Background: Silver – 2023 talk

 Right Place, Right Time: An Origins Story

Brenda Silver

     You could say that the story of Virginia Woolf’s Reading Notebooks, of how it came to be, hinges on my being in the right place at the right time: a combination of luck and circumstance, rather than a deliberate research project.  This makes it, I suspect, similar to the haphazard origins of a lot of academic work.  If I were to tell the full story, it would have to begin the summer before my senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, when the sociology professor I was working for encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship; it would also have to include my sister’s PhD advisor at Penn who happened to be British and who suggested that I ask to work with Kathleen and Geoffrey Tillotson on the serialization of Dickens.  That’s what brought me to Kings College London in the fall of 1964, where my supervisor, who was not a Tillotson, told me I could work on anything I liked.  At the time I was living in Bloomsbury, on Mecklenburgh Square, and, having written my senior thesis on Faulkner, I started reading Virginia Woolf.  Luckily for me Kings had just hired a young woman out of Oxford, Leonee Ormond, a Victorianist who loved Woolf, who agreed to take me on.

          [Aside: It was not until much later that I realized what a genuine stroke of luck Leonee’s Oxford background was.  At the time English studies were dominated by F.R. Leavis, who had famously relegated Woolf to a footnote in the great tradition of the English novel.  Had Leonee been at Cambridge, where Leavis held sway, she might well have turned me down, and none of this would have happened.]

          When I decided to apply to the PhD program at Kings, I offered as my topic a study of Mrs. Dalloway read through the three volumes of manuscript drafts for the novel located in the British Library.  In the spring of that year I learned from a visiting American that there were three more volumes of drafts in the Berg Collection, which is housed in the New York Public Library.  That’s how I found myself in the summer of 1965 standing at the entrance to the Berg.  As required, I checked everything except my pencil and notebook at the door.  I walked up to the desk, asked the librarian sitting there to see the three Dalloway manuscripts, and sat down to wait.  Simple enough, I thought.  What I didn’t know at the time was that much of the Woolf collection, including the manuscripts I wanted to see, had not yet been catalogued, despite their having been acquired seven years before.  A long time elapsed.  More time elapsed.  Finally the young man returned carrying a huge stack of notebooks.  “I don’t know which ones they are,” he said; “you have a look.”

          So I did.  I looked at one and then another and then another.  I couldn’t stop.  What I had in front of me was notebook after notebook filled with Woolf’s thoughts and ideas and outlines and drafts for all sorts of things, including thirty-three volumes of reading notes.  And then, like the narrator in A Room of One’s Own,my reverie was interrupted by an angry male.  In this case the male was John Gordon, the Curator of the Berg at the time.  He was away when I discovered the manuscripts, and when he returned he stood over me yelling that I had gone behind his back to get them, that I wasn’t supposed to have access to them, who was I anyway.  I was mortified, and scared.  But he didn’t stop me from reading them.  It was then that I decided to make what started as a simple companion to the notes that would describe what was in each volume and identify the author and title of the text Woolf was commenting on.  My plan was to go back to London, track down the titles, create a list, or guide, and give it to the Berg for other readers to use.  Then, I thought, Gordon would take me seriously and allow me to include the reading notes in my own work.

          Over the next two years in London and one more summer at the Berg I worked on this project. I also spent a magical day at Monks House where I consulted Leslie Stephen’s library and shared tea and a talk with Leonard.  By the time I finished the preliminary guide Lola Sladitz had replaced John Gordon as Curator, and I knew Lola well.  Brenda, she said to me when I arrived with my guide, you shouldn’t just give your work to the Berg; you should fill it out and publish it.

          That was the summer of 1967.  Eight years later, 1975-76, I was back in London for the year, supposedly researching a book on British women writers, but my heart wasn’t in it.  I knew by then that the University of Sussex had acquired a large collection of Woolf’s papers when Leonard died, including what turned out to be thirty-three more volumes of reading notes, and I wanted to see them.  I still had all the work that I had done for the original list, and at the back of my mind I could hear Lola saying, you should fill it in and publish it.  Yes, I realized, she’s right.

