This interview brings together two large-scale editorial projects at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) supported by the MHRA Research Associateship scheme in 2021-2022. The projects are The Cambridge Chaucer, in preparation for Cambridge University Press, and The Letters of William Godwin (2011-), which is being published by Oxford University Press. Barbara Burns talks to the two MHRA Research Associates, Laurie Atkinson (Chaucer) and Jenny McAuley (Godwin), and the two project directors, Julia Boffey and Pamela Clemit.
BB. Laurie, you were appointed in October 2021. Can you tell us a little about your educational background and how this prepared you to work on the Chaucer project?
LA. Chaucer has been my academic lodestone since my undergraduate degree at Durham University, where I was first exposed to the full range of his works. Chaucer’s dream poetry — The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and The Prologue to the Legend of Good Women — began my fascination with quasi-autobiographical first-person narrative, the subject of my Cambridge M.Phil. and Durham Ph.D. Studying the English and Scottish vernacular tradition which took Chaucer as its poetic ‘father’ brought home the immense richness of his corpus and his importance for the history of English literature. In 2021 I completed my Ph.D., in which I studied his vernacular legacy as far as 1532, the year in which Chaucer’s complete works appeared for the first time in print. This is the perfect moment for me to return to the fourteenth century, and to begin work on an exciting new edition for the latest generation of Chaucer readers.
BB. Julia, Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most famous names in English literary history. Can you fill in a little more detail about this new edition of his works? Why is it needed, and what form will it take?
JB. Our edition, for Cambridge University Press, will be the first one to present a scholarly text of all Chaucer’s writings, both verse and prose, in the spelling of the original witnesses. All previous editions, including W. W. Skeat’s influential Clarendon Press edition of The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1894-7) and The Riverside Chaucer — probably the one most familiar to present-day readers — present Chaucer’s works in regularized and modernized forms of spelling. These earlier editions also misrepresent the forms of a number of Chaucer’s works, and hence his canon. Our edition has been conceived to take account of the needs of different readerships, so it’s going to appear in two forms. The first to appear, probably within the next two to three years, will be a two-volume critical edition of Chaucer’s writings, prepared by collation and analysis of all authoritative witnesses, in original spelling, and supported by textual and explanatory notes and a glossary. The second (to appear a year or so later) will be a one-volume edition, limited to Chaucer’s poetry, for students and general readers. It will be based on the texts used for the scholarly edition, but with spelling lightly modernized on consistent principles, and with slimmed-down apparatus. The edition as a whole has two general editors, Professor A. S. G. Edwards and me, and we’re working with a team of twenty-three contributing editors, as well as with Laurie.
BB. Laurie, what is your specific role on the project? Which aspects are you finding most rewarding?
LA. My primary role is collating the texts and notes provided by the contributing editors, checking readings against the manuscript and early print witnesses for Chaucer’s works, and ensuring consistency of format and layout. I am also contributing to research on the introductory material, and I am preparing the headnote and explanatory notes for The Parliament of Fowls. Some of this work requires independent research of less understood aspects of Chaucer’s oeuvre. This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of my role, but it is also greatly rewarding. I am currently investigating the use of decorated initials and paragraph marks (resembling the modern pilcrow symbol ¶) in some of the earliest manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales. My findings will help to inform the division of the texts in the new edition. It will provide insights into how Chaucer was understood by his first readers and copyists, and perhaps even about his own compositional practice. It’s thrilling to be working so closely with Chaucer’s texts and manuscripts — the kind of concentrated study that the pressures of academia rarely allow, but that is daily rewarded with new discoveries.
BB. Jenny, you were appointed in January 2021, having already worked on earlier volumes in Professor Clemit’s project some years ago. Can you tell us something about your career experience in recent years? How has this prepared you for your current work on Volume IV of Godwin’s letters?
JM. Yes, I’ve had the privilege of working on both Volume I (2011) and Volume II (2014) of Godwin’s letters, the second of which includes a tranche of correspondence on his monumental Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1803). This work initiated me into the disciplined, historicist approach needed to convey the significance of an author deeply engaged with the public sphere. Since then, I’ve been teaching Romantic-period literature at the University of Oxford and QMUL. Before that, my first postdoctoral research associateship, on Kathryn Sutherland’s Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts: A Digital Edition (2011), introduced me to editing texts from manuscript, and to understanding manuscripts as physical objects. In 2012, I published the first scholarly edition of Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan’s Florence Macarthy: An Irish Tale (1818) in the Chawton House Library Women’s Fiction series. Now, as a freelance writer, I enjoy publishing articles and features for general audiences. These pieces include a tranche of entries for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, co-authored with Professor Clemit, on figures associated with Godwin, including lesser-known women writers, such as the novelist and children’s author Eliza Fenwick, as well as radical publishers such as Sir Richard Phillips and Thomas Clio Rickman. Other contributions in various outlets have been on Romantic women writers, notably Godwin’s first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft.
