Having spent many years mentally time-travelling to Victorian England, I might feel I know it fairly well, its modes and mores, its customs and practices. But I think of the warning at the start of Michael Faber's novel The Crimson Petal and the White, as he guides his modern reader into the nineteenth-century past: 'You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well ... The truth is that you're an alien from another time and place altogether.'
Do we need guides? On my e-reader I've a number of cheap 'complete works', which do without explanatory notes. I've read Dickens, James, Trollope in these editions, and seldom been flummoxed.
I've tried the same with Scott, and quickly come a cropper. It isn't just the dialect words; it's the legal stuff. And it was a legal point that caused me minor grief while reading Trollope's John Caldigate.
The major part of the novel takes place in the later 1870s. This isn't stated explicitly but is implicitly clear from dates earlier in the text. The last section of the novel concerns a trial for bigamy, and a questionable verdict. 'There ought to be some Court of Appeal for such cases,' opines the put-upon Home Secretary.
This set me wondering. When was the Court of Appeal established? I was reading John Caldigate in the World's Classics edition, which has explanatory notes. Surely this would be a worthy topic for a scholarly comment?
But no. Mine is one of those editions in which every biblical reference is carefully detailed, along with other banal or fairly well-known information such as Newmarket being a horse-focused town. But there's nothing that a general or even an academic reader might genuinely want to know. And vast chunks of the novel go unannotated, followed by little flurries of activity. That always gets me suspicious and irritated.
So I've had to do my own research. The Court of Appeal was apparently established in 1875. So why isn't it a recourse for the characters in John Caldigate? Is this a rare Trollope slip? I'd love to know. But I've paid my money, bought the World's Classics edition. Surely it isn't for me to do the donkey work?