MONG THE CONCLUSIONS a study like this one reveals is that books are shaped by the demands they are intended to fulfill. If one is writing for money, as Thackeray quite clearly was, one must write that which will be accepted by publishers. Likewise, this study shows that the production of a book is a multifaceted cooperative affair and that the resulting printed text is not attributable to the author solely. One is led inevitably, then, to a number of fundamental questions concerning literary works: about competing authorities for the verbal content and visual design of the books, about the authenticity of the text in any given book, about the relative claims as "best text" that could be made for competing editions. Fundamental to any answers is another rather metaphysical question: At what point or points in a continuum from pure, free authorial autonomy to rigid social determinism does the production of literary art take place? If one thinks art is the product of the artist exercising creative freedom to write as he or she pleases, then the answers to the questions about authority, authenticity, and "the best text" will tend to be answered differently from the way they are answered by one who thinks art is the product of social forces fulfilling external demands for a market. These concepts are more easily adjudicated in the abstract than in specific cases; so this chapter is devoted to an effort to understand the consequences of various answers as they relate to a specific work, Thackeray's Henry Esmond. I try to demonstrate that the questions raised here are of crucial importance to any reader of the novel, not just an editor trying to determine the textual details of a new edition.
A brief orientation regarding theories of textual criticism will help establish their importance. The authority of the text, or more accurately, the authority for the text, is the person, persons, or "force" that has the final responsibility for "getting the text right." Among common notions about authority are, first, that of the author, who originated the linguistic text and read proof, giving authorial approval to additions, deletions, and alterations introduced by other hands. A second center of authority is the production personnel, for they create the combination of verbal text and [200/201] visual book that "for the first time really" constitutes the "public work." A third idea is that regardless of romantic ideals, the final object, often referred to reverentially as "the text itself," is its own authority and, regardless of its provenance, must be treated as "the work." And a fourth is that any thinking, careful, sensitive, knowledgeable person can, through close reading and/or research into the developing text, find and correct flaws and improve the work to better represent its potential ideal artistic form. These views are basically incompatible with one another and appeal variously to different people.
Once a notion of the "properly responsible" authority has been settled, questions about the authenticity of the text in any particular copy of the work can be asked. Identifying typographical errors and unauthoritative interpolations starts the effort to authenticate the text. Locating and restoring or incorporating authoritative readings that "belong" in the text complete the authentication.
Some works, however, do not fit easily into the procrustean bed created by the concepts of authority and authenticity. Authors sometimes revise, or the works become significantly altered in other ways, so that alternate authoritative and authentic versions vie for attention. Persons who think a literary work should be one thing usually push for one text. They would like for statements about a work of art to have a stable referent. In the case of Henry Esmond, such a goal is easier to wish for than to have (cf. Shillingsburg, Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age, pp. 11-95 and Scholarly Editing, ed. David Greetham).
There is no one answer to these questions. What needs to be recognized is that every reader answers them, perhaps not explicitly, in the act of reading by placing some credence in the symbols for the text on the page and by formulating some concept of what kind of thing is being read and what source or sources produced it. It has been usual for readers to assume that Thackeray wrote Henry Esmond, that Thackeray wrote what is printed on the pages of the book, and that what the readers understand and experience in reading the book came from Thackeray. Some readers, of course, do not have a very clear notion of Thackeray and may think that the text before them is its own authority. More sophisticated readers may wish to discount Thackeray's authority over meaning and choose instead to read "against the grain" for meanings revealed inadvertently by the text[201/202] about the author or about his society or about the means of production that created the physical book. All of these are common and legitimate readerly acts, and all require some act of faith regarding the authenticity and authority of the text.
One of the objects of this book is to explore the foundations for such acts of faith, to see more than is normally seen about the processes, aims, and social forces that influence the particular sequence of symbols on the page. The problem with this objective is that any historical construct is just that, a construct. Constructs are influenced not just by the evidence of history put together objectively but by the historian's answers to metaphysical questions like, Are works of art the product of individual artistic talent, or are they social acts? For that reason this chapter does not argue in behalf of one point of view, but rather explores the consequences of adopting two or three different points of view.
A working proposition here is the idea that the persuasiveness of any historical construct and of any accommodation of the questions of authority, authenticity, and authorial autonomy or social determinism depends on the context identified as relevant to the construct. Of course, everything is a context for everything else, but historians, editors, and readers usually focus narrowly on "truly relevant" contexts selected from the narrow range of material that survives as evidence.
It is necessary, therefore, to identify the various contexts in which Henry Esmond has been seen and to show the differing consequences to readers and editors. Implicit in the procedure is the idea that coherent explanations can be attempted within defined contexts. In everyday practice: the meanings of verbal utterances are guided heavily, if not actually established, by contexts. In The History of Henry Esmond, Thackeray, writing in 1851-52, had a mid-nineteenth-century audience consisting of book reviewers, circulating-library readers, his mother, his publishers, his friends, and his ex-lady love Jane Octavia Brookfield. These people can be seen as having been addressed by the novel. But Thackeray said not one word in Henry Esmond, for his narrator, the aged Esmond, and the memoir's editors and commentators, Esmond's wife and daughter, do all the writing. The writing is understood to take place in the second and third decades of the eighteenth century and records events said to have occurred between 1670 and 1720. Esmond's memoirs are addressed to his grandsons, but his audience clearly includes his wife, who is thought by most critics to resemble Jane Brookfield. The speakers in the novel, in passages of dialogue, also produce their utterances in contexts that help identify [202/203] their meanings. One can ask what the character meant, what Esmond meant by reporting the character's speech, and what Thackeray meant by having Esmond report it. One can ask what the passage may have meant to a Victorian totally ignorant of the author and what it may have meant to Jane Octavia Brookfield. And, of course, modern readers produce their own responses to these meanings by contrasting them with their own sense of acceptable beliefs and behaviors. Thus readers contextualize the text in various specific ways as a means of producing what they think are appropriate understandings of the text.
