Resources for... William & Mary
William & Mary W&M menu close William & Mary

The Definitive Edition Lab

This past summer, four students from Professor Melanie Dawson’s Twentieth Century Women Authors class were given the opportunity to work with her on a Definitive Edition Lab focused on Edith Wharton’s 1925 novel The Mother’s Recompense. The authors of this piece were lucky enough to be two of those students. While Professor Dawson has been working on this edition for the Oxford University Press for four years, we only joined for five weeks.  Though the pandemic created more challenges than expected, we were determined to make the most of our short time together. 

 So, what is a Definitive Edition Lab and how does one work in one? And how does a pandemic complicate that work? 

 Professor Dawson’s study of age and aging in American literature drew her to Kate Clephane and her daughter Anne Clephane--the mother-daughter duo at the center of The Mother’s Recompense--and she readily accepted the opportunity to prepare a scholarly edition of the novel. However, when approached about making this an undergraduate research opportunity, she wasn’t so sure. She initially worried that spending a summer simply tracking textual changes might be too tedious, “too boring for people.” She soon realized it could be an opportunity to create a more well-rounded research opportunity for English majors.  She explains, “It’s an invitation to think about group research projects in the humanities and what they might look like.”

A team of four students--two freshmen and two juniors--were assembled and ready to go, but the challenges of figuring out how to conduct the research online were still to come.  Our primary responsibility was to compare the imprints, or the different published batches, of The Mother’s Recompense.  Imprints can be difficult to discern as book collectors often don’t know what they have, imagining that anything labeled “first edition” is always the same thing. However, a second edition occurs once there are significant changes or updates made in the printing of a novel. This is why we were looking for subtle changes to the text of first editions of The Mother’s Recompense that might reflect small mistakes silently corrected before a full second edition was made. 


Unfortunately, the imprints of the first edition of The Mother’s Recompense that Professor Dawson had spent so long collecting were physical copies and not digital ones. Without the option to go to high quality scanners due to the pandemic, the order of operations had to be shuffled around. This shuffling allowed us to take the time to really read the novel and various other works of Wharton’s in the first week. We were able to track themes and patterns across Wharton’s novel as well as learn about Wharton as an author. It also gave us the opportunity to start on our side project: footnotes. Anytime we found a historical reference, person, place, product, or antiquated term, we recorded it and then tried to figure out exactly what, where, or who it was referring to. This project continued throughout the duration of the research and was something we were all able to do on our own and then compile as a single comprehensive document near the end.

 The second week we began read-backs, the real work of reading the entire novel aloud, letter by letter, space by space. The two of us were paired together to undertake this formidable task. Over sketchy Zoom connections and a three-hour time zone difference, we spent the first days stumbling over letters and running out of breath (“Cap C-A-N-space-S-H-E—”). We were looking for even the slightest change, whether that be in the form of an errant comma or an extra space, because that difference meant that Wharton had changed her novel during the initial printings. 

 As we moved through our assigned imprint, we didn’t find any changes and were convinced that somehow we were doing something wrong, that our eyes were deceiving us, and we were missing changes. But when we met as a group, we learned, to our immense relief, that we were not the only ones unable to see a difference and, further, that this lack of difference was a fantastic clue, a sign that Wharton’s novel had been selling so quickly that there simply was not enough time for changes. This point hit home when we found the same ink smudge on both the imprint we were tracking and the copy-text we were tracking it against. It may not seem at all exciting to find the same smudge, but we were ecstatic because it meant that the two texts had used the exact same plate for printing that page, a further confirmation that Wharton’s novel was selling like hotcakes!

 It’s understandable that people might be hard-pressed to call this sort of work stimulating, but the opportunity to work on three distinct projects--the contextualization of Wharton’s work, footnotes, and read-backs—allowed us to switch before any one task became too monotonous. Even the read-backs awoke within us a certain kind of Sherlock Holmes determination; we just had to find that one small difference hiding right in front of us! We learned a lot about the printing and editing of a twentieth-century novel and, further, were presented with the opportunity of studying a single author’s work in so close a manner that we could recognize themes, patterns, and even textual signatures. Wharton loved the ellipses!

So, what is the future of the project? There are still two imprints Professor Dawson has yet to get her hands on, which means there are still many, many hours of read-backs to accomplish. In order to speed up the process, she hopes to be able to scan the imprints and convert the text into a document that will automatically scan for differences. While human eyes will still need to spot-check the imprints and double-check the accuracy of the computer’s work, this technology will drastically decrease the amount of grunt work needed. Now that things are slowly opening again, the future of the Definitive Edition Lab seems bright.