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date: 20 February 2020

Marginalia and Authorship

Abstract and Keywords

The value attributed to the notes that famous authors have made in books depends on more than mere association: we are disposed to believe that their annotations reveal something about their mental lives and about the sources of the creative process. But if marginalia contribute to the creative process, perhaps the practice should be encouraged in all aspiring writers. Examples are taken from books owned by British, American, and Canadian writers from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, ranging from Milton through Coleridge and Keats to T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, with special prominence given to Northrop Frye, Walt Whitman, John Adams, Hester Piozzi, and William Beckford.

Keywords: marginalia, writer, creativity, Woolf, Eliot, Keats, Frye, Whitman, John Adams, Beckford

This paper explores the proposition that between writers and marginalia there exists a special relationship deeper, stronger, and more productive than the run-of-the-mill experience that other people have when they write in books. Of course all writers of marginalia are to that extent writers. In this context, however, “writer” signifies more specifically “author,” someone whose occupation or aspiration is to write for publication; “marginalia” means manuscript additions to works written by somebody else; and the practical question is whether making notes in books could be part of the professional’s informal but essential training.

All Writers Write in Books

Marginalia and Authorship

Figure 1 MS note by Virginia Woolf in her copy of Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë,

from Laila Miletic-Vejzovic, A Library of One’s Own: The Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf (London: Cecil Woolf, 1997), 13.

In Romantic Readers I suggested that marginalia might provide an answer to the mystery of the dotted line in Robert Darnton’s famous Communications Circuit, that bridge or missing link between reading and the composition of new writings (302). Unlike the general population, all authors—those who produce new matter to read—write in books sometimes, and not just when they prepare their own books for the press. I say this with more assurance than I once would have because I thought I knew of an important exception to the rule, Virginia Woolf, but it appears that even she did it occasionally. Here is a page from her copy of Wuthering Heights, reproduced from a study of the Woolfs’ library (see figure 1) by Laila Miletic-Vejzovic (13):

What sets writers apart from other users and makes their marginalia special? To start with the obvious, authors are readers who also write books. Thus they instinctively look on other authors as either models (good or bad) or rivals, and treat the others’ works as fodder for their own. For them, reading includes a practical, technical, more or less self-conscious dimension that is not present for other people. Writers furthermore are conditioned to make notes in books. From the invention of printing to the present day, technological changes and commercial developments notwithstanding, the author’s routine has always included hours of revision and correction, processes that require the patience of Job and the eye of a hungry eagle, so writers get used to marking up copy. I have heard it reported that T. S. Eliot, an editor as well as a poet, said he could not read without a pencil in his hand, and though I have not been able to document that statement, it’s quite credible. The books from his library support it. One rather thrilling example described by Robert Bluck in Notes and Queries is a copy of The Twenty-Eight Upanishads, in Sanskrit, now in the Hayward Collection at King’s College, Cambridge. The volume was a gift from Eliot’s Harvard tutor in 1912: it has indeed a penciled note by Eliot in it but also a loosely inserted message from the donor directing Eliot’s attention to a dozen passages in the book, including specifically “Da—da—da = damyata datta dayadhvam”—words that we recall from the end of The Waste Land.

This Eliot example, with its physical evidence of the connection between instructor and student, is a useful reminder of the historical background that all modern marginalia share—that is to say, their origins in circles of the learned, and of education. Early manuscript glosses, followed by early printed ones, provided commentary on important texts like the Bible and legal codes. For centuries scholars compiled adversaria and instructed their pupils in ways of using marks and notes to help them find their way through difficult works. Over time these academic practices evolved. They were adapted and applied to different purposes outside the world of learning.1 Gradually they came to tolerate and even to encourage more personal expression, so that by the eighteenth century, students were being trained to use their notes in books not just to extract the main points of the author’s argument or to add useful cross-references, but also to develop independent positions of their own—what we now refer to as “critical thinking.” A regularly reprinted manual of 1741 by Isaac Watts, The Improvement of the Mind, for instance, stressed the exercise and expression of the reader’s judgment by advocating the use of marginalia for remarks about the faults and beauties of the work—that is to say, for observation and analysis aimed at improving the reader’s own reasoning and writing skills (60–97). Watts’s instructions already anticipate the passage from reading to new writing. And so it comes about that the value of marginalia to writers is most transparent, and the connection between reading and new writing most direct, in critical genres like reviewing and controversy, where the starting point is somebody else’s work that the reader aims to judge or to oppose, and where the marked-up copy may be the first draft of the opinions that he or she will later sort out and polish for publication. This point hardly needs illustration, the practice is so commonplace. But by way of example, we might consider Iris Murdoch’s marginalia in a copy of a book by her former lover, Elias Canetti, that Murdoch marked up for the review she wrote in 1962 (Morley, esp. 147–148). Another, classic example—though an unusual one in that the marked-up copy itself constituted a new publication and wasn’t merely a bridge—is Blake’s copy of Reynolds’s Discourses with Blake’s aggressive health warning on the title-page, continuing within. “This Man,” Blake wrote furiously, gesturing toward the frontispiece portrait of Reynolds, “was Hired to Depress Art. This is the Opinion of Will. Blake my Proofs of this Opinion are given in the following Notes” (Jackson, Romantic Readers 154, 166–169). In a lighter vein, Mark Twain improved the title-page of his Plutarch with little interjections, so that “Translated from the Greek by John Dryden and Others” becomes “from the Greek into rotten English” and “the whole carefully revised and corrected” is deemed to be “by an ass”:

