Saturday, 17 November 2012

Investigating the Preface

by Fay Davies

In the preface to his 1796 novel The Monk, Matthew Lewis wrote this poem:
Methinks, Oh! vain ill-judging book,
I see thee cast a wishful look,
Where reputations won and lost are
In a famous row called Paternoster
(…)
Go then, and pass that dangerous bourn
Whence never book can back return:
And when you find, condemned, despised,
Neglected, blamed and criticised,
Abuse from all who read you fall,
(If haply you be read at all)
Some of its rhymes are questionable, but its message is strikingly universal. Lewis perfectly encapsulates the fears which are intrinsic to the act of releasing a novel into the world; the act of presenting your handiwork for the merciless scrutiny of the public. Addressing his novel, he anticipates its release into ‘Paternoster’, the then centre of the London publishing trade. This is a point from which ‘never book can back return’. It is a permanent departure from the mind of the author; an exorcism of private thoughts. And, although Lewis later entertains the possibility that its reception will be positive, most of the poem is taken up to depictions of ruthless rejection and dismissal. What he expects is, predominantly, ‘abuse from all who read you’. But why does Lewis pre-empt the criticism of others? Is the ironic damnation of his own work a means of enticing the reader, or is it a safety device? Maybe the preface is merely the author’s chance to defend themselves before the novel even begins – a disclaimer.
We could also read Daniel Defoe’s preface to his novel Moll Flanders as a form of defence. In fact, he claims that he didn’t even write it – that he is adapting some pre-existent memoirs, the ‘genuine history’ of this ‘Moll Flanders’. Effectively, he blames his book on someone else. It was published at a time when the novel was a very new form, and a supposed grounding in ‘truth’ was a strategy to gain validity. It was thought that, while the readership at the time may not have valued the fabric of one man’s imagination, they could at least value fact. In the case of Moll Flanders this was compounded by the fact that Moll’s tale is one of ‘vice and debauchery’. The wickedness within its pages was evidently something that Defoe wanted to distance himself from.
Not letting his own efforts go unacknowledged, Defoe takes pains to establish the role he has taken. It seems slightly dubious, but he claims that the way he has altered and presented the story ensures that it is ‘all applied, and with the utmost care, to virtuous and religious uses’. By censoring her words he attempts to justify the book’s publication. He clearly fears that the public may be offended, and goes on to say, in what may be the most revealing point: ‘none can, without being guilty of manifest injustice, cast any reproach upon it’. This is a prohibition of criticism: a prohibition of being, in Lewis’s words, ‘condemned, despised’.
In the preface to the first edition of The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole similarly denies the original conception of the tale. Rather than basing it on ‘truth’, as does Defoe, he writes that ‘the following work was found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529’. The alleged age of the work gives it a magical authenticity. It is a historical artefact, replete with mystery and excitement – and to amplify this Walpole even fakes an element of uncertainty: ‘how much sooner it was written does not appear’. Like Defoe, he retains a sense of worth by presenting himself as a translator: ‘the zeal of the author (moderated, however, by singular judgement)’; ‘it is natural for a translator to be prejudiced in favour of his adopted work’. Yet, as well as noting his skills as a translator, he also acknowledges the merits of the original author: for example, ‘the art of the author is very observable in his conduct of the subalterns’. He praises himself twice over – but only once are we meant to know it is him.
Yet the latent, ominous potential for public rejection is apparent once more. Alongside praise comes a feature that we may be coming to expect: apology. In the same way that Defoe was pioneering the novel, The Castle of Otranto is widely believed to be the first gothic novel in the English language. And so it is here that Walpole focuses his excuses: ‘…his work can only be laid before the public as a matter of entertainment. Even as such, some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances’. These phenomena are the stuff of the gothic. He feels the need to distance these aspects from himself, as if lacking conviction in their worth. They are new and their success is not guaranteed, thus this pre-emptive criticism compensates for his fears.
Both authors anticipate criticism from the public due to some element of their work – some element that is at its core. And it is this that they attribute to another; this that they dislocate from themselves. However, it is not only the other ‘author’ that receives criticism from Walpole. He also shows dissatisfaction with the aesthetic qualities of the work, apologising for himself as a translator. ‘Our language falls far short of the Italian, both for variety and harmony… It is difficult in English to relate without falling too low or too high…I cannot flatter myself with having done justice to my author in this respect: his style is as elegant as his conduct of the passions is masterly’. Perhaps the non-existent original work which he alludes to, the work ‘of the purest Italian’, is a secret symbol of some idealised version of his work. It represents what he has envisioned writing: the unattainable perfection. Walpole uses the preface as a way of reconciling himself to his imperfections, paying tribute to what he wishes he had produced.
