Authors and authorship have been much debated topics ever since postmodernists declared the death of an author. Authorship has been contested and the role of a reader underlined, but in all their eagerness to demolish the authorial texts, scholars have overlooked the complicated nature of authorship itself. The debates rest on an assumption that an author is a solitary genius, a romantic hero who alone is in charge of his texts. Nonetheless, we all know that this is far from the reality: writers circulate their manuscripts in order to get feedback and published texts go through an editorial process that leaves its mark on the text. Writing is indeed a collaborative effort and authorship is more complex than the quotidian notion of a single author implies. Still, historians often treat authorship in rather narrow terms ignoring the diffuse nature that authorship has had in past. The nineteenth-century is certainly a good example of diverse modes of authorship. The nineteenth-century writers were nothing like the popular idea about them as highly individualistic Romantic virtuosi.
Anonymous publishing is one example of the distinct quality of the nineteenth-century British authorship. Most of the essays in periodicals were published anonymously and written in the first person plural. The authority and credibility of the text were granted by the status of the journal, not by the identity of an author. The widely accepted belief was that it was precisely the anonymity that guaranteed the high-quality and integrity of the review-essays. The individual authors and their identity were effectively faded out, although it was popular to speculate about the real identity of the writer. Editors assumed it as their duty to maintain the reputation of their magazine and adopted large editorial powers to make alterations to the submitted manuscripts so that they met the editorial standards of the journal. These changes were often made without authorial consent and writers were again and again unpleasantly surprised when they noticed the changes the editor had made into their text. The anonymity was debated during the second half of the century when the changes in publishing and literary marketplace forced magazines to adjust to these shifts in taste and demand. Most of the new popular magazines chose to publish only signed reviews and the novel medium of scholarly journals took pride in the identity of their writers and the new mode of writing book reviews. Yet, the two venerable quarterlies – the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review – maintained the anonymity throughout the century.
A multiple authorship is another common characteristic of nineteenth-century British publishing. Collaborative textual production also defined a historian’s craft. The processes of researching, writing and publishing history all betray traces of joint authorship. Thanks to recent research on female agency in historical research, it is now widely known that relatives – usually wives, daughters and sisters – assisted in research. They copied sources, arranged notes, wrote down the dictated narrative, and even commented on the text and suggested improvements. Moreover, there is an abundant evidence of friends and fellow historians who read unpublished manuscripts and proof sheets and offered strikingly honest opinions about the quality of the research and the narrative. Publishers together with their readers and editors had an equally active role in shaping the manuscript before it went to the press. Historians rarely publicly acknowledged any of this help – most certainly they remained silent about the aid they received from their female relatives – but privately they expressed their gratitude to all those who pointed out flaws in their narrative or saved them from making embarrassing mistakes in historical details. Historians carefully listened to the advice and modified their texts as far as they agreed with the suggestions. The published histories reveal traces of those who participated in the process of preparing a historical study.
The collaborative authorship of historical literature is, however, not limited to the joint-efforts of relatives, friends, colleagues and publishers. History books contained elements that the historian had not necessarily made himself. Indexes, for example, were often put together by someone else. Indexing was a tedious job and historians were only happy to let someone else to do the work. Publishing houses enlisted assistants who made indexes to scholarly publications. Historians often reviewed only superficially such indexes and learned later about the many mistakes and misconceptions in the indexes. To avoid the issues of carelessly made indexes historians turned to their families to find more suitable index makers for them. Edward Freeman taught his daughters to compose indexes to his studies and the training was so thorough that soon other historians began to request their help in index making.
Indexing, even if it was done by someone else, was within the control of the historian, but nineteenth-century histories also included material that was not approved by the author. The lack of international copyright law until the very end of the century meant that intellectual property was largely unprotected. This opened a lucrative market for pirated copies of English history books in continental Europe, and particularly, in America. There were plenty of dubious publishing houses who took an advantage of the situation and did not only publish reprints of English books, but also versions that were modified to meet the demands of the local audience. In their hands, history books were abridged, furnished with components that did not originally belong to them and censored politically unfitting passages. Certainly, some publishers made the alterations with good intentions – editors for instance added notes that helped to explain some English concepts to the local readers – but more than often the changes were made only to maximize the profit. Charles Oman was severely upset when he discovered that his History of Greece was published without his permission in Philadelphia by John Morris & Co. The publisher had, for Oman’s astonishment, forged his autograph into the frontispiece. The autograph did not even remotely resemble the authentic one, Oman noted sourly. Although a forged signature does not alter the narrative, it does change the paratextual apparatus of the book and therefore also the meanings readers can give to it. This means that even minor modifications render the question of authorship a critical one. Indeed, caution is always needed when dealing with those nineteenth-century histories that were published abroad.
Anonymity, multiple authorship and textual and paratextual features written by someone else than the alleged author are just a few examples of the complicated nature of authorship that underpins nineteenth-century publications. In addition, the use of pseudonyms or the practice of soliciting revised histories after the death of the author (death here in literal, not in figurative postmodern sense!), are just other examples of the muddled notion of authorship in Victorian Britain. For contemporaries, however, there was nothing complicated in this. They were aware that authorship was nothing like the professed Romantic ideal of a solitary genius. Writers were in terms with the different modes of performing authorship and adjusted their authorial practices accordingly. For the present-day historians, the Victorian textual practices are a useful reminder of the fact that past can be messy and does not correspond with a popular wish to explain history in neat bite-size morsels. A blog post is certainly not enough to unravel the complexities of nineteenth-century scholarly authorship – the story has so many twists and turns that it can fill up a monograph or two.
Edward Freeman’s letters to Macmillan, The Macmillan Papers, British Library, London
Oman Charles, Memories of Victorian Oxford and Some Early Years. London: Methuen & Co, 1941