The Scarlet Pencil: Remapping Machen

Posts identified as “The Scarlet Pencil” chronicle my meandering through the misty and mysterious quagmire of editing anthologies for Brom Bones Books. As announced in my introductions to these volumes, I try to make the material less distracting to 21st-century readers by modernizing outdated conventions of written English — changing, for instance, “to-night” to “tonight” and “any one” to “anyone” — while also preserving of the charms and uniqueness of the original language. At times, this balancing act is easy. At other times, it’s tough, and I sometimes find myself having discussions with the authors’ ghosts, negotiating my decisions and hopefully receiving their chilly pat of approval.

Arthur Machen (1863-1947)

This week, I’ve been working on From Eerie Cases to Early Graves: 5 Short-Lived Occult Detective Series and, specifically, Arthur Machen’s short stories — or are they novellas? — featuring Mr. Dyson. An interesting problem has arisen, one mentioned by Cian Gill in the “Evil Fairy Folk: Arthur Machen’s Novel of the Black Seal” episode of his wonderful podcast Wide Atlantic Weird. Examining this story-within-a-story found in Machen’s novel The Three Imposters (1895), Gill points out that Machen’s setting has striking similarities to Caerleon, Wales, the author’s hometown. Oddly, Machen identifies this town as being — not in Wales — but in the west of England. Gill contemplates aloud:

I wonder myself if this was some sort of English versus Welsh thing that, at the time, in order to be published in London and be taken seriously, you had this expectation that the public were more interested in things that were English than were not.

About the same thing occurs in “The Shining Pyramid,” the story I’m editing. At one point, readers learn that children walk to and from school behind a main character’s residence. The children either start from — or attend school in — Croesyceiliog, a real town in Wales with a really Welsh name. Later, though, the setting is said to be in “this quiet corner of England.”

Wales versus England
I imagine some people aren’t quite sure where Wales is in relation to western England. To help, I took a detail from a map I found in an 1894 book and did my best to put Wales is in red. If I goofed up, I trust my Welsh ancestors — if not cartography fans still living — will duly haunt me.

As a test, I did some Googling. I tried to find the nearest English town to Croesyceiliog as the crow flies, and I settled on Portishead. The tykes would have to travel about 12 or 13 miles — or 19 or 20 kilometers — twice a day. Applying my own average of walking roughly 4 mph on a good day, those kids spent at least six hours of their own day traveling to school and back — and unless they caught a ferry, they’d probably be slowed down by swimming across Aber Hafren (aka the Severn Estuary). Silliness aside, the geography doesn’t make much sense. Machen is grasping the corners of a town easily identified as Welsh, dragging it east across the border, and spreading it back out on English land.

Or just as likely, the original editor of “The Shining Pyramid” performed this formidable act. Sometimes, a person might forget that fiction published in the 1800s often carries the stamp — or, hopefully, the gentle touch — of an editor. For instance, Arthur Edward Waite was the editor of The Unknown World, where Machen’s story was originally published in 1895. That source is tough to locate. Seriously, when I can’t find something at Google Books or the Internet Archive or HathiTrust or even listed on WorldCat, I shrug and start to look for a later source. I used a 1923 reprint of “The Shining Pyramid,” one edited by Vincent Starrett. Yes, I’m editing a probably-already-edited version of the tale, crossing my fingers that Starrett’s tweaking of his source for the story, if there was any tweakage at all, was minimal.

But what’s an editor living in a less Anglocentric time and place than 1800s London do about Machen’s specifying Croesyceiliog, which clearly suggests he wants readers to think Wales, in a text that then says England? If Gill is correct in his speculation that an author had to favor English settings to get published — or if Waite and/or Starrett went ahead and switched the setting for some similar reason — then wouldn’t it be wise to now change the setting to “this quiet corner of Wales” or, perhaps, “this quiet corner of Britain”? To make it make sense? Am I right here?

Well, as it stands now, that’s what I’ve done. But From Eerie Cases to Early Graves isn’t out yet. There’s still a month or so for me to change my mind. We shall see.

— Tim

(Posts identified as “The Scarlet Pencil” chronicle my meandering through the misty and mysterious quagmire of editing anthologies for Brom Bones Books.)

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