Five Questions: Anthony Mandal on Self-Control

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Brunton Self-Control

Dr Anthony Mandal, Reader in English at Cardiff University, has published widely on Romantic and Victorian fiction and culture, focusing particularly on Jane Austen, book trade history and the Gothic novel.  Among many other things, he is the developer of British Fiction 1800-1829: A Database of Production, Circulation & Reception,  the author of Jane Austen and the Popular Novel: The Determined Author (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), the editor of the open-access online journal Romantic Textualities and one of the General Editors of The New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson.  He is also co-organising (with Dr Jane Moore) the 14th BARS International Conference, Romantic Imprints, which will take place in Cardiff in 2015.  Below, we discuss the process of preparing his new edition of Mary Brunton’s Self-Control, which was published last year by Pickering & Chatto.

1) How did you first come across Self-Control?

My first encounter with Self-Control, and Mary Brunton, was while undertaking research for my PhD in the late 1990s.  I was looking at the intersections between Jane Austen and her contemporaries’ fiction, and my fourth chapter (which was actually the first I wrote) read Mansfield Park against the emergence of evangelical fiction during the late 1800s.  As one of the key novels of the genre, Self-Control formed a key focus of the print cultural analysis and comparative textual readings that I made use of.

2) Which aspects of the book and its history made you want to produce your edition?

When it appeared in 1811, Self-Control was an unexpected bestseller by a first-time novelist, completely overshadowing the publication of another 1811 début—Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  My starting point was Austen’s rather tart comments about the novel, which seemed to dismiss the aesthetic achievement of Self-Control while simultaneously acknowledging its overwhelming popularity: ‘my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an elegantly-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.’  The more I looked into its publication, the more compelled I was by the narrative that unfolded.  Begun as a pastime, Brunton was clearly unprepared for the novel’s success, avowing ‘I would sooner exhibit as a rope-dancer’, than be recognised as a novelist.  And it is this ambivalence—between commercial success and religious rectitude, between popularity and propriety—that offers a suggestive lens through which to examine women’s writing during the Regency.

The publishing context itself was fascinating too: the novel was published by the Edinburgh publishers Manners & Miller, who shared a personal connection with the Bruntons.  Manners & Miller partnered up with the London-based Longmans, who were among the most eminent Romantic businesses of the period.  The novel quickly gained popularity, with the first edition virtually selling out within a month, so much so that Longmans in effect took over the management of the edition, instructing Manners & Miller to produce a second, enlarged edition.  This, again, sold rapidly, and the novel had gone into its fourth edition by the time the year was up.  The reception of the novel was by no means unilaterally positive, and critics were divided over its religious content and depiction of sexual violence, with Mary Russell Mitford observing that she’d heard that the book ‘had occasioned [a dispute] between two gentlemen, one of whom said it ought to be burnt by the common hangman, and the other that it ought to be written in letters of gold.’

Given the popularity of Self-Control during the nineteenth century (it remained in print until the 1880s), I was disappointed by the poor attention it received during the twentieth: a facsimile reprint had appeared by Garland in the 1970s, followed by a reset edition which appeared as part of Pandora Classics’ ‘Mothers of the Novel’ series.  While laudable in its intentions, this latter edition was riddled with typos and carried no annotations, giving little sense of the novel’s allusiveness and richness beyond its relationship to Austen.

3) What were the major challenges you faced in selecting and preparing the text?

Given that the novel went into four lifetime editions within one year (Brunton died in 1818), the main challenge was getting access to these texts.  Luckily, I was able to secure most of the source material electronically from various sources, such as the Internet Archive, the Hathi Trust and the Corvey collection.  Although it wasn’t going to form a key authority when undertaking any emendations, I also wanted to collate the Standard Novels edition that Colburn & Bentley published in 1832, as this formed the basis of the remaining editions that appeared over the next sixty years.  Then came the arduous process of converting these pages into editable text, and carefully proofreading each edition in preparation for the collations.  Luckily, the collation process was assisted by my use of the JUXTA application (, which enabled me to compare the variants digitally.  This was good news indeed, as the collations yielded around 6000 separate variants between the five editions!  Of course, I still had to read through each one and decide which ones to implement and which ones to disregard, ultimately having to apply around 200 substantive emendations, which was no small task.