This is only the tip of an iceberg of contexts within which the novel's words can be set and understood. Each context illuminates the text in a different way. Readers know this and act upon that knowledge almost without reflection - they are that good at using and understanding language. And when a scholar/critic points out to readers an aspect of context they had not considered, they gratefully add it to the mix of factors that influence their understanding of the text. The study of genre, the author's other works, biography, cultural history, the history of ideas, all these are understood to extend the readers' awareness of the contexts within which texts create and convey meaning. Even the physical embodiments of texts, the books themselves as paper, ink, and bindings, influence interpretations.2
There is, however, a major flaw in the ordinary idea of authentic texts. If it is assumed that the text of a work is stable, that is, if we work with a text that is thought to have been established, we use the principle of contexts to produce "readings of the text" for contemplation. But if it is recognized that the text itself is not stable, we tend to use the principle of contexts to produce a "reading of the text" that will help establish what the text is by leading us to the right critical choices among variants. That is clearly circular reasoning and leads to predictable texts that best fulfill the editor's particular contextual construct. But the situation is worse than that. It does not matter that no variant survives at a given point in the text; each word or mark of punctuation is potentially an erroneous witness to the context identified for use in interpreting the text. That may seem good to the editor, for that is what makes emendation of errors possible. Editors tend to think that some errors, like typographical errors and scribal errors, are "demonstrable," and they emend them. But they may be too quick to [203/204] believe an error to be demonstrable because they are not sufficiently aware of the influence of the contextualization that they are using to determine the meaning which identifies the textual anomaly as a demonstrable error.
To illustrate the consequences of this approach, a useful example is The History of Henry Esmond, which for these purposes will have to be examined in the original edition, published in London by Smith, Elder and Company in 1852 in three volumes. In what follows I speak as an editor of Henry Esmond, but I mean to imply that in order for an editor to know what is being edited and why it is being edited, he or she must first be a reader, must know how to read, and must know what effect the editing is having on reading. Consequently, everything I say about the editor is applicable also to any careful reader.
To do a contextual reading, one must try to draw together the historical details of authorship as a profession and printing and publishing as a complex of economic traditions and interests in a continuous struggle with innovation — both technical and moral — and with attitudes toward gender, family, and moral conventions, particularly as they reflected the audiences for lending libraries in order to see what Henry Esmond was. Then, perhaps, it can demonstrate more clearly what the reader's and editor's task is, or, at least, what purposes modern scholarly editions serve. While not forgetting that authors attempt to create something original that will fulfill their own purposes (including the purpose of making money), we will have to examine bibliography, printing history, papermaking, taxes on books and newspapers, copyright law, labor relations, trade guilds relating to printing, publishing, and bookselling, marketing associations, professional societies, the apprentice system, lending libraries, the three-deckers in relationship to parts publication and magazine serials, the growth of the literate public, the development of authorship as a profession, and the developing division of labor into literary agents, publishers, printers, wholesalers, and booksellers. Each of these can be thought of as a force field influencing what the work became, limiting what the work could say, shaping the work, and thereby influencing reactions to and understandings of the final product. (Incidentally, one of the nice things about scorning historical reconstructions is that there is less work involved.)
Now obviously all of that cannot be detailed here, but it has been done, and its salient details can be summarized (cf. Feltes; Sutherland, Novelists; Harden, edition of Esmond; Altick; Patten; Nowell-Smith; West, "Book Publishing" and "The Chace Act", which explore the development of literary agents and crosscurrents in book production and author/publisher relations between England and America). [204/205] The History of Henry Esmond is Thackeray's only book to appear originally as a three-decker. It was published by a firm whose head, George Smith, was an executive member of the Bookseller's Association. It was Thackeray's second book with Smith, Elder and Company — his first major book with that publisher — and it represented the first significant step in an attempt by George Smith to make Thackeray one of his authors — an object he accomplished thoroughly mid completely in 1859. Smith descended into publishing from the banking business by way of substantial reference works and scientific publications. His literature list, his fiction, was respectable, yet he was bold and aggressive. He published Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and later went on to acquire as his authors Anthony Trollope and George Eliot. Esmond, therefore, by virtue of its publishing house belongs to a tradition of book production controlled by establishment wealth and power. To be published by Smith implied certain standards of literary and moral content that Thackeray had never been clearly subject to before, though he was subject in a general way to the Mrs. Grundy censorship affecting all Victorian publications above pulp street literature (cf. Louis James).
