Monday, February 28, 2011

Collection of Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Work Contains New Material

A University of North Dakota authority on Victorian era poetry and literature is celebrating collaborative efforts that has resulted in a new five-volume edition of the works of famed English poet and thinker Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The works contain previously unpublished material. It is the most comprehensive modern collection of Barrett Browning's works to date, and the first new compilation in nearly a century.

A cooperative project by scholars from three countries, the work began in the early 2000s.

Sandra Donaldson, University of North Dakota Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of English and Women Studies, was named to head up one of the more challenging recent scholarly projects in Victorian literature.

A career expert on famed English poet and thinker Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB), Donaldson was the earliest published among a group of fellow EBB scholars who determined that it was time to undertake a full scholarly edition. Those credentials led to her being named general editor of the new five-volume The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2010, Pickering & Chatto).

And now that the long-awaited edition is complete, Donaldson can reflect on the specialization and collaboration that made it all possible.

"I like taking care of details, organizing things, seeing patterns," Donaldson said, explaining the work of general editor.

Donaldson led a varied and talented team of junior and established EBB scholars in creating the edition. Nine people from three countries (the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom) are listed as part of the editorial team, including university professors and curators at the Armstrong Browning Library of Baylor University. One of the editors, Barbara Neri, is also a performance artist who specializes in spot-on, historical re-enactments of Barrett Browning.

A number of graduate students and other scholars also are credited with assisting the project.

"We all were writing, and in addition I had to make the voice consistent across all five volumes," Donaldson said of one of her duties as general editor.

The idea for the project stemmed from a 1995 conversation among Donaldson and two other principal editors, Marjorie Stone, professor of English and women's studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Beverly Taylor, professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The three lamented the lack of quality and accurate materials for teaching university students about EBB.

Available at the time were outdated works with no annotations, some errors and missing facts because they simply were not known yet. Donaldson and her colleagues knew that without a full scholarly edition, with all the right background and context, a good classroom edition of EBB's works could not be achieved.

In the early 2000s, work on a new scholarly edition began in earnest. A publisher, London-based Pickering & Chatto, was chosen and work was divided and assigned among the editors. Another important consideration was how "copy-texts" -- an author's original text -- might be treated and defended in the new edition.

"Some say only the first version should be used because that is what created the writer's first audience," Donaldson said. "I didn't really like that idea at all because so much was added (in EBB's later versions.)"

Donaldson's team had hoped to tackle the daunting task in three volumes, but the publisher suggested more, settling on the eventual five-volume set early in the process.

"I never imagined it would be that big," she said.

Donaldson was a hands-on manager, not only serving as general editor but also as volume editor of parts three, four and five, including EBB's verse novel, "Aurora Leigh." Stone and Taylor primarily handled parts one and two.

Donaldson said Volume Five, with its inclusion of works that had remained largely unknown -- some uncollected during her lifetime and others simply unrecognized as hers -- was especially exciting to research.

"I love (all the volumes), but that (Volume Five) was the most fun to do because we were truly discovering things," she said.

Donaldson said the collaborative nature of the project worked because there was an implicit sense of trust among the writers despite their geographical differences.

The collaborations were not exclusive to the established EBB scholars on the team. Junior scholars, who in some cases were working toward their master's and doctoral degrees, also benefited.

While at UND, master's degree candidate Jane Stewart Laux contributed to the edition by painstakingly recording variants to EBB's "An Island," inspecting it line-by-line and comparing it with various other versions of the same poem. After graduation, she was named editorial associate on the project.

"She had some wonderful material to work with and she got paid to do it," Donaldson said.

Then there was Clara Drummond, who, at the time the project was in development, was a doctoral student at Boston University. Drummond's master's thesis and Ph.D. dissertation on EBB's translations of Aeschylus' "Prometheus Bound," as well as Drummond's classical journal essay on the same topic, were used and cited extensively by Donaldson in a portion of the edition.

Donaldson also credits Simon Avery, a senior lecturer of humanities at the University of Hertfordshire in England, as another invaluable member of the team. During the course of the project, he became a professor at the University of Westminster in London.

"We learned a lot from Simon, in particular, and Clara did an incredible task — she had knowledge that we did not have," Donaldson said.

Donaldson said the entire process was an effective exercise in collaborative writing. The resulting edition now allows readers, literary historians, students and scholars to more easily study the life and works of EBB.

"Before, you'd have to go to the different libraries around the world where we went to read them," she said. "There were no other places to see these unpublished works, of course."

As part of a requirement to receive National Endowment for the Humanities funding that helped support the project, Donaldson and her team had to lay out a plan for digitizing their work; in other words, make the research accessible on the Web.

Donaldson currently is working with UND's Chester Fritz Library to create a Web presence that features full presentation of all versions of some of EBB's substantially revised poems.

Donaldson said she is happy with the way the long-overdue EBB scholarly edition turned out. It had been more than a century since anything equivalent had been published. She said also she is grateful for the support of the UND community and the great reception the edition has received.

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