When is a Mistake not a Mistake?

In my last couple of posts I’ve been exploring the editing of texts, one of the four aspects of my conception of philology. I imagined a philologist two thousand years in the future who is trying to deal with English-language texts from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; her situation was a sort of analogue to the problems a philologist of our time has to deal with when reading a text from ancient Greece or Rome. The analogy isn’t perfect, and in my next post I will explain some of the extra complications we face when reading classical texts. But for now I will continue with two more examples of problem texts my future philologist has to edit.

In the examples we have looked at so far, the future philologist begins by noticing what she takes to be something wrong in the text. If there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing to correct. In Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, the word “rtaffic” was wrong, and so our philologist corrected it to “traffic”. But the examples that I’m considering today show that a text can’t be rejected just because it initially seems to be wrong or doesn’t make sense—or at least we need to be careful about what it means to make sense.

This time my future philologist has been assigned a twentieth-century children’s book, T. H. White’s novel The Sword in the Stone, a story about the childhood of King Arthur (London: Collins Publishing Group; 1971 [1938]). My philologist has reached the point in the story when Arthur (or the Wart, as he is called in the story) has found himself a tutor—the wizard Merlyn. As part of the Wart’s education, Merlyn turns him into various animals. This passage describes the first of these transformations, as the Wart becomes a fish:

“I wish I was a fish,” said the Wart.

“What kind of fish?”

It was almost too hot to think about this, but the Wart stared down into the cool amber depths where a school of small perch were aimlessly hanging about.

“I think I should like to be a perch,” he said. “They are braver than the silly roach, and not quite so slaughterous as the pike.”

Merlyn took off his hat, raised his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly: “Snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?”

At first glance, the last part of this passage is complete gibberish; our future philologist would throw up her hands in dismay. (Remember that English is not our philologist’s native language; in fact she doesn’t speak English at all, she only reads it as a language now long dead and only existing in specialized dictionaries.) Something has gone terribly wrong with a whole sentence, she would say. Did something go wrong in the process of printing to garble the text? What can we do to correct this? Where do we even begin?

A little examination shows, however, that there is method to the madness. All the words are perfectly correct, but spelled backwards. In correct order, the sentence reads, “Merlyn’s compliments to Neptune, and will he kindly accept this boy as a fish?”

In the passage from The Man in the High Castle, we confidently changed the word “rtaffic” to “traffic” because we could see that the first two letters had been reversed. Should we therefore change the order of all the letters in all of these words to restore the correct order?

The answer, of course, is no, we shouldn’t change a thing. White meant this passage to be spelled backwards, as a kind of representation of a magic spell. It’s a little game, which he hopes his readers will understand.

How do we know that this is the correct interpretation? We are used to the idea of what might be called ritual deformation in magic spells. Even the word Abracadabra is a kind of ritual deformation. So we would expect the language of Merlyn’s spell to be in some way out of the ordinary. We are also used to backwards language in magic spells. Merlyn’s spell is a very tame and domesticated version of a backwards spell.

As always, we are trying to recover the intent of the original author. We can be sure that Dick meant to write “traffic”, and we can be sure that White meant to write this passage backwards. In this instance, the more wrong the passage is, the more likely it is to be correct. It’s easy to imagine that two letters have been turned around by accident, but much harder to imagine that a whole sentence has been accidentally reversed. Here a conservative editor would be right; this interpretation preserves the text by preserving the mistake, which isn’t a mistake at all.

And finally, our future philologist is faced with a problem which is also a problem for an editor today. This problem concerns a few passages in Jane Austen’s Emma (New York: Norton; A Norton Critical Edition, fourth edition; edited by George Justice, 2012). This novel was first published in 1816; Austen died shortly thereafter, before there was any second edition; we have no author’s manuscripts, and so the only witness to the text is the original edition.

One of the minor characters in the novel is named Mrs. Elton. She enters the story in Volume II, Chapter XIV (though she has been mentioned earlier); she has just recently married the vicar, Mr. Elton. In Volume I, Chapter XVI, Mr. Elton had proposed to Emma; after Emma rejects him, he goes on a trip to Bath, where he meets and courts Augusta Hawkins. When he brings her back as his bride, Emma finds that she is a pretentious fool. The first extended conversation between Emma and Mrs. Elton displays her vanity, bad manners, and ignorance. Towards the end of the conversation Mrs. Elton refers to her husband (“Mr. E.”, as she calls him) as her “cara sposo”. This phrase is incorrect Italian for “caro sposo”, that is, “dear husband”; the adjective “cara” is in the feminine, but it should be “caro” to agree with the masculine “sposo”. When Emma sums up the visit to herself she repeats the phrase: “Insufferable woman! …. Worse than I had supposed. Absolutely insufferable! …. A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr. E., and her cara sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery.”

