Herbert Rosengarten—The tyranny of the copytext: the trials and tribulations of textual editing (Editors BC meeting)

Herbert Rosengarten is a professor emeritus and former head of UBC’s English department. A textual editor and authority on the work of the Brontës, he contributed to The Oxford Companion to the Brontës and co-compiled the entry on the Brontës in The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature. Rosengarten spoke at a recent Editors BC meeting about textual criticism and scholarly editing.

Textual editors study the creation of a literary work from manuscript to print and through its various editions. They also supplement the text with annotations, translations, and explanations of allusions or quotations that the reader might not be familiar with. “The goal is to present all the information a person needs to understand and interpret the work,” said Rosengarten.

The task begins with selecting the copytext—the version of the text the textual editor believes “best represents what the author wants the reader to see.” This seemingly simple decision is not so straightforward when the author’s not alive to consult. The textual editor has to make some educated assumptions, and a poor choice of copytext can derail the work of literary critics.

Typically, textual editors will choose among these options:

  • the original manuscript, if available, which is considered the ultimate authority (though should it be?),
  • the first printed edition, which usually involves authorial input and is closest to the manuscript,
  • the last edition printed in the author’s lifetime, or
  • an edition known to have had special authorial involvement. (Scholars know, for example, that Charles Dickens paid particular attention to the 1846 edition of Oliver Twist.)

“All of them have their claim to authority,” said Rosengarten. But “every printed text has its own problems: inconsistencies in punctuation, spelling, word order—or the author’s meaning has been changed.” A printed book from the nineteenth century and earlier “is the product of a collaboration: authors, agents, compositors, proofreaders, binders, critics, booksellers, and libraries,” among others. The textual editor’s job is to know which text to choose, to weed out errors, and to understand the forces acting on the text. The goal is to act on the author’s behalf. “Don’t substitute your own judgment for the author’s,” said Rosengarten. Readers can also influence how a text is composed and transmitted over time: for example, Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations based on input from readers and critics.

Textual editors have to track the changes—both macro and micro—of a work and evaluate whether changes are errors or what the author intended. Sometimes this is obvious, as in the infamous Wicked Bible of 1631, which left a crucial word out of the Ten Commandments:

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Evaluating other types of changes requires careful judgment. In the world of literary criticism, you have to be able to justify your choices. Were the changes consistent with the author’s other changes? Do they make sense?

In the days of manual typesetting, compositional errors could easily accumulate. Rosengarten gave the example from the first four editions of Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, first published in 1742:

  1. “No,” said the Poet, “you and the whole Town know I had Enemies.”
  2. “No,” said the Poet, “you and the whole Town had Enemies.”
  3. “No,” said the Poet, “you and the whole Town were enemies.”
  4. “No,” said the Poet, “you and the whole Town were my enemies.”

Larger errors, such as omission or misplacement of material, could also be widely perpetuated, because new editions tend to be based on the most recent editions. Two chapters had been transposed in the US edition of Henry James’s Ambassadors (1903), for example, and this error persisted until 1950. Another example was Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Chapter 1 begins

You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827.

My father, as you know, was a sort of gentleman farmer in —shire; and I, by his express desire, succeeded him in the same quiet occupation…

That’s how the 1948 edition of the book opened, and one might assume that the you is the author addressing the reader. Only in the 1920s or ’30s did scholars discover that this edition, and each one after it, which copied it, was missing a prefatory letter, which begins

Dear Halford,

When we were together last, you gave me a very particular and interesting account of the most remarkable occurrences of your early life…

The you in Chapter 1, in fact, is the Halford being addressed in the letter.

These changes were accidental, but other changes were the result of deliberate editorial intervention, such as Thomas Bowlder’s Family Shakespeare. An excerpt from the Bowdlerized King Lear (Act 3, Scene 4) seems fine on its own…

Lear. What hast thou been?

Edgar. A servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair, wore gloves in my cap, swore as many oaths as I spake words and broke them in the sweet face of heaven. Wine loved I deeply, dice dearly. False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey. Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman. Keep thy pen from lenders’ books, and defy the foul fiend….

…until you see what he’d cut:

Lear. What hast thou been?

Edgar. A servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair, wore gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress’ heart and did the act of darkness with her, swore as many oaths as I spake words and broke them in the sweet face of heaven; one that slept in the contriving of lust and waked to do it. Wine loved I deeply, dice dearly, and in woman out-paramoured the Turk. False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey. Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman. Keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets, thy pen from lenders’ books, and defy the foul fiend…

We would be aghast today with such an adulteration of a classic work, but, as Rosengarten pointed out, Bowdler was meeting a need: he “created Shakespeare that was widely read,” as, at that time, reading aloud was a family activity.

After D.H. Lawrence wrote Sons and Lovers, editor Edward Garnett made 88 substantive cuts (which, in Rosengarten’s opinion, improved the text) before the first edition was published. Cambridge University Press restored the cut passages in its 1992 edition of Lawrence’s book. Not all scholars agree the cuts should have been restored. Lawrence seemed happy enough with Garnett’s work to have told him, “You did the pruning jolly well,” and dedicating the book to him. It’s interesting the weight we ascribe to manuscripts of classic literary works; any book editor who works with living authors today knows at least a few writers who would be mortified to have a raw, unedited draft made publicly available.

Yet, said Rosengarten, that’s what makes the work of textual editing so fascinating. It can be quite pedantic and tedious—“You are counting syllables. You often don’t read what you’re reading. Sometimes studying text upside down.”—but by working with original manuscripts, you get to see what the reader has not seen before.

I asked Rosengarten what technological tools he uses to identify and track the changes to a text, and he told me about the Hinman collator, which uses mirrors to superimpose two pages. Switch quickly between the two views and any differences appear to flash. Today this kind of collation can be handled digitally through tools like Juxta. Rosengarten’s talk, with its focus on showing the reader what the author intended they see, also made me wonder about the controversy surrounding Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Was that the book she wanted us all to read? This case shows how fraught that question can be even when the author is still alive.

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