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  • The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition ed. by Amber K. Regis
  • Richard A. Kaye (bio)
The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition, edited by Amber K. Regis; pp. xx + 587. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, £79.69, £27.99 paper, $100.00, $39.99 paper.

The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition, edited by Amber K. Regis, indirectly highlights one of the ironies of Victorian literary history as it intersected with the history of sexual attitudes—namely, that, while Oscar Wilde is the nineteenth-century British writer who today is most associated with the candid expression of male same-sex desire, the writer of the era who actually bequeathed to posterity the most self-revealing account of homosexuality is John Addington Symonds, author of the largely forgotten seven-volume The Renaissance in Italy (1875), now out-of-print biographies of Michelangelo and Walt Whitman, and posthumously published Memoirs (1984). This edition reproduces the latter text, written over a four-year period between 1889 and 1893 and detailing Symonds’s conflicted feelings for other men and his academic and literary ambitions. Symonds’s Memoirs reveal boyhood ordeals, erotic obsessions, and illicit adult relationships that do not so much deviate from conventional married life as uneasily consort with it. “I have written things you would not like to read,” Symonds once informed his wife, Catherine, as if the act of writing were the primary transgression and not the sexual illicitness that the Memoirs so meticulously detailed (17).

A friend of Edward Lear, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Sidgwick family, Benjamin Jowett, Edmund Gosse, Leslie Stephen, and Margot Asquith, as well as a father of four daughters, Symonds held a central place in Victorian letters. Yet it is his Memoirs, with their revelations of a robust and secret erotic life as the lover of men, which have the greatest claim on contemporary attention. Unsealed in 1949, they were first published by Random House in 1984 in a handsome trade edition edited by Symonds’s earliest twentieth-century biographer, Phyllis Grosskurth, whose 1964 The Woeful Victorian: A [End Page 691] Biography of John Addington Symonds was an earnestly psychoanalytic attempt at understanding Symonds’s erotic conundrums. That Grosskurth was only permitted to paraphrase passages from the Memoirs indicates how incendiary his descendants (and the London Library, to which Symonds’s first biographer Horatio Brown bequeathed the manuscript) considered its contents.

While Grosskurth’s 1984 edition claimed to reproduce four-fifths of the manuscript held in the British Library, Sarah J. Heidt revealed in a 2003 article in Victorian Studies that Grosskurth in fact had excluded about a third—53,000 of some 160,000 words (what Grosskurth characterized as “execrable poetry and . . . self-conscious nature descriptions”) (The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, Grosskurth, edited by Phyllis Grosskurth [Random House, 1984], 11). Heidt worried that the complex “heterogeneity” of the manuscript—which includes early letters and diary entries, some corrected in ink or pencil, several of them pasted in—was occluded in the 1984 edition, a problem exasperated by Grosskurth’s failure to indicate through ellipses where excisions were made (“‘Let JAS words stand’: Publishing John Addington Symonds’s Desires,” Victorian Studies 46.1 [2003], 14). Heidt argued, too, that Grosskurth was fixated on a conception of Symonds as harboring a true, “internal nature” and thus was inattentive to the many ways in which his sense of self was shaped by the views of others (19). In her introduction, the editor of the new edition, Amber K. Regis, acknowledges the force of Heidt’s critique but also stresses that “incompleteness is an essential feature of the Memoirs” even though it is the first to reproduce the surviving manuscript, given that there are missing pages (16).

With its informative critical commentary, extensive notes, illuminating appendices, and photographs of several manuscript pages as well as of Symonds’s family, friends, and at least one lover, the version edited by Regis is a superb, editorially expansive edition. The appendices go especially far in enhancing one’s understanding of Symonds, particularly his history of his erotic life that appeared in Sexual Inversion (1896), his account of the...


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