Interestingly, when the second edition of The Castle of Otranto was released Walpole revealed himself as the author and wrote a second preface. It confirms much of what has been said:
The favourable manner in which this little piece has been received by the public, calls upon the author to explain the grounds on which he composed it. (…) He resigned the performance to the impartial judgement of the public; determined to let it perish in obscurity, if disproved; nor meaning to avow to such a trifle, unless better judges should pronounce that he might own it without blush.
Walpole reveals why he originally covered up his true identity – and it comes down, unsurprisingly, to a fear of the ‘impartial judgement of the public’. By this point he has observed the success of his novel, he comes to write this preface with a very different stance. But it is still fuelled by apology and justification: the very purpose of this preface is to ‘ask pardon of his readers’.
In many ways, the preface to the 1841 third edition of Oliver Twist echoes that of Moll Flanders. Dickens writes that ‘I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech did not offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral’. There is a hint of something else in this preface though, something subtle and mischievous. At the opening, he writes ‘when I completed it, and put it forth in its present form three years ago, I fully expected it would be objected to on some very high moral grounds in some very high moral quarters’. I cannot help but think that the repetition of ‘very high’ makes the phrase slightly ironic. Is Dickens being sarcastic here? If we look back to the poem that forms Matthew Lewis’s preface, we might sense something similar. Two lines read: ‘I scarce have seen my twentieth year, /Which passed, kind Reader…’  Here Lewis attempts to deflect criticism by appealing to his young age. But the descriptions of potential abuse and condemnation earlier in the poem certainly do not paint the reader as ‘kind’. In fact, the very fervour of judgement in ‘condemned, despised /Neglected, blamed and criticised’ makes this phrase a rather harsh criticism in itself. It seems that the author has a complex relationship with the reader: while they must try to win them over, trying to prove that their book has worth, validity and even a moral use, perhaps they cannot help but antagonise what is essentially a source of ‘impartial judgement’ of their own creation.
With Oscar Wilde there is no such subtlety. He provides a direct contrast in that he completely abandons morality, objecting to the very idea that art should be moral at all. The preface to the 1891 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray reads as a series of epigrams; what Joseph Bristow in his introduction to the Oxford University Press edition calls ‘a manifesto that steers readers away from making moral judgements on the novel toward appreciating its aesthetic quality’. One reads: ‘there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book’. Another: ‘books are well written, or badly written. That is all’. The last is: ‘all art is quite useless’. The first edition of the novel was widely attacked on the grounds of its supposed immorality, and the second expanded edition was much altered – a lot of which was an attempt to tone it down. So, although he had to bend to external pressures in the end, Wilde uses the preface as a small means of defiance. It is his chance to argue back.
The Wasp Factory , first published 1984, is a contemporary novel but the echoes of its predecessors are clear. The preface was written in a much later edition, so at the time Banks was assured of his book’s widespread success. As a result, there is less of a sense of apology; no attempt to deflect criticism or escape blame. There is instead a rather poignant honesty. ‘More rejection slips’ is just one of the things Banks commemorates when reflecting on his attempts at success in earlier life. His self-deprecation is undisguised, in contrast to Walpole’s first edition preface. But, in a way that echoes Walpole, he seems to allude to some ambition, some ideal work: ‘it was supposed to be a pro-feminist, anti-militarist work, satirising religion and commenting on the way we’re shaped by our surroundings… Frank is supposed to stand for all of us…’ The repeated descriptions of what he ‘was supposed to do reinforce his aims, but he never states if he feels he has achieved them.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what an author is trying to achieve in a preface, but it’s clear that there are strands in common. Essentially, it is the moment when the author stands aside, detaches themselves from the story they are about to tell, and acknowledges the reader. It is one of the only times at which they can use their own voice rather than that of a narrator. Whatever this voice chooses to say is down to its own particular agenda, fears and expectations.


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