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A Critical Examination of Dr G. Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions/The Editor's "Editing"

< A Critical Examination of Dr G. Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions


The charm of a well edited book is always more felt than described. The scrupulous editor—who is judicious and restrained by his reverence for his author—seems to glide about noiselessly; where there is obscurity or difficulty, he whispers an explanation in a little unobtrusive note. He hides himself as much as he can; like the prompter on the stage he is never seen, but "gives the word" when wanted. With this we may contrast Dr B. Hill's method, which we find to be neither more nor less than a gigantic system of note-taking and extracting from multifarious common-place books—the hunting up of "parallel passages" from other books. Johnson utters an opinion, and something he said elsewhere to the same, or to the contrary effect—or something that some one else has said—is noted, and all these things are "shot" in heaps, and "shovelled" upon the unlucky author, who is himself elbowed quite out of the way.

But the most amazing and distracting of all the editor's inventions is assuredly his system of "parallel passages."

It is difficult to give an idea of the wearisome effect left by these quotations encountered at every page with a monotonous frequency. There is surely a sort of scientific scale in supplying notes. The reader comes on something obscure in the text, and casts his eyes down to the bottom of the page for help, which a mere glance ought to find for him. It is altogether different if he has to encounter a long passage from the Rambler or Spectator, and which amounts to no more than this, that Johnson had more verbosely expressed the same idea in another place. More tedious still are the laborious references to other portions of the work—the eternal "See ante," and "See post." The injury thus done to Boswell's sprightly, pleasant chronicle—a light, flowing narrative—were it only in form, is extraordinary. Boswell's own notes are always judicious and artistic—little asides, as it were; an anecdote; a short corrective remark, or gay comment; a short, sufficient sketch of a person alluded to; there are only about half a dozen that seem intruders and too "heavy" for their place. The whole, text and notes, is homogeneous.

After "Walpole's Letters," in nine volumes, his journals, histories, etc., our editor's mainstay for quotation purposes is the Rambler, and others of Johnson's works. For every sentiment of Johnson's there is furnished something analogous from his Rambler, Idler, etc. For this course he gives a singular reason. Johnson, it seems, always talked for argument, so that his conversations could not represent his true opinions. These must be supplied from more orthodox sources. "Editing Boswell," therefore, is to consist in neutralising, correcting, and in part abolishing all these pleasant talks. Cannot our editor understand that the charm of conversation, as of all comedy, is to be found in its spontaneousness and absence of responsibility, and that the speakers are not presumed to "talk upon affidavit," as it were? Their attraction is their being first impressions, and not official utterances, and discursive "laxity of talk" is not to be tested by rule and square.

That this is no exaggerated description of his system is shown by the editor's own testimony. When lying ill in a foreign country, "in the sleepless hours of many a night," he tells us, "I almost forgot my miseries in the delightful pages of Walpole, and, with pencil in hand, managed to get a few notes taken." We may pity as well as admire this honest ardour: but the "getting a few notes taken" from "old Walpole" in the belief that you are "editing" your "Boswell" is but a sad delusion. 'Again he tells us, "everything in my reading that bore on my favourite author was carefully noted," and then—supreme delusion of all!—he fancied that, having gathered a mass of materials "from all sides," they were sufficient to "shield me from a charge of rashness if I began to raise the building"—the "building," by the way, commonly supposed to be Boswell's.

The editor describes how he "discovered Boswell." When he first went to college, "by a happy chance he turned to the study of the literature of the eighteenth century," owing to a sort of theme, set regularly every week, and which consisted in turning into Latin a passage from The Spectator. From Addison, in the course of time, he "passed on to the other great writers of his and the succeeding age"; in fact, pursued the ordinary college education. But a solemn moment was at hand. "A happy day came just eighteen years ago, when in an old shop, under the shadow of a great cathedral," our doctor was enabled to secure that uncommon stall-book, "a second-hand copy of a some what early edition of the 'Life' in five well-bound volumes." The discovery of this rarity produced quite a revolution. As he made his way through it, astonished and pleased, he began almost unconsciously, as it appeared to him, to edit. And how? "Before long I began to note the parallel passages and allusions, not only in their pages, but in the various authors whom I studied. Yet," adds the future editor, naively enough, "in these early days I never dreamed of preparing a new edition." And on what trifling things do events turn! Why, who knows that but for that happy day, just eighteen years ago—and that second-hand copy—we might, at this hour, be wandering about without our editor!

