I guess I took it for granted that when you write the introduction to a book you should be supportive of the book’s contents. In a way, you are justifying the fact that a publisher has decided to use limited resources to print hundreds or thousands of copies of one book over another. Some negative criticism may be called for, particularly where a book’s flaws are well known, but on the whole one would expect a positive tone. I have come to find that this is not always the case.
I recently bought, from the local public library for thirty cents, Three Eighteenth Century Romances edited by Harrison R. Stevens (Scribner 1931). The book has turned out to be interesting, but I doubt I will read ever read the stories. The value of this book lies more in the editorial comments, which have more than made up for the loss of 30 cents and a few inches of space in my apartment.
The editor apparently does not think much of the stories he has been called upon to edit and introduce. On the first story the editor, Stevens, writes, “[t]he first of these tales, The Castle of Otranto, is to-day[sic] somewhat difficult to take seriously. Its portentous mysteries and exaggerated terrors seem to use both cheap and trivial.” Steven’s later adds, “The Castle of Otranto is unqualifiedly, undilutedly, romantic; so much so that it recognizes none of the checks of reason upon invention.”
As for the second story (The Romance of the Forest by Mrs. Ann Radcliffe), Stevens has a low opinion not only for the story but the author as well. He tells us that “Mrs. Radcliffe was in no sense a student of life, but merely the docile pupil of her sentimental age. She shares all the amiable errors of her time . . . Her historical perspective is similarly prejudiced and distorted, and her political and religious views . . . are insular and even childish. Her morality is strictly conformist, set forth in placidly repeated commonplaces. In none of these matters in which we expect the novelist to be a critical observer of life has she any appeal for the reader of to-day.”
Some parts of The Romance of the Forest were so bad the editor was forced to omit them. Under the heading “Chapters XI and XII” we read, “These two chapters . . . are summarized. They are tedious and rather loosely integrated with the plot, and show the characters in no new or specially interesting light." And if think Mrs. Radcliffe and her stories are bad, you should see her fans: “the credulity of her readers, their pathetic willingness to be perturbed and mystified, is a revealing commentary upon the sentimental bias of her age. Fiction ran for the moment in a shallow and muddy stream.”
So I guess I can thank Mr. Harrison R. Steeves, for saving me the time I might have wasted actually reading these stories of purely historical significance. Now I can’t wait to write a similarly scathing introduction to a book one day.