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The Making of the Oxford Ben Jonson

Martin Butler

Initially, all of these proposals foundered on Simpson’s intense personal investment in the work and the astonishing range of skills that he brought to it: his expertise in the archives, his familiarity with classical languages, and his knowledge of the period. Yet Simpson’s attempt to manage independently so complex and multi-sided a project was potentially self-defeating. He was endeavouring to sustain on his sole account tasks that today would be undertaken by a team of scholars reinforced by institutional funding and research leave. By contrast, the only external support that he ever had was £1,000 over two years from the Leverhulme Trust to help him work on volumes 5 and 6 after his retirement. He was, too, a self-taught editor, less confident with bibliographical analysis than Greg or McKerrow, and content to take much more at second hand than they would have done. He lacked all the standard modern editorial aids, such as mechanical collators, and his collations were based on his own laboriously handwritten copies of the quartos.   Symptomatically, he told F. P. Wilson that his treatment of the Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue manuscript in volume 7 was inaccurate because he only had to hand an incomplete photostat of the original and had relied on notes on the whole thing made thirty years earlier.   He was, in many ways, learning on the job, and was deflated by the stream of error that crept into it, blemishes which he described to Wilson as ‘a crop of tares amongst the wheat’ and which were intermittently corrected in later issues.   His papers as Faculty librarian include scrappy corrections to volume 4, some of which never made it into the revised text.   Of course, the range of material he consulted was far less extensive than it would be today. The original expectation was that he would merely write a ‘bibliographical note’ on the texts,   and he only collated eight copies of the first folio and eleven of the second. Except for a fruitless trip to Dublin in 1904 and an expedition to French archives in 1948, he never left Britain in pursuit of the work.   All the American materials were consulted by correspondence or in photostats, and he was dismissive of the work of overseas Jonsonians such as Henry Dinsmore Briggs, whom he called a ‘second-rate American’.   Nonetheless, the trail of corrections and second thoughts than runs through the edition suggests a scholar struggling to keep his grip on a challenging project that kept expanding inexorably.

In 1929, R. W. Chapman received a confidential letter from Simpson’s wife, Evelyn. Twenty years his junior, she had married Percy in 1921. A remarkable scholar in her own right, she was the first woman to be awarded a D.Phil. by Oxford University, and had published authoritative books on The Elizabethan Translations of Seneca’s Tragedies (1912) and A Study of the Prose Works of John Donne (1924). She confided in Chapman about the difficulties that Percy was having with his vast labour, and suggested that the work for the later plays might be entrusted to her, as textually they were much simpler than the preceding, leaving her husband free to get on with the plays for volumes 4 and 5. However, she warned Chapman that the suggestion would have to be made as if on the Press’s initiative: Percy would not contemplate the idea if she put it forward herself. Chapman annotated the letter: ‘this should be a tonic. Perhaps P. S. is bringing up his children to finish the work.’ He wrote to Percy as she suggested, and soon afterwards a second letter came from Evelyn, thanking him for his discretion and saying that the proposal had gone down very well at home.   Thereafter Percy continued to manage the plays down to Catiline, while Evelyn took over much of the rest. Within a year she had done The Sad Shepherd for volume 7 and two others for volume 6, and in 1935 was preparing the first play in volume 6, Bartholomew Fair (though Percy apparently did the collation for The New Inn).   The work of collation they divided between them – he collated seven copies of the second folio and she collated four   – and she went on to assist with collecting and writing materials for the commentary, such as the section on disputed attributions of the poetry.   She also acted as apologist and defender for the edition, printing essays in 1937 and 1942 which responded to critiques by the Belgian scholar Henry de Vocht and by Greg.

