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The Making of the Oxford Ben Jonson

Martin Butler

Stung by what came across as a wholesale attack on their work, Evelyn replied in print with a spirited, if deferential rejoinder (E. Simpson, 1942), but her real sense of grievance and conflicting loyalties was expressed privately, in a letter that she sent to Greg, evidently without Percy’s knowledge:  

Dear Dr Greg

Thank you very much for your letter. I can say in a letter what I would not say in print, that certain of your criticisms represent, in stronger form, my own ideas about the presentation of our edition. For example, I really dislike the too frequent insertion of such obvious vowels as ‘o’ in ‘to’, where there is elision, & I had asked my husband to refrain from it where it seemed unnecessary. Again with regard to The Golden Age Restored [where Greg had questioned Percy’s re-ordering of the final lines] I tried to get him to word his statement less dogmatically. I should prefer, in a number of places, to make it clear that what we intend is a reasonable deduction from the facts at our disposal, not an assumption of intimate knowledge of Jonson’s doings. But he is nearly seventy-seven, & I do not like to press opposition on matters which really seem to me trivial.

These concessions acknowledged both Evelyn’s sense of obligation to her husband and her uncertainties about the project in which she was engaged. Greg’s critique had brought into focus reservations about the value of the work which she had partially formulated for herself, leaving her deflated and doubtful:

As to a definitive edition, I doubt whether there can be any such thing with an author like Ben. Editors, even the best of them, are fallible, & though we have struggled hard & given years of honest work to each volume, I can see for myself that the result has not been all that it might have been.

She was, though, equally adamant that Greg had not treated them fairly: ‘What I felt about your review as a whole was that you had taken up too much space over very minor errors, & that it was likely to give the impression – which I am sure you did not intend – that our work was a mass of errors . . . Some of the points which you made in your article seemed almost too trivial to be worth answering.’ And then came a personal rebuke, which suggested how far the Simpsons, engaged in a lifetime’s dedication to a single huge project and without the private income that made Greg’s vast scholarship possible, were anxious that their efforts were not really appreciated:

Osborn Shelves, Greg, Box 9: E. Simpson to Greg, 15 August 1942.

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