07 May 2009

Onion Sauce! Onion Sauce!

In Sunday's Boston Globe, Katherine A. Powers elegantly dissects the two competing annotated editions of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows out now--Seth Lerer's from Norton and Annie Gauger's from the Belknap Press.

And, like a surgical dissection, the patients don't survive the procedure that well. Powers writes:

neither editor seems really at home in the world that gave rise to "The Wind in the Willows." Though they are forever supplying definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary, neither appears to have looked up "metalled," both believing that a "metalled road" has something to do with metal (rather than broken stone).

Lerer, clearly no student of Mrs. Beeton (who recommends onion sauce as the best accompaniment for rabbit dishes), believes that Mole's taunting the rabbits who annoy him with "Onion Sauce! Onion sauce!" is the equivalent of his saying "hogwash," going on to say, apropos of nothing in the story, that "By the nineteenth century, onion-sauce had come to represent the simplicity of home cooking, in contrast to the fancy cuisine of court or the Continent."

For her part, Gauger does not recognize vegetable marrows, once a staple of the British table (alas), speculating that those shown in an illustration by Arthur Rackham could be "water-melon sized cucumbers or giant leeks."

In possibly my favorite part of the book, the animal friends surge forth to retake Toad Hall from the weasels, stoats, and ferrets. Mild-mannered, home-loving Mole, now "black and grim, brandishing his stick," shouts "his awful war-cry, 'A Mole! A Mole!'"--echoing Scottish warriors of yore whose battle cry was their clan name.

For Gauger, however, "This odd war cry resembles one of the most famous lines in Shakespeare's Richard III . . . 'A horse! a horse! My kingdom for a horse!'" This makes no sense at all and, worse, misses a very good joke.
For another complaint that Lerer hasn't done his homework in the field of children's literature, see Perry Nodelman's remarks quoted in this post.


Emily said...

This is one of my all-time favorite books, and I didn't know any of these facts. The derivation of "A Mole! A Mole!" particularly adds to my appreciation of that scene - I guess I'd always just passed over that bit. Powers' explanations make me wish there was a good annotated version - is there? I just have my plain copy from childhood.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't know of any annotated edition besides these. And I worry that, as in the principle that "bad money drives out good," these two are good enough and now established enough to prevent any other publisher from attempting a new annotated edition for a generation. (Well, a publishing generation—say, fifteen years.)

We might also be at a moment when annotated editions give way to wiki-annotated editions. Instead of a solitary scholar, or scholar with graduate students, preparing notes on a classic text, we might have that public-domain text on a website, with the public invited to add notes about anything within their expertise.

In that case, a Wind in the Willows fan with culinary knowledge might have caught the full significance of the “Onion sauce!” remark while a fan who knows Scottish battle cries would interpret Mole's yell. And someone who knows early-20th-century cars could write about Toad's automobile, and so on.

As in other wikis, the process of assembling such a group-annotated edition would be messy and open. (As opposed to the process of assembling traditional annotated editions, which is messy and private.) The result would probably include some overreaching—but then so evidently do these editions.

Sam said...

Sheesh!I wonder what they make of Toad's fecal fixation? After all he keeps saying "poop poop."

Have you read the comments to the post, in which Gauger responds?

J. L. Bell said...

Since I read the Boston Globe newspaper on actual, you know, paper, I forget that there are interactive features to these columns.

Gauger’s response to Powers’s comments is classy, and exactly what I’d want to see from an annotator: pleased to find new insights into the text and new information to share with readers.

Anonymous said...

A good annotated edition? Gauger's edition is fantastic. You haven't even read the book yet you assess it based on one reviewer's comments. Look at the other press, and maybe go check out the book from the library.

BOOK REVIEW: Revisiting world of Mole and Ratty | Washington Times - http://www.washingtontimes.com/news...
May 28 from delicious
Ms. Gauger's annotated edition includes transcripts of the magazine, the 57 letters from governess Naomi Stott detailing the daily events in Mouse's life, and all of Grahame's letters on which the novel is based. Like her biographical introduction and her discussion of Alastair's magazine, this supporting documentation provides revealing insights into the psychological and social genesis of "The Wind in the Willows." - W. W. Norton

Show #1,081 - week of April 6
Annie Gauger - An instant bestseller on its initial publication in 1908, The Wind in the Willows has become one of the greatest books in children’s literature. Scholar Annie Gauger has uncovered extraordinary new material on Kenneth Grahame, his troubled family life, and the origins of the story. With a stirring introduction by Brian Jacques, The Annotated Wind in the Willows promises to become the authoritative edition of this classic work, published just in time to honor the author’s 150th birthday.

J. L. Bell said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for sharing the Gauger edition's positive reviews like a good publicist.

Katherine Powers's Boston Globe review notes specific lapses in both the annotated editions. That takes her judgment beyond the subjective into the objective realm.