A few years ago, I heard an interview with 100-year-old Diana Athill, editor and novelist (Woman’s Hour, I think), and she talked about the potential joy of losing her memory, forgetting she had read a book and being able to discover it all over again. It reminded me of books I have been able to discover twice, not as a result of failing memory but thanks to the word “Abridged.”
When I was a child, I was invariably given a book for Christmas. There were Puffins, of course, but a great many were red-cloth hardbacks of classics, published by Dean & Son, or Regency. They must have been going for some time, because my mother passed on some of hers (featuring girls in gymslips and a lot of hockey). They all had pages like blotting paper (the lingering results of wartime economy production, maybe), and they usually had one or two pictures. Just enough to intrigue. I particularly remember the picture in the Regency edition of Jane Eyre, which struck me, even at a very young age, as bearing no resemblance whatsoever to Rochester and Jane.
It was that edition of Jane Eyre that first opened my eyes to that word “Abridged.” Much of the story made no sense at all, but I put it down to me being young and the writer being Victorian and nothing in the adult world really making sense. Why did Jane get on a stage coach, get off it a few hours later and almost immediately be found starving by St John Rivers? I knew that I could get quite peckish in a couple of hours, but I’d never swooned with hunger after one coach journey.
Years later, I read the Penguin Classics version of Jane Eyre and discovered all the vast chunks that had been left out of the Regency edition, including the days Jane spends wandering on the moors, resorting to pig swill in her desperation. It read as a completely different book.
I have never understood the reasoning behind the abridging decisions. It had nothing to do with shielding children from naughtiness or nastiness. I think it was just an exercise in randomly saving paper. As well as the Dean and Regency classics, I also inherited a few Everyman’s Library little volumes from my grandfather. I learned to read far more effectively from struggling with Alexander Dumas’ Twenty Years After (because it featured the absolutely fascinating execution of Charles I) than I ever did ploughing through the tedious Janet and John series.
As I discovered later, the Everyman books were abridged too. Ironically, considering they were intended for adults, they coyly left out the sex scenes, while the children’s versions kept the sex but left out the most humorous scenes.
A part of me resents this abridging of originals. Who is it that makes these decisions? I would certainly be irate if someone abridged one of mine (editors excepted). On the other hand, that first discovery, with Jane Eyre, of what I had been missing, opened up a whole world of rediscovery, as I was able to hunt out the unabridged versions of all the books I’d read as a child and discover them anew. Like coming across a book for the first time.
I have yet to tackle the unabridged version of Moby Dick. Maybe that’s because I never could bring myself to get beyond chapter 2 of the abridged version. Sorry about that, Herman.