The three of us (Devoney Looser, Caitlin Kelly, and Melinda O’Connell) worked together to co-edit Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story, and A Legendary Tale (1796), a novel that has been described as a starting point, if not the inspiration, for Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811). West’s novel, like Austen’s, centers on two sisters, one full of rational good sense and the other of emotionally attuned, romantic sensibility. In both West’s and Austen’s novel, the romantic sister is named Marianne. (Janeites will want to check out West’s novel if only to compare the heroic male rescues of each novel’s Marianne.) We describe other echoes of West in Austen in our introduction to the text, which is the first modern, annotated edition of the novel to be published.
In the conversation below, we describe what it was like to work on this project together—Devoney as professor, Caitlin as PhD student, and Melinda as undergraduate English major—over a number of years. We describe what we each learned about co-editing an eighteenth-century woman’s novel, as well as about the value and challenges of collaborative scholarly work. (By the way, our process on these questions was that we wrote and shared the questions with each other and each took turns answering them, in conversation.)
We are grateful to our editor and publisher James D. Jenkins of Valancourt Books for his belief in this book. Valancourt is publishing exciting, often once-popular but now forgotten titles, and we’re grateful to have this title among them.
Q. Who should read Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story, and A Legendary Tale (1796) and why?
Caitlin: The remarkable thing about West’s novel is that it will appeal to both scholarly and lay audiences. Certainly scholars should read the novel, and, because of its relationship to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, I think it would be interesting to and beneficial for anyone who teaches Austen’s work. As someone who works with undergraduate STEM students primarily, I’m excited about the opportunities it presents for general education courses. My students tend to feel comfortable with Austen, and I think that can be leveraged to push them a bit with this lesser-known text. Plus, because there isn’t as much written about West’s novel, there is plenty of room for students to make important contributions to the conversation—and pairing it with Sense and Sensibility gives them a starting point in doing that.
Devoney: I’ve enjoyed the experience of teaching A Gossip’s Story and Sense and Sensibility as paired texts in a graduate seminar, and I look forward to doing it in an undergraduate course soon. Teaching Austen and West together allows us to discuss, in concrete terms, questions of literary value, authorship, and fame. In its own day, West’s novel was what we’d call a bestseller. It was well regarded and went through many editions. Austen’s wasn’t. Why did West’s novel “die” while Austen’s lived on? It opens up interesting discussions and debates. Reading West with Austen means we’re no longer having that conversation in a vacuum.
Melinda: My very short answer to this is that I agree with both of your responses. As a student, I would have enjoyed the experience of reading these texts together and using them to put Jane Austen’s more popular works into historical context.
Q. Jane Austen has no trouble attracting readers today. How or why do you think reading Jane Austen’s once-celebrated (and largely forgotten) female contemporaries, like West, matters now?
Caitlin: I think we read Austen because we feel obligated to in many cases. This is where scholarship has an impact on popular reading culture. What gets taught is often what is readily available. So first you have the lingering effects of early history of the novel scholarship that ignored women with the exception of Austen; then, you have the issue of making those novels accessible to students. So in making modern editions of novels written by Austen’s contemporaries readily available, we can change the landscape of the current literary marketplace.
Devoney: It also means Austen doesn’t look like a lone genius voice in the wilderness anymore. Or at least she doesn’t look like a lone voice. I’m not sure how much genius readers will want to assign to West, although I think she’s actually very funny, as well as seriously dogmatic. Do you think readers or students will laugh today at any of the comic parts of the novel? Melinda, you are the one of us who actually read and worked with this text as an undergraduate! What was that experience like?
Melinda: Honestly, getting through the text was difficult for me at times. Austen was one of my all-time favorite writers, so the language wasn’t necessarily new to me, but West’s style was. I hope it’s okay to say that I found it unpleasantly dry in the beginning, and it wasn’t until later in the process that I began to see any humor in her writing – but that’s how my love affair with Austen began as well.
Q. Why is it important that we recover conservative C18/C19 novelists like West? (It seems we’ve done much better at recovering a few of the progressive and especially the feminist novelists from this era over the course of the past several decades, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays.)