Evelyn’s name first appeared on the title-page for volume 6, in 1938. This was the most suitable place, for she had taken over the main responsibility for this section, and was to share the burden with Percy in the rest. It remains a matter of regret, however, that the entrenched phrase ‘Herford and Simpson’ tends to efface her contribution, if not erase her altogether, while overstating the extent of Herford’s involvement.   Indeed, she was studiously self-effacing in her reply to de Vocht, merely saying ‘I have been allowed for the last ten years to give some assistance in the preparation of the Oxford edition of Ben Jonson’.   Not until her edition of Donne’s sermons (10 vols, 1953-62) – begun with G. R. Potter, who died after only one volume was published – did Evelyn really receive full academic credit for a major project in her own right. Although she received the British Academy’s Mary Rose Crawshay prize in 1955, awarded for work by a woman on English literature, one senses that her gender militated against adequate scholarly acknowledgment of her role in the Jonson, and that in some ways it has continued to do so. Notably, in his review of volumes 9 and 10, Greg stated outright that ‘I shall speak throughout of Dr. Simpson in the singular. It is manifest that the substance of the work is Dr. Percy’s, and it may be assumed without disparagement that Dr. Evelyn’s part has been mainly one of consultation and revision’. He further remarked that the ‘very able co-editor [could] have done somewhat more to impart a final polish to the work’ (Greg, 1950-2, 275n, 276). This reduction of Evelyn to the role of editorial polisher has only intermittently been challenged to this day.  

Greg’s presence looms large over the whole edition. The Simpsons had the somewhat double-edged benefit of pursuing Jonson during precisely the same period when Greg was vigorously engaged in his foundational work on English drama, out of which developed the manifestos and editions which eventually became theoretical rationale and practical example for the New Bibliography. Greg was intensely interested in the Jonson edition, as it represented the most important current editorial venture in the area he knew best, and he corresponded intermittently with Percy, sending him a trickle of bibliographical titbits, and loaning proofs of his Bibliography of the English Printed Drama .   In many ways, the Jonson edition was a key stimulus during the years when Greg was working out his theories, and in his reflections on the Simpsons’ successes and shortcomings one can hear the emergence of ideas that would eventually come together in his foundational statement of bibliographical principles, ‘The Rationale of Copy-text’. But he could be an uncomfortable colleague, as he had a powerful sense of mission, of the need to set high standards and promote respect for analytical bibliography as a tool for serious textual work. He was understandably intolerant of vagueness or mistakes, and was prone to comment without reserve on work that he considered less than rigorous – as, famously, in his coruscating review of John Churton Collins’s edition of Robert Greene, which he called ‘a gross insult to English scholarship’ (Greg, 1906, 251). His robust style comes out sharply in a private note that he sent to F. P. Wilson in 1932, when he noticed that Percy had whimsically retained the running title Cynthia’s Revels over the first verso of Poetaster, in imitation of a technical slip in the folio. The question of whether this was pedantry or heavy-handed bibliographical humour was totally lost on Greg, who merely exploded: ‘The ass has reproduced an error of F1, even though his pages don’t correspond!’  

Greg reviewed all the Jonson volumes as they appeared, and while he clearly respected the labour on which they rested, he was critical of their occasional amateurishness and his reviews tended to focus combatively on points where they fell short of the standards of accuracy and understanding to which he aspired, subjecting Percy’s moments of weakness to sharp public rebuke. Already in 1926 he was complaining that the editors ‘kick off badly’ with their misdating of A Tale of a Tub, and he listed a whole trail of what he termed ‘blundering’ in their treatment of chronology, a topic which he then developed into a full-scale counter-essay on Jonson’s system of expressing dates.   On volume 4, he called Percy’s account of the Cynthia’s Revels quarto ‘bibliographical nonsense’, which it was, but when Percy tried to put it right in his appendix to volume 5, with only partial success, the next review was scarcely less sharp (Greg, 1933, 104; 1938, 218). Worse was to come with the masques volume, on which Greg wrote a long and substantial essay, ‘Jonson’s masques: points of editorial principle and practice’, articulating some basic reservations about the procedures which this group of texts had brought into focus. In particular, he censured the Simpsons’ preference for the folios as copy-texts over and beyond the claims of the quartos – a criticism which implied that the authority on which the whole edition was based was fundamentally misconceived – and he cavilled at their use of brackets to mark Jonson’s elisions, which to him seemed unnecessarily pedantic. He summed up, ‘the editing throughout gives me a feeling of fussy interference’ (Greg, 1942).

See Bland (2004), n.88. Bland notes that one example survives, at the University of Chicago Library, MS.1008 (a transcript of Every Man In; the catalogue currently identifies the hand as that of F. I. Carpenter, but this appears to be an error). Bland gives a severe account of Simpson’s shortcomings as an editor.

Folger Shakespeare Library, Y.d.609(31): P. Simpson to F. P. Wilson, 1 October 1941. The manuscript is in the Duke of Devonshire’s collection at Chatsworth. Simpson made his notes at Chatsworth in 1905, though the manuscript was temporarily relocated to the Bodleian at his request in 1938 (Osborn MSS 8, Box 10: E. S. Strong to Simpson, 18 August 1905; T. S. Wragg to Simpson, 21 July 1938).

