The Materiality of Manuscripts and Early Printed Books

 The author’s copy of Oliver Lawson' Dick’s Penguin edition of  Aubrey’s Brief Lives.  Image by Rachel Hammersley.

The author’s copy of Oliver Lawson' Dick’s Penguin edition of Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Justinian Pagitt, whose 'Memorandum Book' I discussed last month, was not the only one of James Harrington's friends to refer to him in an extant manuscript. John Aubrey's Brief Lives, the original manuscript of which is held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, has long been acknowledged as one of the most important and reliable seventeenth-century sources of information on Harrington's life. It gained popular notoriety in the second half of the twentieth century thanks to the Penguin edition by Oliver Lawson Dick, and has recently come to prominence again due to Ruth Scurr's wonderful reworking of the material into a quasi-autobiography: John Aubrey: My Own Life. I have discussed Aubrey's Brief Lives as a form of intellectual biography in a previous post.  Yet despite my familiarity with the work, I was not prepared for the impact that seeing the original manuscript for the first time would exert upon me.

The work is a manuscript in the true sense, with erasures, additions, and corrections scattered across its pages. Like Pagitt's 'Memorandum Book' it is prefaced by a list of contents to make locating specific entries easier, and most pages are structured with a wide left-hand margin where additional material could be added. Despite this, in the Harrington entry Aubrey clearly found he had allowed himself insufficient room for what he wanted to say. He ends up adjusting the size of his writing to fit the available space, squeezing tiny vertical notes into the margin, and even pasting in a small additional page of information topped by a pointing finger symbol. The text is also interspersed with illustrations. Most of these are small and crude, such as the sketches of the heraldic shields of his subjects and the drawing in the entry on Harrington of the unusually shaped table that was used during Rota Club meetings to allow the proprietor of Miles's Coffee House to deliver coffee to the participants without disturbing their discussions. Occasionally, however, more detailed images are included, such as the watercolour sketch of Verulum House in the entry on Sir Francis Bacon, which comes complete with a fancy title scroll. All of this may sound chaotic and haphazard, but it results in a manuscript that is simultaneously a provisional 'working' copy and yet a thing of beauty in its unfinished state. Unfortunately I do not have permission to include any images from the manuscript here, but some sense of it can be gained by viewing the entry on William Shakespeare which is displayed on the Folger Library's Shakespeare Documented site.

 Portrait of John Aubrey by Michael Vandergucht, after William Faithorne, 1719. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D30214. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Portrait of John Aubrey by Michael Vandergucht, after William Faithorne, 1719. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D30214. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

As with Pagitt's 'Memorandum Book', the Aubrey manuscript presents to us not just the official, public 'Aubrey' but also the private man. Of course, part of Aubrey's point in the work is to save for posterity ephemeral details about the appearance, habits, and thoughts of his subjects. Yet the work as a whole also does this for Aubrey himself. The frequent inclusion of birth diagrams, for example, remind us that this is a man who believed in astrology. And the entries reveal an author with a voracious appetite for gossip.

Some of this is, of course, evident from the published versions of the work, but there can be no doubt that much is lost in the transformation of a working manuscript into printed form. My friend Professor Phyllis Weliver of Saint Louis University demonstrates this very effectively in a YouTube video she has made in conjunction with Cambridge University Library in which she reveals the additional information that can be gleaned from the manuscript version of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem 'In Memorium', which is held in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge.

It is not only in the transformation from manuscript to print that crucial information about a work can be lost, but also in the shift from earlier to modern print editions or - more commonly now - that from print to digital form. In my work on Harrington I have come across several examples of this phenomenon.

One of the arguments of my forthcoming book is that Harrington took very seriously not just the substantive content of his major work The Commonwealth of Oceana, but also its form, style and presentation. Yet key details of his careful presentation are not always reflected either in print editions or even digital renditions of his works. Harrington very deliberately used at least three distinct typefaces to distinguish different elements of this multilayered work. He used gothic type for the thirty constitutional articles or orders that form the core of the 'Model of the Commonwealth of Oceana' section. In doing so he set those orders apart (almost as a text within a text) thereby drawing attention to their similarity to other constitutional models of the time such as the Leveller Agreements of the People or the 'The Instrument of Government' - the constitution by which the nation was then ruled. The use specifically of gothic type can also be seen as giving them a stamp of authority, since it was most commonly used at the time for the Bible and other religious texts. By contrast, the commentary on the orders is in normal roman type, making the authorial voice that it represents the 'norm' of the work as a whole. Finally, the speeches by members of Harrington's 'Council of Legislators' generally appear either in larger or more broadly spaced roman type so that they too can be distinguished from both the orders and the authorial commentary. While these distinct typefaces would seem integral to both the structure and argument of Harrington's text, they were not accurately reproduced by John Pocock in his 1977 Cambridge edition of The Political Works of James Harrington. While the digital versions of Harrington's Oceana available via Early English Books Online fare better in this regard, the use of red type for particular elements of the title page is lost because the digitised editions are in black and white.

 Frontispiece from  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington,  ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Frontispiece from The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Along with typefaces, illustrations are often lost in the transition to modern print or digital editions. Most modern editions of Harrington's works make reference to, and use of, John Toland's 1700 edition. Yet none of those editions reproduce the amazing frontispiece produced by Toland that prefaces and effectively embodies the argument of Harrington's text. While not original to Harrington's works, this image is so illuminating of them that there is a strong case for it to be viewed alongside them, yet to do so one must either find an original copy of Toland's edition or view the digital reproduction of it available via Eighteenth Century Collections Online. It is no doubt for this reason that it is only with the pioneering work of Justin Champion in the early twenty-first century that the symbolism and meaning of that image has been subjected to proper analysis.

Finally, it is important to remember that distinct copies of an original manuscript or printed text might reveal information not conveyed by them all. This might include marginal comments added by the author or a later owner of the book or manuscript; additional material added or 'tipped' into the work; or information that can be gleaned about the way it was classified, read, or used as a result of how, or with which other works, it was bound. Harrington, in his 'Epistle to the Reader' lamented that the first printed edition of Oceana was not as polished as he would have liked. The fact that the work had been dispersed between three presses for printing, among other difficulties, had resulted in multiple typographical errors, and he urged the reader to use the three pages of errata that he supplied to correct their own copy. I see this instruction to the reader as reflective of Harrington's desire to encourage active engagement with his work and the ideas it contained. It is, therefore, of significance that at least one reader appears to have taken heed of Harrington's call. In a version of the text held at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand, the errata have been incorporated into the text itself. In some places the error has been scratched out:

 Extract from a copy of the John Streater version of James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana  (London, 1656). Reproduced courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with particular thanks to Anthony Tedeschi.

Extract from a copy of the John Streater version of James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (London, 1656). Reproduced courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with particular thanks to Anthony Tedeschi.

Elsewhere a handwritten correction has been made in the margin, and in other places places a small strip of paper with the correct word printed on it has been pasted over the error: 

 Extract from a copy of the John Streater version of James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana  (London, 1656), Reproduced courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with particular thanks to Anthony Tedeschi.

Extract from a copy of the John Streater version of James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (London, 1656), Reproduced courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with particular thanks to Anthony Tedeschi.

This serves to remind us that books were physical objects that were engaged with in a variety of ways by their owners and readers. 

As I have discovered in my research on Harrington, engaging with original copies of both manuscripts and printed books, and paying attention not just to their content but also to their physical form and materiality, can greatly enrich our understanding of the intentions of their authors as well as of whether or not they achieved their aims.