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The Making of the Oxford Ben Jonson

Martin Butler

Eventually it became clear that nettles had to be grasped, and the Delegates started casting around for ways of getting Simpson out of schoolmastering. In 1910 they unsuccessfully lobbied the head of the Oxford English School, Sir Walter Raleigh, to find him a lectureship, and later it was hoped he might obtain the new chair at East End College (the future Queen Mary University; in fact, the job went to Sidney Lee).   Eventually Simpson moved to Oxford in the summer of 1913, though only to a temporary appointment teaching textual scholarship, a new and experimental subject, which underlined his comparatively marginal status in the university. As Frowde said, he was ‘bravely burning his boats without any kind of a guarantee from anybody’; ‘we shall have to keep him alive’.   He was finally made a University Lecturer and the first librarian of the English School in 1914, though he remained without a fellowship until 1921. This was at best partial help, as Simpson’s duties as teacher and librarian were just as onerous as schoolmastering – not least the labour of compiling lists of students studying English at different colleges and appealing to their tutors to encourage them to sign up to the new library   – but at least the Press had him more under their eye, and he was able to develop his own lines of research. In 1919 he published a free-standing edition of Every Man In, essentially as a trial run for the editorial methods of the main work, and in 1924 co-edited with C. F. Bell a catalogue of Inigo Jones’s masque designs (co-published by the Walpole and Malone Societies) which represented a first pass at material that, twenty-five years later, would feed into his commentaries on the masques. On the other hand, such intermediate projects made the Press anxious that he ‘will never do anything in the big way’, and they fretted about his readiness to be distracted by ‘fresh scents’.   As R. W. Chapman (secretary to the Delegates after Cannan) eventually acknowledged, it was not until Simpson’s retirement from teaching in 1935 that the work could really power forward systematically.  

A second crucial change was the Press’s decision to issue the edition serially.   The intention had always been to publish all nine volumes simultaneously, and have each text prefaced with Herford’s introductions, to which end in 1920 Simpson was trying to finish off The Case is Altered, Every Man In, and Every Man Out for a planned volume 2.   But by hiving off Herford’s contribution into volumes 1 and 2 (published on 2 July 1925) the Press cut the knot and managed to issue at least some of the material. Herford was pleased that ‘the end of our long common labour is in sight’, though he continued to worry that lumping the life and introductions together made more visible any inconsistencies between them that he had been unable to iron out.   This was indeed a weakness that W. W. Greg at once seized on, in an extended critique printed in 1926, pointing out that statements made about dating in the introduction to A Tale of a Tub contradicted those made in the life, and that some parts of the introductions were unintelligible without the supporting detail of the commentary. He suspected that, while the text represented Herford’s views, the sometimes conflicting footnotes were the voice of Simpson; ironically, he agreed with Herford that Simpson’s view of the Jonsonian apostrophe was over-complicated.   Clearly, the value of Herford’s contribution – which today seems almost completely detached from the rest – was weakened by the circumstances in which it appeared. Greater integration of his labour with Simpson’s would have done more justice to the learning and achievements of both (and not least to the biographical and biographical discoveries that Simpson had himself made).   Another enduring consequence of this decision was the trail of corrections, supplementary notes, and appendices that snake through the rest of the edition and were never satisfactorily drawn back into the overall structure, obscuring some of the detail and making the completed product seem less authoritative than it aspired to be.

After the first two volumes appeared, Simpson plugged away at the rest for almost thirty years. The first text instalment, volume 3 (A Tale of a Tub, The Case is Altered, Every Man In Q and F, and Every Man Out) followed in 1927, and volume 4 (Cynthia’s Revels, Poetaster, Sejanus, and Eastward Ho!) in 1932; the latter includes Simpson’s tribute to Herford, who had died the previous year. Volume 5 (Volpone, Epicene, The Alchemist, and Catiline) appeared in 1937, and volume 6 (Bartholomew Fair, The Devil is an Ass, The Staple of News, The New Inn, and The Magnetic Lady) a year later. The exceptionally bulky volume 7 (The Sad Shepherd, Mortimer, the entertainments, and the masques) then appeared, amazingly, in 1941, in the middle of the war. OUP declined to begin setting volume 8 (the poems and prose) until the war was over, although Simpson had completed his work for it by March 1941: it was eventually published in 1947.   The three volumes of textual survey, stage history, commentary, and index finally appeared in 1950-52, by which time the junior editor was aged eighty-six.

The Oxford edition had turned out to be far more elaborate than OUP had bargained for. By 1925 it was evident that ten rather than nine volumes would be needed, then teeth were gnashed at Walton Street in the 1940s when Simpson started delivering his vast commentary, for which an eleventh volume had to be added. In 1949 Dan Davin (at this time assistant secretary to the Clarendon Press) told Simpson that the commentary was now up to 1800 pages and ‘naturally enough we are not particularly happy about the series expanding itself’. For his part, Simpson explained that all sorts of new information had come to light, and complained about the ‘cramping effect’ of the Press’s treatment of his notes.   No less problematic was the cost of producing these extraordinary volumes, and maintaining the uniformity of design and binding, given the twenty-seven-year lapse between volumes 1 and 11. For the first text volume, R. W. Chapman tried to rein in Simpson’s enthusiasm for proof correction, saying he was ‘rather afraid of your standard in these matters, which . . . has only been approached by Ben Jonson himself.’   The printer made an allowance of ten shillings of correction per sheet, but so intricate were the texts that with each volume vast bills came back for excess changes. The printer charged £49 excess for volume 3, £43 for volume 8, and £75 for volumes 9 and 10; to put this in perspective, Simpson’s payment for each volume was just £50.   Special difficulties were created by the staggered nature of sales and the epic timescale of the series’ appearance. As sales of the early volumes fell off, so the later volumes were printed in smaller numbers, and in the 1940s, with huge unsold quantities on hand, the Press tried to cut some of their losses by selling the series only in partial sets and pulping the unwanted volumes down to a common level. Yet when the post-war volumes appeared and new readers began to collect the series, sales of the early sets rose again, and reprints had to be organized of volumes that had previously been pulped. And as if this were not enough, some booksellers complained that the new reprints were not of uniform size with the originals and made the sets irregular, which was an unavoidable problem that had to be endured until all the odd volumes from old stock were used up.   In 1938 Simpson told Greg ‘The Press, you may be interested to hear, loses £400 on each of my volumes’, adding ‘of course, that is what a University Press exists for’.   This is unlikely to have been how OUP saw it.