Folger Shakespeare Library, Y.d.609(19): P. Simpson to F. P. Wilson, 23 October 1940 (Simpson is referring specifically to volume 4, where the incidence of error was highest). The Folger documents are items of correspondence that were interleaved in Wilson’s copy of the Oxford Jonson when it was bequeathed to the library.

Oxford English Faculty Library, Percy Simpson Papers, Box 2, Jonson correspondence, items 4-5 (a collation of the Corpus Christi College quarto of Sejanus).

Osborn MSS 8, Box 9 Folder 3: Herford to Simpson, 12 February 1904.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 8, Folder 5: Alfred de Burgh (Librarian, Trinity College Dublin) to Simpson, 30 March 1904; Osborn MSS 8 Box 9, Folder 3: Herford to Simpson, 20 April 1904; OUP Archives, 811360, Box OP2759, P. Simpson to K. Sisam, 1 February 1948.

Osborn MSS, Greg, Box 9, Folder 10 [labelled Box 10], Simpson to Greg, 21 August 1925. Simpson drew on Briggs’s work on the attribution of Jonson’s dubia, though he rejected several of his conclusions.

OUP Archives, 811352.8, E. Simpson to R. W. Chapman, 16 January 1929, 21 March 1929.

OUP Archives, 811352.8, R. W. Chapman, note of meeting with Percy Simpson, 1 April 1930; 811355, Box 2759, P. Simpson to Sisam, 20 December 1934. The New Inn is mentioned in Percy’s report to the Leverhulme Trust (see the next note).

Osborn MSS 8, Box 10, folder 13 (Percy’s draft report to the Leverhulme Trust on his work for 1935-7).

H&S, 11.66-70: developed from Evelyn’s essay ‘Jonson and Donne’, (E. Simpson, 1939). The notes on Underwood 79 were developed from Evelyn’s essay ‘Ben Jonson’s A New-Yeares-Gift’ (1938). She also wrote a long essay on ‘Jonson’s later plays and masques’ which was never published (Osborn MSS 90, Box 25, folder 317). There is surprisingly little in her essay on ‘Jonson and Dickens: a study in the comic genius of London’ (1943) which feeds into the commentary, despite the overlap with the account of Dickens’s performance as Bobadill in the stage history for Every Man In (H&S, 9.181-4). Usefully, the typescript of the essay on the late plays contains pasted-in extracts from the marked-up proofs to volume 7, the annotations to which demonstrate that she and Percy both read proof.

In fact, Herford had been uneasy about having his name attached posthumously to the later volumes, which by rights he felt should simply be published as Percy’s: OUP Archives, 811355, Box 2759; letter from Evelyn Simpson, 8 April [no year].

‘The folio text of Ben Jonson’s Sejanus ’, Anglia , 61 (1937),[Textual essay bib] 398. Evelyn was responding to de Vocht’s edition of Sejanus in Materials for the Study of Old English Drama, 11 (1935), and to his broader arguments in his editions of Poetaster and Volpone, and his Comments on the Text of Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour: A Research about the Comparative Value of the Quarto and the Folio, Materials, vols. 9 (1934), 13 (1937), and 14 (1937).

The exception is the work of Chanita Goodblatt: see Goodblatt (2009a) and (2009b) .

Osborn Shelves, Greg, Box 9, Folder 10 [labelled Box 10], P. Simpson to Greg, 3 November 1938; Oxford English Faculty Library, Percy Simpson Papers, Jonson correspondence file, 2-3 (Greg to Simpson, 10 June 1934, 11 June 1937). Greg had edited Every Man In, Every Man Out, and The Sad Shepherd as part of Willi Bang’s Materialien zur Kunde de alteren Englischen dramas (the first series of ), vols. 10 (1905), 11 (1905) and 17 (1907).

Folger Shakespeare Library, Y.d.609(22): Greg to Wilson, undated.

Greg (1926c), 139; (1926d), 340-7. Greg first sketched the editors’ problems with chronology in Greg, 1926e,, though not all of his arguments stand up to scrutiny: see Butler (2003), reproduced in the CWBJ Electronic Edition as ‘The riddle of Jonson’s chronology revisited’.

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