The Kelsall Edition

Of Thomas Forbes Kelsall’s edition, H.W. Donner wrote, “His first concern was for Death’s Jest-Book, which he transcribed entirely in his own hand, selecting the readings he preferred and omitting weak passages, or such as might give offence. ‘My office has been to collate, adapt, omit & transcribe—a labor of interest,’ he [Kelsall] wrote to his sister Eleanor on 13 April 1850 (manuscript in the possession of Ms. Kelsall).” Donner further noted: “It is easy to criticize his edition, but an investigation of the facts proves it to have been not only a great achievement in itself, but also the very best that could be produced in the circumstances. Kelsall himself was always apologetic about his treatment of Death’s Jest-Book and anxious to obtain the opinion of others concerning the suppression of the comic parts (The Browning Box, letter CVIII), but in his editorial work he had to consider the feelings of the family and exclude both from the play and from the letters everything that might strike them as coarse or vulgar.” Kelsall’s active editorial hand extended beyond his treatment of Death’s Jest-Book and is evident in other ways; for example he invented titles for some fragments he selected for publication. While Kelsall’s edition must thus be used with caution, it is important to note that his presentation of the works of Beddoes was the only one known to the world until Edmund Gosse began preparing his editions at the close of the 19th century. Kelsall’s edition is therefore of historical importance.

Christine Hankinson, former secretary of the Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society, supports Kelsall’s work in some ways. “I think Kelsall was a very sensitive editor. Many find his titles a bit cosy but I don’t—he wasn’t writing an academic tome he was trying to get an audience—mid-Victorian audience for TLB and to just have fragments without titles would not have worked—it made them more accessible for his audience. At the end of the day TLB entrusted his works entirely to Kelsall—to publish as he saw fit. And with all the constraints they were fit.”

Alan Halsey, editor of Death’s Jest-Book, and also of the Society, considers Donner’s evaluation of Kelsall’s work to be a bit too generous. “Suppression of the comic passages in DJB considerably changes the nature of the work & I’d argue that Kelsall’s sensitivity (timidity?) in this regard seriously limited the possibility of appreciating its scope for a considerable time. His remarks to [Robert] Browning (Nov 13 1867) are worth looking at again:

‘You will find many passages omitted in my publication—being mainly those relative to Mandrake—& this personage I was anxious, from various motives, to keep as much as possible out of sight. I was publishing against the inclination of the near relatives, & to these I knew that Mandrake & his belongings would, as well as to the almost universal public, be most distasteful. Neither did I much admire them myself. They seem laboured & artificial—& quite unworthy of the company they are in.’

This doesn’t bear out Donner’s statement that Kelsall was ‘always apologetic’ about what he’d done; he seems rather proud of his expurgations. After all he didn’t need to say so much—he could easily have blamed family pressure alone for the omissions. (‘I was glad to find the Mandrake so much suppressed’, Capt C.H. Beddoes wrote to him on 8/7/50—showing that the Captain at least had looked at the MSS and recoiled.) But he elaborates, perhaps only to impress Browning with his tastefulness—but the phrase ‘quite unworthy of the company they are in’ betrays his intent to present DJB as a SERIOUS tragedy rather than the ‘satire’ TLB announced in his earliest remarks about the play. In this respect it’s hard to see Kelsall as the most appropriate editor for a poet whose best work raises two fingers to ‘the almost universal public’. TLB’s personal tragedy was so to have isolated himself that he knew no one with any deeper comprehension of his work & the nerve to publish it without tasteful expurgation. To say this is not in any way to denigrate Kelsall’s virtues as a friend or his achievement in getting the work published & preserved.”