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Ian Donaldson (1935-2020) and CWBJ: a personal view from Martin Butler

Posted by: pcaton 1 year, 11 months ago


Working with Ian Donaldson and David Bevington on the Cambridge Ben Jonson was the most enjoyable, and stressful, period of my professional life. The intellectual rewards were huge, but another level of reward came from the people involved, the wonderful team that we assembled and the special pleasure of being in virtually day-to-day contact with Ian and David. As personalities they were completely opposite. David was a bundle of explosive energy, a sender of immense and frequent emails, endlessly worrying away at details, and involved in so many other editions he sometimes had to ask which set of guidelines we were using (guidelines he had largely written himself). Ian, by contrast, radiated calm, the reassuring presence with a clear overall vision and a confident sense of how to carry it through. He was also intimately familiar with Jonson’s language and canon, and had an unrivalled knowledge of the critical history. He could effortlessly summon up the precise allusion, cross-reference, or date that you needed – a crucial skill in helping editors shape their introductions and commentaries. But he wore all this so lightly that you barely knew you were being encouraged down particular paths. It’s a great talent to know how to get everyone to feel part of a common enterprise. There’s a lot of variety in CWBJ, as we thought it important to recruit a team with many interests and strengths, but the underlying unity is principally his achievement.

That CWBJ happened at all is entirely due to Ian. Prior to my first meeting with him in 1991, he had long been involved in discussions at Oxford University Press about the legacy of Herford and Simpson – stretching back to conversations with Dan Davin in the 1960s – and had persuaded OUP that it should be replaced with something more ambitious than Gerald Wilkes’s modern-spelling reprint of the plays (1981-2). His original plan was for a kind of comprehensive version of the Yale Jonson, a one-text-per-volume set so that, instead of carrying around eleven clunky tomes with material spread across all corners, everything you needed about The Alchemist (for example) could be found in a single pair of covers suitable, as he put it, to slip into your pocket on the bus. It is a testimony to his prudence and flexibility that when our structure went in a different direction he abandoned this model without any hint of regret.

Looking back, I realize that, although the three General Editors were a true venture tripartite, all the important strategic choices came from Ian. It was he who suggested we needed a North American General Editor; who planned the early consultation sessions over the edition’s aims and shape; who steered us towards CUP when OUP turned out to be uncomfortable with our dual format structure; and who identified the funding sources we needed – particularly the crucial move of bringing the Mellon Foundation on board when it looked as though we didn’t have the money to build the electronic edition. And all this happened with patience, politeness, and unvarying optimism. I remember only one moment – when Mellon rejected our first electronic proposals – that Ian seemed discouraged, and that was merely temporary. The phrase I got used to at the end of many sessions at the Press offices, even those that didn’t go too well, was ‘I thought that was a very good meeting…’

Amazingly, we had almost no significant disagreements. I never managed to convince him that we needed a section on the additions to The Spanish Tragedy in the print edition over and above the essay in the electronic Dubia, since it too was one of the ‘lost’ texts, but on most important things we were as one. He had the gift of being able to accommodate himself to other people’s points of view, and to make knotty, potentially troublesome differences feel solvable. That’s not really a ‘Jonsonian’ trait, of course, but the conviviality of our meetings, the mix of scholarship and friendship that he fostered, and the respect and admiration that he commanded, certainly were.


Martin Butler


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