Thackeray rose to the Smith, Elder house from his major publisher, Bradbury and Evans, which in turn had risen into publishing from bookselling, newspaper publishing, and being proprietor of that low comic magazine, Punch, and other comic and sporting publications. In spite of the firm's industry and success, Bradbury and Evans belonged to a decidedly antiestablishment point of view, and in the 1840s Thackeray was one of its chief writers. Thackeray's sojourn in bohemia as an art student in Paris and as a writing hack in London were social and financial descents from which the economic success of books like Vanity Fair and Pendennis were raising him. Those works and the bulk of his writings in the 1840s (The Book of Snobs, Novels by Eminent Hands, Barry Lyndon, Catherine, The Yellowplush Papers, The Reminiscences of Major Gahagan) all reflect the satirical, antisnob, antiestablishment attitudes of Punch and Fraser's Magazine, the main outlets for his writings.[205/206]
Esmond was to be different. The author of Esmond was a man financially and socially restored to the level of his upbringing. He was a popular writer and successful public lecturer, having delivered his urbane lectures on the eighteenth-century English humorists to receptive and aristocratic audiences in London, Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, and the larger industrial cities. Esmond was to be his calling card and proof that he could write a thoroughly good, artistically complete, and serious work of art. By and large, Esmond has been seen, both by his contemporaries and by generations of literary critics up to our own day, as a peak in Thackeray's rising career as a writer and artist.
The book belongs to the establishment in otherways, too. The three-decker was in mid-Victorian England a thoroughly establishment commodity, an expensive book made possible and necessary by circulating libraries whose large guaranteed prepublication purchases made three-decker production a book publisher's staple. It was nearly impossible for a book publisher to lose money on a three-decker that had been adopted by Mudie's library, but the discounts Mudie demanded and the price regulations that kept most ordinary customers from purchasing their own copies instead of subscribing to Mudie's made it equally difficult for a publisher to make very much money on a three-decker. The price-maintenance system for three-deckers worked to the benefit of publishers and the circulating libraries from the mid-1840s to the mid-1890s by providing stability; no one was making an inordinate amount of money, but the system could be counted on. This stability depended not only on control of prices but also on certain simple controls over the content and size of the books. These constraints imposed by Mudie's are now relatively easy to document; their primary focus was on the length of the book and the moral character of the plot and characterizations. An author and publisher who could work within the library constraints and win selection could count on a sound though not spectacular financial return.
But the respectability of the publisher and the library demands are not the only determining or constraining forces observable. Esmond is a historical novel created within a tradition of historical fiction which Thackeray may be said to have modified but not to have invented. Among these constraints was the demand for historical plausibility and the historical research which that demand entailed (cf. "The Esmond Notebook" in Edgar Harden's edition of Esmond, pp.429-34). Plausibility was judged by the depth and breadth and accuracy of the historical detail surrounding the [206/207] fictional characters and events. It was not necessary, however, to maintain historical perspective in moral and intellectual concerns or issues; Sir Walter Scott had made the historical novel both respectable and relevant to current moral and political concerns. But the freedom offered by historical fiction within the establishment contours of the three-decker published by Smith, Elder was a narrow freedom indeed.
N. N. Feltes, in considering Esmond in its marketplace context, has noted that the Booksellers Association and the circulating libraries were fighting a losing battle against an encroaching democratizing, proletarian invasion of the world of books and literature represented by cheap books, serializations in shilling parts, and shilling magazines. The booksellers' battle was to save the commodity which three-deckers epitomized and thereby save the economic control and stability which they enjoyed primarily through the three-decker. Feltes saw the three-decker as symbolic of the upper-class resistance to progressing economic forces and finds in the three-decker morality and traditional structures a corollary conservatism and reactionary spirit. He found in Esmond, a historical novel redolent with nostalgia for a past age, the same conservatism and establishment resistance to mass values, mass mores, and mass tastes. He found in Esmond's literary reputation a confirmation of conservative tastes and socioeconomic politics. In the social history of the last half of the nineteenth century, on the other hand, Feltes saw the slow but irresistible subversion of the commodity book by the new cheap, democratizing commodity text. The triumph of this movement was the demise of the three-decker novel in the 1890s. For Feltes, therefore, Esmond represents a reactionary, establishment work. As such it represents a change or an anomaly in Thackeray's role, which for Vanity Fair and the early journalism was that of satirist of the establishment. Feltes posited the explanation that within the constraints of the three-decker, Thackeray was determined by cultural forces greater than himself and that an examination of these cultural contexts proves that the language and the culture speak the author, that the autonomous author is a figment of the romantic imagination; "reality" is the reality of social determinism.
If this discussion were to stop here, the weight of the social contract might seem irresistible; the social theory of texts would convincingly vest authority for the linguistic text and the meaning of the work in the social context. And the editorial solution for Esmond would be to select the first edition as the copy-text, emend nothing, and present the novel as a commodity book with large margins, heavy paper, and expensive packaging, thus perpetuating its role as representative of the establishment, [207/208] standing as an anomaly in Thackeray's literary corpus. But the author, his text, and his meaning need not disappear behind this sociological arrangement of historical details. It is a significant shortcoming in Feltes's work that he did not apply his critical apparatus to a reading of the text.
Careful rereading of Esmond suggests a conclusion opposite to the one Feltes reached. He skated over the elements in the book that do not confirm his social deterministic theory of book production. The flaw of his approach is the rigidity with which his view of the social contract theory of texts controlled and limited his reading of the work by paralyzing his belief in authorial intentionality. Social determinism apparently obviates autonomy in Feltes's way of looking. Although all that Feltes pointed out about the cultural milieu surrounding Esmond is true, it is hardly as comprehensive or constraining a view as he suggested. Though the novel was hailed by many of its original readers (particularly its better-educated and better-heeled readers) as a critical triumph, and though it for many years has been held in high regard even by readers who do not generally admire Thackeray's works, it was and is a profoundly troubling book to many others.
