Saturday, December 5, 2009

Labour of love that saved Sir Walter Scott from his editors

An epic feat of scholarship that set out to rescue the novels of Sir Walter Scott from a litany of 30,000 editorial gaffes and typesetting errors has finally been completed, 25 years after the project began.

The Talisman, re-published last month, is the last in a 28-book sequence that has seen a team of researchers finally eliminate errors scattered throughout the standard editions of the novels. The books are, at last, “as Scott would have wanted,” said Professor David Hewitt, editor-in-chief of the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels.

In accomplishing his task, Professor Hewitt and a platoon of editors tracked down manuscripts and early 19th-century proof sheets in libraries in London, Edinburgh, New York and Moscow, comparing Scott’s originals with texts that had filled library shelves for generations. What they found shocked them: error after error strewn across every printed page.

Five or six mistakes a page is standard in the popular edition of each of the novels, with some pages containing ten or more. The final tally for each volume is enough to make a sub-editor blanch — 1,000 blemishes per book, the result of bad typesetting, accidental editorial errors and deliberate “improvements”.

Turning to a single page of Waverley, Scott’s first and most famous novel, Professor Hewitt itemised five mistakes, including paragraphing where none was intended, the word “accident” printed as “incident”, “which” printed as “whom”, and “lord” printed as “laird”.

The fifth example, yet another misprinted word, destroyed the vividness of a speech by the character Gilfillan, a Protestant Covenanting soldier, who deplores the ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church that he has witnessed in continental Europe.

“Scott has Gilfillan say: ‘O! it would grieve your honour’s soul to see the mumming, and the singing, and the massing that’s in the kirk . . .’” said Professor Hewitt. “‘Mumming’ makes complete sense there — there’s a notion of theatricality about it. But in print it turned out as ‘murmuring’, which completely loses the meaning that Scott intended.”

Some mistakes obscure vital elements of a book’s plot. In Kenilworth, editorial laxness had obscured the circumstances surrounding the death of Amy Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, who is pursued by the evil Richard Varney.

“We went back to the manuscript, and saw it made sense,” said Professor Hewitt. “There was a variety of drawbridge and the villain takes away the supports so that when Amy Robsart stands on it, it collapses and she falls into the ditch below. That made sense. But it made no sense in the existing printed version. Words and meaning have gone: you simply cannot work out why the drawbridge lets her down, and how the murderer has done it. So we restored the manuscript.”

For Professor Hewitt, 67, the publication of The Talisman represents the culmination of a lifetime’s work. In the 1960s, he wrote his PhD thesis on Scott, and went on to lecture on the Romantics and Scottish Literature at The University of Aberdeen, before he was appointed editor-in-chief of The Waverley Novels by Edinburgh University Press in 1984.

Almost immediately, the evident poor quality of the existing printed editions of Scott’s work had shocked his team, said Professor Hewitt. “We really couldn’t believe it to start with. But the more we worked, the more we found out. We gradually got emboldened by our research to realise that the printed texts were so faulty. We got bolder as we grew more experienced.”

Changes had never been insisted upon by Scott himself, because he had never noticed the mistakes — by the time the novelist was sent finished proofs of his latest work, he had already moved on to his next project and he had little time for final corrections. In righting these mistakes, Professor Hewitt acknowledged that the sheer scale of his research had occasionally proved daunting, but nothing had persuaded him to throw in the towel.

“Of course there are nights when you think ‘Oh I’ve had enough of this’ and every now and then one wants some fun and games,” he said. “But it has been perpetually interesting, partly because it has been such an adventure. Partly because we got to a stage where we trusted Scott to have got something right, whatever the printed editions told us.”

Their trust was not misplaced. Scott’s mother was the daughter of a professor of medicine and his father was a Writer to the Signet, and he was steeped in the intellectual currents of the Scottish Enlightenment. By his late 20s he cut a considerable public figure: Sheriff of Selkirkshire from 1799 to his death in 1832, and principal clerk of the Court of Session from 1806.

In private, he was astonishingly fecund. He edited the works of Dryden and Swift, and wrote a succession of hugely popular narrative poems of his own, beginning with The Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805. Then, when the young Lord Byron cornered the market for longer poems, Scott responded by developing the historical novel, beginning with Waverley in 1814.

His books made him the most famous author in the world, influencing Balzac, Stendhal and Tolstoy, but also endearing him to the popular imagination in 19th-century Britain. Some of that legacy, particularly his “invention” of Highland tradition made him less popular in the decades that followed. He was “the sham bard of a sham nation,” according to Edwin Muir.

Since the 1960s, says Professor Hewitt, Scott’s reputation has revived. “He is not going to be popular like Jane Austen is popular. He makes really big linguistic demands. All that Scots language is magnificent — but it is very hard to read. Intellectually it is demanding too — you have to pay attention. For all that, we have already sold 50-70,000 volumes in this edition alone. That is quite a lot of books.”


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