of luck! It's still a hugely enjoyable career, with a lot of space to shape your work according to your own interests - however much most institutions have changed over the past two decades. Above all, the content of what we do is endlessly interesting (someone pays me to read and write and talk about books; that's a great privilege). There's a big difference between an average day in term and one out of term (we're just out of term here). In term = running between tutorials, graduate classes, doctoral supervisions, and far too many college, Faculty and university meetings (just getting through the papers for meetings and fielding the emails is a large part of my day). Out of term it's much more about thinking, reading, writing. I go to fewer conferences than I used to (pre child) but I do go to some, and the better ones can be a great stimulus.
Small, Pembroke - Who do you cheer for in the boatrace, as you are now Oxford but went to Cambridge?
And have you ever been on University Challenge?
I dither. I rowed for my Cambridge college's graduate crew for a bit, and coxed briefly - but drew a line under that part of my sporting career after an incompetent undergraduate cox steered a boat (I was subbing at no. 2) into a barge at the side of the river. The entire force of the boat at race speed went into my stomach (on the blade handle). I came to under the water, not knowing which way was up. Growing up in NZ, I'd seen endless repeats of the 'how to avoid drowning' ad: blow bubbles; they will rise to the surface; follow them up ... Problem was, the water was so filthy I couldn't see the bubbles. I eventually worked my way out from under the boat and swam to safety. Then was violent ill all night. Now I stick to running. And no, I've never been tempted by University Challenge.
Do you ever feel constricted by being English, studying English in England, and now working in England on English literature? Were you ever tempted to study/work in other languages/countries?
Hm. I'm not in fact English by birth and upbringing. I was born and grew up in New Zealand, and came to the UK in 1987 to do my doctorate at Cambridge. I spent the better part of 2 years in New York between 2001 and 2004, loosely attached to NYU, while writing The Long Life. I've also spent time in France (again, writing). So - yes, I've thought about it. But England has a strong pull for me. Something about the history, the landscapes, the intelligence of the political culture ...
Well, those are quite quite brief in stints in cultures that are quite similar and English-speaking. But does that mean you only previously considered French/France?
True enough. I haven't even seriously considered moving career to France. You?
Hello! What kind of education do you consider it's best to have if you're an aspiring editor? I've got a degree in Spanish but I'm note quite sure that'd help me enter the publishing world in the UK!
There's no one model. Good language skills (in the relevant language); decent historical knowledge - and historical research skills; ability to write a persuasive account of why the book should matter to new audiences now. Wide reading...
What do you think the most influential work of English literature is? Or if not one, then a few?
Has to be Shakespeare, doesn't it. The OED revisions are altering some of what we think we know about how many words entered the language via his plays and poems - but I don't think they are fundamentally displacing him. Watch Charlotte Brewer's website: http://oed.hertford.ox.ac.uk/main/index.html
Hello Professor Small.
How do you view Edward Johnson's (of The Handbook fame) contention that great English is "a kind of snobbery"? Hang on, let me quote him...
"English that is good enough in one context may not be good enough in another, and thus good English amounts to savoir faire, a touchstone of the snob."
"Grammar and usage are therefore touchy subjects, like class distinctions—they are class distinctions. We expect occasional correction from a parent or teacher, but any friend who corrects us had better be a good friend indeed; he or she is implicitly criticizing our background, our education, our place in the world, our being."
Well that chimes rather nicely, as a question, with the previous contributor's invitation to rank the Brontes! (which I probably shouldn't have agreed to do, but ... there it is). But, I think your question is more about language, perhaps especially spoken language. There's much less snobbery around in language teaching circles than there once was - broadly speaking, most of us are descriptivists now, not prescriptivists (this is far more my colleague Lynda Mugglestone's area than mine). In short: I think judgements on other people's 'English' have a great deal to do with context, but they don't just come down to knowledge and taste. There's also the important question of whether we are making sufficient sense to each other. I have a seven year old: I'm acutely aware at this stage in life of how much fun nonsense is; and how robust even small people can rightly be at pushing back against 'rules'. But sense matters. And even a seven year old knows that you can't have nonsensical fun with out it. Snobbery is just dull, no?
What are your thoughts on fanfiction?
Coming back to this one (I was thinking): some of it is great fun. I haven't spent much time with it, but many of my students do. It has a long history of course (Jane Austen and many others were doing it long ago, under another name - pastiche). It can be a great way of learning how to experiment with style.
Which is the best Bronte writing and why? (Charlotte, Emily, Anne, or Branwell)
It's a matter of taste, I think, finally - but (if you push me) I'd have to say it narrows down to 'Charlotte v. Emily'. I can't think of any other novel in English that exceeds Wuthering Heights for sheer 'power' (it's the word even the first, perplexed reviewers, kept coming back to - and you can see why). Charlotte has greater intellectual depth, on the other hand; and she's much more politically and culturally engaged. There's an oddly compelling bit in the Biographical Preface where she says that Emily was 'not amenable' to the influence of other 'intellects'. I suspect that's true - and not a bad way of differentiating them. There's respect in the comment. (I don't find it unsympathetic or patronising to her sister.) Branwell isn't in it, I fear. The drink and the drugs did seem to take a toll.
To what extent do you think the setting of Wuthering Heights determines what takes place in the novel?