Many of its first readers and reviewers were shaken and angered by the ending, in which Esmond marries the woman he has long treated as his mother. That that denouement was Thackeray's intent from the beginning is perfectly clear on rereading with close attention to Rachel's character — she knew her heart's true relation to Henry well before her husband died and years before naive Esmond himself recognized it. It shows in her nearly hysterical reaction to the news that Henry has exposed himself to smallpox by visiting Nancy Sievewright, the blacksmith's daughter, although a superficial reading allows one to think that she is reacting merely as a social snob and doting mother (bk. 1, chap. 8). It also shows in her behavior to Henry on his third visit home from college when young Frank reveals that she has been fussing over Henry's room for days, having worked a new counterpane for his bed and put fresh-cut roses in his window in anticipation of his arrival, though she pretends not to know if the housekeeper has prepared his room (bk. 1, chap. 11). It shows in her reaction to the news that "Henry" has been killed in a carriage accident , though the Henry involved turned out to be Melton, not Esmond (bk. 1, chap. 13). It shows in the nearly psychopathic rejection scene in prison after Lord Castlewood has been killed in a duel (bk. 2, chap. 1). And it shows in the news that she has sneaked off to Southampton to watch from hiding as Esmond returns from the Continental wars (bk. 2, chap. 7). Rachel clearly believes that God has punished her for her disaffection to [208/209] her husband and her secret affection for Henry by allowing her husband to be killed. She tells Esmond years later when they meet again that God has forgiven her sin: "But I would love you still - yes, there is no sin in such a love as mine now; and my dear lord in heaven may see my heart; and knows the tears that have washed my sin away" (bk. 2, chap. 6). Rachel's secret love was even more disturbing to the Victorian consciousness than the apparent though not real incest at the end of the book, for it portrays a good woman - the heroine angel in the house — in the grip of a powerful and lifelong illicit passion she must and does suppress with visible effort. Morally the book's psychological realism, though delicately handled, is profoundly subversive to the establishment. It is a measure of Thackeray's artistry that he portrayed these telling scenes in ways susceptible to more conventional interpretations, though to read them as such is to believe Thackeray has overwritten them (cf. Geoffrey Tillotson for a particularly good assessment of Thackeray's "philosophy" and the way it influenced how he write).
But the book is subversive in an even more important way, for Esmond's ostensibly weak character, his apparent vacillation and inability to cast himself passionately and unreservedly behind any cause, religious, political, economic, or amorous — though goodness knows he tries — arguably stems not from a psychological weakness but from a fundamental philosophical uncertainty and humility that is very dangerous to establishment mentality. The elderly narrator of the book, recounting Esmond's youthful naive enthusiasm for Father Holt's Catholicism, Rachel's Anglicanism, the Dowager Castlewood's Jacobitism, Beatrix's concepts of heroism and honor, constantly reveals Esmond discovering himself in an assumed and uncomfortable role-playing. Esmond spends his life fulfilling or trying to fulfill other people's expectations for himself and repeatedly discovering that the goals were not worth winning. He ends ashamed of himself as a soldier witnessing his fellows attack nuns, of Father Holt's tawdry lies and deceptions, of Frank Esmond's subjugation to Clotilde, of Beatrix's head-hunting selfishness as courtesan, and ultimately of his own complicity in these other shames he has participated in as a role player rather than in propia persona.
The measure of Esmond's superiority over other characters is that he recognizes his self-delusions and those of his fellow actors. Esmond's way of thinking and suiting action to thought is antiestablisliment. That is why Beatrix has no permanent use for him. Esmond is constantly giving away [208/209] the store on the grounds of scruples; he loses ground for honor and principle without any compensating social or economic or political gain. He is ultimately anti-imperialist and antiroyalist, and he rejects the optimism of the intellectual rationality for which his age, the eighteenth century, is known. At the end of the book he retreats happily enough to the margins of the empire, where he establishes a domestic kingdom of his own.
The question about Thackeray's "intentions" with regard to Esmond and its potentially antiestablishment meanings can be pursued a bit further in two directions. They both bring to bear on the reading of Esmond other contexts than the Marxist economic contexts just examined.
