Donald W. Nichol, ed. Anniversary Essays on Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. xl, 265p., ill. ISBN 9781442647961. US $65.00 (hardback).
Donald W. Nichol’s edition of collected essays on Alexander Pope’s brilliant satire, The Rape of the Lock, is a timely and intelligent celebration of a literary masterpiece. Published to mark the poem’s tercentenary of its March 1714, five-canto edition (after its initial 1712 two-canto issue, and prior to its revised 1717 edition that included Clarissa’s speech), this collection pays homage to a poem that, as the editor aptly put it, “was the comedic tour de force at the end of an era and the first poetic best-seller in the wake of [Queen Anne’s] Copyright Act” (xxvii-viii).
The merits of this book are many and deserving of recognition. The collection brings together original essays by ten accomplished Pope scholars from Canada, the United States, and Great Britain, who employ an impressive range of methodological approaches to interpreting the poem. J. Paul Hunter’s superb introduction calls attention to the ideology of the Popean couplet and the subtle changes in the poem’s interpretations caused by textual variations between its two- and five-canto versions. Pat Rogers applies fractal theory to Pope’s satire, zooming in keywords to unveil the poet’s preoccupation with courtliness, courtship, court love, court life, and courtly language that create telling binaries, textual and contextual, of grand and trivial things. Louise Curran considers the poem’s discourse of gallantry in light of the French epistolary literature en vogue at the time. Glynis Ridley explores the networks of textual allusions that link Belinda to the Greco-Roman tradition of “perfect women,” who exemplify, in the author’s opinion, the concept of the female automaton. Katherine M. Quinsey examines how Pope’s poem is informed by the discourses around women’s spirituality in his time, and by his own links to Catholicism and high Tory Anglicanism. Nicholas Hudson explores Pope’s attitudes toward religion and an emerging commodity culture, as reflected by the poem’s strategically ambiguous allusions and mixed readership (Catholic gentry, Protestant and Whig friends). Raymond Stephanson considers the way in which Pope’s satire “dramatizes the interface of Biology and Culture,” (un)sexing Belinda’s body through synecdochic equations and verbal cues. Three fine articles employ thing theory in exploring Belinda’s world of commodities: Barbara Benedict insightfully unveils how objects threaten the human players in the poem; Kate Scarth addresses the differences between literary criticism and historical fiction by interviewing Sophie Gee, author of a novel inspired by the poem, The Scandal of the Season, and also of the monograph Making Waste: Leftovers and the Eighteenth-Century Imagination; and Allison Muri addresses the many opportunities offered by digitization to explore the paratextual elements of the poem in a generously illustrated argument. The volume ends with Donald W. Nichol’s own erudite analysis of the various editions of the satire that reiterates the need for scholarly editors to unveil the invaluable information stored in the book itself in an age of emerging e-repositories.
The collection also offers a useful overview of the poem’s publication history, reception, and posterity, in both the editor’s preface and the chronology of the poem, which makes it a must-go-to for students and scholars interested in the period. It makes a valuable contribution to an already large host of editorial projects that highlight the protean interpretive potential of the poem: John Dixon Hunt’s The Rape of the Lock: A Casebook (1969), G. S. Rousseau’s Twentieth-Century Interpretations of “The Rape of the Lock”: A Collection of Critical Essays (1969), William Kingsley’s The Rape of the Lock: Contexts (1979), Robert Halsband’s “The Rape of the Lock” and Its Illustrations, 1714-1896 (1980), Harold Bloom’s Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (celebrating the tercentenary of Pope’s birth, in 1988), and the Bedford Cultural Edition of The Rape of the Lock elegantly edited by Cynthia Wall (1997). This collection brings new and original interpretations to a classic work of eighteenth-century literature and, as such, it is both a celebratory and a necessary gesture.