Good question. It couldn't take place in a city, could it, without radical reimagining? The way it asks you to think about human natures as 'given' - able to be distorted, yes, but not fundamentally changed in terms of how strong or weak particular individuals are - only really makes sense in a context where human beings live close to nature, and close to animals, and are unsentimental about what nature does and doesn't allow to flourish. The weather makes a difference too, in that the novel's strong sense of naturalism makes it seem often as though human behaviour is subject to strong and sudden impulses - storms, lulls - as if it's elemental not culturally determined (though of course it is in part shaped by cultural circumstance - she's not indifferent to that). One of the reasons I hold back in the Introduction from completely endorsing Edward Chitham's account of how the novel may have come to be written at the length it is (and in 'two halves') is that he argues that Bronte was writing in tune with the seasons. (It is winter in the novel because she was writing that section in winter ...) I'm not as happy to limit her imaginatively as that strong view of the shaping circumstances of writing would have it.
What's your favorite novel written after WWII that you see as strongly influenced by any of the Brontes?
Hm. That's not easy. The PR people in the office with me are chorusing 'Harry Potter! That's what everyone says, but we can't see why.' I'll go for Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September. Not as direct and obvious an influence as Jean Rhys, but it's clearly there in the way she thinks about houses as psychological spaces - confining and (potentially) liberating their inhabitants. And like Jane Eyre it's a political novel, as much as a Bildungsroman. (Distorted Bildungsroman in Bowen's case.)
What got you into editing ? How do your edits make this version different ? Do you think the process of editing needs to be done by someone other than the author ?
Judith Luna, who has been a great editor at World's Classics (she is very sadly about to retire) first invited me when I was a researcher at Cambridge. She asked me to do one of the Oxford Popular Classics (bright yellow jackets) - bringing back books that had been hugely popular in their time, then fallen out of print (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes more out of accident). I learned a lot from that experience about what and how much to annotate, and how to make a case for a book most people won't have heard of. This was around the same time that Everyman asked me to do an edition of Menie Muriel Dowie's then completely forgotten New Woman novel, Gallia as one of the competitors for a Restrospective Booker Prize. It was competing against Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, so it didn't stand much of a chance - but again it was very good experience of biographical research, making a case, annotating what was needed. Happily, I got to graduate up the ranks of the forgotten to the rightly famous: Bronte, Thackeray, Eliot ... All my experience of editing has been with books where the author is long dead, so it definitely has to be 'someone other than' them - and part of what's needed is explanation for modern readers of contexts, places, ideas and events that are no longer familiar to us. So you are acting as interpreter, really, as much as critic.
In one of my current English classes we've dived a bit into textual criticism and theories of critical editing. I'm curious as a critical editor whether there are any methods or theories of editing you adhere to that influence how would you go about addressing variants, what text to use as the base of your edition, and so when it comes to creating a critical edition? It is such an interesting area to me, you really see the macro and the micro intersect, even how to handle a single word can be a point of pretty broad theoretical contention.
Thanks for your time on this AMA! It has been a great read so far.
Ah - well you've identified a big distinction between kinds of edition. The World's Classics editions are (usually) based on full critical editions but they are not that themselves. They don't contain full variants, genetic information, etc. They are intended to be reliable editions for use by general readers and students - but not by the most specialist scholars, who will want to consult 'the standard critical edition'. I've written about Dickens's manuscripts and proofs in a recent essay (in Daniel Tyler, Dickens's Style), but I've not yet wanted to do a full critical edition of a text. At the moment I'm more interested in writing criticism. Perhaps I'll take a change in direction at a later stage, but for now, I want to get on with the ideas and the analysis - and leave the painstaking textual work to others. (I also hate finding errors in what I've published, and it's very hard to produce a completely error-free text, as any reader knows. So I doubt I have the temperament for a contented textual editor.)
What is your favorite George Eliot novel?
Daniel Deronda. See above! Yours?
I've only read Middlemarch, and I thought that was tremendous, especially in its realistic depiction of a less than ideal marriage. I was looking for my next Eliot novel to start. Why would you select Daniel Deronda over others?
It's a really serious and emotionally gripping political novel - with a troubled heroine. One of the best first lines in English literature: 'Was she beautiful or not beautiful?'
I've been thinking about the recent return to materialism (mostly from a German studies context), but also in the possibilities of using a virtual medium for anotating books that would be more organic and interactive. Have you thought about creating an online annotated wuthering heights?
Good question for my editor at OUP! I suspect they (and all the academic presses) will get there sooner rather than later. We've odd hybrid versions at present because every published text exists in electronic forms - some of which never get seen beyond the editors' computer screens, but others of which are readily visible (and partly searchable) via google books etc. I think we'll be seeing a lot more of that soon, if the people in the finance offices can work out a sustainable model. And there are a lot of great digital editions out there already, of course.
Do you have any specific digital editions in mind?
Some good e.g.s here: http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/subjects-and-libraries/collections/digital
Do you have any advice for aspiring editors? I'm currently going for my BA in Communications with a concentration in Journalism and a minor in Professional Writing. I have experience in technical writing and editing via that, but I would like to get involved in literature editing such as you work with.
I've just written a version of an answer to this above - but I'd add that you probably need more experience in literary analysis, if this is the kind of editing that interest you. An MA in English? Or Modern Languages and Literature?
This is an academia question more than anything, if that's okay? I am thinking about applying for a PhD in English literature in the coming year, but the application process is really overwhelming me. Any tips on writing up a strong application? What do you look for in a prospective PhD student?
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