Caitlin: Literary texts tell us about the culture and historical moment that produced them. Naturally, people had different views of the world around them. It’s by putting those perspectives into conversation that we can start to reconstruct that moment in time. That is particularly important when you have writers—West, Hannah More, Mary Brunton, and others—who were actually more popular than Austen in their own time. We must ask ourselves why they were so popular: what was it about their novels and their ideology that resonated with so many readers in that historical moment? How were they in conversation with progressive writers? Where did they overlap and where did they diverge with them? Oftentimes, the difference between conservative and progressive women writers isn’t the end goal but rather how to attain it. We would be remiss to disregard how an entire group of women understood and articulated their experience.
Devoney: I’d just add to Caitlin’s great points that Austen herself is a divisive figure on this question. Many disagree about whether she ought to count as progressive or conservative in her politics, based on what we know of her life and her fiction. West is easier to pin down, in that she shares her ostensibly political purpose in writing fiction. But there are ways we ought to investigate how better to describe West’s avowed conservatism. In order to do that, we’d have to read more conservative novelists alongside West.
Melinda: What’s interesting about this conversation is that when we started this project, I was going through a transitional period myself, shifting from a rather conservative mindset to a more liberal one. I was drawn to writers whose themes presented progressive, feminist ideals and challenged more traditional thinking, so comparing these texts, Austen’s and West’s, was a fun project on a personal level, not just intellectually. That’s one component to making an author’s work interesting, right? Connecting to a story, or any writing, on a personal level provides added value to the work and the experience of reading it.
Q. What was it like to work over a number of years, collaboratively, on a scholarly editorial project, along with your other work as a student or professor?
Devoney: It was tough in that for none of the three of us was the West edition the academic or scholarly priority, except for that first summer that Melinda and I started on it. It was painstaking work at times. But there’s really no better way to see how a novel travels from an eighteenth-century edition to a 21st-century one than to try to make one yourself. It definitely took us longer—a lot longer–than we planned.
Melinda: Having the opportunity to start a project like this as an undergraduate was an honor I never expected. It was eye-opening in many ways: I was able to learn about the book editing process, and I came away more informed about that literary period and the authors themselves. It’s an experience I’ll always be grateful for.
Caitlin: I joined the project in its later stages and worked primarily on comparing various print editions of the novel and noting differences between them and Melinda’s transcription of the novel. Most of the projects we work on in literary studies are solitary projects from start to finish, so the collaborative nature of the project was a welcome change. It was also fascinating to come into a collaborative project that was well underway and where the collaboration occurred across time and space. That allowed me to take away from the experience a model for doing collaborative work that I could use no matter what kind of institution I ended up at.
Q. Would you recommend to students and/or to professors to engage in projects like this?
Devoney: Definitely yes! This project never would have been undertaken without the University of Missouri’s Undergraduate Research Mentorship Program (URMP). It paid Melinda a stipend for a summer’s worth of transcribing, editing, annotating, and introducing the book. It provided a structure for me to guide and supervise our work together, as her mentor. It was knowing that she and I would have dedicated time in which we could begin this work collaboratively that led us to propose it.
Melinda: It was an honor to be able to work on this project, and it would not have been possible without the URMP program in place. What I enjoyed about our teamwork was receiving guidance from a professor but being able to do a lot of the work myself, something many undergraduates may not have the opportunity to do. If you have the chance to collaborate on something like this, I say do it!
Caitlin: Absolutely. I would definitely urge graduate students and junior faculty to consider taking on such a project. Putting together a modern edition of a literary text gives early career scholars a chance to get hands-on experience in textual editing and to work collaboratively. These types of projects also have a wide and (relatively) immediate impact on large audiences; that’s why I’ve always found editing projects to be the most fulfilling work I do. This type of work also lets faculty and students without the resources of research institutions participate in the scholarly community. For anyone interested in a teaching-intensive academic position, that’s something to think about. Liberal arts colleges and regional universities are looking for faculty who know how to involve students in high-impact research.
Q. How did you carve out time to complete it or see editing and annotating in relation to the other kinds of academic writing you did? Did it draw on similar skills, develop different ones, both?
Caitlin: I was finishing my dissertation at the time, so I found the editing work to be a welcome contrast. Because I was comparing editions, I was focused in on just one facet of the project whereas with the dissertation I was thinking on a bigger scale. It’s important to learn to move from one type of focus to the other. I used to run competitively, so I think about it like this: you have both “fast twitch” and “slow twitch” muscles and you have to work both of them to be at your best. If you just train one type of muscle, then you aren’t going to be as efficient and strong. The same thing is true of your brain and how you train it to process information.
