2 Interesting Items on reading Marginalia (and a case study of Alfred Russel Wallace)

How do you react to marginalia? The gentle remarks, questions, or displays of disgust scribbled in the margins of innumerable books, articles and more across the world.

I have spent a lot of time recently going through marginalia by Wallace in particular. For example, I was recently flicking through (once again) the notes Wallace made to his own Vaccination a Delusion text as well as his highlighting in various anti-vaccination works.

Wallace was not a heavy annotator. They are chiefly a couple of words of comments or (more significantly as with the above image) highlighting of words and sections in blue pencil. These annotations are often infuriatingly vague but can be equally telling. Marginalia are thus very important.

Analysing Marginalia: Case study of Wallace

Martin Fichman in his An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace does a very good short assessment of Wallace’s annotations in his own copy of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward currently held at the University of Edinburgh. Fichman carefully picks out those sections Wallace underlines and is able to show how these marks can often be strong indicators of his mindset (see p. 252).

Jackson’s Marginalia also includes an interesting section analysing Francis Turner Palgrave’s* annotations to Wallace’s Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (pp. 211-213) which I will quote in full:

Francis Palgrave’s copy of Alfred Russel Wallace ’s Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870), annotated in 1871, shows development of a different kind. In this case, the notes exhibit a reader taking in an argument as a chameleon takes in a fly. For a while he watches to see where it’s going, then he begins to pay close attention, then he attacks, then he digests. Wallace ’s book is a varied collection of essays on natural history; it contains one, for instance, titled “The Philosophy of Birds’ Nests.” In the paper “Mimicry and Other Protective Resemblances among Animals,” Wallace promotes the idea of a “special creation” of “mimicking species.” To strengthen his case, he attempts to anticipate objections. Palgrave underlines a few words and raises an objection. First Wallace: “Against the special creation of mimicking species there are all the objections and difficulties in the way of special creation in other cases, with the addition of a few that are peculiar to it. The most obvious is, that we have gradations of mimicry and of protective resemblance—a fact which is strongly suggestive of a natural process having been at work.” Then Palgrave: “‘Special creation’ is not a probable or very intelligible thing: but it is meant to imply a process contradictory to ‘nature,’ & hence an argt. from natural process does not touch it at all as a general postulate—“ (p. 108). Wallace: “Another very serious objection is, that as mimicry has been shown to be useful only to those species and groups which are rare and probably dying out….” And Palgrave: “How shown? the only fact is, that mimicry is confined to a few individuals” (p. 109).

Eventually, when Wallace maintains that in insects only females exhibit mimicry, Palgrave shows his exasperation with the essayist’s logic and casts up to him a contradiction from an earlier page: “This argument seems to me to involve the idea of special creation in a very specialized form. Unless the variable tendency be confined to the female, the male would also vary into a ‘protected’ form: and though the female, Nature, may be the most valuable, yet the male (for his own sake) wd be glad of protection & would survive the more for it. Or, the argt wh. here accounts for ‘protected’ females annihilates the argument on nymphelides of both sexes” (p. 78). As notes of this sort multiply, Palgrave gradually loses faith in his author, observing at the end of an essay on instinct, “This is an excellent example of Mr. W’s curious combination of fine individual observation & defective powers of reasoning…” (p. 210). Palgrave was a man of letters, not a biologist; he later became professor of poetry at Oxford and is best known for his Golden Treasury. He is not an expert reader, nor an especially good match for Wallace, but he is a good reader, alert and open-minded. Even a small sample from his notes shows that he was thinking independently and critically as he read, testing and adjusting his own position before coming to a settled view.

Annotations and marginalia are thus a hugely valuable resource for the historian especially when we know who the annotator was.

A neglected resource?

We, of course, are perhaps most familiar with the annotations in library books and the like. Sacrilege in many eyes, annoying or rude in others. However, they themselves can become interesting historical sources. Medievalists are perhaps more welcoming to the study of these scribbles than more modern historians (you can see this by searching for “marginalia” and looking at the images. A disproportionate number of them are medieval manuscripts.)

Nonetheless, for more modern historians they still have huge value. Consequently projects such as the Open University’s “RED: The experience of reading in Britain, from 1450 to 1945” project which features in my list of Digital Humanities research resources you should know about is so interesting as it tries to bring together references to how readers reacted with texts, including their own.

I would be interested to hear how people use annotations in their research. They clearly have a lot of potential but also pose a lot of difficulties. Do you know of any other useful resources for exploiting the notes?


* Palgrave also appears to have opened up a correspondence with Wallace over the book Wallace Letters Online show up two letter from 14 October and 15 November 1871 from Palgrave to Wallace. As yet I have not read these, but they seem of some interest.


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