Even when respectable society came to shun the practice of writing in books, it tacitly granted a dispensation to authors, whose marked-up volumes have for centuries been favored in auction catalogues and special collections—a point I shall come back to later. They are also regularly referred to with some reverence by other writers: Izaak Walton mentions a book annotated by Donne that Donne bequeathed to a friend (27); in his Life of Milton Johnson tells us that he himself had had the privilege of handling a Euripides with Milton’s notes in it (1:275); Scott published marginalia by Swift among his (Swift’s) literary works. Books with notes by authors are especially prized today—over and above conventional association value—for two reasons, I think, first because writers are expected to be good critics and therefore to have more interesting things to say about the books they were reading than lay readers do; and second because their marginalia hold out the promise of insight into their own works, though Johnson said there was “nothing remarkable” in Milton’s notes and buyers’ hopes are more often than not disappointed—a fact that did not stop the vendors of Murdoch’s working library from describing it as the source of her inspiration (Milmo).

To those seeking evidence of inspiration, books purposefully marked up for review or attack might actually prove less fruitful than those that the reader approached more casually, those in which the margins presented themselves simply as playground, free space, inviting and pretty much unregulated. Where there is no explicit task involved, writers are more likely to indulge personal associations and stray thoughts along with their critical reactions. The collection of close to two thousand books annotated by the scholar and critic Northrop Frye that is now preserved at Victoria College in Toronto, where he spent his entire career, provides ample evidence of the tendency to mingle purposeful and impulsive note-making. A substantial body of marked books such as this also makes it possible to see distinctive patterns of reading and use.

Critic and Lover: Northrop Frye

Marginalia and Authorship

Figure 2 MS notes by Northrop Frye in his copy of Thomas Pynchon, V: Frye Collection #1750.

With permission of Victoria University Library (Toronto).

Often Frye took up a book, pencil in hand, in order to prepare a review, an introduction, an essay, or a class. Neat notes in one of his copies of Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji, for instance, register his thoughts about the preceding chapter while the reading was still fresh in his mind.2 He’s full of enthusiasm for what he calls “this wonderful story,” interested especially in the social codes that the story exposes and in the way that it exemplifies romance and thus brings together medieval Japan and medieval Europe. Frye notes with satisfaction that “The exact degree of a girl’s beauty (except for Kinitsubo) depends primarily on her heredity, like a knight’s chivalry in Malory.” Frye did quite often work in this methodical way. But more typically he just read along until something jumped out at him or until by the mysterious ways that we all gratefully recognize, he was ambushed by a thought that had to be got down right away. Probably the commonest kind of note in his books is a rude outburst—“crap” or “horseshit”occasionally with an explanation, as figure 2 shows in this page from Pynchon’s novel V:

Frye’s pencil notes are faint, but it is clear that at the point where the text articulates “life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane,” Frye first marked the passage and wrote “balls” beside it and then, with an asterisk to link the two notes, added a clarification in the upper margin: “*I think P. is pretending to endorse this shit, unwilling to admit that his creation is really speaking better than he can.”3

Now and then Frye makes an unexpected connection or writes something that seems to have nothing at all to do with the book he’s reading. His notes are quite various. And this mixed use is by no means unusual in the marginalia of writers. Different kinds of note very often coexist in a given volume, reflecting the length of time it took to read and the variable conditions under which the reading was done. The idling, or perhaps it is the freed mind, behaves in unpredictable ways. Who would have expected to find a personally revealing note in one of the many books of mysticism that Frye read attentively and respectfully? But in his copy of The Book of Secrets, when Rajneesh writes, “What are the symptoms of being in love? Three things: First, absolute contentment. Nothing else is needed; not even God is needed,” Frye responds, “The hell he isn’t; I loved like that once & the silly wench fell out of love. I needed God then, very badly.” And why did Frye write an outline of a projected book on the Bible in one of his copies of A Vision, by Yeats?4 There must have been other paper available; why put it there? Because it was the culmination of hundreds of pages of intense engagement, in which Frye absorbed Yeats’s schemes and made them his own through comment and paraphrase. Now he is ready to put them to use. Unless you had followed in Frye’s tracks carefully, you might think that he had composed his outline somewhere else and just copied it into this book—as Keats sometimes composed poems on the spot in the books he was reading (a Chaucer, a Shakespeare) but sometimes copied them in as a tribute to the author and for the benefit of the friends with whom he would be sharing the books. We can be reasonably sure that the writers themselves believed there was a significant connection between the book written in and the thoughts expressed, perhaps even a causal link—that this text prompted these thoughts—even if it is extremely oblique.

