Amicable Annotation, Part 8 (Women and Men, Cont’d)

[Feature Image: Title page of A Collection of Poems, Chiefly in Manuscript, and Written by Living Authors. Baillie rounded up poems from members of her circle, including Walter Scott, in order to help a friend, Mrs. James Stirling, whose husband had recently died. The decision to include the “friend” on the title page, in effect using its gift-end to market the book, speaks to the age’s high regard for friendship. To buy the book was to participate in the unnamed friend’s care, even perhaps to befriend her.]

This post continues our reflection on male-female friendship by tracing–and adding some useful (I hope) commentary on–a thread of H. J. Jackson’s scholarship on marginalia. Part 7, which also comments on Jackson, is here. The next post will continue this theme.

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In Romantic Readers, Jackson mentions an occasion in 1817 when Walter Scott returned to his friend Joanna Baillie a manuscript of her poem “The Legend of Christopher Columbus.” Baillie had sent Scott a draft for his review, and Scott obligingly marked it up. Of the significance of these markings, he has quite a bit to say in a letter sent along with the poem (which is now all that survives):

The story is admirably told and the few pencil observations which I have made I offer rather as subjects of consideration than with any confidence that they are just. You will however give them what weight you please. I have made them frankly for I know you would wish me to do so. I do not make them dogmatically because after all Ilka man buckles his belt his ain gait and in communicating our sentiments to our friends as in stating our opinions in society we may expect a hearing from their candour but should never presume to demand acquiescence.

Jackson cites this episode as an example of the “complex social functions” that annotation could perform in this period and of how it could be “governed more by social than literary conventions.” But her commentary ends there: she says nothing about what “complex social function” Scott fulfills by scribbling on Baillie’s poem. Jackson takes for granted that we’ll recognize that this episode shows how books could serve friendly purposes. But she misses an opportunity to recognize that this friendship crosses the still complicated line between the sexes (he’s married; she isn’t). Scott, for his part, recognizes the “complexity” of the occasion, and his remarks are worth lingering over.

The words quoted above are preceded by several sentences that discuss the experience of rereading and the changing criteria by which “we” judge a work across successive “perusals,” the long eighteenth century’s word for careful reading. That his evaluation would change, Scott observes, “is in the course of the capricious turns of human taste.” He argues that while we look for “novelty of interest” on the first go-through, that “interest” dims in importance when rereading. Now we become “more attentive to the manner in which the story is told.” In keeping with the habits of many long eighteenth-century marginalians, Scott takes great care to articulate the principles guiding his actions. Jackson is certainly correct in observing that “social” conventions “govern” marginalia in the long eighteenth century; Scott’s words exemplify annotators’ eagerness to remark on those conventions. Yet Scott also shows how–pace Jackson–“social” conventions didn’t entirely obscure “literary” concerns; the two issues might be better seen as entangled. Baillie must understand her friend’s “perusal” process in order to give proper weight to his pencilings; that understanding will prevent her from receiving his suggestions as fiats, such a domineering attitude being against the nature of friendship as Scott understands it.

Scott’s approach to annotation recalls–with the important twist that this is a “cross-sex” friendship–two themes of the classical discourse of friendship. The first draws us back to the first post in this “Friendship by the Book” series in which we noted Erasmus’s second proverb in the Adagia, which begins Amicitia aequalitas (“Friendship is equality”). Once again, friendship in the fullest sense between men and women was difficult for the humanists and their classical forefathers to imagine because equality, not only of station but also of virtue and mental powers, didn’t seem possible between the sexes. As noted in earlier posts, the increasing literacy and buying power of women in the eighteenth century, among other factors, created new circumstances in which men and women could hold a body of reading in common. And, as the example of Richardson and Lady Bradshaigh demonstrates, this new reading included terrains in which women could have an equal claim to criticism. In the present instance, notice how Scott promotes Baillie’s equality as a fellow author and reader. We must remember that in 1817 Scott was more than a decade into his life as the Walter Scott, living legend of British literature (indeed, in 1817 three years had passed since Scott’s apotheosis as the paragon of poetry and, thanks to Waverly in 1814, fiction). Here he seems at pains to divest himself of such authority; Baillie will give his notes “what weight you please.” To explain her standing he cites an old proverb of male prerogative: “Ilka man buckles his belt his ain gait,” meaning roughly that “each man buckles his belt his own way.”

This sense of equal standing ties in to our second theme, that of conversation. As Lorraine Pangle argues in Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship, Aristotle counted conversation friendship’s “truest, most characteristic activity.” Reflecting on friendship’s nature in Nicomachean Ethics IX.9, the philosopher memorably observes that friendship consists in “living together and sharing in discussion and thought,” which he likens to cattle “feeding in the same place.” (Stanley Cavell memorably argues that Aristotle suggests here “that friends are each other’s pasture, providing food for thought.”) This belief is echoed in numerous later commentaries on friendship, including those of Cicero.

In keeping with what we have seen in earlier posts on this period, Scott frames his notes on the poem as conversational in nature. The “sentiments” he communicates are equated to “stating” one’s “opinions in society.” A single ethics crosses over the streams of friendly (in-person) speech and (distant) writing: in all media, a friend must communicate “candidly”  but without “dogmatism.” To claim the ultimate word–to demand “acquiescence”–is against conversation’s nature. Through his “undogmatic” response. Scott invites further exchange. As in the case of Bradsheigh and Richardson, Scott’s annotations of Baillie’s poem cannot be understood apart from the passage of other goods in the long eighteenth century’s ever-expanding paper economy. The conversation, and thus friendship, is a multimedia affair. These examples testify to how certain kinds of friendship difficult to achieve in earlier periods now thrive thanks to the development or refinement of communications technologies (within the book trade, within the postal system). The long eighteenth century brings more sharply into focus our need to reflect on the “technologies of friendship” as a historical rather than simply a contemporary issue.

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Next up: Part 9.

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