Another key challenge lay in my choice of copy text.  I decided to return to the first edition, as the rest of the nineteenth-century editions were derived from the second.  Owing to various criticisms and suggestions that Brunton had received, she made a number of significant alterations to the text, toning down various controversial elements.  For instance, the villain of the novel is presented as much more calculating and sexually violent in his predations on the heroine in the first edition; whereas from the second onwards, he is presented as much more under the instinctual sway of his desires.  I wanted to return to the more unsettling aspects of the first edition, which I felt would offer the modern reader a more compelling and complex text.  Structurally, Self-Control originally appeared in two volumes, which broke at a very dramatic moment in the narrative; whereas the second to fourth editions were divided into three, which I felt diminished that compelling sense of urgency.

That said, what struck me about the first edition was how poorly the paragraphs had been set for a published work.  This was borne out by anecdotal comments which stated that the first edition had been typeset directly from Brunton’s first manuscript (rather than a fair copy), as well as an examination of the printer’s press-marks in the volumes themselves, which showed that the job had been spread out among multiple personnel.  As a result, paragraphs in the first edition sometimes run for pages in length, while passages of dialogue are squashed together, distorting some of the textual richness of the first edition.  After much agonising, I elected to follow the paragraphing of the second edition, which seemed to open up the text much more fluidly and lucidly.  All the while, the textual purist on my shoulder was berating me for such a decision.  However, I reasoned that rapid preparation of the first edition afforded Brunton little opportunity to make the interventions that she did a few months later when revising the second edition text.

4) In your introduction, you make a strong case for the novel as a ‘messy, rich and rewarding text’.  Now that the new edition has made it more generally available, what sorts of research projects and taught courses do you think might profitably employ it?

I would say that Self-Control is richly rewarding on a number of levels.  Firstly, research into and teaching of the Romantic book trade will find it a very interesting case study for the production, dissemination and reception of fiction.  This, coupled with Brunton’s anxieties about fame and recognition, offers some suggestive material about the role of the woman writer during this crucial period in the history of the novel.  More generally, the fortunes of Self-Control provide some interesting opportunities for the study of canon-formation and literary legacies, especially when read against more readily recognisable writers such as Austen and Scott.  But the content of the novel itself offers some very interesting dynamics to students of the nineteenth-century novel, as it presents a strong and independent heroine who resists her marginal status in quite powerful ways, while attempting to evince a religious agenda.  Brunton is able to draw together melodramatic incident, literary satire and psychological sensitivity throughout the novel, in ways that can be read backwards to Richardson and forwards to Victorian realism.  I’ve taught the novel for a number of years on an MA module entitled ‘The Popular Novel in the Age of Austen’, and students were very responsive to it, which was another spur to prepare the edition.  My hope is that scholars who study the novel will find that, while it may not have the sustained elegance of Austenian prose, Self-Control nevertheless provides a compelling and at times moving account of the limitations and pressures faced by women at the turn of the nineteenth century.

5) What’s next for you?

As usual, too much!  During 2014, I’ll be co-authoring with Franz Potter and Colin Marlaire, The Palgrave Guide to Gothic Publishing: The Business of Gothic Fiction, 1764–1835.  This is a 230,000-word reference guide that examines the authors, publishers, printers, circulating-library proprietors and magazines that played a formative role in ensuring the success of first-wave gothic fiction.  I’ll be balancing this project with a number of articles on medical writing and nineteenth-century periodical gothic, as well as my role as a General Editor of the New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson—our first half-dozen volumes will be appearing over the coming year.

Oh, and there’s the little matter of co-organising BARS 2015, of course…