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The Reader Strikes Back

It was Coleridge who launched the Latin word “marginalia” on its English career. In his mid-thirties, around 1807, he began to be known for his habit of annotating books in elaborate detail. (He had been more abstemious when he was young.) Friends cherished his scribbled comments, and encouraged him to mark up copies of their own books; and in 1819, when he decided to publish some notes which he had jotted down many years before in a volume by Sir Thomas Browne, the as yet unfamiliar term Marginalia was the title he chose.

His annotations, like those of Blake or Keats, have long since acquired the status of literature in their own right. They bear the full stamp of his personality: they are learned, discursive, sometimes inspired, sometimes humorous, often eloquent. They are also, unlike those of Blake or Keats, extensive. His comments on around 450 individual works survive, in the form of some 8,000 separate notes. When it is complete, the modern edition which brings them together (as part of the Princeton Collected Works) will run to six volumes.

Meanwhile H.J. Jackson, who is co-editor of the Princeton Marginalia, has produced a general study of “readers writing in books” (anywhere in books where there is blank space, that is: marginalia aren’t literally confined to margins). It, too, is entitled Marginalia, and naturally Coleridge plays a prominent part in its pages. But he only represents one end of the spectrum. At the other stands the “reader-annotated book of the present day,” which Jackson describes in imaginary but all too recognizable detail:

Somebody has used yellow highlighter to mark significant passages—most of the text, it seems. Perhaps it was the same person who scribbled some page numbers in ballpoint pen inside the back cover, with the odd word to show what subject the page numbers refer to, and who wrote a disparaging comment on the title page, just under the author’s name. If it is a library book, there is no way of telling who marked it up, but if it is private property, the owner’s name will almost certainly be on the first blank page inside the cover, at the top right-hand corner. If it is left behind on a bus, nobody will carry it off: it is unlovable and unsalable.

To dwell on such markings at length would be an unappetizing task, and Jackson doesn’t attempt to. Strictly speaking, however, they come within her purview. Her declared aim is nothing less than “to describe and illustrate the behavior of annotators in the English-speaking world during the past three centuries,” and she is interested in their handiwork not only on its own account, but also for the sake of its potential contribution to “studies of reception and reader response.”

In practice, she is much more selective and less sociological than this might suggest. Some of the annotations she discusses are by obscure or anonymous figures, but most of them are by established authors; and even her quotations from unknowns are seldom merely representative. With one or two exceptions they are the fruit of what she calls “curiosity-driven research”—chosen because they are quirky, or touching, or in some way out of the ordinary.

Vladimir Nabokov applying his entomological knowledge to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, complaining that the commentators have got it wrong and that the creature into which Gregor Samsa is transformed can’t be a cockroach; General James Wolfe, on the eve of the victory over the French at Quebec in 1759 which cost him his life, annotating a copy of Gray’s Elegy which had been given to him by his fiancée (he underlines “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”); William Beckford, the author of Vathek, summing up a volume of ballads by Robert Southey as “doodlesome” (a fine scornful word which isn’t in the dictionary)—Jackson’s choice of material tends to be as lively as it is varied.

One of her exhibits is a collection of late-eighteenth-century sermons, annotated throughout “by the same unformed hand,” and with a sudden irrepressible burst of feeling set down on one of the endpapers: “my Dear Mister Brown i love you With all my heart and i Hope you do the same.” Another showpiece, at some remove, is a glimpse of Gibbon, momentarily widening his perspective as he marks up the first edition of the Decline and Fall with a view to revision. In the text, he had asserted that the fall of Rome was an event “which will always be remembered and is still felt” by the whole world—“the nations of the earth.” Alongside this he now wrote: “NB. Mr Hume told me that in correcting his history, he always laboured to reduce superlatives, and soften positives. Have Asia and Africa, from Japan to Morocco, any feeling or memory of the Roman Empire?” (When it came to the new edition, however, and to later ones, the original wording was allowed to stand.)

An especially interesting case is that of the admirable Hester Lynch Piozzi—Dr. Johnson’s friend, still best known by the name under which she went during her middle years, Mrs. Thrale. In his life of Piozzi (1941), James L. Clifford expressed regret that the marginalia with which she filled hundreds of books had been dispersed in a series of sales following her death. Jackson has retrieved a handful of them, drawing on previously unpublished sources, and the examples she cites have a racy or gossipy charm. They include the story of an Irish lady of Piozzi’s acquaintance who attributed her success at cards to the help of “a Lypercorn Fairy” (a leprechaun), and the report of a joke going around among the Prince Regent’s courtiers which claimed that his official motto, Ich Dien—“I Serve”—actually meant “dying of the itch” (a less than loyal allusion to venereal disease).

