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Darwin Correspondence Project

Full notes on editorial policy

The first and chief objective of this edition is to provide complete and authoritative texts of Darwin’s correspondence. For every letter to or from Darwin, the text that is available to the editors is always given in full. The editors have occasionally included letters that are not to or from Darwin if they are relevant to the published correspondence.


Dating of letters and identification of correspondents

In so far as it is possible, the letters have been dated and the recipients or senders identified. Darwin seldom wrote the full date on his letters and, unless the addressee was well known to him, usually wrote only ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’. After the adoption of adhesive postage stamps in the 1840s, the separate covers that came into use with them were usually not preserved, and thus the dates and the names of many recipients of Darwin’s letters have had to be derived from other evidence. The notes made by Francis Darwin on letters sent to him for his editions of his father’s correspondence have been helpful, as have matching letters in the correspondence, but many dates and recipients have had to be deduced from the subject-matter or references in the letters themselves.


Transcription policy

Whenever possible, transcriptions have been made from manuscripts. If the manuscript was inaccessible but a photocopy or other facsimile version was available, that version has been used as the source. In many cases, the editors have had recourse to Francis Darwin’s large collection of copies of letters, compiled in the 1880s. Other copies, published letters, or drafts have been transcribed when they provided texts that were otherwise unavailable.

The method of transcription employed in this edition is adapted from that described by Fredson Bowers in ‘Transcription of manuscripts: the record of variants’, Studies in Bibliography 29 (1976): 212–64. This system is based on the principles of modern textual editing accepted in the 1970s and has been widely adopted in literary editions.

The case for using the principles and techniques of this form of textual editing for historical and non-literary documents, both in manuscript and print, has been forcefully argued by G. Thomas Tanselle in ‘The editing of historical documents’, Studies in Bibliography 31 (1978): 1–56. The editors of the Correspondence followed Dr Tanselle in his conclusion that a ‘scholarly edition of letters or journals should not contain a text which has editorially been corrected, made consistent, or otherwise smoothed out’ (p. 48), but they have not wholly subscribed to the statement made earlier in the article that: ‘In the case of notebooks, diaries, letters and the like, whatever state they are in constitutes their finished form, and the question of whether the writer ‘‘intended’’ something else is irrelevant’ (p. 47). The editors have preserved the spelling, punctuation, and grammar of the original, but they have found it impossible to set aside entirely the question of authorial intent. One obvious reason is that in reading Darwin’s writing, there must necessarily be reliance upon both context and intent. Even when Darwin’s general intent is clear, there are cases in which alternative readings are, or may be, possible, and therefore the transcription decided upon must to some extent be conjectural. Where the editors are uncertain of their transcription, the doubtful text has been enclosed in italic square brackets.

A major editorial decision was to adopt the so-called ‘clear-text’ method of transcription, which so far as possible keeps the text free of brackets recording deletions, insertions, and other alterations in the places at which they occur. In the print edition of the Correspondence, Darwin’s changes are recorded in the back matter of the volume, under ‘Manuscript alterations and comments’, in notes keyed to the printed text by paragraph and line number. Unfortunately they do not currently occur as part of the digital edition. The Manuscript alterations and comments record all alterations made by Darwin in his letters and any editorial amendments made in transcription, and also where part of a letter has been written by an amanuensis; they do not record alterations made by amanuenses. No attempt has been made to record systematically all alterations to the text of copies of Darwin letters included in the correspondence, but ambiguous passages in copies are noted. The editors believe it would be impracticable to attempt to go further without reliable information about the texts of the original versions of the letters concerned. Letters to Darwin have been transcribed without recording any of the writers’ alterations unless they reflect significant changes in substance or impede the sense; in such cases footnotes bring them to the reader’s attention.

Misspellings have been preserved, even when it is clear that they were unintentional: for instance, ‘lawer’ for ‘lawyer’. Such errors often indicate excitement or haste and may exhibit, over a series of letters, a habit of carelessness in writing to a particular correspondent or about a particular subject.

Capital letters have also been transcribed as they occur except in certain cases, such as ‘m’, ‘k’, and ‘c’, which are frequently written somewhat larger than others as initial letters of words. In these cases an attempt has been made to follow the normal practice of the writers.

