Imagine that you were given an opportunity to revise your earlier publications; to correct all those clumsy sentences and the blunders in details, refine your arguments, and respond to the critical remarks in reviews. Despite the growth of ebooks and the expanding opportunities for editing they entail, this still seems a rather unlikely scenario unless you are one of a few globally best-selling historians. For Victorian historians though this was business as usual as I have argued in a recently published article. Revising published texts was not only extremely common, but also something that historians were expected to do whenever their publishers detected commercial demand for out-of-stock histories. “New edition” on a title page implied popularity attracting new customers. For a good reason the standard publishing contracts of Macmillan and Longmans stipulated that an author was responsible for revising the book whenever a new version of it was issued. Yet, as I emphasize in this post, the commercial incentive was not the only reason for historians to rework their published texts. They were guided by such scholarly virtues as accuracy and completeness and an adherence to these virtues turned revising into a fundamental scholarly practice: there always seemed to be something to correct or add to the published narratives. Consequently, historians worked simultaneously on their current and previous projects. This multitasking makes their publishing record simply astonishing, but for the present-day historiographers this abundance of titles and variants poses a tricky methodological challenge of which version/s of a specific title to consult as a source.
Mandell Creighton, a Cambridge professor and the first editor of the English Historical Review, confessed that he never picked up any of his books “without finding some mistake or misprint, or clumsiness, or ambiguity, or something that causes a pang.” No wonder then that seeing his latest book bound was “a source of woe” to him. Such concerns are understandable. Historical research was described in terms of scholarly virtues and accuracy, completeness, and perfection were virtues that were constantly referred to when historians’ performance and the quality of their studies were evaluated. In practical terms, this meant that the studies they published should have been void of blunders in details and filled with all the relevant information about the topic. This was easier said than done. The publishing process was prone to cause mistakes in details and spelling. Historians often corrected the proofs in haste and it was easy to overlook such small blunders. John Lingard, dubbed also as the “English Ranke”, cautioned his friend not to blindly trust dates in printed histories. “More mistakes are made in them [dates] by printers than in anything else, and such mistakes most frequently escaped detection,” Lingard explained. John Richard Green, notorious of carelessness, maintained that blunders in details did not necessarily “betray an unhistoric mode” of studying past. Although most of the historians agreed with him to a certain point, they were nonetheless humiliated about the blunders in their books. It was broadly acknowledged that inaccuracies risked the scholarly credibility of a profession that built its public image on accuracy, minuteness, and precision.
Next to accuracy, an ideal historical study was as complete and comprehensive as possible. This required unyielding industry from a historian who was expected to vigilantly follow the developments of the field: to scrutinize every possible primary source and to consult every study that was published about the same topic. However, keeping abreast with the advancing knowledge was exhausting because of the rapid stream of new source publications and historical studies and articles that found their way to the scholarly book market. Some even joked that as soon as a history book hit the market, it became outdated. Historians were nonetheless expected to take into account every monograph and article for the sake of completeness and for the fact that the rules of scholarly conduct demanded historians to pay respect to those who had written about the same topic. Edward Freeman was utterly frustrated about this rule, as I have written in this blog earlier, because he had been criticized for ignoring articles in ephemeral German journals that were impossible to consult in Britain. In spite of the many difficulties, historians acknowledged that it was urgent that their books were “up to the very last light” as Edith Thompson formulated the principle of completeness. Although completeness was a far-fetched goal, it was the target which historians endeavored to reach by gradually updating, improving, and augmenting their books from one revised edition to another.
There were, however, some significant deviations to this hype for revising. Perhaps the most important exception was William Stubbs, the venerable Oxford Professor, who chose to make only minimal alterations to his books – in spite of his role as an embodiment of the most virtuous historian of his time and the one who mastered the new scientific methods of the discipline. Stubbs limited his modifications to his footnotes while many of his colleagues rewrote long sections of their texts. Stubbs’s reluctance to update and improve his most significant scholarly contribution, The Constitutional History of England, puzzled the respected legal historian Frederic William Maitland so greatly that he even addressed the issue in 1901 in the obituary he wrote about Stubbs for the English Historical Review.
The Constitutional History, first published in three volumes in 1874, 1877, and 1878, reached its fifth edition by the 1890s. Maitland regretted for two reasons that Stubbs had made so few changes to it. First, and most importantly, the lack of editing left readers to wonder “whether he is deliberately maintaining in the nineties a position that he held in the seventies.” Thus, it was unclear what Stubbs actually thought about the studies that had been published since the first volume of the Constitutional History had appeared. Without the updated footnotes it was impossible to say how much Stubbs was “reaffirming and how much he is simply leaving alone.” As Stubbs disliked controversies it is likely that he added only as little new references as was necessary so that he could refrain from engaging in current debates. Second, and linked to the first point, Maitland pointed out that due to the minimal changes in the references it was unclear which recent studies Stubbs considered valuable for historians. After all, Constitutional History had become a classic and every generation of Oxbridge history students found it on their reading list. It was a pity that Stubbs did not provide any guidance for these aspiring historians about the history books that had been published since 1874. Such indifference about readers and about editing as an essential scholarly practice went against the virtues of the discipline, but as this was an obituary Maitland politely expressed his criticism only indirectly.
Stubbs was an exception and it was more common for historians to grasp the scholarly and financial implications of revised volumes. Thanks to the rabid editing, historiographers are today faced with a vast pool of various editions and versions of historiographical classics and lesser-known titles that enjoyed great popularity in their own time. Making sense of the confusing publishing records of Victorian historians evokes at least two methodological issues. First, every volume that is labelled as “new edition” on a title page is not necessarily a new edition. As novelty and freshness sold books, less scrupulous publishers were keen to attach to an existing stock new title pages that promoted revisions to accelerate the sales. Consequently, many of the “new editions” do not contain an altered text but are mere reprints or impressions. Thus, cautiousness is needed when dealing with the nineteenth-century history books and their different versions.
The second methodological issue that calls for attention is the question which edition to consult. Historiographers duly indicate the editions they use, but rarely (if ever) explain why they have chosen a specific edition. It remains unclear for me why historians have, for example, preferred the original version of Stubbs’s Seventeen Lectures (1886) and not the third edition (1900) which contains two additional lectures and a new preface where Stubbs reflects the latest development of historical research in Britain. I suspect that the explanation has nothing to do with historiographical justifications: the original edition was reprinted in 1967 and it is likely that until the recent digitalization ventures it has been the version most readily available for historians. This, of course, does not explain why it was the first edition and not the third one that was reprinted in 1967.
There is not an easy answer to the question about the most appropriate edition. Textual scholars have tended to privilege the last edition as it is considered the most complete one. However, this has been recently questioned and the emphasis is now on the gradual development of texts. Indeed, as the examples of the Victorian historians suggest, historical knowledge was constantly in transition and evolved in a dialogue with the growing pool of historical sources and studies. Although there are not hard and fast rules when it comes for choosing an edition, I would like to suggest that outlining the publishing history and being aware of historians’ revising practices can be good starting points as this information can help to make more informed choices between different variants. Most importantly, it is good to bear in mind that for the Victorian historians the first edition was often only a beginning of a meandering publishing history that could stretch over decades.
Maitland F. W., “William Stubbs, Bishop of Oxford”, English Historical Review 16:63 (July 1901): 417–426.
Creighton Louise, Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, Sometime Bishop of London, I (London, New York, Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1904).
Garritzen Elise, “Revise, Edit, and Improve: Writing and Publishing History as an Unending Process in Victorian Britain”, Clio 45:3 (2016): 289–314.