Amicable Annotation, Part 7 (Notes on Jackson’s Marginalia)

[Feature image: Selection from George Crabbe’s The Library (1781); also quoted in Jackson’s Marginalia. Crabbe continues: “Our nicer palates lighter labours seek, / Cloy’d with a Folio-number once a week.” In other words, we’ve got too many books on hand to handle them with our “patient Fathers'” sort of care.]

I concluded Part 4 of this miniseries by reflecting on a few striking phrases that H. J. Jackson invents to describe annotatively-enhanced books in her 2001 study Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (note that publication date: we’ll come back to it in the final post on annotation). In my concluding comments, I suggested that Jackson’s “bibliofile” and “BEPU” could be themselves enhanced by highlighting the interpersonal dimensions of books, particularly the book’s traditional enlistment in the cause of friendship. In fact, my acronym BEAU rests in part on lessons learned from Jackson’s work on the “sociable” qualities of annotation–as reported first in Marginalia and then extended in a successor volume on the Romantic period, Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia (2005).

Jackson’s account of marginalia’s history is germane to this miniseries not only because she offers useful categories for thinking about the changing character of annotation over the centuries but also because she cites numerous examples of women sharing annotation with men in our current period of concern, the long eighteenth century. This post sets up the next, which will continue our reflection on male-female friendship by tracing–and adding some useful (I hope) commentary on–some threads of Jackson’s scholarship.


To recall the language of the first post in this miniseries, Jackson’s project is a “lumpy” one. In the earlier book, she divides the “united empire” of marginalia into three “kingdoms,” the second aligning with our current period of concern and the Romantic period, which scholars sometimes bundle in the term the “long eighteenth century”:

In the English-speaking world in the modern period, since the advent of print, we could define three such kingdoms, with border-posts about 1700 and 1820–the first part, that is, ending around 1700 […], the second running roughly from 1700 to 1820, and the third from 1820 to the present. While I cannot resist giving them names–the Kingdom of Competition, the Kingdom of Sociability, and the Kingdom of Subjectivity–honesty obliges me to say at the outset that my labels bring out differences that are in fact relatively superficial. […] In the crucial period of the eighteenth century, marginalia became both increasingly personal and increasingly public; but at the same time, the practices of the earlier periods quietly persisted.  (emphasis added)

That Jackson divides the times in roughly the same way as the present miniseries is no accident: I am happily indebted to her scholarship in my thinking about the division of annotation’s history. At the same time, the first four posts in this miniseries suggest a more complicated account is needed than Jackson’s description of the first period. While well aware of the humanists, Jackson fails to give their strain of “amicability” its proper due. Jackson seems all the more wise, in this light, to undercut her separation of “competition” and “sociability;” they are better considered persistent themes across the early modern period (at least). Early modern annotation, we might say, is two-faced: glowing when composed for friends, glowering when aimed at enemies. Nor does one have to dig very far in the libraries of major eighteenth-century figures to find “competitive” annotation. Jonathan Swift’s marginalia, to cite one famous example, is ferocious when targeted at rivals’ perspectives. And he gave books containing “scurrilous annotation” (to use the scholar Paddy Bullard’s phrase) to members of his circle. (Bullard reports, for example, that Smith gave an “unsuspecting” Mary Harrison, wife of a relation, a copy of Howell’s Ancient and Present England that contained “references to, among other things, irregular sexual practices.”)

Both of these earlier “kingdoms” defy our modern assumptions about the “solitary” and “private” nature of reading. Nowadays, we annotate for ourselves (or do we?). In these periods, readers annotated for others directly, or at least with an inkling of an audience: “Books were annotated for an anticipated audience, usually friends and familiars,” Jackson writes in Romantic Readers. Annotation was thus a “sociable” practice, a way of connecting and maintaining relations.

If Jackson’s terms for the early “kingdoms” are suspect for present purposes, her notes on the changing character of annotation as the eighteenth century begins, though, offer us a vital insight. Jackson argues that “personal” annotation now displaces the more scholarly types of markings (glosses, rubrics, scholia, internal indexing, etc.) that congregated in the humanists’ margins. Humanist practices didn’t vanish, as eighteenth-century schoolboys and their Latin tutors would, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, attest. Rather, Jackson contends that these methods wane in cultural significance when evaluated against the backdrop of other practices of book-marking. They are no longer the age’s “dominant mode” of annotation. As book culture–in respect to both its content and its consumers–changes, habits of marking up books change, too.

The increasing importance of vernacular literatures is central to this story (as the last two posts in this miniseries have suggested). A novel or collection of poems written in one’s native language, for example, likely wouldn’t require extensive marginal glosses to clarify the meanings of unfamiliar words or irregular verb conjugations–as might a student’s copy of Lactantius. And print’s regimes for the editing and transmission of texts (never perfect, of course, but nonetheless increasingly rigorous in this period) would eliminate much of the humanist scholar’s manuscript-based labors of textual criticism–if the reader were even worried about such matters in the case of a prose romance.

As the eighteenth century opens, then, many readers didn’t feel the need to fill their pages’ blank spaces with pedantic (in the sense of “schoolmastery”) notes. Publishers, meanwhile, made increasing use of footnotes, further decluttering the page’s outer edges. Eighteenth-century margins were thus open to receive other kinds of deposits, such as personal anecdotes, observations of thematically parallel passages in other books, one’s own judgments of an argument or description, and records of how a book moved its reader, among other scribblings. Jackson, once again, dubs these annotations “personal.” This species isn’t, of course, new; we have seen annotators in humanist times (for example, Gabriel Harvey) do all kinds of “personalizing.” For our purposes, the change might be better described as increasingly critical and sentimental, the former term stressing the careful judgment and observation of texts’ claims and styles, the latter the reader’s assertion of his or her own thoughtful opinion as well as notes on his or her moral and aesthetic experience while reading. That marginalia now was “increasingly public” (to use Jackson’s words above) means that we might also call it interpersonal: all that criticism and reflection often has another beneficiary (or several) in view.

Lady Bradshaigh’s marginal conversation with Richardson well illustrates these qualities. Not one of her annotations concerns questions of grammar or textual transmission. She doesn’t trace the sources of any of Richardson’s anecdotes or quotations. When she crosses out a word (or passage) or suggests an alternative, she does so in the name of good taste. Or she aims to improve the accuracy in or plausibility of Clarissa‘s depiction of modern manners. Particular scenes or characters provoke exchanges between Bradshaigh and Richardson regarding what the age would term their “sentiments”–in the sense of how the episode affected their refined moral passions. Annotation in humanist times was the product–and, when it came to students, producer–of an exclusive linguistic education, one largely closed to women. While Richardson and Bradshaigh’s exchange might also hinge on “exclusive” knowledge, given the classed nature of the fine points of manners and moral principles that they discuss, that body of knowledge is still notably shared by men and women. Bradshaigh, moreover, recognizes herself as and is recognized by Richardson to be an expert in these domains. Richardson takes her commentary seriously–and if Barchas is right, then her commentary helps to reshape numerous passages in the novel’s subsequent editions. In regard to the knowledge of society, of morality, of the heart (again, no small knowledge to possess), Bradshaigh speaks to Richardson as a fellow authority. Part of what makes the tale of Richardson’s summoning of Bradshaigh’s annoted volumes prior to his death (noted in the last post) so moving is its suggestion of his esteem for her as a reader. In other words, Richardson recognized the ongoing theme of this series, the book’s enhancement through amicable uses.


As promised above, Part 8 continues this rumination on Jackson’s work and the issue of male-female friendship.

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