If we as third parties think that marginalia can expose such elusive creative processes, it is because we all, writers and third parties alike, take it for granted that reading stimulates creativity. Keats’s copy of Shakespeare’s Poetical Works is particularly interesting because it passed from hand to hand.5 Various inscriptions in it indicate that it first belonged to John Hamilton Reynolds, who wrote a sonnet on one of the blank leaves at the back in 1818 making his farewell to the Muses: was the achievement of Shakespeare too much for him? Reynolds made a present of the volume to Keats, who copied in his sonnet “Bright Star,” which had been an expression of his contentment in love but in the new context looks like an act of homage to the great master of the sonnet; and Keats in turn gave it to Joseph Severn, who wrote in a love sonnet of his own: so the book was converted into a memento—or as Coleridge said at one point, a relic (qtd. Jackson, Marginalia 7).

Authors as Exemplary Readers

Marginalia and Authorship

Figure 3 MS notes by Walt Whitman on an article by John Wilson, “Christopher under Canvas”: Trent Collection MS 179.

With permission of Duke University Libraries.

Finally, since there are always two sides to a relationship and the relationship between writers and their marginalia seems to have been especially beneficial to the writers, it is only fair to say that writers have also been good for marginalia. Pushing up the price of used books is the least of it. Writers have provided leadership over the years both by continuing, consistently, to write in their books through the dark ages of suppression, and by developing the art of the marginal note. We admire the brilliance of the great adepts; they raise the bar for the rest of us. Coleridge is the classic example: he used marginalia in tandem with his notebooks as an important tool in his own writing, and his executors included a whole volume of marginalia among his literary remains in 1836. For fifteen years or more before his death he had been recognized as an artist in this genre; the marginalia maintain a respected place in his collected or selected works to this day. Another good model is Walt Whitman, whom we find revealing his views about Paradise Lost in a rather improbable place, the margins of a periodical article of literary criticism that is thought also to have given him some phrases that he put to use in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”6 As figure 3 shows, Whitman’s heading is “Some Ideas on Hexameters Poetry and Prose, and on Milton.” His notes reject Wilson’s (“Christopher North’s”) encomium to Paradise Lost. The long note in the side margin concludes, “The Paradise Lost is offensive to modern Science and intelligence—it is a poetical fanaticism with a few great strong features but not a great Poem.—”

It’s only fairly recently that we have come to think of writing notes in books as a personal and private concern, and if we gave the matter a second thought we would realize that even now it still is not truly private. Unless we are able to arrange to have all our books burned with us on a funeral pyre, our notes will be seen by somebody else sooner or later. Do we imagine that as electronic devices evolve to mimic the perfection of the codex, the notes we compose on them will be any more exclusively our own than they are at present in books, and that if we delete them they will really disappear? Of course not. But if they’re going to survive, perhaps we owe it to ourselves to do better—and the example of writers we admire, like Blake, Keats, Coleridge, and Whitman can help.

Finally, many authors—especially writers of fiction but not only writers of fiction—have effectively propagated the idea that books with marginalia are repositories of reliable evidence, and especially of secrets. Marginalia are conventionally used as a literary device, introduced to disclose an otherwise unrecorded fact or shed light on an otherwise mysterious motive. I have elsewhere noticed instances by Emily Brontë and Michael Ondaatje (Marginalia 20–21, 179–181); we might add Billy Collins’s charming, popular poem “Marginalia”; as witness to the international reach of this phenomenon, see Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man or Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. A recent rerun of an episode of the BBC crime series “Lewis” not long ago included as a piece of evidence the fact that the victim had underlined some lines in a poem by Hopkins: this reminds us that our TV series are written by writers (with degrees in English literature) too.

A curious example occurs in a statement by Thomas Moore, author of the Irish Melodies and biographer of Byron, in the preface to the second volume of his Poetical Works in 1840.