The first is the biographical background and in particular the events in the year immediately preceding the writing of Esmond concerning Thackeray's love life (cf. Letters and Ray, passim). By 1851 Thackeray's wife had been confined under special care for insanity for seven years, In the three years before the writing of Esmond his love for Jane Octavia Brookfield, the wife of his best friend, the Reverend William Brookfield, had gotten as heated as a platonic relationship can get. Thackeray was clearly in love, though he was fully aware of the impossibility of the situation. He imagined that Jane suffered under a sense of repression and lack of appreciation by her husband, which may have been greater in Thackeray's mind than in reality. Whatever the case, in September 1851 William Brookfield, who had tolerated Thackeray's attentions to Mrs. Brookfield with increasing wariness, put his foot down, banning Thackeray from the society of his home and wife. It is not hard to trace Thackeray's melancholy in the Henry Esmond/ Rachel Castlewood relations in the book he was then commencing,
Though he had not written any part of the book, he signed the contract for Esmond in June 1851. It was a story he claimed was boiling up within him as early as January, though his work on his lectures on eighteenth-century English humorists came first. That the rupture with the Brookfields affected the story there can be no doubt. Thackeray complained to Smith as late as December that he could not get on with the book under the effects of an ailment which time alone could mend. In the book itself there is a romanticized version of what could have been: Lord Castlewood's insensitivity to his wife may be read as William Brookfield's insensitivity to Jane writ large; Rachel's deep love for Esmond, suppressed and denied but tortured and irrepressible, may be Thackeray's portrait of what he saw or wished to see in Jane Brookfield's relation to himself. [210/211] Thackeray seems to have been much more interested, to judge also from his letters, in assuaging his own sorrow than in upholding establishment social mores. And in the character of Henry Esmond, Thackeray was able to make Rachel suffer the jealous pangs of seeing her unattainable love object throw himself at the feet of another-Beatrix, who was Rachel's daughter. Nor is it hard to see Thackeray beating his own breast and exploring the ecstasies of rejection while describing the perpetual and nearly unstiflable but unrequited love of Esmond for Beatrix. The psychological realism of a complicated and confusing network of love and jealousy involving mothers and sons and other forbidden attractions is carefully handled, for in Victorian fiction serious and troubling life passages could be explored only in code.
And finally, to focus on the way in which interpretation bears on editing, the rhetorical context of Esmond must be considered. It is a memoir: The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., a Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne. Written by Himself. It has all the rhetorical characteristics of an extended dramatic monologue, addressed by Esmond to his grandsons. Thackeray, the author, said not one word in propia persona in the whole book; even the introduction is written by Esmond's daughter. As with any first-person narration, the potential for irony and for misapprehending irony is great. Traditionally, critics have read Esmond's narrative as something like the preachments of the author's alter ego. Esmond's opening comments, on the nature of history, strike readers as honest and commonsensical. "Why shall History go on kneeling to the end of Time? I am for having her rise up off her knees, and take a natural posture: not to be for ever performing cringes and corgees like a Court-chamberlain, and shuffling backwards out of doors in the presence of the sovereign. In a word," Esmond writes engagingly, "I would have History familiar rather than heroic." It sounds like the sort of attitude Thackeray would adopt; it is like his reviews of pictures in the Academy, knowledgeable but unimpressed. Esmond seems to reflect Thackeray's own attitude also by placing himself and his neighbors on the stage of history and comparing them with the figures normally found there: "I have seen too much of success in life to take off my hat and huzza to it, as it passes in its gilt coach: and would do my little part with my neighbours on foot that they should not gape with too much wonder, nor applaud too loudly. Is it the Lord Mayor going in stare to mince-pies and the Mansion House? Is it poor Jack of Newgate's procession, with the sheriff and javelin-men, conducting him on this last journey to Tyburn? I look into my heart and think I am as good as my Lord Mayor, and know I am as bad as Tyburn Jack, " In short, the book abounds [211/212] with reasons not to draw a sharp distinction between the narrator and the author.
Moreover, Esmond has a basic distrust of absolutes — that is, of other peoples' absolutes — he does not trust the judgment of priests, military leaders, political leaders, or kings. His love and his loyalty are always tinged with sardonic self-detachment. As one critic has noted, "Like Vanity Fair, Henry Esmond is a sustained argument against the reality of moral absolutes. Esmond himself does much of the arguing, for he is proficient at identifying illusory values and beliefs. His sophisticated skepticism, however, is itself founded on a dedication to one surviving absolute: truth." (Scarry, p. 3) This personal truth of Esmond's is the foundation of his appeal to the reader in his autobiography. And, as with most monologists, Henry constantly asks the reader to share in his personal recognition and judgment of the self-deception of others. Furthermore., he seldom expects the reader to take him very seriously, and he appears to be disingenuous when he does.
Feltes probably would not rejoice over this coup d'état within the camp of the dying establishment, for the book does not subvert the establishment on behalf of the rising proletariat. Instead, the subversion emanates from the principles of a small intellectual elite, the freethinkers of England's Victorian intellectual class. Some of those freethinkers were ideologues, but Thackeray's religious and philosophical ideas did not develop in a cell of like-minded philosophers or so-called freethinkers (though it was not insignificant that he was a close friend of Edward FitzGerald, the translator of Omar Khayyám's Rubáiyát). Thackeray's philosophy is revealed in his letters and private papers as a deep and fundamental individual skepticism about causes of every sort. It got him into trouble with many proponents of causes in need of money or moral support who approached Thackeray. If the cause was individual, to honor an admirable writer's family, to provide charity on nonsectarian bases, Thackeray was a patsy. But if it was to establish a guild for literature or to propose an evangelical school or cause, his purse and ear alike were closed. He did not trust institutionalized schemes. Esmond is subversive to the establishment it represents, but not on behalf of emerging socioeconomic ideologies. Even the fact that both Thackeray and his publisher made a good bit of money from Esmond, which was all unusually good seller despite its price, does not indicate that its themes or its production was [212/213] determined or dominated by either a vested production tradition or an emerging public taste. Both of those "ideologies" claim the book by ignoring its subversive elements.