In some instances that are not misspellings in a strict sense, editorial corrections have been made. In his early manuscripts and letters Darwin consistently wrote ‘bl’ so that it looks like ‘lb’ as in ‘albe’ for ‘able’, ‘talbe’ for ‘table’. Because the form of the letters is so consistent in different words, the editors consider that this is most unlikely to be a misspelling but must be explained simply as a peculiarity of Darwin’s handwriting. Consequently, the affected words have been transcribed as normally spelled and no record of any alteration is given in the textual apparatus. Elsewhere, though, there are misformed letters that the editors have recorded because they do, or could, affect the meaning of the word in which they appear. The main example is the occasional inadvertent crossing of ‘l’. When the editors are satisfied that the intended letter was ‘l’ and not ‘t’, as, for example, in ‘stippers’ or ‘istand’, then ‘l’ has been transcribed, but in the print edition the actual form of the word in the manuscript has been given in the Manuscript alterations and comments.

If the only source for a letter is a copy, the editors have frequently retained corrections made to the text when it is clear that they were based upon comparison with the original. Francis Darwin’s corrections of misreadings by copyists have usually been followed; corrections to the text that appear to be editorial alterations have not been retained.

Editorial interpolations in the text are in square brackets. Italic square brackets enclose conjectured readings and descriptions of illegible passages. To avoid confusion, in the few instances in which Darwin himself used square brackets, they have been altered by the editors to parentheses with the change recorded in the Manuscript alterations and comments in the print edition (these are unfortunatly not currently available on the website). In letters to Darwin, square brackets have been changed to parentheses silently.

Material that is irrecoverable because the manuscript has been torn or damaged is indicated by angle brackets; any text supplied within them is obviously the responsibility of the editors. Occasionally, the editors are able to supply missing sections of text by using ultraviolet light (where text has been lost owing to damp) or by reference to transcripts or photocopies of manuscript material made before the damage occurred.

Words and passages that have been underlined for emphasis are printed in italics in accordance with conventional practice. Where the author of a letter has indicated greater emphasis by underlining a word or passage two or more times, the text is printed in bold type.

Paragraphs are often not clearly indicated in the letters. Darwin and others sometimes marked a change of subject by leaving a somewhat larger space than usual between sentences; sometimes Darwin employed a longer dash. In these cases, and when the subject is clearly changed in very long stretches of text, a new paragraph has been started by the editors without comment. The beginnings of letters, valedictions, and postscripts are also treated as new paragraphs regardless of whether they appear as new paragraphs in the manuscript. Special manuscript devices delimiting sections or paragraphs, for example, blank spaces left between sections of text and lines drawn across the page, are treated as normal paragraph indicators and are not specially marked or recorded unless their omission leaves the text unclear.

Occasionally punctuation marking the end of a clause or sentence is not present in the manuscript; in such cases, the editors have inserted an extra space following the sentence or clause to set it off from the following text.

Additions to a letter that run over into the margins, or are continued at its head or foot, are transcribed at the point in the text at which the editors believe they were intended to be read. The placement of such an addition is only recorded in a footnote if it seems to the editors to have some significance or if the position at which it should be transcribed is unclear. Enclosures are transcribed following the letter.

The hand-drawn illustrations and diagrams that occur in some letters are reproduced as faithfully as possible and are usually positioned as they were in the original text. Where it was necessary to reduce the size of a diagram or enhance an outline for clarity to fit the diagram on the page in the printed edition, such alterations are recorded in footnotes. The location of diagrams within a letter is sometimes changed for typesetting reasons. Tables have been reproduced as close to the original format as possible, given typesetting constraints. It is an ongoing task to include both illustrations and tables to the digital edition. In many cases, too, it is possible to view the full letter on Cambridge University Digital Library; in these cases, these images are visible with the relevant letter transcription on the website.

Some Darwin letters and a few letters to Darwin are known only from entries in the catalogues of book and manuscript dealers or mentions in other published sources. Whatever information these sources provide about the content of such letters has been reproduced without substantial change. Any errors detected are included in footnotes.


