Good Feelings about Bad Footnotes

Classes are over, and as I wait for students’ final projects to come in, I’ve turned my attention to my book project. The project developed from my dissertation, and as I’m revising I am adding a new chapter, about the Victorian industrial novels. The project is about the ways in which Victorian novelists incorporate into their works the narrative structures of moral tales, a genre of children’s literature popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries — the period when these novelists (and, equally important, their readers) were children.

This week I’ve been reading Gaskell’s Mary Barton, which contains this allusion: “of all shops a druggist’s looks the most like the tales of our childhood, from Aladdin’s garden of enchanted fruits to the charming Rosamond with her purple jar.” The Oxford Classics copy I’m reading has this footnote:

The references are to the Arabian Nights Entertainment or the Thousand and One Nights. This collection of Arabic stories, translated into French in the eighteenth century and into an English expurgated version by Edward Lane in 1840, was enormously popular. The tale of Aladdin, though not in fact one of these tales, was generally reckoned with them.

If you’re familiar with the Arabian Nights, or with Maria Edgeworth, or with the history of children’s literature, maybe you caught the error here. The mention of Rosamond is not an allusion to the Arabian Nights, but to “The Purple Jar,” a story from Edgeworth’s The Parent’s Assistant (1796). In Mary Barton the reference is especially relevant. For one thing, the next line tells us “No such associations had Barton,” thereby separating the reader (who is presumably middle-class and educated, having read both classic and newly-published books as a child) from the poor factory worker John Barton. And readers who know Edgeworth’s story will recognize that the allusion goes beyond this one line. In the tale, Rosamond buys what she thinks is a beautiful purple vase but turns out to be just an ordinary glass jar filled with ill-smelling purple liquid. She buys the jar from a druggist’s shop. Like Rosamond, John Barton is lured into such a shop, on his errand to save his friend Ben Davenport. Barton is given medicine “very good for slight colds, but utterly powerless to stop, for an instant, the raging fever of the poor man it was intended to relieve.” Recognizing the theme of enticement and disappointment in Edgeworth’s tale underscores the pathos of Gaskell’s scene.

There’s something like schadenfreude, then, in reading the footnote I quoted above. The phrase “critics haven’t noticed” is one of the conventional moves of academic argument. Building an claim about the importance of moral tales in Victorian novels, and reading a direct allusion to one of these tales, I come across a footnote that completely misses the allusion. A specific critic hasn’t noticed something specific. Great! (for me).

Of course I’m not the first person to notice this allusion — lots of people have, and I’d imagine that other editions have accurate footnotes about it. But I can still enjoy the moment.

Have you had an experience like this, where you recognize another scholar’s minor error, that happens to bear directly on your own research? Tell me about it in the comments.

Leave a Reply