Book Review: Ignatius Critical Editions

Ignatius Critical Editions
Edited by Joseph Pearce

Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
312 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17261-9

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
596 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17263-3

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)
365 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17262-6

Reviewed by Eleanor Bourg Donlon

Is Hamlet so rampant with bawdy jokes that it is simply a very long, very dirty “shaggy dog story”? Does the heart of Pride and Prejudice really lie in Jane Austen’s indirect exposure of the misogynistic tyranny of Regency England? Is The Picture of Dorian Gray an unequivocal celebration of alternative lifestyles? None of these questions are answered in the latest Ignatius Critical Editions, and every reader–young or old, expert or dilettante–must heave a heavy sigh of relief.

“Critical editions” of the classics have been produced by many major publishers–formally academic or otherwise–and to great success. Teachers order them by the gross and assign their students essays and contextual readings to foster understanding of a larger literary-historical context and to inspire burgeoning critical thoughts. And why not? Critical editions provide an (allegedly) comprehensive, mobile, and thoroughly efficient solution to problems of high textbook prices and the limited availability of some critical texts. Moreover, this contextualized scholarship encourages a particular critical stance on the part of the reader; it is tantalizing to see how much there is still to be said and how much more still to be read, and it is challenging to review the vast body of literary criticism that has come before.

At the same time, far too many of these critical editions have been undermined by their own agenda–hoist with their own petard (for the meaning of which mis-quotation, see the ICE Hamlet, III.iv.207). Literary-critical fads litter their pages, and preconceived notions stemming from that agenda-driven theory discover repressed “gender” and “race” issues behind every semicolon. The reader of Pride and Prejudice, stumbling over an unfamiliar term for a form of horse-drawn transportation, glances to the footnote and learns to his great astonishment that the difference between a “hack chaise” and a “carriage” is not merely one of social class or finances, but is a sign of the latent Marxist aspirations on the part of Mrs. Long. The student-reader then shakes his head and sets down the book, hoping against hope that the final exam for this course will be multiple-choice.

In striking contrast, the new series from Ignatius boldly declares its offering of “a genuine extension of consumer-choice, enabling educators, students and lovers of good literature to buy editions of classic literary works without having to ‘buy into’ the ideologies of secular fundamentalism.” Three books have already been produced: Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (a long misinterpreted and maligned novel that shines in its new setting), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (another work particularly persecuted by bizarre critical theories, now visible with renewed clarity), and William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Now the second batch, once again helmed by Joseph Pearce’s able editing, proves both rewarding and delightful.

This edition of Hamlet appears with a whole company of noble scholars: Crystal Downing, Anthony Esolen, Gene Fendt, Richard Harp, Andrew Moran, Jim Scott Orrick, and R.V. Young. Pearce’s introduction sets the stage with a wealth of textual information and with characteristic insight. His readings of the ghost, Ophelia (and her family), and Hamlet, and his final articulation of the play as “Christian realism,” are particularly intriguing.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is well balanced by a lengthy essay from Walter Pater (father of the Aesthetic movement, of which Wilde was perhaps the most famous disciple), followed by criticism from Richard Harp (in “Fables, Myths, and Fairy Tales in The Picture of Dorian Gray“), Dominic Manganiello (on “The Voice(s) of Conscience: Wilde’s Dialogue with Newman in The Picture of Dorian Gray“), and Brian Vickers (in “Influence and Culpability in The Picture of Dorian Gray”). All three contributors acquit themselves ably. Manganiello in particular strikes an important note with his analysis of belief and conscience, gazing through the lens of John Henry Cardinal Newman and in the context of Wilde’s life and particularly his deathbed repentance. The conclusion of Vickers’ essay, where he considers the impenitence of Dorian and his violent death against the larger canvas of the novel’s “priceless moral,” resonates.