          From that moment until the book was published in 1983 I spent what amounted to years of my life in the Berg Collection, the University of Sussex Library, the British Library, and, particularly, the London Library, where Woolf had done so much of her reading.  I also visited the Beinecke Library at Yale when I learned that it too had a reading notebook; and I spent more time than I care to remember at the then primitive British Library newspaper archive at Colindale, North London, when I was working on the Roger Fry notes.  The process of creating the guide was both tedious and exhilarating.  The first step was using my pencil to copy all of Woolf’s notes into my notebook, exactly as they appeared on her page; this was well before the manuscripts were photocopied, microfilmed, or digitized.  Then I would go to the British Library, or, more likely, the London Library to track down the sources for the notes, trying as hard as possible to identify the specific edition of the work.  When they were present, I was helped by the page numbers Woolf had written next to her notes; when I didn’t have these it was far more time consuming to locate the actual text she was referring to.  Some of the entries included the dates when they were made, a bonus when it came to figuring out what the notes were for; to do this, I relied heavily on the bibliography of Woolf’s published essays and reviews.  Each library had its own system for numbering their volumes, which, I should add, did not reflect any kind of chronology; not did it group volumes on the same topic together.  I retained the original numbers but also added my own, ranging sequentially from one to sixty-seven.  I divided each volume into two sections: Table of Contents and Entries, and wrote an introduction for it.  Everything had to be checked and doubled-checked and triple-checked, but finally it was done.

          Research, of course, is one thing; publication is another, and here again place and time played a crucial role: first, when I was hired by Dartmouth College in1972; and second, when I met and married a man whose background was in computer typesetting.  Dartmouth, as it happened, possessed one of the most sophisticated computing systems then available on a university campus.  Its president, John Kemeny, was not only the co-creator of BASIC, a highly influential early computer language, but, even more important, he had developed one of the first time sharing systems, which allowed multiple users sitting at separate terminals to use the large mainframe computer at the same time.  Personal computers were not yet part of the scene. 

          Why does this matter?  As you can see, the format of the Reading Notebooks is not straight forward prose.  It has multiple headings, short phrases, indentations, abbreviations, ellipses, and odd punctuation.  No one would look at it and say, Oh, I’d love to typeset that—or proofread it after it was set.  It was Paul, my husband, who figured out that we could enter all the text into the computer, transfer it to a tape, and offer it to a press camera-ready.  He designed a system for placing markers in the text that would automatically be used to insert the codes needed by the typesetting machine.  Once that was done we hired a series of people who worked at the computer center to enter the data.  When, finally, it was all there, a former Classics professor turned computer guru converted the tape to camera ready copy, and we sent it off to Princeton University Press.

          Why Princeton?  Yet another “right place, right time” story.  I don’t remember exactly when Helen Tartar came to Dartmouth to scout for books that Princeton might want to publish—probably 1977—but I made an appointment to see her.  She liked what she heard about the notebooks; we got along well; and as she was staying over in Hanover that night, I invited her to dinner.  That’s when it all came together.  Helen’s background was in East Asian languages and literature; Paul had recently developed a program for typesetting Arabic and Farsi, and had looked into applying it to Chinese.  They clicked.  At some point Paul mentioned that when the book was done we could provide Princeton with a camera-ready version, and the rest, as they say, is history.  It’s possible, I suppose, that Princeton might have published it anyway, but there is no question that circumventing the traditional typesetting process was a plus for them.

          One last point.  When I decided to research and publish a detailed guide to Woolf’s reading notebooks, both friends and colleagues warned me that a work of textual scholarship would not get me tenure at Dartmouth, that I needed a critical study, not a research tool.  In theory, they were right; it was going to be hard sell.  But by the second half of the 1970s scholarship on Woolf was booming.  The Berg Collection and the Sussex Archives were a hive of activity.  Scholars were busily editing her unpublished works, and more and more readers were coming to explore what was there.  All this reassured me that an audience for the guide existed and would continue to grow as people learned about the reading notes and began to incorporate them into their own work.  I also knew the book would last, that it was a resource that scholars would continue to use for years to come.  Inevitably, of course, the book went out of print at Princeton and entered into an afterlife in the second-hand book market, where it remained for many years.  We had had the foresight to ask for the digital rights when the work was first published, but I saw no way of making a digital version happen.

          Then, In 2017, in a final piece of good timing, Dartmouth offered to publish the book in their digital library.  Michèle had by then approached me about integrating the guide into WoolfNotes, and Dartmouth agreed to give me the complete html coding for the work that, when complete, I sent off to Gilly to incorporate into the website.  I can not express strongly enough how happy it makes me to know that my guide will continue its life side-by-side with the reading notes that changed my life that summer day so many years ago.  Thank you, Michèle, for making this possible.

19th May 2023

Scroll to Top