Noteds' notes and scribblers' secrets

April 19, 2002

As a student, I came across a sloping italic script tacked on to the usual Arden editors' notes in a dusty college library copy of The Tempest , berating and adding to the lengthy glosses. The script belonged - the handwriting of the annotator matched the book's inscription - to C. S. Lewis. This was my first encounter with the type of respectable scholarly scribbling that H. J. Jackson, a professor at the University of Toronto, has made the subject of Marginalia .

During the Renaissance, marginalia were recognised to be part of the process of learning. The scholarly traditions of early manuscripts, written to help clarify and guide readers, gave discipline to the form and led to guidelines being published and so to the growth of an educational theory about marginalia.

Jackson's book makes the case, with infectious enthusiasm, that these and subsequent responsive asides deserve academic recognition and also prove, if proof were needed, that reading has always been an "interactive" activity and not a mere passive leisure pursuit. What, one wonders, will future scholars of marginalia do when faced with the possibilities of the latest e-book prototypes? These offer the complete works of Dickens on one disk and allow you to write marginal notes, and even give you the choice as to whether to make your notes public or keep them private.

The power of marginalia lies in the immediacy of the scribbled response. Jackson sees the Romantic period as a watershed for marginalia, when the comments became more personal and opinionated. She is a Coleridge scholar, and it was Coleridge who, she admits, "converted me to writing in books". This is why her detailed study of marginalia begins in 1820, a year after Coleridge went public and published his own annotations under the title Marginalia - thus coining the word. Since then, footnotes have been formalised, glosses and commentaries published. Jackson has scoured the "fortresses of special collections", university and public libraries, secondhand shops and bookshelves, in order to cast light on the significance, motives and tradition of marginal notes: "Negligible in isolation, they are collectively exciting," she believes.

Naturally, the notes granted the most attention by Jackson and others are not those of the dogged student scribbling in ballpoint - though Nabokov made a note in his teaching copy of Kafka's Metamorphosis to "use space at bottom of pages for your notes". It is the literary types, generally well-known authors commenting on another author's work - for example, Coleridge on Blake, Blake on Joshua Reynolds, Pope on Montaigne, T. H. White on Jung, Greene on Malcolm Muggeridge, and Dr Johnson on virtually everything as he researched his dictionary - that attract attention. Many of the books Jackson has hunted down were annotated in the knowledge that they would be passed on; the annotations are all signed and dated. Codes and shorthand were developed, and texts were circulated among friends as Coleridge answers Wordsworth's comments in his own copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets. These are mementos of a silent salon.

Annotators and publishers realised early on that there was a commercial value in such handwritten commentary. Following Coleridge, a veritable canon of authors published their own marginalia: Thackeray, Keats, Blake, Twain and Darwin. Owners, of course, also recognised the potential value and lent their books to Coleridge to be digested and noted - and replaced on their own shelves. Annotations can now add considerable value to books at auction (I put Lewis's copy of The Tempest back on the library shelf) and provide fodder for generations of biographers and literary and social historians.

Less renowned scribblers are also mentioned. There are lovers engaged in secret communication; comments on recipes such calf's heart stuffed with suet and pickled herring ("Tried, and found bad"); and a racy parlour game filling the censored blanks in published editions of the earl of Rochester's poetry, a game in which even Pope indulged.

Jackson concludes by calling for librarians and cataloguers to be more aware of notes as literary history and not vandalism, and to make mention of any notes. She also encourages us all to take up the challenge and converse with the author and scribble in the margins - in pencil, so if purist bibliophiles are offended, they can remove the unauthorised material. But it is true that the artistry of many of the earlier annotators is not matched today. Re-reading some of my own attempts at marginalia, I feel like that nameless cook. And I wish I had followed Jackson's advice about using pencil.

Helen Davies works for The Sunday Times .

Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books

Author - H. J. Jackson
ISBN - 0 300 08816 7
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 324

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