Vol. 5 No. 18 · 6 October 1983

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Browning Versions

SIR: When I came on Park Honan’s strange outburst (Letters, 1 September) my first impulse was to ignore it. But it is clearly intended to do harm, and requires a few sentences of correction. It is not only inaccurate, confused and blustering, but also disingenuous.

As Barbara Everett points out, Honan refrains from mentioning that he is a member of the editorial board of the Ohio (now Ohio/Baylor) edition of Browning, a fact which deprives his opinion of the relative merits of that edition and the new Oxford English Texts edition of any claim to impartiality. In the essay to which he takes such exception (LRB, 4 August) Barbara Everett confines herself to a reference to the statement in my General Introduction that if the Ohio edition had been a sound one ‘I should have turned to other undertakings with a mixture of regret and relief’ – regret because I had always hoped to do something to render this great and enigmatic poet more accessible to readers, relief because I would have been saved many years of work and would have been free to turn to other projects.

Although I have more than once refused to review volumes of the Ohio edition (if I had reviewed one, I need hardly say, I would have begun with a declaration of my own interest in the matter), I felt obliged to say something in our first volume to explain why one large-scale edition of Browning was being succeeded by another. The demerits of the Ohio edition are common knowledge: I was glad to be able to confine myself to a reference to the trenchant reviews by the late John Pettigrew (an excellent Browning scholar) and a quotation from the criticisms of a former member of the editorial board, Morse Peckham, who reported ‘hundreds and hundreds of errors’ in the first two volumes, ‘in text, emendations, variants, and explanatory notes’.

Honan confesses that he does not know how accurate the Oxford edition may be, but then astonishingly goes on to claim that our record of variant readings is ‘wayward and incomplete’. The absurdity of this will be evident to anyone who takes the trouble to read the Textual Introduction by my co-editor Margaret Smith, who is well-known for her textual work on Charlotte Brontë. If Honan had read so far as page xxii he would have discovered a clear statement on the matter, and would have found that our (relatively few, yet important) textual emendations are based on a very careful evaluation of the editions and MSS, and almost invariably take the form of restorations of Browning’s own preferred text. Our explanatory notes (also placed at the foot of the page, for ease of reference) are much fuller than those in the Ohio edition, and I hope more accurate. I refrain from quoting any of their erroneous notes in this place, and content myself with the remark that the text and apparatus of Sordello, which will be available in our Volume II later this year, will enable those who wish to make comparisons to do so with a poem which requires scholarly attention more than most.

Honan claims that our list of ‘References and Abbreviations’ contains errors, but his only attempt to substantiate this relates to the title and date of a biography by the late William Irvine and himself. He accuses me, without justification, of giving the title wrongly (has he never heard of short titles? Does he think I should have given the title of the Biographie Universelle in full?), and is indignant because I give the date of the American edition of the book (1974) rather than that of the English (1975). If this seems to smack of desperation, it is as nothing compared to his concluding objection to an emendation of mine in the Oxford Standard Authors edition of 1970. He did not have to hunt far for it, since it is one of the seven verbal emendations which I listed at the end of the Introduction. I soon decided that I did not like it, my friends did not like it, and it was removed from the corrected reprints of 1975 and 1980 (including the paperback edition). But of course the OSA edition, in which my principal aim was to replace the old double-column edition with something more adequate and more likely to attract readers, had no textual ambitions; and it has nothing whatever to do with the Oxford English Texts edition.

Ian Jack
Pembroke College, Cambridge


SIR: As to ‘the question how language hooks onto the world’ (Letters, 4 August) – not only Gareth Evans but perhaps Frege and Russell also should have taken note of Coleridge’s apology for using ‘so trivial a metaphor’ when referring to ‘all the hooks-and-eyes of the memory’ (in the Friend) – thinking mind too mysteriously metamorphic to be pinned down finally by a metaphor so deceptively technical.

William Milne
London SW18


SIR: Lexicography is another of the sciences practised in Oxford, and a brief glance at the OED and Vol. III of its Supplement (1982) would have informed Mark Ridley (LRB, 1 September) that the word ‘scientism’ occurs as early as 1877, and was used in its pejorative sense by George Bernard Shaw as well as by Karl Popper; it is not an invention of Sir Peter Medawar’s.

Michael Robertson

Gooch’s Merit

SIR: Much as I enjoyed Sheldon Rothblatt’s eloquent review of John Kenyon’s The History Men (LRB, 18 August), I must disagree with his veiled disparagement of G.P. Gooch’s classic work, History and Historians in the 19th Century. Although this was first published as long ago as 1913, it was revised in 1952, and its conclusions stand up remarkably well to more recent developments in the subject. It remains the best synoptic account of 19th-century German, French and British historiography, displaying great breadth of learning whilst retaining an enviable lightness of touch. There is no better short introduction in English to the work of Niebuhr or Mommsen whilst Professor Rothblatt will find in Gooch a chapter on the work of the great legal historian Maitland, detailed consideration of whom, he laments, is absent from Kenyon’s book.

Mark Bostridge
London SW3

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