I am currently a Teaching Associate on a second year module in the School of English titled ‘Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature’. This semester, to help my students to develop their research skills and understanding of eighteenth-century print culture I have set them all a small research task in which they must track down a title page for a text that we will be reading in class and investigate the rationale behind its printing and marketing. I did not specify that they had to find a first edition of this text, but encouraged them to explore how their text might have been repackaged over time. I fully expected all of my students to locate some interesting editions and to make some compelling observations about who produced them and how they were circulated. What I hadn’t expected was for all of my different classes to accidentally unearth the same text at different points in its history, privileging me (the only person to attend the same seminar for each different group) with a fascinating narrative of a text’s journey through time.
After a text has been published it can often go on to have a long and varied existence, far outliving both its author and that author’s original intentions. Texts can come to have different meanings for different generations, speaking to the feelings and concerns of the historical moment in which they are read. But something that this exercise emphasises really well is that they can also literally change; as they are subjected to editing, censorship or adaptation. It just so happened that when we reached John Milton on my seminar schedule Paradise Lost proved a particularly good example of a ‘text in transmission’, re-appearing in many forms throughout the long eighteenth-century.
The weekend before we were due to cover Paradise Lost I found my inbox filling up with my student’s findings: all equally extraordinary examples of just how shrewd the eighteenth-century booksellers of London and Edinburgh truly were. As the week passed I was increasing taken with the clarity of the narrative that was forming across all of my classes. First, Ailsa Campbell went right back to the beginning to unearth a title-page to a 1667 edition of Paradise Lost (published by none other than one ‘Peter Parker’).
Then, Beth Lodge and Lucy Gosling picked up the narrative over a hundred years later, finding an entrepreneurial group of publishers rebranding the poem as The Fall of Man and supplementing the primary text with wealth of special features (including new notes, translations and detailed illustrations). This edition appeared first in 1755 as a finely produced and prestigious tome, before a cheaper version hit the shelves fifteen years later.
Finally Mattie Belfield discovered a fascinating edition from 1773, in which the poem is adapted into a reference book to be used for the ‘instruction of grammatical construction’ in schools, putting Milton’s poem to a didactic use that I doubt even he could have predicted.
I couldn’t help but tell my students about the story that their findings told when viewed alongside those of their peers in different seminar groups, and I was then remarkably pleased when they decided to seek out these fellow researchers and independently liaise across the different classes. Together their findings have taken the form of a small exhibition titled ‘Paradise Lost in Time: A Text in Transmission’. It will be displayed in the foyer of Jessop West (home to the schools of English, History and Modern Languages), where it will be viewed by an interdisciplinary audience of visitors, fellow students and staff. The display hopes to demonstrate the vast influence that Milton’s poem had (and continues to have), as well as provoking questions about textual production and changes in textual meaning over time. I’m extremely pleased with the finished result, and both the research and collegiality of all of the students involved. I encourage you to have a look next time you’re in the foyer. The exhibition will be on display from 8th April-12th April.