Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 18 (1987)
The examination of a great writer's manuscript carries its own fascinations and frustrations, for eyes and mind are intent on discovery, with might-have-been replacing is at the blink of an eyelid. Deletions hide something of significance, single-word alterations are evidence of a change of mind (or of heart), and commonplaces are elevated by a single deft stroke or slant into transcendent maxims or inscrutable morality. Re-shaped sentences take on a greater profundity of thought, while paragraphs collated with the first printing or a later corrected one, show either the wisdom of reflection or the author's obstinacy, depending on the reader's own critical and scholarly bias. The watermark of the paper, the colour of the author's ink, whether bright or faded, interpolations or extensions verso, marginalia, teasing spaces or spacing, even to the thumbprints which might be hers, all these are at once the lure and the Iicense of the manuscript reader. He notes the half-pages added in at the beginning of a chapter, others numbered with an 'a' or 'b' to indicate that they are expansions of an idea or sequence; these Iight deletions - were they done at speed and meant to Iie there as alternatives for later consideration? Heavy deletions - must they obliterate beyond detection the blemishes of mind or style or both, first thoughts consigned to the easiest oblivion? Is this kind of close scrutiny a waste of time?
A look at the manuscript of Daniel Deronda, George Eliot's final novel, supplies some of the answers, but it must of necessity be a very long look; there are four bound volumes having 1,219 leaves·, inscribed “To My Dear Husband George Henry Lewes' followed by nine lines from Shakespeare's Sonnet XXIX beginning 'When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes'. Spaces are left at the head of chapters for mottoes, many later inserted in brighter ink; names are altered (Mirah was originally Miriam, and thus she remains in unconcerned mutability on some pages), while leaves are scarred and ink-strewn with the re-shaping of ideas or the insistent urging in minute script of superior second-thoughts.
But manuscripts are trying things, and the eye strays from the confines of the text to the names of compositors regularly appearing in pencil in the left-hand margin or at the top of the page; commonplace names, fittingly Scots as one might expect John Blackwood's employees to be, like Watson, Robertson, McDonald, Blake or Ballantine (variously spelled), or unusual names like Dippie Peffers and Gebbie down to the mere English rusticity of Hodge... The eye strays to the right-hand top corner of the page, recording the British Library numbering in pencil, George Eliot's own numbering behind in the violet-coloured ink with the deleting Iine always there. But back to the text; exhaustive use of the magnifying glass fails to show what was originally beneath ‘Sir Hugo', the thickened letters and spread capitals being an impenetrable screen. Exhaustive use of the magnifying glass reveals that beneath ‘lily’ in much fainter ink is the outline of the word 'arum’. The two numbers in the top righthand corner have now become three, not from fatigue or a post-lunch blur. Two of these are in violet ink. Both have been deleted.