I was putting a book back on its shelf this morning (perhaps we’d better talk about books and how to sort them one day) when I bumped into a dear old friend: The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford. Damn. The perfect book for our teacher friends’ bedside table when they stayed a couple of weeks ago (oh, you can’t possibly have forgotten already: week 1. Remember?). The nine-year-old Miss Ashford’s courageous approach to the difficulties of spelling, and her pleasingly abrasive approach to matters of the heart, are just the thing for the welcome guest. Revision of guest-room staples required.
This made me start to think about authors’ second thoughts. Byron didn’t have much truck with them: he seems to have written Don Juan (delicious: try reading it aloud, at a good pace: and you do know, don’t you, that it’s Juan – two syllables, first letter pronounced as a definite jay? Of course you do. It’s just me being anxious, and Byron testing his readers for pretentiousness and having done the Grand Tour) on a roll, adding extra stanzas on the envelope (actually the manuscript folded up with the address written on it) as he posted instalments to his publisher, John Murray. Smitten by the creative muse between front door and post box. You don’t get that with e-publishing. Yeats, on the other hand, agonised – repeatedly – over every word of every poem. How to begin ‘Sailing to Byzantium’? Now? That? Here? This? Yes, this: ‘This is no country for old men’. No, wait a minute: that. ‘That is no country for old men’. Only another thirty-one lines to go.
Did Charles Dickens have second thoughts? He finished Great Expectations in 1861, and took the manuscript with him when he went to stay with his chum Edward Bulwer-Lytton (now there’s a challenge: what books should B-L put out in the guest room for his friend?). In a move that can only have writers in jaw-drop traction, Dickens gave the last chapter to his host and invited comment. Brave, confident or – just possibly –loosened up a bit by the excellence of the B-L cellar. Anyway, comment he got – with both barrels. Funnily enough, neither man wrote down exactly what was said at what must have been – don’t you think? – quite a tense chat in the library. I wonder if the house-party continued to go with a swing after that little session. The gist of B-L’s feedback seems to have been ‘too gloomy for words’. The phrase ‘commercial suicide’ may have been invented that afternoon. The upshot was that Dickens upped pen and wrote a cheerier ending (I’m not going to tell you what, or indeed what the gloomy one was, because you might not have read Great Expectations yet. But you’re going to, aren’t you? Because you’ll enjoy it, really you will). So Cheery Ending (the term is relative) made the cut in the first edition in 1861, but Gloomy Ending was made public in a biography of Dickens in 1870. Most modern editions settle comfortably on the fence (the right and proper place for an editor) and print both versions.
Then there’s Lear. Chronicle or tragedy? Well, what we’ve got is The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, printed in 1608. Oh, but we’ve also got The Tragedy of King Lear in the Folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays printed in 1623. Same play? Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Is the later one better? Is it Shakespeare’s second thoughts? Or is it – and I’m really struggling here not to shout ‘yes! This is what it is!’ because I’m pretending that I’m happy for you to make your own mind up – more like a snapshot of the point reached by that interesting, amorphous thing, a play, in 1623, just as the earlier text is a snapshot of what was working on the stage some fifteen years earlier. What most editors used to do was to play Pick ‘n Mix. The play you read in school was someone’s Best Of compilation of the bits they thought we couldn’t be without, no matter which text they came from. A sort of Desert Island Lear, if you will. Ah, now you know what all those footnotes you never read were trying to tell you. Remember all that Q and F stuff in very small print? And then along came Gary Taylor and the Oxford edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Norton if you’re reading this in the USA: and (how exciting) some of you are). He went for it and printed both texts, arguing that they are essentially different enough to be separate plays. So, dear reader, it will come as no surprise to you that, if you have suddenly been struck with the need to rush out and get yourself a Complete Works, I am going to say, get the Oxford. Or the Norton. Or, better still, don’t. You’re never going to sit down and read the whole lot from cover to cover. Are you? Really? No, of course you’re not. If you need it to answer crossword clues or prove to your nephew that he is an idiot and you have remembered the quote correctly, use your computer. If you want to read one of the plays, get a copy of that play. You’ll get all those lovely footnotes.
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