Why edit socially?

Marilyn Butler

  • Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, Vol. VII edited by Jerome McGann
    Oxford, 445 pp, £52.50, March 1993, ISBN 0 19 812328 0
  • The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse edited by Jerome McGann
    Oxford, 832 pp, £25.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 19 214158 9

Jerome McGann’s seven-volume edition of Byron’s Poems has concluded with a magnificent index compiled by Carol Pearson. As columns to browse in, these are in the same league as the DNB or OED. Old Romantic hands might be tempted to look up ‘Rousseau’ or ‘Wordsworth’, but to test this edition with the name of another established writer would be to show you didn’t know what McGann stands for. Warm up, if you must, on ‘Great Britain’, ‘France’ and ‘Greece’. But a social edition, as McGann has described his project, offers immersion in Byron’s day-to-day living, opened up in Pearson’s adroit listings on animals, books, food, friends and, above all, women. At nearly four columns, the last is easily the longest entry:


   and age, VI, 400,401; of a certain age, IV, 136;

    V, 320,574; vs. youth, V, 439-40,742c

   and love, V, 71, 151, 593-4; first love of, V,

    161-2; vs. wine, V, 210-11. See also love

   and male world: as rulers of men, I, 194-5, 200;

    domain of, VI, 483, 721e; exclusion from choir in St. Peter’s, V, 705c; exclusion from Christian priesthood, VI, 662c; exclusion from heaven, I,144-5. See also women, British; women, Muslim

   and warfare, II, 29-30, 42, 189c, 189var/c; V,

    357-60; VI, 75, 84-5, 537, 564-7; their genital organs as cause of, V, 425-6 ...

   as whores, prostitutes, harlots, and courtesans,

    I, 284, 298, 436c; IV, 289; VI, 621c; Catherine the Great as, V, 327, 328; good intentions of, V, 372; in ancient Greece, I, 326, 450c; in Cadiz, V, 114; in London, V, 474, 493; in Venice, IV, 163, 541c; of Assyria, VI, 613c; of Bahylon, V, 445; of the historical Sardanapalus, VI, 624c; opera company members as, V, 230; Semiramis as, VI, 618c; wives as, V, 208

   educated and literary, IV, 153-4; V, 15, 510;

    VI, 298-9; and books, V, 613, 635; as dramatists, IV, 549c; as letter writers, V, 555; as students of science, mathematics and languages, V, 12-13, 89, 301; VI, 298-9; as writers and novelists, I, 253, 253var, 441c; IV, 151, 168; V, 152, 630, 634, 635, 691c. See also Baillie, Joanna; Blessington, Marguerite, Countess of; bluestockings; Dacre, Charlotte; Edgeworth, Maria; Hemans, Felicia Dorothea; Lamb, Lady Caroline; Lee, Harriet; Lee, Sophia; Radcliffe, Ann: Sévigné, Marie de; Seward, Anna; Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft; Staël-Holstein, Anne Louise Germaine, Baronne de

Worldly, informed and informal, the index is a fitting finale to an edition which extends the range of information scholarly editions usually provide. It responds not only to the cosmopolitan spread of Byron’s interests, personal, literary and political, but to the likely nature of modern readers’ need to know. Conventionally, a scholarly index represents a writer’s work in his vocabulary and supposed thought processes. This one comes on Byron in different worlds and different moods. One sub-heading, on ‘whores’, uncovers his flip pancy and misogyny; the next, on ‘educated and literary’ women, identifies a camaraderie not sexual yet demonstrably Byronic.

Why edit socially? Because the conventional alternative, directed at the mental life of the individual author, leaves out too much that matters in a text. Scholarly editions have long since become monumental not just in bulk and cost, but as a kind of mausoleum in print, proof that for great artists at least there is life after death. In some senses, though, editions have not grown larger-minded but more shortsighted and literal: their authority rests on their accuracy to the author’s own words and sometimes to idiosyncratic punctuation and spelling. Gradually, beginning in the 19th century but speeded up in out own time, a more and more intensive search has uncovered exactly what those words were from manuscript versions which typically survive for post-Enlightenment writers.

McGann has edited Byron’s poems from manuscript as well as published versions. But he has also used his edition as a platform from which to debate whether we are not now the prisoners of two exaggerated, even fictitious axioms – that there is somewhere a pure text, and that it is solely the author’s. The central strategy of McGann’s Byron is to shift attention from the poet to the poem. Each Byron poem or volume of poems is shown to have its own complex history, involving other people: an amanuensis (sometimes Mary Shelley), the publisher (Murray), his editor (Gifford), friends with or without authority to act for the poet, readers, shady piratical publishers and shadowy fakers, forgers and parodists. The ‘social’ emphasis brings out the process whereby a poem is shaped before and after publication by its milieu, and by what was already a well-organised modern commercial publishing trade. The act of publication is viewed as an event: its time and place will both have significance. As a product, the poem has a material form, or more likely a variety of forms: on the page of a newspaper or journal, as title poem or lesser poem in an expensive octavo volume, or as a booklet of dirty yellow paper offered for a shilling or two.

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