Just a few pages later, in Volume II, Chapter XVII, Mrs. Elton uses the phrase again: “I assure you I began to think my cara sposa would be absolutely jealous.” Here both the adjective and the noun are feminine, though she is speaking of her husband. And in Volume III, Chapter VI, she uses the phrase one more time, this time formed correctly: “I wish we had a donkey. The thing would be for us all to come on donkies, Jane, Miss Bates, and me—and my caro sposo walking by.” [The spelling “donkies” is in the text, by the way; I suspect it’s an acceptable older spelling, where today we would write “donkeys”: another question for our philologist.]

Clearly someone has made a mistake. But who? Has Jane Austen herself been so ignorant of the Italian phrase that she unintentionally wrote it three different ways? I find that hard to believe. Perhaps the printer made a mistake. The 1816 text has a few printer’s errors; in Volume II, Chapter XIV, for instance, the text has Mrs. Elton say about her sister’s home, “I have spent so many happy months there! (with a little sign of sentiment).” The Norton Edition prints “sigh” instead of “sign”, with the footnote “1816 has ‘sign,’ which is probably a printer’s error”. Perhaps Austen wrote “caro sposo” in all four passages, but three of them were printed incorrectly. R. W. Chapman’s  Oxford Edition, which is the standard edition, thus prints “caro sposo” in all four passages. Chapman is a great editor, and his opinion should be taken seriously. But I think in this instance he’s wrong.

I see another possibility—an interpretation which allows us to retain the original text: the error is not Austen’s, and not the printer’s, but Mrs. Elton’s. In this case, the text as printed reflects Austen’s intention, and Austen’s intention was to show that Mrs. Elton pretentiously uses this Italian phrase without knowing Italian. I think when Emma repeats Mrs. Elton’s “cara sposo” we are supposed to know that Emma recognized that Mrs. Elton had made a mistake. This mistake is one small touch in Austen’s characterization of Mrs. Elton. Therefore I would leave the text as it was originally printed. This is also the judgement of the editor of the Norton Edition, George Justice, though he doesn’t explain his reasons.

This conservative interpretation, which leaves the test as it is, is not just based on technical considerations of orthography or grammar or the technology of printing. If Mrs. Elton were not such a pompous fool, we might want to change the text, but the text as it is contributes to her characterization. The decision to retain the printed text is essentially an act of literary criticism, a judgment of Austen’s intention.

Some editorial decisions, such as changing “rtaffic” to “traffic” or “modem” to “modern” are more or less mechanical. But deciding to change or not to change Austen’s text is not mechanical; it’s a question of literary judgment. I think that leaving Austen’s text as it is makes a better text, a text which is consistent with Austen’s subtle wit. But that’s my judgment.

Modern texts are usually relatively free of errors, and most of the errors that occur are easy to correct. Our future philologist doesn’t really have a lot of work to do. Ancient texts, however, texts from ancient Greece and Rome, are full of mistakes, and correcting those mistakes is part of the business of classical philology. Before we can read Homer, or Sophocles, or Propertius we have to know what we are reading and why we should trust that what we are reading is what the author intended us to read. In my next post I will talk about a few interesting problems in some classical texts.

2 thoughts on “When is a Mistake not a Mistake?

  1. This is, again, very interesting and, not surprisingly, I agree with your conservative editorial choices here as well as your judgments of both Austen’s intention and her text. What happens if these two judgments are in conflict, if I think the better, more interesting, text might not be what the author intended? I know the philological editor must be faithful to the author’s intention, but I’m not so sure about the literary critic, or appreciator. Did you once give an example of a group of readers who refused to accept a living author’s correction of his (I think) text? “Authorial intention” and “best text” are, of course, kind of slippery ideas to be contrasted. I can’t wait to learn more about how philologists think about the intentions of classical authors.


  2. Now you’ve got me distracted. If I ever gave the example you mention, I’ve forgotten it. Any idea what it was about? But a few things come to mind. Late in his life, Henry James revised his early novels, and some people feel that the originals are better than the revisions. Many of them are now available in both versions; I own “The American” in both the original and in the revision. There’s also the famous reversed chapters in “The Ambassadors”; some people (I think the majority) agree that the printer made a mistake, and so it’s usually printed now with the change, but I have read critics who would keep the order of the first printed editions. Dickens wrote two endings for “Great Expectations”, and often both are printed. Dramatic texts are changed by directors and performers all the time. There’s a passage in Sophocles’ “Antigone” which a lot of editors think is not by Sophocles—I intend to talk about that when I return to the topic of editing, in a week or two or three….


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