So much for Feltes's establishment interpretation of Esmond; this "establishment" book has a strikingly antiestablishment text - it is a wolf in sheep's clothing. And this interpretation makes the social contract solution to the editorial problem unacceptable. To take the first edition as copy-text for the linguistic text of all edition would be to accept the work of the minions of the establishment. Now, it so happens that in 1852, George Smith did not own his own printing establishment, so he sent Thackeray's manuscript to Bradbury and Evans to be typeset and printed. There may be comfort to be found, then, in the fact that the compositors of Thackeray's "proletarian serial novels" also typeset his "establishment commodity book," but the principle of authorial autonomy which the antiestablishment interpretation tends to support leads one to question the whole production process.9 That is to say, belief in the possibility of authorial autonomy, even of a limited sort, requires the rejection of any blanket rules for editing.
Rejecting Feltes's conclusions about the meaning of Henry Esmond in three volumes and rejecting the conclusion that a social contract requires special respect from an editorial view I do not mean that the three-volume format and the production process are unimportant. Quite the contrary. The book could not be a wolf in sheep's clothing without the sheep's clothing, and such a wolf means far different things from regular wolves or regular sheep. The novel is quite definitely a collaboration, or at least a joint venture between the author and the social institutions of book production and marketing. And that identifies serious editorial problems.
A close look at Esmond reveals an extensive network of evidence suggesting an intentional subversion of the narrator by the author. Thackeray seems not to have trusted Esmond's foundation rock of personal truth, Elaine Scarry in a 1975 article compiled an extensive list of errors in the book. These she invariably attributed to Esmond, claiming that Thackeray put them there on purpose. Scarry was not the first to notice that [213/214] Esmond occasionally contradicts himself or forgets what he has said earlier in the narrative, but she was the first to attribute these errors to Esmond instead of to Thackeray or to the publishers. John Sutherland's Penguin edition annotations, for example, point out scores of historical and plotting errors, but Sutherland encouraged the readers to ignore them as understandable though regrettable characteristics of Thackeray's fiction.
Scarry identified an astonishing array of errors and anomalies, including an undermining of the rhetorical force of Esmond's own protestations — as when, having renounced the doctrine of divine right of kings and declared himself a republican, he nevertheless couches his adoration for Beatrix in the language of subjugation to royalty — and other more direct contradictions, as when he declares that an event so impressed him that memory would never fail him, whereupon he recounts the event in such a way as to contradict or distort his own earlier account of it. I believe Scarry is right to say that Esmond, "who has taken truth for his motto," was ironically undercut by Thackeray, "who has taken the absence of truth for his theme."
J. Hillis Miller, following a different line of reasoning altogether, arrived temporarily at the same conclusion Scarry reached. Miller brilliantly revealed the older Henry's ironic stance with respect to the younger Henry and then showed the ironic self-destruction of the self that Henry Esmond the narrator has constructed. Miller saw Thackeray's presence behind the narrator undercutting his claims to memory's sovereignty and the basis upon which Esmond allows himself to become "king" of the Virginia Castlewood and to accept the "worship" of Rachel and his daughter. Miller did not use any references to the "narrative errors" in the book to detect this irony. But his view of Thackeray undercutting the narrator was a temporary stop an Miller's deconstructive way through the novel, for he then undercut or deconstructed this third level of irony by arguing that Thackeray was trying to "understand and control his life by taking ironic authority over that assumed role and by showing the imagined person to have made a false interpretation of himself." (Miller, p. 106).
Miller was more interested in his theory of irony as "infinite absolute negativity" than he was in the meaning of Henry Esmond, the book being in the final analysis only an illustration for what Miller had to say about irony. Furthermore, his conclusion about the novel could not stop with resolution, for it is the nature of deconstructive criticism to deconstruct [214/215] the deconstruction. Resolution would put an end to the fun and games. However, Miller's point is not without seriousness. Resolution - say, the conclusion Miller considered at one point, that Thackeray undercut the narrator through telling references to Oedipus Rex and Hamlet which the reader with the help of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams can use to see Thackeray's ironic distance from his narrator - cannot be reached with any conviction if one is fully cognizant of the slippery ground such a resolution must take for its base. Miller implied that Thackeray, like his narrator, revealed himself rather than justified himself in the endless cycle of ironic undercuttings. This view makes Henry Esmond "one of the best texts in English fiction by means of which to explore the workings of irony in narrative." But in order to get boxed up, as Miller wanted the reader to be, one must agree that Thackeray was seeking "authority over his own life by way of a detour representing that life in ironically displaced form in a fiction." Miller's conclusion that Beatrix is a sad mirror image of Esmond, revealing unconsciously the "corrosive power" of both characters and of their author, was based on the idea that Thackeray was seriously trying to present a "Pretense of mastery" (Miller, pp. 106, 114).13
It would be possible — in fact, preferable — to conclude that Thackeray was not trying any such thing. Instead, he was demonstrating the inability to exercise any such mastery. Beatrix, in her cold-blooded, calculating attempts, which from the cynic's point of view should succeed, fails just as truly as does Esmond, whose machinations the reader is led to believe are wholly unconscious. The melancholy nihilism of the book can and has been seen as Thackeray's cynicism. But it is one thing to recognize the lack of control implied by nihilism and quite another to give in to it. Beatrix recognizes it and gives in to it. Henry Esmond recognizes it up to a point; that is, he recognizes it for others but not for himself, and the sensitive reader of his memoirs is bruised by Esmond's lack of self-awareness, revealed, for example, in the way he punishes Rachel for "unfaithfulness" to him in the prison while excusing his own blatant and egregious "unfaithfulness" to her during the years of his infatuation with Beatrix. It is inconceivable that Thackeray failed to see Esmond's self-deception or the dual view of nihilism implied by Beatrix's and Esmond's stories. Thackeray did not give in to it, as the cynical view would have it, [215/216] nor did he close his eyes to it, reverting blindly to an assertion of good that would be no more than a repetition of Esmond's quest for something worth believing in at one further level of self-deception. Anyone who has read Thackeray's own story - in the Letters and Gordon Ray's two-volume biography - can see the melancholy acceptance of uncertainty, as opposed to mastery, that characterized his mature years. But two things mitigate against Miller's reading of Esmond, which was after all based on a reading of the text alone. One is Thackeray's determination expressed in conversation to John Chapman in 1851, thirteen days before he signed the contract to write Henry Esmond, that he did not feel "called upon to martyrise himself for the sake of his views" by expressing them too clearly to his reading public (Chapman's MS diary, Beinecke). The second is, that Thackeray's personal reaction to his nihilistic ideas was to resist the temptation to give in. His personal intense desire not to hurt anyone, not to take advantage of anyone, not to manipulate others out of a sense that his version of "the truth" was the right version of it all reveals the light in which he created in Esmond the views Miller has described.