Format of published letters

The format in which the transcriptions are presented in the Correspondence is as follows:

  1. Headline. This gives the name of the sender or recipient of the letter and its date. The date is given in a standard form, but those elements not taken directly from the letter text are supplied in square brackets. The name of the sender or recipient is enclosed in square brackets only where the editors regard the attribution as doubtful.
  2. The letter text. The transcribed text follows as closely as possible the layout of the source, although no attempt is made to produce a type-facsimile of the manuscript: word-spacing and line-division in the running text are not adhered to. Similarly, the typography of printed sources is not replicated. Dates and addresses given by authors are transcribed as they appear, except that if both the date and the address are at the head of the letter they are always printed on separate lines with the address first, regardless of the manuscript order. If no address is given on a letter by Darwin, the editors have supplied one, when able to do so, in square brackets at the head of the letter. Similarly, if Darwin was writing from an address different from the one given on the letter, his actual location is given in square brackets. Addresses on printed stationery are transcribed in italics. Addresses, dates, and valedictions have been run into single lines to save space, but the positions of line-breaks in the original are marked by vertical bars.
  3. Physical description. A description of the physical letter is indicated in the right-hand side bar. All letters are complete and in the hand of the sender unless otherwise indicated. If a letter was written by an amanuensis, or exists only as a draft or a copy, or is incomplete, or is in some other way unusual, then the editors provide the information needed to complete the description. Postmarks, endorsements, and watermarks are recorded only when they are evidence for the date or address of the letter.
  4. Source. The side bar also contains the source of the text. Some sources are given in abbreviated form (for example, DAR 140: 18) but are linked to further information on the repository. Letters in private collections are also indicated. References to published works are given in author–date or short- title form.
  5. Darwin’s annotations. Darwin frequently made notes in the margins of the letters he received, scored significant passages, and crossed through details that were of no further interest to him. These annotations are transcribed or described following the letter text. They are keyed to the letter text of the print edition by paragraph and line numbers. Most notes are short, but occasionally they run from a paragraph  to  several pages, and sometimes they are written on separate sheets appended to the letter. Extended notes relating to a letter are transcribed whenever practicable following the annotations as ‘CD notes’.

Quotations from Darwin manuscripts in footnotes and elsewhere, and the text of his annotations and notes on letters, are transcribed in ‘descriptive’ style. In this method the alterations in the text are recorded in brackets at the places where they occur. For example:

‘See Daubeny [‘vol. 1’ del] for *descriptions of volcanoes in [interl] S.A.’ ink

means that Darwin originally wrote in ink ‘See Daubeny vol. 1 for S.A.’ and then deleted ‘vol. 1’ and inserted ‘descriptions of volcanoes in’ after ‘for’. The asterisk before ‘descriptions’ marks the beginning of the interlined phrase, which ends at the bracket. The asterisk is used when the alteration applies to more than the immediately preceding word. The final text can be read simply by skipping the material in brackets. Descriptive style is also used in the Manuscript alterations and comments.


Editorial matter

If the name of a person mentioned in a letter is incomplete or incorrectly spelled, the full, correct form is given in a footnote. Brief biographies of persons mentioned in the letters, and dates of each correspondent’s letters to and from Darwin are given in the online Biographical register and Index to correspondents.

Short titles are used for references to Darwin’s books and articles and to collections of his letters (e.g., Descent, ‘Parallel roads of Glen Roy’, LL). They are also used for some standard reference works and for works with no identifiable author (e.g., Alum. Cantab.Wellesley indexDNB). For all other works, author–date references are used. References to the Bible are to the authorised King James version unless otherwise stated. Words not in Chambers dictionary are usually defined in the footnotes with a source supplied. The full titles and publication details of all books and papers referred to are given in the online Bibliography. References to archival material, for instance that in the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University Library, are not necessarily exhaustive.

Darwin and his correspondents writing in English consistently used the term ‘fertilisation’ for the processes that are now distinguished as fertilisation (the fusion of female and male gametes) and pollination (the transfer of pollen from anther to stigma); the first usage known to the editors of a distinct term for pollination in English was in 1873 (Correspondence vol. 21, letter from A. W. Bennett, 12 July 1873). ‘Fertilisation’ in Darwin’s letters and publications often, but not always, can be regarded as referring to what is now termed pollination. In the footnotes, the editors, where possible, have used the modern terms where these can assist in explaining the details of experimental work. When Darwin or his correspondents are quoted directly, their original usage is never altered.

The editors use the abbreviation ‘CD’ for Charles Darwin throughout the footnotes. A list of all abbreviations used by the editors is given in the Symbols and abbreviations page.

About this article

This document is based on the original editorial policy written for the print edition of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin published by Cambridge University Press. It has been adjusted, however, to be more relevant to the digital edition available on this website.

For details of the print edition see our publications.