Interview: Molly G. Yarn

Sophie Macdonald 11 March 2022
Image Credit: @MGYarn on Twitter

For someone whose favourite Shakespeare play is Much Ado About Nothing, the contents of Molly G. Yarn’s new book Shakespeare’s ‘Lady Editors’: A New History of the Shakespearean Text certainly does not follow the same philosophy. As a subversive version of Shakespeare editorial history, Yarn’s book challenges the well-established assumption that the editorial profession was entirely male. Yarn’s book outlines the trials and tribulations of over seventy women editors, and demonstrates that, if we ensconce ourselves in their work, our understanding and reading of Shakespeare will be radically transformed. TCS interviewed Molly G. Yarn to find out more about her own journey as a lady editor, and writer.

“I think that disrupting the very homogenous white-male narrative that has traditionally been told about Shakespeare editing, and about academia in general, can open up possibilities,” began Yarn when asked what inspired her to take this feat. She also explained that “this topic grew out of my interests in editing, gender and the history of Shakespearean reception, as well as my experience being taught by brilliant women editors,” and hopes that women who read her book think “oh, Maybe I could be an editor [too]!”

Yarn also acknowledged that, while it would have been more difficult for Shakespeare’s ‘lady editors’ to access libraries, she was lucky enough be at Cambridge where “as a legal deposit library, the UL has copies of many editions that are hard to find.” She also highlighted that “the surviving archival material is very scattered,” thus she did a “good bit of travelling to libraries and archives around the UK and the US,” and “relied on some very kind librarians and archivists to send [her] digital copies of items.”

In the same way that we all have favourite Shakespeare characters, and some of us may even have a favourite Shakespeare editor, I inquired about which ‘lady editor’ stood out to Yarn the most. Replying that although she “love[s] them all in different ways,” the singular life of “Dorothy Macardle” in particular, “who left her job in Stratford-upon-Avon after the Easter Rising to go home to Ireland and fight for her country’s independence” stuck with her. However, Yarn also drew attention to those ‘lady editors’ who “didn’t do anything unusual, but lived a sort of ordinary extraordinary life-someone who taught in secondary schools for decades, or who had to struggle to keep editing after marrying and having children.” She believes, and I would certainly agree, that “their stories deserve to be remembered as well.”

Yarn also found that Shakespeare’s ‘lady editors’ offered different sensibilities and perspective to those of men, commenting that “a lot of women editors were teachers themselves, and were preparing editions to be used by students, which brings a different tenor to many of the editions, although of course, there were male editors of student editions as well.” In this sense, “women like Mary Cowden Clarke” made a significant impact, “outrightly saying that her being a woman adds something special to the edition-as she says, since Shakespeare is so ‘myriad-minded’ and famous for his female characters, it’s only right and appropriate that it isn’t only men editing his plays!” Yarn also stated that, as a result, “by approaching the task with her gender front and centre, she gained both a freedom to address certain topics (in theory, anyway) and a unique selling point.”

The gender-gap that exists within the editorial profession, however, remains a problem, so I asked Yarn what she hopes will change in the coming years, and if she thinks the marks made by Shakespeare’s ‘lady editors’ will have a lasting impact. She commented that, although “things have already improved significantly in the past decades, there’s [also] a long way to go in terms of diversifying the editorial process in other ways-race, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, educational background, institutional affiliation, etc.” Yarn acknowledged that “some publishers and general editors are already thinking in these terms, and [is] excited to explore the editions they produce, and to keep advocating for further change.”

Yarn also speculated that she may “eventually” research the lives of the many-more Shakespeare ‘lady editors’ that exist, besides the seventy she mentioned in her book-but “not right away!” She also hopes that her book will inspire “other people to take up this topic, bringing fresh eyes and different perspectives.” I urge you all to read Yarn’s book, and to allow your view of Shakespearean editing to be reformed by her.