New book celebrates the lost work of Shakespeare’s female editors

Scholar Molly Yarn identifies more than 60 women who have contributed to the history of the Bard’s works, and believes there are still more to find William Shakespeare

Reviewing Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke’s illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1869, an anonymous critic blamed “the numberless alterations, mutilations, corruptions, or whatever we may choose to call them” on Mary, and wished that “the lady editor had refrained from thus tampering with our great poet’s language”. More than 150 years later, the lost work of the female editors of Shakespeare is set to be recovered in a new book which aims to overturn the male-dominated history of his writings.

Independent scholar Molly Yarn drew on university and library archives, and the records of government agencies, while writing Shakespeare’s ‘Lady Editors’, which is out on 9 December from Cambridge University Press. She looked at letters, diaries, contracts, ledgers and wills to uncover the contribution women have made to Shakespearean scholarship.

I can’t read a play like Much Ado About Nothing without feeling Shakespeare definitely appreciated a smart woman

“I vastly underestimated how many I would find – I knew of about 20, and probably would have been happy with 30 or 35. Obviously I got more than I bargained for,” says Yarn, who is also associate editor of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new edition of the Complete Works. “I include 69 editors in the book, but that number should definitely be higher; there are a few that I left out for boring, technical reasons, and I’m sure there are still more to find. There’s much more work to be done in this area.”

Yarn pointed to the work of Clara Longworth de Chambrun, who was born Clara Longworth, part of an American political family, and married Aldebert de Chambrun, a descendant of the Marquis de Lafayette, to become the Comtesse de Chambrun.

“She earned her doctorate at the Sorbonne at age 48 and was one of the founders of the American Library in Paris, which she helped to keep open during the Nazi occupation. Early on, when Nazi regulations banned Jews from entering the library, the countess and the staff hand-delivered books to Jewish subscribers,” says Yarn. Chambrun edited a 1913 edition of the sonnets.

Laura Jewry Valentine, meanwhile, is credited by Yarn as the editor of an 1868 Chandos Classics edition of the works. “I love Laura Jewry Valentine’s story: to go from a naval lieutenant’s daughter, to a governess in India, to a novelist, to a destitute widow, to an editor of Shakespeare – amazing,” says the academic. “I feel so invested in all the women I researched for this project, even the ones whose lives were less obviously ‘exciting’ – many of them were teachers who worked for decades and influenced countless students, and I feel honoured and proud to record and recognise their work.”

Yarn said that while some of Shakespeare’s female editors have previously been identified by scholars, this has focused on single editors such as Cowden Clarke, whose 1860 edition of the plays made her Shakespeare’s first female editor, rather than looking at early women editors as a group.

Yarn points out that the Cowden Clarkes – perhaps anticipating criticism – write in a preface to Mary’s 1860 edition that: “while the man-editor uses his masculine judgment as to what expressions are fittest to be expunged from a chastened edition of Shakespeare, the woman-editor is not without her use in bringing feminine discernment as an aid and exponent to some of his passages”. They add, pointedly: “It is, perhaps, good and befitting that Shakespeare, who is not so much a man as human – containing in himself the best parts of woman’s as well as man’s nature – should have a woman to assist in editing and analysing him.”

Yarn credits her interest in the topic to her former teacher Ann Thompson, one of the general editors of the Arden Shakespeare series and a professor at King’s College London. “During the 80s and 90s, Ann was one of the main voices pointing out the gender gap in Shakespeare editing and articulating the principles of feminist editing,” says Yarn. “The field of Shakespeare editing has really narrowed its gender gap over the last few decades, thanks to a lot of hard work by women like Ann and their allies.”

But Yarn believes there is still a lot of work to be done to stop editing being such an exclusive field. “We have a long way to go to improve diversity among editors in terms of race, nationality, religion, sexuality, disability, gender identity, economic and educational background, institutional affiliation, and more,” she says. “These things matter because the editor shapes and presents the text to readers – editing isn’t a neutral task … As I say in my epilogue, now we need to think about how to institute broad, lasting changes, not just focus on metrics like male v female editors in a series.”

Shakespeare himself, added Yarn, is unlikely to have been too bothered about being edited by a woman. “On a certain level, I don’t think he would mind – not to say that Shakespeare was particularly feminist, but I personally can’t read a play like Much Ado About Nothing, with a character like Beatrice, without feeling like he definitely appreciated a smart woman. And the development of a play, through writing, performance and publication, was so collaborative during the early modern period, I don’t think he would be offended by the idea of being edited,” she says.

“But at the same time, I sort of … don’t care what he would think. Coming from a theatre background, I’ve grown up with the idea that we start with the text, then we make it ours; and over the years I’ve seen people do plenty of things that Shakespeare might not have liked (or understood) but that I thought were brilliant. We all make our own Shakespeares – his feelings don’t necessarily have much to do with it.”

Originally published in the Guardian

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