That is to say, in view of the emptiness of institutionalized values such as royalty, inherited rank, honor, party and country loyalty, marriage, and institutional religion, Thackeray chose not to sneer and not to pontificate, but to assert a sardonic kindliness and gentleness that are as far from sentimentality as those qualities can get. Nihilism in Thackeray bred humility about his politics, religion, and responsibilities. It did not, of course, keep him from reacting rather dangerously when his dignity was bruised by Edmund Yates's caricature of him in 1858. That episode may appear to give the lie to the portrait sketched here, but in spite of what the episode ultimately turned into, Thackeray's actions began as self-defense against what he saw as unprovoked attack. That, at least, is not antithetical to the view that Thackeray in Henry Esmond, was giving up mastery over his life rather than desperately trying to gain control of it.
The Force of Chosen Contexts
Now the point of all that is this: The contexts we identify as relevant to the text we read determines our interpretation, and the interpretation that is adopted determines the text we establish or edit. If N. N. Feltes's interpretation is adopted, one chooses the first edition as copy-text and makes the reading text ape the result of the social contract that originally produced it. The emendations policy will be documentary and conservative. [216/217] If, however, John Sutherland's interpretation is adopted, one selects the manuscript (or possibly the first edition) and emends the text to conform as closely as possible to one's notion of Thackeray's intentions by correcting as many errors as possible and writing notes for all the rest to explain them away or de-emphasize any damage they might do to the reader's enjoyment of Thackeray's tour de force historical pastiche. And if Elaine Scarry's interpretation is adopted, one chooses the manuscript as copy-text and emends the text so that it effectively undermines the narrator's credibility, thus emphasizing Thackeray's rejection even of Esmond's attachment to personal truth. But if J. Hillis Miller's interpretation is adopted, there is no need to edit the text since his reading is untrammeled by information of any sort from Thackeray's life, the period in which he lived, the production institutions which enabled the book to become a book, or the genesis of the text.
If our goal is to read the text as a finished product, edited according to a "better way," then we must take a stand or abide by the editor's stand on answers to the following questions: To what extent was the author aware of and in control of the book's potential ironies? Did Thackeray intend to undermine Esmond's trust in personal truth, or did he share Esmond's view? Did Thackeray deliberately undercut Esmond's credibility by introducing obvious errors and memory lapses into Esmond's memoirs, or are the errors those of the novelist, Thackeray? To what extent did the production crew understand the author's intention and enhance or inhibit it? These questions are to be answered by critical inquiry, not by ascertaining discoverable facts. This situation illustrates well what is critical about critical editing. But it also illustrates the way any single text edition of the book is capable of distorting it and hiding its possible meanings by privileging one context over others as the determiner of meaning. It does not take genius to see that an editorial approach to Esmond which sets about correcting errors may well be thwarting the author's intentional and meaningful introduction of those errors. On the other hand, not to correct the errors also may thwart authorial intention. Only persons who regard their personal solutions to these imponderables as universally acceptable would say that editing can be done by anyone correctly.
The economic, biographical, and rhetorical contexts in the cultural envelope where Esmond became a three-decker historical novel all influenced what that book became; but it is a gross oversimplification to conclude that the book became inevitably what it is through determining forces over which the author had no control. A concept of the editorial task is not helped by the glittering generalities that suggest "the language [217/218] speaks the artist" or "the social complex employs authors to produce books" or "the author is dead." These conclusions are half-truths. Likewise, it does not help one to understand the business of editing if one concludes that the author is autonomous, the sole authority over text. That view tends to cast the editor in the role of rescuer and restorer. But the illustration just detailed demonstrates that it is impossible to say with any certainty what Thackeray is to be rescued from or what needs to be restored.
