Why the Mills & their Marginalia

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Victorian Britain’s leading philosophical empiricist and liberal theorist—and, perhaps the dominant figure in Victorian intellectual life from the 1860s through the 1880s—John Stuart Mill authored significant works on logic, epistemology, political economy, aesthetics, and social reform. In addition, as the de facto editor of the London and Westminster Review for nearly four years (1836-1840) and a frequent contributor to the Westminster Review, Fraser’s Magazine, the Edinburgh Review, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, and other periodicals, Mill was a prolific author of articles, editorials, and review essays. Well known to his contemporaries and central to cultural and social historians of the period, his published writing remains a relevant and frequently cited authority for contemporary university students, philosophers, political theorists, and even elected officials.

John Stuart Mill’s father, James Mill, remains less widely appreciated than his son, and yet was a major intellectual force from the 1810s into the 1830s. Working with and helping to popularize the theories of Jeremy Bentham, James Mill co-founded the philosophical movement known as Utilitarianism. At the same time, cooperating with David Ricardo, he helped to establish the principles of classical economics, while his History of British India (1818) not only secured him, and subsequently his son, highly remunerative employment at India House, but also set the tone for British relations with the subcontinent for decades to come. Finally, James Mill’s experimental program of at-home education had a lasting effect on his eldest son, John Stuart, who discusses his childhood course of reading, subsequent mental breakdown, and ultimate intellectual indebtedness to his father at length in his Autobiography (1873).

This posthumous publication anchors the first volume of the University of Toronto Press edition of the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, begun in the 1960s and completed in the 1990s under the editorial direction of J. M. Robson. Robson and his numerous collaborators were meticulous in tracing textual variants, and many individual volumes contain references to annotations made in early copies in the “SC,” shorthand for Somerville’s John Stuart Mill Library Collection. In fact, the marks and annotations in the SC extend far beyond copyediting corrections. Both John Stuart and James Mill were vociferous readers who frequently recorded their own immediate and more considered reactions to what they read in marginal marks and annotations, as well as more fulsome commentary at the conclusions of chapters and on volume endpapers.

A small number of scholarly studies concerning John Stuart Mill’s annotations, all published prior to the beginning of this project, hint at the marginalia’s potential to enhance our understanding of both Mills’ evolving thought and engagement with both previous and contemporary writers. Edward Alexander’s “Mill's Marginal Notes on Carlyle's ‘Hudson's Statue’” in English Language Notes 7 (1969) first brought to light Mill’s unvarnished reactions to Thomas Carlyle’s mid-century diatribe against the memorialization of greed. Mill’s annotations reveal his intellectual rift with his former close friend even as they confirm his skepticism about the judgment of Britain’s commercial class. In “The J.S. Mill Marginalia in Robert Browning's Pauline: A History and Transcription,” from Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 66 (1972), William Peterson and Fred Stanley assert Mill’s profound effect on then-fledgling poet Robert Browning’s subsequent career on the basis of their shared annotations in Browning’s Pauline. More recently, Frank Prochaska’s “Mill and Emerson: Sense and Nonsense” in History Today 63 (2013) established, on the basis of hand-annotated volumes of Emerson’s Essays, a previously unknown transatlantic connection between the two authors, thereby inviting a revision to existing scholarship and revealing an acerbically humorous Mill quite at odds with his disinterested published persona.