The venerable Early English Text Society, deeply entangled with Oxford, was launched a century and a half ago in a froth of gung-ho Victorianism, its historian Dr Helen Leith Spencer reveals.
By Dr Helen Leith Spencer (Exeter College)
Anyone interested in medieval English literature and history knows about the Early English Text Society (usually affectionately abbreviated EETS). Its distinctive brown volumes will be familiar to many more. Though not an Oxford institution, EETS has long been closely associated with it. It was for long the dominant publisher of Old and Middle English and its editions still lead the field.
The EETS (founded 1864) has just celebrated its 150th birthday, and, yes, there was a party, and a cake, to remember our founder, the extraordinary Frederick James Furnivall (1825-1910), man of letters and contributor to the gaiety of the nation. He always enjoyed a good bash where he could indulge his passion for literary gossip. There are so many stories, but here’s a sample: Furnivall, who loved sculling on the Thames even more than Early English, is one of the originals for Ratty in The Wind in the Willows.
Although Furnivall’s name will be forever linked with the EETS, its story was part of a much broader narrative concerning developments in Victorian medievalism, expressed in the Gothic revival and the passion for the Arthurian legends. The EETS also resulted from the patriotic determination of British scholars to take the initiative away from German intellectual dominance — established in the early nineteenth century — in interpreting the monuments of English literature, particularly Chaucer and Shakespeare.
Furnivall threw himself into all these movements, and his EETS cannot be usefully understood in isolation. For Furnivall, medievalism was not nostalgic, but an integral part of what it meant to be a forward-thinking, gung-ho Victorian.
Furnivall (left, in a sketch by Harry Furniss)and his philological friends, including the redoubtable W W Skeat and Richard Morris, could not stand idly by while German scholars lectured them on their own language and literature. However, Furnivall was no Little Englander and he involved many German friends in his editing projects. They recognised the magnitude of his contribution to English studies by the award of an honorary doctorate from no less than the University of Berlin, an astonishing distinction for an English literary scholar in 1884.
The EETS’s task, as Furnivall said, was ‘not to rest till Englishmen shall be able to say of their Early Literature what the Germans can now say with pride of theirs, “every word of it’s printed, and every word of it’s glossed.”’ And here we still are, though two world wars nearly finished us.
After the First World War there was demand to dissociate the university study of English from the nineteenth-century traditions of comparative philology, because scholars ‘had either been trained in Germany or were under the influence of German educational ideals and methods’ (Newbolt Report: The teaching of English in England, 1921). And that the Society survived at all during the Second World War is largely attributable to the determination of its then secretary, Dr Mabel Day, not to give up until Hitler bombed her Maida Vale flat to kingdom come – as the Luftwaffe very nearly did. That the EETS continued to publish in 1940, during the height of the Blitz, compelled the admiration of onlookers.
Inevitably Anglo-German scholarly relations became increasingly conflicted and painful. Yet not all wanted to jettison study of English literature before Chaucer, including Beowulf, on the grounds that this was pro-German. The great champion of the continuity of the English literary tradition from Anglo-Saxon times was the widely-respected commentator, R W Chambers, J R R Tolkien’s friend. Chambers led the EETS in the early years of the Second World War. Like Tolkien (whom he levered onto the EETS Committee) Chambers felt things deeply. He was a University College London man, immensely proud of his college’s historic leading role in the study of Old and Middle English, and devastated by the bombing of UCL’s library.
Meanwhile Tolkien (an old-style philologist to his heart’s core) raged against that ‘ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler . . . perverting . . . that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light’. After the war, Tolkien’s relations with the EETS proved stormy, but that was because it was alternatively wheedling and bludgeoning him to finish his long-promised edition. Though feeling sore, he shared the EETS’s ideals.
If the EETS’s story has a moral, it is that the historical study of the English language, and its medieval records, cannot be divorced from politics and the wider cultural environment. Indeed, the Society’s survival, against the odds, deserved celebration. And at 150 it is 49 years older than Bilbo Baggins at the outset of The Lord of the Rings. He can put that pipeweed in his smoking apparatus.
But what about the future? The EETS’s mission now is to promote good editorial practice by best example at a time when editing sometimes seems to be regarded — by those who haven’t tried it — as a menial activity. But as Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham observed in a similar context, ‘That is very far from the case’ (‘hit ys swiðe feor þam’).
Dr Helen Leith Spencer, editorial secretary of the Early English Text Society, is a fellow and tutor in English at Exeter College. She is working on a full-length study of the history of the EETS, largely based on unpublished private papers.
Images: Walter Crane illustration from Spenser’s Faerie Queen, from the digital archives of the University of Maryland via Flickr, under Creative Commons licence; F J Furnivall by Harry Furniss, from Some Victorian Men (1926); EETS birthday cake photographed by Dr Spencer, reproduced with permission.