Marginalia and the Heart of Writing Inside Books

A few years ago, I picked up an old copy of a biography on Emily Bronte.   Inside the front cover, a woman had inscribed her name and dated it over thirty years ago.  And throughout the book, she’d underlined her favorite passages.   I don’t know anything about this woman except she shared a love for the Brontes.

Books of mine are filled with my own underlines, and flashes of ideas that have come to me when I didn’t have any other paper on hand.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines marginalia as,  “marginal notes or embellishments (as inside a book) “.

However, this succinct description does not dwell into the heart of the practice.

Coined by Samuel Coleridge,  the first known use of the term is found in a 1819 edition of Blackwood’s Magazine.   He wrote once, “”A book, I value.   I reason & quarrel with as with myself when I am reasoning.”

At times, Coleridge even  drolly criticized his own, earlier lines he came across.  “Hang me, if I know or ever did know the meaning of them.”

  Years later, Edgar Allen Poe titled many of his own articles, Marginalia.

However, the practice of scribbling comments inside books goes back much further.  Arguably, the most famous example is Fermat’s last theorem.  

The most common form of marginalia are the underlines, scribbles, and comments a reader makes.  While marking the book, they inadvertently reveal little aspects of themselves.  What lines of dialogue made them laugh, what bits of prose affected them emotionally, or made them think.

Other readers debate the writer’s theories with their own points of view on a subject.

Besides commentary,  the sides of pages have been used by writers to scribble their own works.  Whilst in prison, Voltaire used the margins of a book to pen his play, Oedipus.  

On the eve of his execution, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote this poem inside his bible:

“Even such is time, which takes in trust
    Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us nought but age and dust;
    Which in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days!
And from which grave, and earth, and dust,
The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.’
Many are aghast at the thought of writing inside a book.  It’s almost an unsaid taboo.  Yet for others, it is a way to collect their thoughts, to share, and to express. 
  Voltaire
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Famous Victorian Obituaries

I thought the following obituaries of famous persons from the Regency and later Victorian era would be historically interesting as a demonstration of just how cruel Victorian society could be.

Of Mary Wollstonecraft, (1759-1797) author of  AVindication of the Rights of Woman, and A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution,  who died a few days after giving birth, the anti-Jacoban Review mocked,  “She died a death that strongly marked the distinction of the sexes, by pointing out the destiny of women.”

On William Godwin (Wollstonecraft’s husband, most famous for his book, Political Justice which called for the end of marriage in its then current form which he denounced as slavery for  women as they lost all bodily and monetary rights to their spouse; as well as calling for an end to government, and instead envisioned an ideal society where reasonable people would act for the good of all:

“In weighing well his merits with his moral imperfections, it is melancholy to discover how far the latter preponderated, and we are led to the very painful though certain conclusion, that it might have been better for mankind had he never existed.”- The Gentleman’s Magazine

John Bull magazine wrote upon the news of poet Percy Shelley’s death,  “The author of that abominable and blasphemous book called Queen Mab  was lately drowned.”

And here are snippets from The Death of Edgar Allen Poe from the New York Tribune in 1849:   “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it…..

Passion, in him, comprehended many of the worst emotions, which militate against human happiness. You could not contradict him, but you raised quick choler. You could not speak of wealth, but his cheek paled with gnawing envy. The astonishing natural advantage of this poor boy, his beauty, his readiness, the daring spirit that breathed around him like a fiery atmosphere, had raised his constitutional self-confidence into an arrogance that turned his very claims to admiration into prejudice against him. Irascible, envious, bad enough, but not the worst, for these salient angles were all varnished over with a cold repellant cynicism while his passions vented themselves in sneers. There seemed to him no moral susceptibility. And what was more remarkable in a proud nature, little or nothing of the true point of honor. He had, to a morbid excess, that desire to rise which is vulgarly called ambition, but no wish for the esteem or the love of his species, only the hard wish to succeed, not shine, not serve, but succeed, that he might have the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit.”

The  New York Tribune did, however at least go on to praise his work and declare of the Raven,  “”it is the most effective single example of fugitive poetry ever published in this country, and is unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conceptions, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent sustaining of imaginative lift.”

A Writer’s Mad Tea Party

“A bright idea came into Alice’s head. ‘Is that the reason so many tea-things are put out here?’ she asked.

‘Yes, that’s it,’ said the Hatter with a sigh: ‘it’s always tea-time, and we’ve no time to wash the things between whiles.'”- from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

If you could cordially invite six authors (3 males, 3 females- living or dead) to a tea party- who would they be?

Sitting around my checkered-clothed table, while  indulging in scones, clotted cream and jam, I would love to converse with the following:

1. Agatha Christie- Not only did she write over 80 novels and therein create the über-sharp Miss Marple and brilliant Hercule Poirot (Belgium.  Warning: Never call him French), but she was a nurse during the second World War, and later traveled around the world from England to Australia to Egypt.   The  true stories she could regale us with!

2.  Mark Twain-  Not only a great writer (Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer…), but witty as all hell.  I’d invite him just to hear him wax poetic on the German language:  http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/awfgrmlg.html

3.  Anne Bronte- Of course, a Bronte must be invited to my party.  Why not Emily or Charlotte?  Well, let’s face it.  Emily would just turn down the invitation, and spend the day roaming through her moors.   Charlotte would be fun, but she left us many letters.   Anne, however, has been quieted throughout the centuries.  But it’s obvious in her novels, Agnes Grey and Tenant of Wildfell Hall that she was very perceptive of human nature with much to say.   I’d want to meet the oft- forgotten sister.

4.   Edgar Allen Poe- To him recite The Raven, The Conqueror Worm, and Annabel Lee.  To listen to how he came up with his ideas for The Tell-tale Heart, Ligeia, and more.  And most of all, to let the man know who died penniless and alone,   how beloved and respected his work is today.

5.  Daphne Du Maurier-  When she wasn’t spinning  incredible gothic romance tales such as  Rebecca and Jamaicca Inn,  she was penning chilling tales such as The Birds and Don’t Look Now.    I’d love to hear her insights on plot and narrative structure.

6. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle- Creator of  Sherlock Holmes.  That’s reason enough.   But he was also part of the 19th century Spiritualist movement and it would be so much fun to hear first hand accounts of seances he attended.

So, who is cordially invited to your tea party?