In my passage down the St. Lawrence, I had with me two travelling companions, one of whom, named Harkness, the son of a wealthy Dublin merchant, has been some years dead. To this young friend, on parting with him, at Quebec, I gave, as a keepsake, a volume I had been reading on the way,—Priestley’s Lectures on History; and it was upon a fly-leaf of this volume I found I had taken down, in pencilling, both the notes and a few of the words of the original song by which my own boat-glee had been suggested. The following is the form of my memorandum of the original air. (2: xxii–xxiii)

Moore is explaining the genesis of his “Canadian Boat Song.” One wonders whether Moore had not been accused of plagiarism or falsification, he gives so many irrelevant circumstantial details to support the central statement—a dead friend named Harkness, son of a wealthy Dublin merchant, left behind in Quebec? Priestley’s Lectures on History Moore’s chosen reading for the voyage? He is protesting too much. Perhaps Moore really was forced to use the only paper he had on board at the time to make a quick memorandum about the catchy refrain he had heard. Whether he was or not, the point is that readers would be predisposed to accept the authenticity of a record in the margin. Writers reinforce this assumption. All literary instances of the role of marginalia conform to the convention that notes in books do not lie, although in real life they sometimes do. Thus fictional marginalia are like fictional dreams: with a narrative function to fulfill—disclosing something that would otherwise remain hidden—they are charged with meaning in a way that their real-life counterparts need not be. The literary tradition is based on but distinct from reality.

In a nutshell, then, the case for the specialness of the relationship between authors and their marginalia rests on four points. Authors have a special relationship to books in the first place. Second, writing notes in books appears to be universal among them, though it is not in society at large. And writing in books is potentially continuous with writing books, whether the reader’s notes take the form of step-by-step commentary or of more freestyle response. In more ways than one, then, marginalia can serve as a bridge between reading and new writing—but only for authors. Finally, authors contribute by example to the survival and development of the art of marginalia.

Authors as Ordinary Readers

Now I want to change course slightly and put the case that there is nothing special about the relationship between writers and marginalia. Rather than go seeking exceptions, I am willing to concede that all writers make notes in books sometimes, because it does not much matter. To revert to Virginia Woolf, if the note shown earlier is the only kind of note that she made in her books, then she might as well never have written in them at all. All that this chart does is keep the characters straight in a novel in which repetitions of names across generations often cause confusion. It’s just a rudimentary reading aid. It’s not in the least expressive, not creative, certainly not a step on the road to Mrs. Dalloway. Thousands of other readers of Wuthering Heights have probably done the same thing. Which raises a much larger point: for the most part, the notes that writers put in books are indistinguishable from the notes written by lay readers. Johnson said there was “nothing remarkable” about Milton’s notes to Euripides. De Quincey declared himself disappointed by the notes in Wordsworth’s books—they were “such as might have been made by anybody,” he said: and why should they not be, but for our wishes (Marginalia 95)? Frye’s confession of a failed love affair could have been an anonymous note in a library book, shaken out of some other unfortunate. Mark Twain’s playful defacement of the Plutarch title-page was intended to amuse the family—and other people have families and family libraries too. Plenty of readers who are not writers have well-developed critical faculties, and even such interesting remarks as those that Whitman made on Milton could be replicated in the books of a reader who was not a writer—someone like the physician Philip MacDermott, the tinker W. Davis, or the well-read Duke of Sussex, all of whom I have written about elsewhere (Romantic Readers 70–75, 141–142, 146–153). We attribute special value to Whitman’s notes because we have come to value him, but that is not to say that there is anything inherently special about them.

Like other forms of writing—tragedies or epics or business letters—marginalia belong to a genre designed for communication and governed by conventions, traditional codes that are passed on by example and imitation. For the most part, writers use marginalia the way their nonliterary contemporaries do and exhibit the same wide range of variation, from the utilitarian through the social to the reflective, and from sparse to copious, on a spectrum from Woolf to Coleridge. For the most part, if we did not have a name to put to the writer’s notes we would not be able to tell them apart from everybody else’s.

For the most part. The exception is those notes that can be tied directly to the writer’s original work, as with the examples from Eliot and Frye earlier. But even those can be called into question. They prove that Eliot and Frye read, respectively, the Upanishads and Yeats’s Vision, in those editions, and that is useful for us, but that’s about the extent of it. They don’t give us insight into the moment of creation or even the process of creation, unless to show that it is complex and cumulative, which we knew already; and they might even mislead us by tempting us to look for simple answers to profound mysteries. We will never know how much, nor what exactly Frye learnt from Yeats. Marginalia are not a quick fix; unmarked passages are just as likely to have made an impression on Frye as the ones he stopped over and made notes on. He never did write the book that he outlined there, though he wrote on those kinds of topics. The tutor’s note in Eliot’s book guided him to that particular passage but Eliot could well have encountered it earlier, or elsewhere, without extra prompting, in which case the note would reinforce other sources and not be the sole cause of the line in The Waste Land. It might be superfluous: we cannot be sure. Marginalia take their place among other records—notebooks, letters, interviews—in helping us to reconstruct the genesis of a successful literary work, but I know of no case, not even Blake’s answer to Reynolds’s Discourses, in which they tell the whole story. They give us at best a piece of the puzzle.

