Hypotheses, Evidence, Editing, and Explication

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James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner is one of the more remarkable studies of the uncertainties of evidence, and one of its more remarkable moments is the 'editor's' account of the court-room scene, where Bessy Gillies refuses to admit to the possibility of certainty about a matter of fact. Under cross-examination, she refuses to acknowledge that a gown presented in evidence is one that has been stolen by Bell Calvert from Bessy's mistress Mrs Logan:

'Did you ever see this gown before, think you?'

'I hae seen ane very like it.'

'Could you not swear that gown was your mistress's once?'

'No, unless I saw her hae't on [. . .]'

'But you say that gown is very like one your mistress used to wear.'

'I never said sic a thing [. . .] it is very like ane I hae seen Mrs. Butler in the Grass Market wearing too; I rather think it is the same. Bless you, sir, I wadna swear to my ain fore finger, if it had been as lang out o' my sight'.[1]

There is more than one way to interpret this teasing passage in this prismatic text. Bessy's scepticism may be viewed as the ultimate honesty. It may also be viewed as a mode of prevarication. The Confessions are a fiction at best, and there are uncertainties in the narrative of the editor (not least because of his trust in 'tradition' rather than in written testimonies). None the less, it seems that Bessy's scepticism is not, or not only, a principled position, but a device to deny the probable: Bessy serves Mrs Logan in her anxiety to save Bell Calvert from the gallows, in the hope that Calvert may reveal to them how young George Colwan died. Bessy confronts the cross-examining lawyer by denying the possibility of truth. The master of evidence is nonplussed by Bessy's effective rejection of the possibility that any evidence could ever be of value; that anything could ever be known with certainty. This is pleasingly subversive, as Bessy invents a new and female character for the boy bishop in this feast of narrative misrule, but it is also an act both of bad and of little faith. Bessy's ruse is the stock in trade of the sceptic: to assert (what is clearly true) that knowledge can never be certain, and thence to conclude (what is much less clearly true) that no knowledge can therefore be had. In this Bessy is a prototype of a central method of modern editorial scepticism, and has much of its charm.

While happily agreeing with Bessy Gillies and her followers in the rejection of certainty, I shall attempt to argue here for probabilistic knowledge in a discrete but highly significant area of textual work, the exercise of choice amongst, and the explication of, local verbal meanings. I shall here be concerned with the interpretative rather than the bibliographical aspect of editorial analysis. I shall draw on my own experience as an annotator and explicator of eighteenth-century poetry, and I shall argue for a position similar to that adopted by Josephine M. Guy and Ian Small in their recent study of Politics and Value in English Studies: that is, that textual editing is at least in part an interpretative procedure, and that interpretative determinacy is a necessary condition for textual editing and explanation as it has been practised by literary scholars since the eighteenth century.[2] My argument will make against, implicitly and at some points explicitly, a powerful sceptical position which has been persuasively and variously argued by Randall McLeod, D. C. Greetham, and Leah S. Marcus amongst others: that texts and textual meanings are indeterminate, and that the familiar procedures of interpretative textual editing, which normally produce a single eclectic text in printed form, and commonly attempt to elucidate that text, had better be replaced by a project of 'unediting', whose preferred forms are multiple, photographic, or electronic, and un-'policed' by annotation. In the course of this essay I shall briefly rehearse some of the no doubt familiar arguments which bear on the question of whether textual editing and commentary might or might not be considered 'scientific' in its methods; explore some of the principles upon which knowledge in textual editing might be validated; provide some practical instances of such validation; and suggest some of the implications for interpretation if we are prepared to accept not small scale certainty, but the reasonable assurance of small-scale knowledge. …