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A Critical Examination of Dr G. Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions/The Preface and Dedication

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







Some ten or eleven years ago, the Clarendon Press took up the project of an issue of Boswell's "Life of Johnson," to be edited by Dr G. Birkbeck Hill, of Pembroke College. No expense or trouble was spared. The work was fifteen months in passing through the Press; carte blanche was given to the editor for illustrations, fac-similes, etc.; and the six handsome volumes at last emerged from the Press, finely printed, on fine paper, in "roxburghe binding." Here was "the long-expected final edition of "Boswell," and the critics expatiated on the research, the labours, and the ingenious "discoveries" of the laborious editor. "A literary monument," said one, "which will stand for ages." "The classical edition, the scholar's Boswell," said another. This, however, was transcended by the burst in the Daily News. "Six volumes of solid happiness!" None of these, perhaps, knew exactly what was classical, or what would "stand for ages." Stranger was it that not a single blemish or error was pointed out! Even that accomplished and careful critic, Mr Leslie Stephen, was beguiled into giving the high testimonial that he thought it the best edition he knew of.

In the face of these lavish praises, I propose in this book to challenge seriously the editor's claims; to prove that his system is radically wrong, and that his work teems with mistakes, misconceptions, delusions, and with "discoveries" that are purely imaginary. This is a grave indictment, but I think it will be supported. These defects may be owing to a too ardent enthusiasm, inordinate hurry, or, it may be, to an exaggerated confidence in his own powers or knowledge of the subject.

Dr B. Hill, while he professes to execrate the memory of "the inventor of the preface" (who ever he was), himself rather comically furnishes a preface of monumental cast—a perfect unique–the longest perhaps on record, stretching to nearly twenty closely-printed pages. It is mainly about the editor himself: his early life and education, his joys, sorrows, and illnesses, with very little about Boswell. At the end he is so carried away that he almost comes to think of it as his own work. " My book has been my companion," etc. " My proof sheets," etc. Even the dedication is a curious thing. It is addressed to the late Master of Balliol, Dr Jowett, and is arranged thus oddly:





Which suggests one of young John Chivery's epitaphs on himself. "The Master" must have smiled at the impressive "But also" and at his being dubbed "a knowing critic." Nor was he likely to have accepted "Johnsonianissimus," which seems a wrong form, being an English adjective, and not, as it should be, an English proper name, Latinised. The positive should be "Johnsonus," and the superlative " Johnsonissimus," not "Johnsonianissimus."

Dr. B. Hill actually extracted a promise that he would read all "my proofs " but here " the Master" showed himself a very "knowing critic," and, as our editor very frankly tells us, "after he had seen a few of the sheets, he confessed he was satisfied."