Conversation With Keri Walsh, Part Three: Editing the Modernists

In honor of the publication of her edition of Sylvia Beach’s letters, I wanted to do something special here at Fernham. As part of Sylvia Beach Week, Keri Walsh and I “interviewed” each other over email. We continued the conversation we began at her reading at Bluestockings books in May, touching on the challenges of editing, on women modernists, on bookstores, archives, and common readers. We could barely stop talking, so the conversation is in four parts. I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it!

Keri: As I mentioned to you after the Bluestockings reading, I would find the task of editing Mrs. Dalloway intimidating because of the venerable editors who have come before.  Can you say a little bit about your relationship to past editions of the novel, and perhaps tell me about one or two interesting decisions you’ve had to make that depart from decisions made by past editors?  Or can you say something more generally about how these earlier editors appear in your mind as you work—as friends, supporters, rivals, buddies?

Anne: After four years of working on this project (off and on, often in the margins), I have finally reached the stage where my excitement about it is slightly greater than my intimidation. It’s been really hard.

There are three important editions of Mrs. Dalloway that come before me. I was really grateful that the Cambridge general editors made it their policy that we don’t pick fights with prior editions or go out of our way to mention their errors. I don’t know G. Patton Wright at all, but his edition has a really strong sense of the novel’s textual history. That has been a big help. I have a longstanding and friendly email correspondence with Murray Beja and his very funny essay on coming to love textual editing after being skeptical was immensely reassuring to me when I was most bored and intimidated by the tedium of collating editions. He is like a kind uncle to me and I’m deeply grateful for that. David Bradshaw worked off Wright’s edition in preparing a paperback student edition for Oxford. When I finally realized I could just use his historical research as a source in itself, I stopped feeling even the least bit rivalrous. Besides, I know David and like him immensely. He’s editing another of Woolf’s novels for Cambridge and I think it’s a stroke of luck that I get to follow along after him. That is not to say that these three are among the readers whose opinions I most dread.

One of the changes that editors often make regards Elizabeth Dalloway’s dress at the party: it’s referred to three times as pink and once as red. Editors often see that red as a mistake and it’s true that Woolf could be careless at the proof stage. But the person who perceives the dress as red is Sally. Of course, if a dress could flicker between pink and red, Sally Seton would be the one who would see it as red. I’m sticking with it as written, I’ll flag it for the readers, and let them write their own interpretations. I don’t think that’s a mistake.

Keri: When I was working on Beach’s letters, whenever I was in doubt about an editorial decision, I turned to Bonnie Kime Scott’s edition of Rebecca West’s letters.  They were my model.  Do you find inspiration in any particularly exemplary volumes?  What editions of modernist novel do you admire?

Anne: I love Bonnie and she edited Dalloway for Harcourt, but that’s not a model edition for me—it’s too friendly and too close. It’s great for students, but it’s not the work I’m doing here. The edition that I admire most is my friend Jeri Johnson’s Oxford edition of Ulysses. It created all kinds of textual controversies—as such things always do—and that’s not going to be an issue for any book but Ulysses. The inspiration for me is how Jeri is equally interested in chasing down historical and literary allusions and that’s one of my chief aims: to have footnotes about the demolition of Devonshire House (which Clarissa remembers going to parties at and which was torn down between when Woolf submitted the proofs and the novel’s publication date) and footnotes about allusions to the Bible.

The CUP general editors, Jane Goldman and Susan Sellers, have been incredibly generous, sending us all computer files of their notes and apparatus along the way. They are each working on a novel, too (To the Lighthouse and The Waves, respectively) and I’m really lucky that the wonderful Woolf scholar Mark Hussey is doing Between the Acts for CUP, lives in New York, and is a friend. When I get really desperate, I ask him to have lunch with me. He always cheers me up and spurs me on.