This brief survey of the complexities of Esmond's text seems to indicate that the author's communication to the reader is not only individual and free but constrained and directed by external forces. That is not a contradiction, nor is it a tragedy. It is a fact. Nothing understandable can be said or thought without the contextual frame of language and society and genre and custom and economic realities. But all establishments and power structures have within them the capacity to be satirized, subverted, criticized, and amended — that is to say, the author is free within the limits allowed by the medium. The power of some texts is that their subsurface purposefully subverts the surface meanings. The question about the reader's and editor's dual responsibility to authorial intention and the social contract can be answered by saying they are both operative. It follows that a critical theory that ignores either is a lopsided theory, and it also follows that an editorial practice that edits away the evidence of either is equally lopsided.
The concept of editions which emphasize the importance of process and avoid extravagant claims for the correctness of the product is gaining ground, but not without resistance - resistance stemming from editors who are reluctant to give up power over the texts, from critics who want a stable text, and from publishers who, market driven, wish to save expense. Editions such as Hans Gabler's of Ulysses, Michael Warren's of King Lear, and the Garland Thackeray edition are attempts in different ways to emphasize alternative texts, or multiple texts, or indeterminate texts, but all these editions are controversial. Resistance to them in preference for editions with supposedly unproblematic, stabilized texts accounts for the polemics of textual theory. Any single solution requires commitment to one of several orientations toward texts which are mutually exclusive. At that level there is considerable debate among editors about the right way to edit or the right goal or end product to present as the established text.
The alternative to a single text solution represents not an extension of polemic but a resolution. It represents a more comprehensive view of textual criticism, which, though probably not stable, at least does not stagger distractedly from one polemic to another. [218/219]
What then is the function of a scholarly edition? In the Garland edition of Vanity Fair, the famous last paragraph of chapter 32, in which Jos takes flight and the war is brought to a close, reads: "No more firing was heard at Brussels — the pursuit rolled miles away. The darkness came down on the field and city, and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart."
The effect is both thrilling and chilling, and even first readers of this passage as it appears here can feel the tear of opposing passions as the pleasure of seeing George dead combats the sorrow for sudden death and for poor Amelia, while at the same time the reader feels she is a sap for turning on the ever-ready waterworks for what one already knows is a "selfish humbug", a "low-bred cockney-dandy," and "padded booby," though Becky does not provide these words to describe George till chapter 67. First-time readers will also, no doubt, sense the clean, crisp, efficient, and flat (i.e., nonpejorative, nonheroic) diction which gives the account its force and gives free play to the reader's conflicting feelings.
If readers were inclined to contemplate the passage, they might note that the phrase "The darkness came down" probably means primarily that night fell, but it allows the potential reverberations of the thought that "the darkness" has ominous symbolic overtones. There is little to encourage such a speculation, however, except the juxtaposition of Amelia's own sorrow - which one can only partially share — and perhaps a twentieth-century propensity to see symbols everywhere. Should these readers turn to the "Record of Composition and Revision" in the Garland edition, they will find that the printed text reflects the reading of the first edition (1847) and that in 1853 someone (it is not entirely definite that it was Thackeray) revised the phrase to "Darkness came down."
Now, if the revised reading had been in the text in the first place, the sense of potential ominous symbolic overtones to the descent of "Darkness" (now fortuitously capitalized) might have struck readers more forcibly. Some might say, because this reading is "stronger," it should have been chosen for the Garland edition. It was not chosen because such aesthetic judgments were not part of the editorial strategy. To choose readings that correspond with the historical integrity of Thackeray's text at the time of first publication is not to reject the 1853 revisions. The point is not which of these readings is the correct one. The fact is that no one knows if either is correct or if both are correct.
The point is that in a scholarly edition both are available and have their various effects on the reading of Vanity Fair. Having read "The darkness came down," readers then find that a change was made to "Darkness came down." Either reading, by itself, conveys the fall of [219/220] night, and both reveal the potential for a symbolic reading, the revised reading perhaps more so. But discovering that the reading was revised is the strongest indication that something was being attempted here beyond indication that night fell. The changing itself is a stronger indication of meaning than either phrase is alone.
That is a crucial point in understanding the importance of a scholarly edition. The aim of the editorial work should not be to produce a pristine, correct, reliable text, a product. It should instead be to trace the growth and development of the work and to place the reading text in its developing context, a process. The effect is lost on readers who insist on reading the text as product, but the potential is there for serious, sensitive reading directed in part by reaction to what the author did - as opposed just to what the author said.
This paragraph from Vanity Fair reveals a flaw in the Garland edition. The edition fails to include a parallel account of George's death from a letter Thackeray wrote to his mother who had complained about Amelia's selfishness. Thackeray's response is pretty well known, but it all should have been quoted in the edition, including his anticipation of the time two months ahead when Amelia's "scoundrel of a husband is well dead with a ball in his odious bowels" (Letters 2:309). With that highly inflammatory and emotionally laden phrase ringing in one's ears, one cannot read the printed passage in the book without trying to account for the clean, flat, efficient diction found there in terms of Thackeray's narrative strategies and, perhaps, the demands of serial publication.
Scholarly editions should encourage and make possible such intertextual readings. The richness and satisfaction of such reading complexities go up when the countertexts are understood for what they are: parallel texts in letters, revisions in manuscripts, or alternative printed texts emanating either from revision or from compositorial or editorial intervention. The sources and relative dates of countertexts have a great deal to do with a reader's assessment of their significance. It seems, then, that the duty of a scholarly edition is not arbitrarily (and stealthily) to reduce the complexity and richness of a work of art to one correct and established standard text, but rather to lay out the materials as clearly and usefully as possible.
Last modified 30 November 2021