D. G. Myers' comments apropos of the relationship between literary criticism and the authority (or not) of the text reminded me of a very great inconvenience indeed. In my chosen line of work, one rarely, if ever, stumbles across a scholarly edition. Of, well, anything. Because nobody in their right mind wants to write about nineteenth-century religious fiction, right? (Michael Galchinsky's one-volume edition of Grace Aguilar's fiction is a recent exception.) Even Robert Lee Wolff's valuable Novels of Faith and Doubt reprints don't come with a full-fledged account of the texts' editorial and publication histories--the individual volumes have no apparatus at all, and Gains and Losses (the overarching introduction) focuses on literary and historical context. This means that when dealing with any given novel, there are many things that the Gentle Scholarly Reader absolutely Does Not Know, because no Brave Soul has ever tried to Hunt These Things Down:
1. Author vs. editor. Ever try looking for the original manuscripts of a popular religious novel? The Gentle Scholarly Reader usually knows nothing about editorial interventions, whether writ large (changes to the story) or small (accidentals--Victorian novelists frequently let the house handle their punctuation).
2. Serial vs. volume. Religious periodicals did serialize novels, some of which were then repurposed in volume form. It would be awfully nice to know if anything changed; in fact, it would be awfully nice to know if the novel was serialized in the first place.
3. Full vs. abridged. Longer religious novels could be abridged, especially when they were pirated reprinted on the other side of the pond. But what was abridged? (This is why I own two copies of G. E. Sargeant's Story of a Pocket-Bible--the UK original and the American abridged version.)
4. UK and Ireland vs. American. In general, and somewhat inconveniently, a Gentle Scholarly Reader of the USAian persuasion may find herself confronted only with the US reprints, and not with the UK originals. This makes it difficult to compare texts (see above).
5. Reality effect. Fictional conversion narratives are particularly slippery beasts. There are still readers who are convinced that Leila Ada is an authentic account of a Jewish woman's conversion to Protestantism, and I recently discovered a historian citing another conversion fiction as a factual document (and not in the "local color" sense).
6. Author. Identifying anonymous authors ranges from not-so-difficult to impossible, depending on the state of the publisher's archives, available obituaries, self-identification by title, etc.
Some of these thing, like the serializing, can now be double-checked with some judicious GoogleBooking. Others, though, range from impossible (many MSS have apparently just vanished into thin air) to improbable (it takes a while to scrape up enough cash to trek across the pond). The sheer rarity of some novels no doubt makes editing them an unappetizing task, as scanning them may be out of the question. (Anyone up for transcribing a three-volume Catholic novel? Anyone?)