We might say that what sets writers apart among the whole class of readers who make notes in books is their rare and remarkable consistency, as a group: they all write in books. But then again, perhaps this unusual uniformity comes about not because they are inspired but because they are compulsive (they can’t help themselves, writing defines them) or because they have pencils. Other people with pencils behave the same way. Which comes first, the thought or the pencil that delivers it? Besides, the impression of uniformity among writers collapses when we consider individual practices, for differences among them are much more striking than likenesses. Coleridge himself, the Marginalia Man, came late to the business. As far as we know, he was in his thirties before he began to avail himself of the spaces in the margins of books, having been long accustomed to notebooks. As time passed, his technique improved—even as Turner’s paintings became freer and more distinctively Turnerian in later life. Nevertheless, Coleridge was a writer first and a writer in margins later. He eventually figured out how to put his marginalia to use in publications, but he would surely have gone on writing even if he had never taken to making notes in books. So his example might well count against the theory about marginalia as a bridge to new writing and in favor of the theory of compulsiveness. (On the other hand, relatively few of the books he is known to have owned or handled contain marginalia, so it was not a habit that he could not control.)

An even later late-comer to marginalia was John Adams, author of books on history and politics and second president of the United States, whose notes are now lovingly preserved in digital images and transcriptions on the Boston Public Library website.7 Biographers of Adams have seized on the marginalia as evidence of engaging human qualities, especially his gusto in argument. David McCullough, for instance, says of this book, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), that Adams read it at least twice and “with delight, because he disagreed with almost everything she said” (619). Here is a sample of his annotation of Wollstonecraft from the digitized version online: The evidence of two readings is immediately apparent, the first layer (with the long “s”) consisting merely of “heads” or keywords—“Press,” “Satires,” and “Jests”—and the second constituting a point-by-point commentary, mainly refutation. When Wollstonecraft, for instance, deplores ridicule in the Press that created divisions among the French people, Adams contradicts her: “The Jests, Epigrams and Caricatures did not produce the Divisions. The Divisions were deep and ineradicable. The Divisions produced the Jests.”

Adams, born in 1735, had been using the keyword method as a study aid since his twenties, sometimes in conjunction with underlining, but he did not really let himself go and express personal opinions in the margins of his books until he was well into his forties. Even then, and for many years after, he was comparatively restrained. For example, though he heavily annotated a copy of a pamphlet by Turgot to which he later published a formal reply, he appears not to have consulted his voluminous notes when he wrote the reply: unlike Coleridge, he chose not to take advantage of the bridge. Only a very small proportion of his collection has the kind of expressive notes that we especially prize and the great majority of his books contain no marks at all. He cannot have read Wollstonecraft’s book before 1794—the date of publication—and at first he gave it only the keyword treatment. But then in his retirement, after 1800, Adams returned to a particular set of books, the works of Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionaries, and he deliberately set about annotating them so as to distance himself from the doctrines they espoused. He had owned these works but he did not share their views: the marginalia make that abundantly plain. In the long years of his retirement, Adams was thinking about his legacy, and the annotation of these books seems to have been a part of that process. A few years before his death, he made a gift of the bulk of his library, not excluding the annotated volumes, to the town of Quincy to serve as the foundation of a new academy. All this is only to illustrate the point that there is as much variation among the marginalia of writers as there is among the marginalia of the rest of the population—just as wide a range of motives, purposes, and quantities—and that close scrutiny highlights contrast, not resemblances.

To summarize: this part of the article makes the counter-argument that although writers have a special relationship to books and although all writers write in books sometimes, in general they write the same kinds of notes as the lay readers of their day, on similar occasions, with the same motives, and evidently with the same feelings of release and satisfaction and therefore with the same relationship to their notes as other people have. When they read they behave as readers, not as writers. Direct links between marginalia and literary works are rare and open to question. Finally, to address the last point from the earlier part of this argument, if writers promote the idea of the trustworthiness of marginalia in their works, we could argue that it is not out of special affection for the genre, it’s simply a way—a traditional way—of exploiting common beliefs. Writers did not invent the interpretation of dreams either.

Reception of Authors’ Notes

Thesis—antithesis—have we come to the moment of synthesis, or to deadlock? Something needs to be done to break the jam. Is there a middle way? Of course. Like most of its kind it is not very exciting. We can safely say that some writers, not all, have a special relationship with marginalia. On that basis we might begin to make lists and establish criteria. Which authors write in books all the time? Which cherish their annotated books or make gifts of them to others? Whose notes turn up, transplanted, in their own published writings? One of the things we would quickly realize is that our candidates, all being different, would qualify for different reasons: Twain as supremely comical, perhaps; Coleridge as supremely experimental. So let us focus on individuals before we attempt to classify them.

