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Classics Referencing Other Works (And The Problem With Dated Books)

A painting of Maria Edgeworth

This month has brought with it the constant urge to read the book(s) that inspired the book(s). Last year I read Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote first and foremost because the author was a Charlotte but in the time between deciding I would read it and the moment I started it, I discovered the connection to Jane Austen. If it wasn’t for the fact that the favourite novel of Lennox’s bookish heroine is 13,000 pages long, I would likely have moved on to it. But as it is, and as the other referenced books weren’t so memorable, I began and ended with Lennox’s work.

“I am no novel-reader – I seldom look into novels – Do not imagine that I often read novels – It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant.
“And what are you reading, Miss-?”
“Oh! It is only a novel” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. (Northanger Abbey, chapter 5)

Presently I’m reading Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, mostly due to the above reference to it in Austen’s work; I am effectively now on my second read of a book that Austen was inspired by when writing Northanger Abbey. And through Belinda, as well as, if I recall correctly, the Oxford’s World Classics edition of Charlotte Brontë’s letters, I’ve been introduced to Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar Of Wakefield, which was apparently very famous in its day (less so now). I’d like to read that, too.

I have the exact problem I spied when I originally thought of reading books referenced in other books – I don’t know where I should stop. ‘Should’ is not quite right – I can read what I want, of course; it’s getting the right balance between choosing what you reading with a thought to time limits and increasing your literary knowledge in the way you’d like to. I’m personally yet to work out what is right for me; I wonder whether my interest in reading secondary sources will help or hinder. One thing I do know: considering the Goldsmith is a new addition to my list I may well not get to it, but if I do (it is apparently a riot) I’m very much hoping Goldsmith does not reference anyone himself.

Of course all this contextual reading – if at this point it can be called so – has taught me something I wasn’t aware of: the sheer number of past authors who haven’t worried about the longevity of their books. We talk nowadays of authors dating their books, putting in references to current culture that will mean they’ll likely be difficult to understand within a few years, but authors have been doing this since the early days of novels. I wonder if perhaps, with the fewer number of publications and the way it’s likely that authors were far closer to each other for the same reason, the idea of referencing wasn’t something to analyse prior to use. Definitely, if we look at works referenced, there was a strong element of trying to please those they admired (when the references were contemporary) and helping to form in-jokes that readers would understand (when references were a little older). This is where footnotes are of value; I’ve changed my mind on footnotes in books. I saw the value particularly when I checked a second, noted, edition of a book I was reading to find out who a referenced person was and found there was no entry for them.

There is a difference between then and now, however. References to popular books of yore are easy to look up, at least in the age of the Internet, and there were fewer books to start with. Nowadays there are many and the references to culture are more often digital, things that will likely have a short shelf life. The author most referenced in the classics I’m reading is Frances Burney, who was popular for a great many years, so much so that even if her books weren’t read today it’d be easy enough to find out about her. And that she wrote books is an easy concept to understand. I wonder if Twitter, which requires understanding of the Internet, will be as easy to understand in centuries to come.

Social media in books is the likely-to-be-dated-soon element I always note because of Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, which I’ve heard a lot about and would like to read at some point. I know that it deals with familiarity and obsession with famous people, and whilst these themes are longterm, I wonder how understanding and empathy in a reader will change when social media is long gone.

The above said, for all our worries about dating today’s books, it has been going on for centuries. And what we think usual today may not be usual tomorrow; but we think about what is going into a book and how the future may consider it. I think it’s fair to say that authors today know well how future-proof their work will be. Reading older books, one gets the sense that that wasn’t often considered.

What is your opinion on books that include today’s technology?


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