Melinda: In a sense, the process of beginning the introduction was similar to writing a research paper for class, but the difference is it wasn’t for a grade. Developing outlines and annotations required more in-depth research and processes. Additionally, my goal was different. I wasn’t writing to test myself and see what kind of grade I would get. I was contributing to something that would help educate and inform future students just like myself at the time. This had the biggest impact on my mindset going into it.
Devoney: I was the most fortunate of the three of us, because research was considered a part of my faculty workload. But this turned out to be research, teaching, and learning from both of you as collaborators. You helped me to see the text in new ways, too. The final product is stronger because we were able to incorporate all of that knowledge and those insights.
Q. How would you respond to someone who said, “Why do we need to compare multiple editions of an eighteenth-century text? It’s just a few commas and periods that are different, right?”
Caitlin: Changes between editions remind us that “the text” is an elusive artifact and what gets printed is often not exactly representative of the author’s intentions. Between editions you always see friction between author and printer, and West’s novel is no exception. We can see that some editions were hastily put out—that her work was just that popular. We can also see how a text can get out of the control of the author, and that reminds us to think about how the publication process affects how we read texts.
Melinda: Working on this edition made me realize just how valuable those commas and periods are! I notice more grammatical mistakes in kindle editions of books, but in printed editions, the placement of those punctuation marks tends to be more deliberate. They’re indicative of the author’s style and meaning, so it was important to consider all the possibilities when making our decisions of whether to include a comma, or move a comma, etc. Not only has this influenced the way I read novels to this day, but it has also made me very particular about the editions I choose. I want to read something that I can trust will be closest to the author’s original work and intent.
Devoney: We know that novels sometimes experienced enormous changes from edition to edition, changes that we usually attribute to authors’ revisions. West’s were not enormous in A Gossip’s Story. She didn’t remove passages wholesale or change the ending, but the changes made in the text are not incidental. I want to credit our fine editor here, too. James B. Jenkins of Valancourt Books had a great eye and was a terrific sounding board about which edition to make our base text. It’s not always easy to try to sort through which version is the right one to bring to readers and why. It used to be the standard that the “final” text—the last one published during an author’s lifetime—was considered the most authoritative. Then first editions were preferred, as the first thoughts and therefore the earliest version audiences would have seen. Now scholars might prefer the first edition, but they also want to know how a text changed over the course of multiple editions and how we might make meaning out of that. We tried to do that with our edition of West’s novel.
Q. What does it mean to you (and to potential readers) that West’s novel is available in the newly edited format you worked on? How is this edition different from reading the book in facsimile from Google Books or on ECCO (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online)?
Caitlin: Having a modern edition is definitely still important. Being able to download a digitized version of a novel is a great thing but readers unfamiliar with West can benefit from the explanatory footnotes and introductory materials that place the work within its cultural and historical context. Having that context is vital to the recovery project—it makes the case for why we should be reading the novel in the first place. And, thinking about students, they are reading Jane Austen’s novels in modern editions, so having other works on the reading list available in like form helps to work against the assumption that Austen is the more significant figure; the very existence of the modern edition shows that West’s writing matters. Google and ECCO are great starting places, but they still leave the heavy lifting up to us. Data need to be contextualized and analyzed, which is exactly what a modern edition does.
Melinda: Pulling from a theme at the beginning of this dialogue, I feel that the annotations are part of what contributes to the historical context with which we can approach Austen’s novel and others of the same time period. With these annotations absent in all previous editions, a modern printed edition is relevant for modern readers, as Caitlin just pointed out. Prior to this experience, I rarely paid attention to annotations in any text, unless I felt it was necessary. Since working on this project, however, I would go so far as to say I enjoy reading the annotations. I’ve even begun collecting all of Austen’s fully annotated works. In my mind, having a modern printed edition is not just exciting, meaningful, and historically important. It’s also just practical. Making novels like Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story accessible for students and the public makes the introduction to this literature easier and connections to Austen and this period more meaningful.
Caitlin Kelly is currently a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University. Her work focuses on the British novel over the Long Eighteenth Century, particularly questions of genre, religion, and gender.
Melinda O'Connell received her BA in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She was the recipient of an Undergraduate Research Fellowship. She lives in Texas, where she works as a content specialist for an insurance company.