On the Trail of Hardy's Prose
Simon Gatrell's research seems more fitted to a detective than to an English professor. With an eye for detail and an instinct for authenticity, Gatrell sleuths his way through Thomas Hardy novels, hot on a trail that's been cold for more than a century.
Gatrell is intent on identifying Hardy's original prose, an elusive quarry that is nonetheless essential to the trade of literary criticism.
"Before you can start to criticize the work of a writer, you have to be sure that you've got the actual words of the writer," said Gatrell, who is general editor of the 14 Hardy novels and four collections of short stories that were deemed important enough to be included in the Oxford University Press World's Classics series.
That's not always as easy as it sounds. In the case of Thomas Hardy, scholars have had to contend with reams of revisions, often made dozens of years apart -- and not always by Hardy alone.
A scholar may invest years in search of the quintessential Hardy. Gatrell should know: While teaching at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, Northern Ireland, he collaborated with the late Juliet Grindle for nearly 15 years to produce the annotated text of Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles for the Clarendon Press edition.
The 10 bound ledgers on the book shelf in Gatrell's office show how he and Grindle worked from a facsimile of the original 525-page manuscript in the British Library collection. They compared the manuscript with 12 different editions of the text, noting variations among the versions in their ledgers. Then they returned to the manuscript in the British Library to recheck their ledger entries against the original text.
The fruit of that painstaking labor may help correct misconceptions that have colored interpretations of Hardy's work for generations. Gatrell suspects that some popular editions of Tess contain as many as 300 paragraphs, sentences and words -- and up to 7,000 punctuation marks -- that are not Hardy's.
"The point of editing texts this way is to try to provide for the reader a text which is purely Hardy," Gatrell said. "Whether an author's final revisions are always the best or always to be preferred is in debate."
Even with an "original" Hardy manuscript in hand, it's not always easy to pinpoint Hardy's intentions, Gatrell said. For one thing, Hardy had a penchant for tinkering with his texts, often revising original manuscripts a dozen times, he said.
In addition to keeping printers and editors busy clear up until press time, Hardy continued to revise texts long after they were first published. His career spanned a lifetime and the author seemed unwilling to relinquish a text, Gatrell said.
"As an old man, Hardy would edit works published in his youth, often changing the substance of a novel to incorporate the perspective of maturity," Gatrell said.
It takes quite a bit of detective work to determine the chronology of corrections to an original Hardy text, especially considering the numerous revisions scrawled on the pages. The mystery is further complicated because Hardy's wife assisted in the task of copying and correcting, and her handwriting style was similar to her husband's. Sometimes the only way to unravel the tangle of a lifetime's editing is through careful scrutiny of the few clues left, such as subtle variations in ink color or penmanship, Gatrell said.
The original Hardy text was further obscured by Hardy's editors, who insisted that his manuscripts conform to the punctuation conventions of the day. Hardy's tenacity -- and theirs -- spawned a series of revisions that have, for the most part, remained unrecognized for more than a century.
The works of Hardy, who Gatrell said was once considered "an important, second-rate novelist," now have been chosen by Oxford University Press to become the third set of works in an Oxford "electronic" edition. Hardy's works fall only behind those of Shakespeare and Milton, the first two selected for the Oxford project.
It's perhaps fitting, then, that Gatrell now employs some electronic technology of his own in his research of the century-old novels. A personal computer, an optical character recognition device and Computer Assisted Scholarly Editing, or CASE, software have freed Gatrell and his graduate students from the tedium of line-by-line editing. The optical character recognition device scans text with an accuracy rate of 80 percent for 19th century texts and 99 percent for modern editions. CASE then compares versions of the same text, noting all errors and textual changes.
Gatrell used the electronic system to establish a scholarly text of The Return of the Native in one-third the time it took to edit Tess. The computer "allows the editor to concentrate on editing and making decisions instead of having to do all the mechanical work," Gatrell said.
One difference Gatrell uncovered between Hardy's earlier and later versions of The Return of the Native is the location of Egdon Heath. In the original 1878 novel, the heath was a mysteriously remote spot in southern England connected to the fictional town of Southerton. In a revision made 20 years later, Hardy divided Southerton into four existing towns or villages, one on each corner of the heath, and described actual, recognizable buildings.
"The original text could only be obtained through antiquarian bookstores, usually at a cost of about $600," Gatrell said. "The more widely read later version makes it more likely that readers will use Hardy's novel as a guidebook to a now specific part of England -- not what Hardy at first intended."
Gatrell's edition, the first based on the original version, was published in 1990 as part of the Oxford World's Classics paperback series.
"Establishing Hardy's text is an essential contribution to knowledge," Gatrell said. "The differences are substantial enough to make them, if not different novels, at least different kinds of experience."