There are a lot of books by and about John Addington Symonds on my shelf. He was a Victorian ‘man of letters’: a biographer, translator, historian, essayist and poet. He was born in Bristol in 1840, and died in Rome in 1893. (He’s buried a few graves along from Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery.)
In 1889 Symonds put other work aside and began writing an autobiography. The result was a frank account of his life as a homosexual man living subject to the legal, medical, and moral strictures of his time. Four years previously, the law in the United Kingdom had changed and acts of so-called ‘gross indecency’ between men, whether in public or private, were made punishable by imprisonment with or without hard And labour. Symonds was writing his autobiography from the relative safety of his home in Davos, Switzerland, but it remained a brave (and risky) act. His finished manuscript was some 150,000 words, but to this day it has never been published in full.
After his death, Symonds bequeathed the ownership and copyright of all his works (whether published or unpublished) to Horatio Brown, his friend and literary executor. In a letter to Brown, Symonds pleaded with him to protect the autobiography: “I want to save it from destruction after my death, and yet to reserve its publication for a period when it will not be injurious to my family” (29 December 1891).
I am currently preparing a new and complete edition of Symonds’s autobiography for publication. This is why there are so many books about him on my shelf. The three fat green volumes are his collected letters; the two slim green volumes are a biography of Symonds published by Horatio Brown shortly after his death (and they contain large ‘safe’ sections extracted from his autobiography). There are also memoirs written by Symonds’s daughters, Margaret Vaughan and Katherine Furse, and there are collections of his poetry. These are essential research materials for my work as an editor; they help me to piece together the missing or now-forgotten names of people and places, events and literary allusions, etc.
Students who take my second year approved module (LIT266 Secrets and Lies: Victorian Life-Writing) get to read my work-in-progress on the edition. We focus upon his relationships with Willie Dyer and Norman Moor, and we discuss his reading and use of Plato, Walt Whitman and medical accounts of sexuality. These discussions with my students have also been an essential part of my work as an editor and I will be sure to say ‘thank you’ in the finished product.
I look forward to the day that my edition will join these other books on my shelf.