SHELF LIFE

As literary classics get ever more elaborate footnotes, Brandon Robson asks: Who will edit the editors?

THE new Penguin edition of Wide Sargasso Sea may not be the best edited book I have ever read, but it is certainly the most edited. The first page contains no fewer than eight editorial footnotes. Note 1, which occurs in line two, glosses the phrase "They closed their ranks" with the shrewd observation that the narrator "sees the situation as a quasi- military one". Note 2 (at line three) translates the difficult Creole phrase "she pretty like pretty self" as "she is as pretty as prettiness itself is". Notes 3 and 4 are applied to consecutive words.

And so it goes on. The editor, Angela Smith, cannot quite keep up this frantic pace for the whole book but she does her best. Her guiding principle seems to be that it doesn't matter if the footnotes tell the reader things they already know, the truly important thing with notes is that there must be plenty of them. Note 17, applied to the word "cockroaches", informs us that "cockroaches are nocturnal scavengers and household pests; they are usually black or brown and associated with dirt and decay". Note 20 (we're on page 11 by now) glosses "chain gang" as "convicts who are chained together and forced to do hard labour".

To be fair, not all the notes state the obvious; others state the recondite. I didn't know, for instance, that Spanish Town was founded in 1523, nor that Prince Rupert of the Rhine settled in England in after the Restoration, nor that every part of the oleander is poisonous. Now, I'm not against learning new things. I enjoy browsing through encyclopaedias. But not when I'm trying to read a novel.

The problem is that the purpose of Smith's notes is unclear; why is she telling us all this stuff? Is it to help us appreciate the novel? But the notes have the opposite effect. They draw attention away from Jean Rhys's novel and towards Angela Smith's scholarship. Note 34, for example, on Aunt Cora's wry comment "Unhappily, children do hurt flies", tells us that this is an allusion to King Lear, Act IV scene 1. The only purpose of this (in my view, rather shaky) claim is to advertise the fact that Angela Smith has read King Lear - which, as a Senior Lecturer in English, she bloody well ought to have done.

Perhaps I should feel grateful for the hard work Ms Smith has put in on my behalf. For she certainly has worked very hard indeed. In total there are 145 footnotes (for a novel of l19 pages). There are also seven pages of general notes, a 17-page introduction (with 18 footnotes of its own), a three-page "Note on the Text", an appendix which reprints Francis Wyndham's "Introduction to the First Edition" and a list of further reading suggestions which runs to 45 titles.

But I do not feel grateful. I feel intensely irritated. Reading Wide Sargasso Sea under these conditions is like trying to watch a film with somebody sitting next you constantly nudging you in the ribs, explaining the plot, commenting on the characters, feeding you unwanted titbits of information about the director's other works and the biographies of the actors. You may object that the comparison is not quite fair, after all, you don't have to look up the notes. Even if you don't, however, the little hovering numbers are still distracting, like a cloud of gnats getting between you and the text. And in practice a kind of exasperated curiosity impels you to look them up: what can she possibly find to say about plantains? (They're a species of banana and must be cooked before eating, that's what.) Is she really going to patronise me by translating "La Belle" as "The Beauty"? (Yes, she is.)

Wide Sargasso Sea is a set text for the Open University Introduction to Humanities course this year, so some 7,000 students will be sharing my exasperation. Perhaps Angela Smith is not entirely to blame; perhaps she was under pressure to produce an extra-scholarly edition. Perhaps, too, she was influenced by the growing trend for academics to stamp their intellectual authority all over the books they edit; certainly she is far from being the only culprit. But it's high time this trend was curbed. Who will edit the editors?

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