Or here’s another approach, somewhat more interesting. Even if there are no intrinsic differences between the marginalia of writers en masse and those of other people, nor between their relationship to their marginalia and other people’s, we can see nevertheless that over time differences have been created—historical differences brought about by social and commercial forces. Writers might not have taken more pleasure in or attached more value to their marginalia than other people did, but later generations came to attribute greater significance to them; their marginalia might or might not have been special to them but they have become special to us. We can discern the origins of this process in the salerooms of the early nineteenth century.

Books annotated by writers are disproportionately represented in Special Collections today, and have been so for quite a long time. In the Introduction to his useful collection of the Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons (1971–75), A. N. L. Munby admitted that the catalogues he chose to reproduce in facsimile were “mainly catalogues of literary figures,” but he did not say why. Writers need books and some writers are fortunate enough to have substantial collections, but they are greatly outnumbered as collectors by well-to-do families and individuals who never had to live by their pens. Writers are not usually great collectors. And yet Munby devotes one volume each to Architects, Actors, Politicians, Antiquaries, and Scientists, but seven volumes to Poets and Men of Letters. The crucial distinction is “eminence.” These sales were selected not for the size or rarity of the collections but for the high profile of the owners. In such celebrity sales, every item has a certain cachet based on association. It took dealers a little while to realize that of all proofs of association, holograph manuscript is the least equivocal, and to promote readers’ annotations accordingly, but once they began, the annotations of famous writers proved especially precious.

The catalogues in Munby’s collection are mostly nineteenth-century, though some date back to the 1730s. The earliest to present the owner’s marginalia as a desirable feature seems to be the Wilkes catalogue of 1802; thereafter it becomes routine to do so. Since the early nineteenth century, then, collectors have sought after writers’ marginalia and auction catalogues have drawn attention to them. It’s not that earlier writers did not make notes in books—in this collection, Fielding and Gray would be cases in point—but that earlier sale catalogues did not think to present their marginalia as potentially valuable manuscripts. Nineteenth-century sales of Gray’s books, though, did single out those with his manuscript notes. To this day, a writer’s library hardly seems worth mentioning without some reference to the tantalizing prospect of unpublished manuscript notes, as in the case of Iris Murdoch previously cited.

One of the catalogues in this collection provides some insight into the way it all began. “Poets and Men of Letters” is fortunately an inclusive category: two of the writers whose libraries feature are Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Hester Lynch Piozzi (Johnson’s Mrs. Thrale). The catalogue of Lady Mary’s books, dating from 1928, prominently features books “annotated by herself,” as one would expect by that time. Piozzi’s books were sold in two important sales, in 1816 and 1823 respectively. The 1816 catalogue, published in her lifetime, does not mention her marginal notes but the 1823 catalogue definitely does. As the editor observes, “The outstanding feature of the 1823 sale is the high proportion of annotated volumes” (5:388). In a prefatory announcement “To the Public,” with which the catalogue opens, the auctioneer John Broster explained his decision (5:484). He expected, he said, that the books with Piozzi’s notes would be attractive to the living author who might find his or her works commented on; the publisher who could make a new edition and extend the term of copyright by incorporating authorial revisions; the admirer of Johnson and his circle who would be freshly reminded of them; and the collector who might add “another rarity to his library for the amusement of his literary acquaintance.” Books like these, in short, have something for everyone. Broster wrote that Piozzi’s notes would “again bring to light the Johnsonian School; though Johnson, Garrick, Reynolds, and Piozzi are no more here, in the pages of time they will be immortal.” The auctioneer does not claim that marginalia offer access to the creative process: that idea emerged later, with the rise of biographical criticism and textual scholarship. He does, however—or so it seems to me, it’s not clear exactly what he’s getting at when he talks about the pages of time—he does flirt with the idea that manuscript notes have the power to raise the dead, that in reading Piozzi’s notes you will feel that you are actually in the presence of a member of the Johnson circle. This quasi-mystical experience is something readers have attested to for centuries. It happens when they come unexpectedly upon notes written by people they knew; those who are particularly susceptible may have it happen even with notes by strangers. It is not a power peculiar to the marginalia of famous people; only, since their names are very widely known, their notes have greater currency than most, and the sense of familiarity is heightened for writers because we feel we know them already through their writings.

How to Use Marginalia

Two practical recommendations suggest themselves, by way of conclusion, the one geekily technical, the other universally practical.

First, since writers are the ones we care about as well as the ones whose marginalia happen to have been most carefully preserved, let us concentrate—as I have already suggested—on individuals, before we attempt to make comparisons and generalizations. Anyone wanting to make a serious study of the marginalia of a particular author, or to make the case for their preservation on a website or in an edition, would do well to consider first the following questions.

  1. (1) How full is the evidence of the writer’s reading and what form or forms does it take? Supposing that the ideal were a detailed sale catalogue published shortly after the writer’s death coupled with a meticulous reading diary covering the entire lifetime, what is the reality? You can work only with what you have. Even the ideal would be sure to have limitations: what are the limitations in this author’s case? What reading diary is so perfect that it includes books borrowed from friends or from libraries? Or one of the most formative categories, schoolbooks? Or ephemera—newspapers, broadsides, advertisements, magazines? In the absence of ideal records, how much of the reading record can be recovered by the use of correspondence, notebooks, acknowledgments, prefaces, and the like?

