The Trials and Tribulations of Editing the Nineteenth Century

On the 24th January, the Centre for the History of the Book had the pleasure of hosting a joint talk by Professor Tim Fulford of De Montford University, Leicester and Professor Jane Stabler, Head of the School of English at the University of St Andrews. They are both currently in the midst of editorial projects and these, alongside the processes of editing, were the focus of their talk.

Fulford’s latest work has been editing the letters of scientist and poet Sir Humphry Davy. Davy is most famous for his discovery of more elements than any other individual, but what unfolded from Fulford and his team’s research was Davy’s own editorial role in the production of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s collaborative volume of poetry, Lyrical Ballads. Davy guided the text through the press and his letters reveal a new side of the process and production of this seminal work. Fulford noted how this is one of the real excitements of editing: bringing into print another side of the story.

Fulford went on to emphasise the collaborative nature of taking on editing projects like this and thus the joy of having colleagues to discuss and debate findings with. Editing letters, Fulford noted, also involves elements of detective work that can be both thrilling and frustrating, depending on the outcome. Finding a box of letters abandoned in a forgotten garage is well worth the wait! Yet there are downsides that accompany the process too. It is an ongoing and evolving piece of work, in which the finish line is constantly shifting and moving. New letters can suddenly come to light and as a result you cannot know for sure if you have ever found them all.

It was enlightening, from the perspective of a student with no experience of professional editing, to learn the stages it entails. Fulford detailed how it begins with the dating of manuscripts, a challenge in itself as Davy had a habit of mis-dating his letters, or not dating them at all. This is followed by transcription, a lengthy process – and one we had a chance to attempt in the session – and finally, annotation. Crucially, Fulford emphasised how annotation should concern a range of facts that readers and researchers can use, and not a space for opinions. This requires editors to try and predict what future scholars will find useful.

Stabler then took to the stage to discuss her current work on Byron’s poetry. This is part of a project that seeks to create a seven-volume edition of Byron’s poems for the Longman Annotated English Poets Series. This is a huge undertaking alongside her co-editors, but crucially a ‘labour of love’ as Stabler noted in the seminar. To produce an edition a different style of editing is followed compared with Fulford’s work on Davy’s letters. Stabler explained how her and her team chose Byron’s manuscripts as their copy-text, rejecting any printed editions. This decision was not taken lightly because it can often spark controversy what text an editor chooses. Stabler argued that for this edition of Bryon’s poetry they wanted to go back to his manuscripts in order to create a new text, one that has not been encountered by the public as a published version.

There are several significant differences between Byron’s manuscripts and the printed versions, one of which is his style of punctuation. Stabler demonstrated how it was inherently different from that of his editor, William Gifford, who imposed his more conservative style onto Byron’s texts pre-publication. Another difference that emerged was Byron’s fascinating decision to leave open variants in his manuscripts, allowing his editors to choose the words or phrases they desired. Stabler’s work seeks to make these more visible to the reader and reveal the arguably conservative decisions and power wielded by Byron’s editors. These elements reflect why Stabler felt it was important to go back to the manuscripts to try and understand more about Byron’s vision for his poetry.

It became clear how the placement of a single apostrophe can have a dramatic effect on the meaning of a line of poetry, thus demonstrating how important it was to try to gauge what Byron had intended, not just his editors. On several occasions Stabler and her team therefore decided to move the apostrophe from where it had been placed in older printed versions. This is an example of a significant difference between print based and online, ‘hyper-text’ editions; someone has to decide, you cannot keep continually clicking to see another variant. This connects to on-going debates in the field of textual scholarship regarding the use of print editions that require a single copy-text, versus the increasing capabilities of online databases to reflect a diverse range of sources. And yet, both Stabler and Fulford felt there is still a viable market and need for print. The digital edition can go on forever, which is not necessarily always a positive thing.

Finally, Stabler highlighted, like Fulford, that there are difficult decisions facing editors. The question of what does and does not need to be glossed is a constant back and forth between the members of the editorial team, and the answers can vary depending on the work’s intended readership. There is also the dilemma of how to present both the text and annotations on the page that will still allow you to provide a clear reading copy. But despite these challenges, there was no doubting the excitement and satisfaction that both speakers felt from being scholarly editors. The seminar ultimately reminded us that there are multiple writers and individuals whose work is awaiting editing: to be lifted out from their hiding places. Editing therefore has the privilege of being able to bring such individuals out of obscurity and into the public’s eye. So whose work will be next?

Report by Eliza Cottington, current MSc student, Book History and Material Culture