The fact that Simpson seemed to be working according to a different clock from everyone else continued to unsettle the Press. Several times they thought about encouraging him to take a collaborator, or appoint a deputy in case he should die before the edition was finished. Although he and Herford turned down the idea of having the philologist Henry Bradley edit the Grammar, preferring to attempt it themselves,   Herford floated the idea of a third editor in 1911 and again in 1913.   Milford suggested looking for a research assistant, ‘a competent young scholar’ to do some of the historical collation for a fee of £100 or so, and he arranged for one of OUP’s staff to collate some modern editions at the British Library.   However he had to cut down the ‘formidable’ list of collations that Simpson asked for, and by this time he was privately coming to believe that the whole thing would end up being completed by Greg after Simpson’s decease.   Later F. P. Wilson was mentioned as a potential replacement to have on standby should Simpson’s health give out, though in the event the nonagenarian Simpson almost outlived him.  

Osborn MSS 8, Box 10, Folder 1: Raleigh to Simpson, 15 March 1910; OUP Archives, 811352.8, Frowde to Cannan, 20 June 1913.

OUP Archives, 811352.8, Frowde to Cannan, 20 June 1913.

See Oxford English Faculty Library, Percy Simpson Papers, Box 1, items 2-35.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 10, Folder 10: R. W. Chapman to Simpson, 21 May 1929, 6 April 1934.

OUP Archives, 811356, Box OP646: R. W. Chapman to David Garnett, 13 November 1936.

The first mention of ten volumes is a note of Simpson’s (undated, but c. 1925) in OUP Archives, 811352.8. He expected volume 5 to end with Devil is an Ass, vol. 6 to have the remaining plays and some masques, and vol. 7 to have the remaining masques, the poems, and the prose.

OUP Archives, 811352.8, Simpson to Chapman, 7 April 1920.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 9, Folder 3: Herford to Simpson, 1 July 1925, 3 March 1924.

Greg, (1926b), 129-45. The most conspicuous faultline in the two volumes is the four appendices in volume 2, which interrupt the sequence of Herford’s literary introductions and were written by Simpson. They discuss particular biographical and textual issues: Jonson’s knowledge of the alchemist in Giordano Bruno’s Candelaio, possible satire on Inigo Jones in Bartholomew Fair, the material common to The New Inn and Fletcher’s Love’s Pilgrimage, and the authorship of the additions to The Spanish Tragedy. With the exception of the Spanish Tragedy question, these were all topics that might have waited for the commentary. Amongst notable revisions of Herford’s views in later volumes of the edition is the rejection of his ascription to Donne of poems 38, 40 and 41 in The Underwood: compare H&S 2.383-4 with 11.66-70.

Herford’s contributions to volumes 1 and 2 were the life and the introductions to the works (with the exception of those for Discoveries and the English Grammar, which were written by Simpson). Simpson’s part consisted of the more miscellaneous ‘research’ materials. In addition to writing the four appendices mentioned in note 36, he edited Jonson’s letters, the legal and official records, the list of Jonson’s library, and the biographical papers (the ‘Conversations’ with Drummond and documents from Aubrey and Archdeacon Plume, plus the supposed ‘Memorandums of the Immortal Ben’, now known to be a fabrication).

Beinecke Library, Osborn Shelves, Greg, Box 9, Folder 10 (labelled Box 10): Simpson to Greg, 19 September 1941; Folger Shakespeare Library, Y.d.609(26), P. Simpson to F. P. Wilson, 9 March 1941. Volume 7 was actually delivered to OUP before the onset of war, and took over two years to produce: see Folger MS Y.d.609(31), Simpson to Wilson, 1 October 1941.

OUP Archives, 811360, Box OP2759: Davin to Simpson, 4 October 1949; Simpson to Norrington, 29 January 1949.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 10, Folder 2: K. Sisam to Simpson, 13 February 1924.

OUP Archives, 811354, 811359.5, and 811360 (printers’ invoices).

OUP Archives, 811352.8, memo by A. N., 23 October 1950; 811359.5, Box OP2759, letter from Hatchards, 6 December 1971.

Beinecke Library, Osborn Shelves, Greg, Box 9, Folder 10 (labelled Box 10): Simpson to Greg, 3 November 1938.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 8, Folder 10: Cannan to Simpson, 10 March 1905; Box 9, Folder 3: Herford to Simpson, 13 March 1905.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 9, Folder 3: Herford to Simpson, 4 April 1911, 30 December 1913.

OUP Archives, 811352.8, Simpson to Cannan, 3 April 1913, and 2 September 1913; OUP Letter book 51: Milford to Cannan, 2 October 1913.

OUP Letter Book 51: Milford to Cannan, 19 March 1913. I am grateful to Tom Lockwood for the references from the Letter Book.

OUP Archives, 811352.8, record of interview with P. Simpson, 8 May(?) 1927.

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