  2. (2) Isolate the marginalia. Ideally (again) some great public research collection has already done that and a complete collection is available for examination. Ideally also, the writer made a practice of dating his or her readings. Otherwise it will be a slow process to trace the books and work out a chronology. Putting the set of annotated books against the full reading record, how many of the titles read were also annotated, and what proportion of the whole do they represent? What patterns appear in the writer’s use of marginalia: what kind of annotation is typical, and what are the extraordinary cases? Did the author’s practice change over time? It usually does. If so, in what ways? The only changeless writer of marginalia whom I have encountered is William Beckford, who had buckets of money, a long life, and an enormous collection—sold off in a sequence of auctions in the first half of the nineteenth century with no reference to his manuscript notes in the catalogues as far as I can see before 1824. Beckford liked his books to be beautiful and he had them elegantly bound, so he did not write in the actual margins but used the front and back endpapers for extracts and the occasional critical comment. The wonderful thing is that his extracts were usually selected for ridiculousness—not for deliberate humor but for passages that struck Beckford as foolish or open to double-entendre. Figure 4 gives by way of example one of the endpapers in his copy of Isaac Disraeli’s Inquiry into the Literary and Political Character of James the First, chosen almost at random.8

    Marginalia and Authorship

    Figure 4 MS notes by William Beckford on a flyleaf of Isaac Disraeli’s Inquiry into the Literary and Political Character of James the First

    (London: Murray, 1816). Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, shelfmark DA391.D6. With permission of Victoria University Library (Toronto).

    The entry at the top of the page, word for word from the text, is “It may startle the last Echoer of Pope’s Pedant reign to hear that more wit and wisdom have been recorded of James 1st than of any one of our Sovereigns”: it evidently startled Beckford, so he copied it out. There are hundreds and hundreds of Beckford’s books extant, all—so far as I know—of this character. As the mass of marginalia grew, he thought of publishing a selection of them in what would have been a truly quirky anthology: Beckford’s Picks. Beckford was extremely methodical, in his own weird way. With most writers, however, as I have said, the practice evolves.

  3. (3) Put the marginalia in context. What role did they play in the author’s intellectual, professional, social life? Were the books part of a family collection to which other people had access? Was the writer exchanging annotated books with friends? What were the norms of the day? Were this writer’s notes circulated or published, or was there a risk of unauthorized publication?

  4. (4) Do the marginalia warrant publication? All of them, or some certain portion? To what end, for what constituency, and in what form? On this point the history of the publicization of the marginalia of John Adams is instructive; it tends to bear out the auctioneer John Broster’s point that over time, the documentary record becomes increasingly precious. Adams’s notes are of incalculable value as part of the record of the intellectual life of a President. Besides the fact that we could not put a price on the marginalia, we cannot know what future generations might want to use them for. At first, however, only the colorful notes about the French philosophes were published, in edited extracts and as a contribution to biography: Adams was shown to be more interesting and engaging than had been thought. But now the Boston Public Library aims to publish every annotated page in digital images with accompanying transcriptions—which is the present gold standard, as reflected in other online archival projects. It remains to be seen what happens to online records and how we will cope with the voluminous results. Some early ventures that set out with fanfares and funding have dropped out of sight; so Proceed with Caution. The good thing is that more and more of these curious personal revelations—for all of them are revealing to the informed researcher—more and more of them are being brought to light.

The second and final recommendation is that whether we think that writers overall have a special relationship to marginalia or not, we should take a leap of faith and, in a bookish version of Pascal’s wager, bet that they do. Perhaps writing notes in books either is or could be important training for writers. Being able to do it at least gives readers an outlet, and is easier than starting from scratch—the blank page—because there is the text there to respond to. Perhaps some mute inglorious Miltons would have found their voices if they had practiced in the playground of the margins. If we believe in the special relationship we will want to foster note-making; if we deny it we reject an opportunity to do good and might actually do harm. So what is there to lose? Let us bet on the existence of the special relationship and help young people on the way. Give teenagers pencils and bring the marking-up of books back into the schools. (“Books” here means written texts, whatever the vehicle—paper or pixels.) Show them a variety of models and have them try out different techniques; let them test their wings in a safe place. They can decide later on whether the method works for them or not, and at least they will have found out that there are better instruments than the highlighter. There have lately been some welcome signs of a revival of interest in note-making techniques at this level. It takes a trendier form—lesson plans on the website of the New York Times, for instance, and apps for touchscreen phones—but it’s still the pedagogy of Watts’s Improvement of the Mind, cutting-edge once more. In our end is our beginning.9