The true system of dealing with Boswell's great book goes much deeper than the mere illustrating it with extracts. In one sense it is a great psychological book—a book full of all the various "anfractuosities " of character. It helps us to read off "Jamie's" own nature in a most curious and even piquant fashion. To give one instance. A popular idea is that he was merely the "ambulatory reporter" of the sage's sayings and doings, the exact recorder of his wisdom. But the truth is, that this great "Life" was intended, in a secondary way, as a regular Apologia for "Bozzy's " own private failings and weakness, which, as I fancy, he thought he could in some way shelter under the moralities of his great friend. With these he was constantly identifying himself, for he felt the application which his friends would naturally make of Johnson's opinions to his own conduct. The inconsistency of his life and habits with the society and teaching of a great moralist, his constant discussions on religious and moral topics he felt would excite the ridicule of his friends, and this he ingeniously met by the implied confession that he was often but "a weak vessel," but with good purposes and good instincts. He put Johnson forward as making allowance for such failings. This is indeed the general effect left upon the reader, and the result is that Boswell's character comes before us as a very natural and human one. Such an interesting line of enquiry as this would add indeed a fresh piquancy to the study of Boswell, and had been barely hinted at by Mr Croker. Boswell's real purpose was to allot himself a share at least of his great friend's celebrity, and in this he certainly succeeded.

The prosecution of other enquiries of this kind, such as the question of his religion and his religious feeling, and the meaning of his final revolt from Johnson when the latter was on his death-bed, are subjects that take long to investigate, and are not to be despatched as you "go along," or by note-taking.

Next, as to the edition selected by our editor. There are three editions in which Boswell had his share of the preparation from which the editor could make his selection—the first, the second, and the third. The "corrections and additions" made to the second were printed separately in quarto form. Boswell died in 1795, when he was meditating a third edition, and it was not until 1799 that this appeared under the supervision of Edmund Malone; and it is significant of the editorial modesty and reserve in that day, that though he must have expended much labour on his task, his name actually does not appear on the title-page. O si sic omnes! In his advertisement he explains in the clearest way what his share in the work was. The corrections given in the second edition had arrived too late to be arranged by the author "in that chronological order which he had endeavoured uniformly to observe," so Boswell had to dispose them " by way of addenda as commodiously as he could." Malone says generally: " In the present edition these additions have been distributed in their proper places," i.e. by himself, though in revising the volumes the author had pointed out where "some of these materials" should be placed. Malone then explains that "all the fresh notes that the author had written in the margin of the copy, which he had in part revised, are here faithfully preserved." This makes the whole of Boswell's contribution to the new edition. But it would almost seem that he had really only just begun his task, and the reserved phrase, "in part revised," and the notes written on the margin, can hardly be interpreted as meaning more than a few memoranda which Malone naturally made as much of as he could. "A few new notes" were added, principally by friends of the author, and for those without signature "Mr Malone is answerable"—a curious form, considering that .the announcement is written by Malone himself.

All these new notes were "enclosed in brackets" to show that they were not written by the author a piece of respect that might be more imitated. It is evident, indeed, that there was no particular desire that the book should appear to have been edited by anybody. Malone does not claim any share in editing, he merely writes, the "advertisement." He even formally disclaims being accountable for typographical errors, as the proofs had not passed through his hands—an unusual thing—the meaning of this being that the family wished that the author should have the full credit of having prepared his own work.

In this state of things it was scarcely worth while for Dr B. Hill to treat it as the third and formal work of the author's. The second was really Boswell's final and most complete effort. But Ur B. Hill tries to justify his preference of this edition by some pleas which seem fallacious enough. He seems to rest his case on these notes which Boswell "wrote in the margin," and which, as I have said, must have been of the fewest and slightest sort. These are not impossible to discover by comparing the two editions. Dr B. Hill, indeed, tells us that he had the whole of the second edition read out to him. "I felt it my duty," he then tells us with solemnity, "to have the whole second edition read aloud to me for comparison with the third," which still would not help him to discriminate between Boswell's and Malone's work; "but, as I read on, I was convinced that about all the verbal alterations were Boswell's own." This "being convinced" is not much aid. I myself have compared the editions, and can say that there are not half-a-dozen new and additional notes in the whole.

It would be unfair not to allow credit to Dr B. Hill for his unwearied pains and labour, his diligent reading, and the occasionally sagacious "lights" which have cleared away a goodly number of difficulties. I must confess also to feeling some scruple in drawing up this heavy indictment, on account of the genuine enthusiasm and unsparing toil which the editor has brought to his work. But as an unsparing Johnsonian critic himself, he will not be too "thin-skinned." He must recollect, too, the exalted claims that he and his friends have put forward as to the merits of the book, and that there are "Boswellians" as ardent in their faith as he himself, to whom his general treatment of their common idol cannot be acceptable.