Guest Blogger: Textual Editing: Twenty-First Century Practice

This week our guest post comes from Eleanore Widger, who offers an enlightening insight into her experiences of the Textual Editing Workshops that ran from February to July this year. 

As Gerald McKeever put it, during the final ‘Textual Editing: Twenty-First Century Practice’ workshop earlier this month, literary critics often forget about the ‘science’ behind the texts we study. In his role as Research Assistant on the ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century’ project, McKeever was drawing attention to the breadth of practical work that goes into the production of the critical editions scholars make use of in their theoretical and philosophical analyses.

Over spring and summer this year, the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities and the Universities’ Committee for Scottish Literature ran a series of workshops aimed at doctoral students of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, which were designed to familiarise them with and encourage reflection on the issues surrounding the scholarly editing of texts from the period – from the collation of the different available versions, to the selection of a copy text, to the different models of curation and editorship. These were held at the Universities of Stirling, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow, and hosted by staff and students involved in the major new editions of the works of James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Members of the editorial teams talked about their individual roles and contributions, before initiating wider discussion of the practical and theoretical questions any editor in the twenty-first century must address, whilst remaining sensitive to the practices of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editors. In the case of each author, it became apparent that copy texts were often maddeningly hard to pin down. And while at first I baulked at the sheer amount of painstaking labour and eagle-eyed cross-referencing involved in hunting down and comparing different manuscripts and print versions, it was clear that the editors often found the process thrilling.

Throughout the workshops, the editors interrogated and debated their own editorial decisions, encouraging students to consider viable rationales for choosing to disregard a manuscript in favour of a first or second edition, for example, or correcting errors in grammar or sense. In short, the workshops showed that there is no one-size-fits-all approach towards these kinds of decisions – and a unified approach can rarely be applied to single works, let alone to an author’s whole oeuvre. This is the problem with textual editing, and for some, the joy of it. In what follows, I briefly outline the content of the four workshops (although unfortunately there isn’t space to mention all the fascinating talks) and reflect on their significance for my research.

old books

Workshop 1: University of Stirling, 17 February 2016.

This workshop combined an introduction to book production in the United Kingdom from 1780 to 1900, with an overview of the history and practice of the Stirling/South Carolina Research Edition of The Collected Works of James Hogg. Alister McCleery and Helen Williams from the Scottish Centre for the Book gave an enlightening talk about the process of hand-setting type which eighteenth-century printers would have used to produce works like Hogg’s, and how errors might have crept in at this stage which would perplex later editors. They also addressed the techniques involved in incorporating illustrations into hand-set texts, which was particularly useful to me as part of my thesis looks at J.M.W. Turner’s illustrations for Scott’s Miscellaneous Prose Works and Thomas Campbell’s Poetical Works. I have recently spent time following up on some of the other topics raised in their talk, such as the relationship between writers, artists, printers and engravers, and the idea of book production as a social practice.

Workshop 2: University of Edinburgh, 6 April 2016.

At the end of the second workshop I could call myself an editor of Robert Louis Stevenson. Guided by Penny Fielding, General Editor of the New Edinburgh Edition of The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, we each collated a small section from manuscript and print editions of Stevenson’s The Dynamiter, using Optical Character Recognition, identifying variants and discussing how we might include these (or not) in the scholarly edition. We learnt about the sometimes uncertain role of manuscript in textual editing, especially in cases where authors continue to revise and edit after publication – does a manuscript represent an author’s intended meaning better than subsequent print versions? Should editors preserve changes to printed editions or look to the manuscript version, or is it acceptable to draw from both? Should metadata give details of all variants, such as translations from Scots, or should the emphasis be on a ‘readable’ final text? Getting hands-on experience of using electronic collation technology provided fascinating insight into how the texts we use every day are likely to have come about, and the editorial decisions that shape our engagement with them.

Workshop 3: University of Aberdeen, 25 May 2016.

The highlight of the third workshop was getting to handle early editions of Scott’s poetry from the Bernard C. Lloyd Collection. In one particularly intriguing example, a stanza had been added by Scott between type-setting and publication, so that facsimiles of a hand-written page had to be included in the printed edition. In fact, Scott occasionally integrated comments and letters from readers – and his responses to them – into footnotes and appendices, revealing the extent to which reception modified subsequent editions. This session therefore focussed on rationales for selecting copy texts and the process of emendation, and we were invited to consider how we would discriminate between textually relevant and non-relevant variation. Several of the talks also emphasised the importance of deciding whether and how to make these distinctions visible to contemporary readers, so that a balance is achieved between providing full contextual and paratextual information and ensuring readability. Examples of good practice were drawn from the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels, and the forthcoming Edinburgh Edition of Walter Scott’s Poetry. Most interesting to me was the fact that the editors of the poetry had found it necessary to adopt a completely different approach to the editors of the prose, putting more weight on the formal presentation of the manuscripts, and consideration of how Scott’s versification, punctuation and capitalisation should be rendered in print.

Workshop 4: University of Glasgow, 6 July 2016.

The last workshop drew together some of these questions by showing how electronic editions might be better adapted to the inclusion of extensive notes and paratextual material than printed volumes. The AHRC-funded ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century’ project and the related Oxford Edition of The Works of Robert Burns are important examples of how online resources can complement print editions – not only that, but how global communities of readers and researchers can inform the editorial process by scouring libraries and archives, helping locate lost manuscripts or getting to the bottom of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century forgeries. This last workshop also emphasised the significance of controversial editorial interventions in Burns’s work after his death, and their role in generating various problematic characterisations of Burns as ‘radical Romantic’, ‘heaven-taught ploughman’, and so on. I would urge anyone who hasn’t already, to check out to hear recordings of Burns’s songs and trace his journey round Scotland on the beautiful interactive map.

Personal Outcomes

My doctoral research looks at the influence of Romantic attitudes towards visuality and the environment on contemporary ‘radical’ landscape poetry – so theories of aesthetics and materiality are crucial to my project. I focus mainly on Wordsworth, Coleridge, Clare and Blake, so although the workshops were not explicitly relevant, they have increased my understanding of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century textual production and revision, and given me more confidence to engage with the copious metadata and paratextual material which inevitably accompanies Romantic work of all kinds. The series also highlighted the benefits of having practical experience in textual editing for pursuing post-doctoral opportunities in the humanities. Aside from the benefits to my research, making the trip every couple of months to another university was a great way to meet other researchers in similar fields, and to sustain contact over an extended period. After the third workshop a few of us were treated to a whistle-stop tour of Old Aberdeen by Professor David Hewitt, Co-Director of the Walter Scott Research Centre and Editor-in-Chief of the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels, which was an unexpected delight. Overall, this was a fascinating series of workshops which has provided invaluable contextual knowledge for my study of Romantic texts. 

Eleanore Widger is a PhD candidate at the University of Dundee. Her doctoral project looks at the influence of Romantic aesthetics on representations of the visible and the environment in contemporary radical landscape poetry. Her research is funded by the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities as part of the AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. 

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