In a similar vein, the critical essays that surround Pride and Prejudice are all admirably insightful. Christopher Blum’s introduction is excellent, as are the offerings of Richard Harp (on “The Comic and the Dramatic in Pride and Prejudice“) and Douglas Lane Patesy (in “The Voices of Pride and Prejudice“). The first of the essays deserves particular mention: in “The Grace of Inequality,” Anthony Esolen, fresh from penning the magnificent Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2007), unapologetically tackles the subject of social class and the morality of inequality. Through his careful analysis of virtue and the dynamic of proper condescension and true reverence, Esolen provides an insightful reading of several of the novel’s characters–most notably, the hero and heroine. Esolen’s reading of Mr. Darcy’s character, in particular, and of the tenor of his relationship with Elizabeth Bennet (culminating in the critic’s wonderful analysis of their sparring romance and its consummation in gracious love) is paramount.

A consciousness of virtue-based morality as the context in which Jane Austen wrote pervades all of these articles. Beyond this welcome critical innovation, there is something more upon which the reader should remark–the critics included are all men. Indeed, (although feminist critics may be driven to frenzy by such an admission) it is a delight to encounter so many engaged male readers of Miss Austen. Her popularity has always encompassed readers of both sexes, but of late, with the onslaught of feminist readings and syrupy film adaptations, the threat of pigeonholing the great novelist as a scribbler of proto-chick-flick scripts has menaced. Anthony Trollope may well have thought Pride and Prejudice the greatest novel ever written, modern readers (viewers) seem to say, but it’s really just a girlie romance. Not so! And bravo to this collection of male admirers of Miss Austen!

(Footnote: Trollope later demoted Austen’s classic to crown Thackeray’s Henry Esmond in its stead–so senseless a determination that we have rightly attributed it to momentary insanity and, as such, feel justified in allocating it to a footnote.)

It is not the mission of a book review to debate the lofty question of the purpose of literary criticism; and yet the appearance of this series must give us pause. Is it the place of a literary critic to deny the “bias” inherent in his viewpoint–whatever it may be–and then shove it down the reader’s (and author’s) throat? All of these books–and particularly Hamlet–draw on “leading scholars” and claim to be “groundbreaking.” Indeed, they are, for these are critical editions that both support textual exegesis and encourage a now-rare philosophy of interpretation (that is, a balanced one), making available to students and teachers both the texts and the traditional equipment for interpretation and understanding. Modernists, post-modernists, and post-post-modernists, take note before your own fad becomes outdated! Where the reader himself is to be placed on this continuum of qualified modernism is a deep question–yet another fact of literary-critical existence that throws the importance of tradition, as an anchor to scholarship, into ever sharper relief.

Ignatius foresees publication of fifteen to twenty ICE titles, initially, with a goal of publishing three books a season. It is to be hoped that successful sales will exponentially increase the list for this “tradition-oriented alternative” to Norton and Oxford. It is something on which to marvel: a successfully scholarly experiment in authentic open-mindedness, based upon a proper understanding of and appreciation for tradition–all of which is beautifully encapsulated in the G. K. Chesterton quotation that heads each book in the series:

Tradition may be defined as the extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition.

With a firm reliance on tradition, and an authentic democracy of thought as a goal, things bode well for this series of “Tradition-Oriented Criticism for a new generation” (as the marketing tagline confidently proclaims).

And may there be many, many more.


  1. Dena says

    Wonderful review. I think I’d know Eleanor’s voice anywhere now. Commentary as witty as it is learned. (She doesn’t seem to be able to resist–thank goodness.)

    Regarding her theme: It seems to me that literary criticism lost its reason to live when it became heir to the ubiquitous ban on discrimination a few decades back. To be forbidden to tell one thing from another eventually becomes an inability to do so. Thus did the human intellect suffer injury that may turn out to be permanent. The ban turns literally everything, including criticism, into an anti-discrimination thesis, whether or not such a view is even remotely related. A book of Marxist critical essays on some Renaissance work or other (can’t remember) had me in stitches a few years ago. The insanity would be comic were it not so scary.