Nineteenth-century history books offer a rich store of surprises about the diversity of knowledge production in Victorian Britain. The scholarly authorship was more complex than is often assumed and books themselves were far from static objects of textuality. Let’s take, for example, posthumous editions that were rather common fare in the literary marketplace at that time. And I’m not now talking about the critical editions of classical authors or unfinished manuscripts that a friend, relative, or colleague prepared into print posthumously that are usually referred to in this context. No, I mean the third type of a posthumous history book: the already published book that an editor was commissioned to revise and update after the author’s death. Indeed, the death of an author did not necessarily mean that his texts ceased to thrive. The posthumous editors, following the scholarly ideals of accuracy and completeness, added new material and improved the texts so that they were again “according to the latest lights,” as the saying went. There were, then, many twists and turns history books could take since they were first issued to readers.

The range of posthumous histories was wide, covering what are now considered classics as well as titles that were popular at their time, but which have since then passed into oblivion. For example, Edward Freeman’s Historical Geography of Europe was edited by J. F. Bury, William Stubbs’s the Select Charters was “revised throughout” by H. W. C. Davis, and John Richard Green’s Short History of the English People was updated three times by his widow, Alice Stopford Green. And, in the class of forgotten histories, there was Fanny Bury Palliser’s History of Lace.

Mrs. Bury Palliser (1805–1878), as she was introduced on the title pages, was keenly interested in arts and crafts and became a specialist not just in the history of lace, but in ceramics as well. She published widely in related topics translating into English several French studies, contributing articles to the Art Journal and the Academy, and making own research on themes that were close to her heart. Her books had a strong antiquarian bent: instead of sweeping narratives she classified, catalogued, and described the objects she was writing about. This, however, did not lessen their value and she firmly established herself as an expert in matters concerning ceramics, and above all, lace. After she had published the groundbreaking History of Lace in 1865, she prepared a detailed catalogue of lace for the South Kensington Museum and participated actively in organizing the 1874 International Exhibition of Lace in the Museum. She became a widely recognized authority in the topic.

The first edition of the History of Lace was published by Sampson Low, Son, & Marston in 1865 with abundant illustrations. A frontispiece introduced Infanta Isabella resplendent in lace ruff, and the title page was highly ornamental in its decorativeness.


The richness of visual treats continued throughout the book and readers were spoiled with more than 160 figures that depicted different types of lace as well as its making and use in fashion. The visual paratexts of the book placed it firmly in the class of popular histories that appealed to the Victorians’ fascination on decorativeness and all things beautiful.

The visual opulence, however, did not hide the scholarly merits of the book. The text and footnotes revealed the meticulousness of the author. In the preface she remarked the lack of accurate research which had left her with no other option than to conduct thorough research on the topic by herself. The footnotes confirm this: she had put the book together from morsels of information dispersed in archives and libraries all over Europe. To trace the use of lace, she used documents that were usually discarded by professional historians as void of historical significance, and hence fitting for women’s amateurish pursuits: wardrobe accounts and household bills. For Palliser, these scorned documents were the entry to the history of lace in Europe.

The book was a success. In 1869 a revised edition was brought out with an added index and more illustrations. Six year later Palliser again edited her book. This time she had to admit that the past years had not brought out too much new that would have helped to illuminate the still many dark corners that shadowed her narrative. Her conclusion was that all there was to do was to “continue to collect scattered documents as they present themselves, and leave to posterity the task of writing the History of Lace.” Writing these lines, Palliser most likely envisaged an entirely new attempt to sketch the history of lace, not a posthumous revision of her own history. Yet, this is what happened when Sampson Low, Marston & Company issued in 1902 History of Lace by Mrs. Bury Palliser, “Entirely Revised, Re-written, and Enlarged under the Editorship of M. Jourdain and Alice Dryden.”

Editors of posthumous works balanced between showing respect to the late-author and the requirements of historical scholarship. Prefaces in posthumous editions often refer to this dilemma. On one hand the editors acknowledge the need to update the text, but on the other hand pleaded their loyalty to the original author. In the preface to the History of Lace Jourdain and Dryden confess that they “felt fully the responsibility” of correcting the late Mrs. Palliser’s text. Therefore they limited the modifications to those sections “where the modern research has shown a statement to be faulty.” Nevertheless, as the title page hinted, the revisions were profound and the subsequent paragraph in the preface confirmes this less courteous treatment of the text. The editors admitted that they had “almost entirely rewritten” the chapters on Spain, Alençon and Argentan. Also the introduction to needlework was extensively revised and “Much new matter” was inserted in chapters about Italy, England, and Ireland. Moreover, the rest of the text and footnotes had been touched here and there, but whereas posthumous editors usually introduced their input to footnotes in square brackets, Jourdain and Dryden disregarded such conventions and left no visible traces of their intervention to the footnote apparatus.

The book continued to be lavishly illustrated and the title page promoted as high number as 266 illustrations. The title page itself had undergone dramatic change, but whether this was the choice of the editors or the publisher, is impossible to say. Anyway, gone was the beautifully decorated title page. Instead, readers were greeted by a bland non-descript page where only the use of red ink visually set it slightly off from the standard offering of history books. If the original title page had been a promise of an aesthetically pleasing reading experience, the new title page with its text promoting 266 illustrations fell short in creating a similarly strong visual sensation about the nature of the book.


The posthumous makeover of Fanny Bury Palliser’s book left hardly any of its paratexts untouched – except the two most important ones: the author and the title. Even more than twenty years after her death, Palliser’s name continued to convey expertise and authority in the matters of lace and its history. Her book remained the foundational study on the topic. Her name was a powerful marketing paratext giving the publisher and editors a definite edge in the marketing efforts. From a publisher’s point of view, a posthumous edition of the history of lace seemed much more promising than introducing an entirely new work on the same subject.

The posthumous editions are a good example of the diversity of history books that circulated in the literary marketplace in the nineteenth century. Unlike in our own time, when revised editions have been a privilege of a few exceptionally well-selling historians, Victorian scholars often had the opportunity to update and modify their published texts. Just like in Fanny Bury Palliser’s History of Lace, the text and paratexts were in continuous transition. Like bobbing lace, historians added new layers to their texts and the weaving did not necessarily cease at the author’s death. Quite the contrary, often the author’s death was just another twist in the meandering publishing history of best-selling history books.


Rosemary Mitchell, ‘Palliser, Fanny Bury (1805–1878)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21164, accessed 22 Feb 2016]