BB. Pamela, William Godwin is a leading radical political philosopher, novelist, and social thinker of the British Enlightenment. Can you tell us something about the context and scope of your edition of his letters?
PC. Godwin corresponded with almost everyone of note on the political left from the era of the French Revolution to that of the Great Reform Bill (1832). He left around 1500 mostly unpublished items of correspondence in archives scattered all over the world, which I’m collecting in a uniform scholarly format for the first time. The edition is being published by Oxford University Press in six volumes. This year’s MHRA-funded project is Volume IV, which contains letters from 1816 to 1828 (over 400 items). It charts a new phase in Godwin’s career, in which he published new works on longstanding intellectual interests. These include Of Population (1820), his final reply to Malthus, and two works dealing with seventeenth-century history: the novel Mandeville (1817), and a four-volume History of the Commonwealth (1824-8). Volume IV also sheds light on the dynamics of Godwin’s literary family — including his tense relations with his son-in-law Percy Bysshe Shelley and his daughter Mary — and documents the broader social, political, and cultural history of the era. My editorial policy is to provide a text which represents exactly what Godwin wrote and what his correspondent read. Scholarly annotations provide information that the original reader would have taken for granted. In the case of a polymathic intellectual like Godwin, this is necessarily a multidisciplinary task. I talk more about my editorial principles in my 2021 ‘Five Questions’ interview with the British Association for Romantic Studies.
BB. Jenny, what is your specific role on the project? How is it going so far?
JM. To begin with, my role is to provide research assistance on the explanatory notes, which I am finding very intellectually stimulating. Other tasks will include working closely with Professor Clemit to check the accuracy of transcriptions from manuscript, and, later on, helping to prepare the volume for the Press. Volume IV is extremely rewarding to work on, taking in some dramatic episodes in Godwin’s family life — including his daughter Mary’s marriage to Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1816, and Shelley’s drowning in 1822 — all of which are seen from Godwin’s perspective, which has tended to be neglected or misrepresented. Some of the most complex research tasks so far have involved tracing the legal and financial disputes which led to the bankruptcy of Godwin’s Juvenile Library bookselling and publishing firm in the stock market crash of 1825. Tracking Godwin’s fortunes as a small businessman, rather than as a literary figure, has presented many new challenges and rewards.
Godwin, aged 60, by William Nicholson, 1816, engraved by W. H. Lizars for G. S. Mackenzie’s Illustrations of Phrenology (1820)
BB. Laurie and Jenny, which aspects of being part of the broader academic community at QMUL are most useful to you in terms of career development?
LA. I work remotely from Newcastle but was quickly set up with a QMUL library account, which has been essential for accessing electronic research materials. I’ve also been welcomed into the medievalist postdoctoral network. We meet monthly by Zoom to discuss research, teaching, and funding and job opportunities. It’s great for collegiality among early career researchers. We share our experiences, setbacks, and successes, and there are plans to collaborate in the future.
JM. I too work remotely, from Oxford, but, like Laurie, I am able to keep up with the community life of the School of English and Drama online. I took up my post just a couple of months ago, and I’ve already been welcomed into the Early Career Researcher Work in Progress Seminar. I’m looking forward to online events run by the QMUL Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies and the London-Paris Romanticism Seminar, which was founded by the QMUL English Department.
BB. Julia and Pamela, it’s excellent that the English Department at QMUL has been awarded MHRA Research Associateships for two different projects in a single year. Can you say a little more about the community of early career researchers that Laurie and Jenny have joined?
JB. QMUL has a growing community of doctoral and postdoctoral students and ECRs in English. We’re a very large department, and part of a School of English and Drama, so there are plenty of activities on campus, as well as intercollegiate seminars and many other opportunities to engage with researchers across London. We also host visiting students from all over the world, keeping up a lively exchange of ideas.
PC. Our postdocs and ECRs are keen to share their work beyond QMUL as well. Our own projects, for example, have been highlighted in early-career presentations at conferences of the International New Chaucer Society and the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the major learned societies in our respective fields. As the careers of our two MHRA Research Associates unfold, we hope that their experiences during this year will continue to resonate within and beyond the academy.