Works Cited

Bluck, Robert. “T. S. Eliot and ‘What the Thunder Said.’” Notes and Queries 24 (5) (1977): 450–451.Find this resource:

Denham, Robert D. “Annotations in Frye’s Books.” Northrop Frye Newsletter 9 (2) (Summer 2002): 20–35.Find this resource:

Grafton, Anthony, and Lisa Jardine. “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy.” Past and Present 129 (1990): 30–78.Find this resource:

Jackson, H. J. “John Adams’s Marginalia Then and Now.” In The Libraries, Leadership, and Legacy of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Robert R. Baron and Conrad Edick Wright, 59–80. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 2010.Find this resource:

Jackson, H. J. Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Jackson, H. J. Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Johnson, Samuel. The Lives of the Poets. Edited by Roger Lonsdale. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 2006.Find this resource:

Miletic-Vejzovic, Laila. A Library of One’s Own: The Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. London: Cecil Woolf, 1997.Find this resource:

Milmo, Cahal. “For Sale: Literary Gems that Stirred Iris Murdoch.” The Independent, June 6, 2003.Find this resource:

Moore, Thomas. Poetical Works … Collected by Himself. 10 vols. London: Longman et al., 1840–41.Find this resource:

Morley, Elaine. “Iris Murdoch and Elias Canetti: Towards a Reassessment.” In Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts. Edited by Anne Rowe and Avril Homer, 145–162. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.Find this resource:

Munby, A. N. L., ed. Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons. 12 vols. London: Mansell, 1971–75.Find this resource:

Rosenthal, Bernard M. The Rosenthal Collection of Printed Books with Manuscript Annotations. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Sherman, William H. John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Sherman, William H. Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Swift, Jonathan. Works. Edited by Sir Walter Scott. 19 vols. Edinburgh: Constable, 1824.Find this resource:

Walton, Izaak. Lives of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert and Robert Sanderson. Edited by George Saintsbury. Oxford World’s Classics. London: Oxford University Press, 1927; repr. 1973.Find this resource:

Watts, Isaac. The Improvement of the Mind. London: Brackstone, 1741.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Barney, Stephen A., ed. Annotation and Its Texts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Dennis, Rodney G., and Elizabeth Falsey, eds. The Marks in the Fields: Essays on the Uses of Manuscripts. Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Library, 1992.Find this resource:

Hackel, Heidi Brayman. Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Jackson, Holbrook. The Anatomy of Bibliomania. London: Faber and Faber, 1950.Find this resource:

Lau, Beth, ed. Keats’s “Paradise Lost.” Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998.Find this resource:

Martin, Henri-Jean. The History and Power of Writing. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Oram, Richard W., and Joseph Nicholson, eds. Curating and Researching Writers’ Libraries: A Handbook. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.Find this resource:

Price, Leah. How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Raven, James, Helen Small, and Naomi Tadnor, eds. The Practice and Representation of Reading in England. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Sharpe, Kevin. Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Stern, Virginia F. Gabriel Harvey: His Life, Marginalia, and Library. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.Find this resource:

van Hulle, Dirk, and Mark Nixon. Samuel Beckett’s Library. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

van Hulle, Dirk, and Wim van Mierlo, eds. Reading Notes. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004.Find this resource:


(1) Aspects of this historical process are illustrated by Bernard M. Rosenthal, The Rosenthal Collection of Printed Books with Manuscript Annotations (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997) and outlined in Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” Past and Present 129 (1990): 30–78 (and in several other works by Grafton); H. J. Jackson, Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001), 45–50; William H. Sherman, John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 79–100; and William H. Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

(2) Frye Collection #989; quoted in Robert D. Denham, “Annotations in Frye’s Books,” Northrop Frye Newsletter 9 (2) (Summer 2002): 20–35.

(3) Frye Collection #1750; quoted in Denham, “Annotations.”

(4) Frye Collection #464; quoted in Denham, “Annotations.”

(5) This volume, mentioned with other examples of books shared in the Keats circle in H. J. Jackson, Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005), 183, is now held in the London Metropolitan Archives.

(6) Marginalia by Walt Whitman on John Wilson, “Christopher under Canvas”: Trent Collection MS 179, Duke University Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections. Whitman’s marginalia are currently being digitized and edited to be added to the online Whitman Archive.

(7) The following paragraph summarizes findings in H. J. Jackson, “John Adams’s Marginalia Then and Now,” in The Libraries, Leadership, and Legacy of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, edited by Robert R. Baron and Conrad Edick Wright, 59–80 (Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 2010).

(8) This book is in the collection of the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies in the Victoria University Library, University of Toronto, shelfmark DA391.D6. For more about Beckford’s practice, see Jackson, Romantic Readers, 86–88.

(9) An early version of this paper was delivered at an international conference on writers and their libraries at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, March 15–16, 2013.