Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Special Book from Samuel Johnson to Fanny Burney, 1781

Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Isabella reporting,

As a writer, I'm always intrigued by the bits and pieces of the craft that other writers in the past have left behind, like Jane Austen's humble writing desk and chair or these unbound, first edition volumes of Pride and Prejudice. More rare still are handwritten drafts, manuscripts that have been crossed out and scribbled over in a frenzy of creative inspiration.

Even now in the computer age, there are several stages to transforming a manuscript into a finished book. Revisions are made by editors and copy editors as well as the author her/himself, plus additional notations by the production team. The final step is the galleys, or page proofs, that show exactly how the pages of the finished books will look. Today this all takes place through an electronic exchange of track-changes, but in the past the process involved flopping reams of paper mailed back and forth in padded brown envelopes. (It wasn't so distant a past, either; I have not-fond memories of racing to ship edited galleys to the FedEx office before closing.)

After the book was published, all those various versions and edits of mine went into the recycling bin. I imagine that 18th or 19th c. authors and printers probably did their version of recycling, too, by sending the old galleys to be remade into new paper. They weren't considered worth saving, and very few survive today.

One that did is shown here, above, and features a work by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Dr. Johnson was perhaps the most famous literary figure of 18th c. Britain, and among the many hats he wore were essayist, editor, poet, literary critic, biographer, and lexicographer. One of the highlights of my tour last week of Houghton Library, Harvard University, was visiting the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, right, with curator John Overholt. The comprehensive depth of this collection of books, artwork, manuscripts, and letters is truly breathtaking, and even if you cannot visit for yourself (Houghton Library is open to the public for tours on Friday), you can view highlights on the collection's website.

These are the proofs to Dr. Johnson's Life of Pope, from Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, published in 1781, and later to be known more simply as Lives of the Poets.  I love being able to see Dr. Johnson's comments and corrections in the margins, exactly the kind of final corrections and changes that every writer makes.

Ordinarily the proofs would have been used and then discarded by the printer. According to John Overholt, however, these survived because the novelist Fanny Burney (1752-1840) asked Dr. Johnson to save them for her so she might read the selection early, without waiting for the final published edition, as a personal ARC (advanced reader copy.) Not only did Dr. Johnson retrieve the edited proof from the printer, but because he had also been trained as a young man to be a bookbinder, he bound the proof himself as a special gift for Mrs. Burney – and a special gift, too, to those of us living today.

Many thanks to John Overholt for his generous assistance with this post.

Above left: Proofs for the Life of Pope from Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, by Samuel Johnson, 1781. MS Hyde 50 (4), Harvard University.
Lower right: The Donald & Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
All images courtesy of Harvard University.


JanO said...

This is wonderful! What a gift. I tried to read a few words: "difpofed him"? Oh, disposed. That long S gets me every time!

Philip Wilkinson said...

What a treasure that marked-up life of Pope is! And a lovely story that it was saved for Fanny Burney to read. Here in the UK, 'galleys' used to be the word for proofs printed on long pieces of paper, NOT in the position the text would be on the page, while 'page proofs' were laid out exactly as if on real pages, with page numbers ('folios') etc. With everyone using computers we no longer have galleys, just page proofs. There also used also to be very final proofs printed in blue on white, which British printers called ozalids, and North American colleagues referred to as 'the blues' (nothing to do with the musical and/or melancholy variety). Our two languages are endlessly fascinating...

Family History By Cerys said...

Thanks for a great post - v interesting!

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