But these are only snippets, and Piozzi is also one of Jackson’s star turns. The longest chapter in Marginalia, “Object Lessons,” consists of four case studies, designed to illustrate some of the rewards which a careful reading of marginalia can confer; the first of them is devoted to a copy of Dr. Johnson’s philosophical fable Rasselas which Piozzi annotated while she was living in Bath in 1819. (Long widowed, she was then in her seventy-ninth year.)

Her annotations range from underlinings to extended anecdotes. There are moral reflections and reminiscences of Johnson; the originals of characters are identified; the chapter containing a “dissertation on the art of flying” prompts a skeptical glance at the craze for ballooning (“& now they have learned the Art, & now that they do tower into the Air:…What’s the Result? Nothing”). All these reactions, or the ones Jackson quotes, bear witness to a strong character; but what gives them added unity, and poignancy, is that they were set down for the benefit of a man nearly fifty years Piozzi’s junior, to whom she had become passionately attached—William Augustus Conway, the leading man in the local theater company.

The book was one of her gifts to him, which would be enough in itself to endow it with a high degree of human interest. But many of her marks and comments also have an obvious bearing on her situation. She reflects on the disparity between youth and age, on solitude, on her undying need for affection. (“Enjoyment implies Friendship—one can enjoy nothing alone—at least I cannot. H.L.P.”) And at one point the object of her yearning assumes a specific shape. Alongside a passage in the tale which describes a visit to the Pyramids, she writes: “Coptic Mythology at last comes in as an Auxiliary you see—will it help me to endure the Absence of Mr. Conway?”

Johnson looms large in Marginalia—if not as an annotator himself, then as an object of annotation.* Two of Jackson’s four “object lessons” are Johnsonian: in addition to Piozzi on Rasselas, she examines a first edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson with “copious ms. notes” (the British Library catalog description) by someone who called himself “Scriblerus.” And in a subsequent chapter she takes Boswell as her example when she wants to trace the fortunes of a major work at the hands of a whole series of annotators.

The “Scriblerus” section is the most original in the book. It is clear from what he writes that Scriblerus knew a number of members of Johnson’s circle quite well, and that he had met Johnson himself, but until now his identity has remained a mystery. Jackson establishes beyond reasonable doubt that he was in fact Fulke Greville, a diplomat, minor man of letters, patron of the arts, and scion of a famous aristocratic family. (His forebear, Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, was the friend and biographer of Sir Philip Sidney, and author of the celebrated lines that begin, “Oh wearisome Condition of Humanity!”) It also seems as good as certain that the notes were intended for Boswell’s eyes, at a time when the second edition of the Life of Johnson was being prepared, and that Boswell saw them, though without acting on any of their suggestions.

This is not surprising. While Greville acknowledges Johnson’s greatness and professes respect for Boswell’s talents, he mostly registers objections—to Johnson’s rough manners and rugged prejudices, to Boswell’s indiscretions about the lesser actors in the story (“Bozzy, Thou art an absolute Idiot to print this”) and his excessive veneration for his hero. “Still you go on—“ he exclaims at one point, “he is the only man of Sense or the first in the world. for gods sake Mr. B cease this mania & be your Self.” You wonder whether he really thought adopting such a tone was the best way of getting Boswell to change his mind.

Yet his criticisms, or those Jackson quotes, are seldom merely carping. Most of the points he makes are reasonable ones, and the reader who disagrees with him is frequently put on the defensive. When Johnson talks about “a gloomy, frigid, ungenial summer,” for example, Greville snaps back from the margin, “why cant you say Cold like the rest of ye world?” If you relish Johnson’s style to the full, your first impulse is probably to protest that this is simplistic, that the three-pronged description has its own distinctive eloquence. But to explain exactly why would call for a paragraph or two of analysis, and even a brief excursion into the nature of eighteenth-century rhetoric. (It is amusing to find Greville using a comparable trio of adjectives himself, incidentally, when he sums up Sir Joshua Reynolds’s character in one of his notes as “Cool Cautious and Phlegmatic.”)

The Greville annotations, once their background has been supplied, constitute something like a short story—a tale of contrasting temperaments and social origins in the case of Greville and Johnson, and rival literary ambitions in the case of Greville and Boswell. (Greville may well have been contemplating a memoir of his own.) The whole episode focuses attention on an interesting corner of eighteenth-century culture—and the notes are true marginalia in their air of spontaneity and unconsidered response. You feel that if Greville had set down his reflections on Boswell in a separate notebook, they wouldn’t have had the same immediacy.

  1. *

    He took a dim view of the practice. Jackson quotes a passage from the Idler, in which he says that readers who habitually mark up their books “load their minds with superfluous attention, repress the vehemence of curiosity by useless deliberation, and by frequent interruption break the current of narration or the chain of reason, and at last close the volume, and forget the passages and the marks together.”

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