Tribute to Priscilla Bawcutt

Priscilla June Bawcutt 3 June 1931–26 February 2021

Priscilla Bawcutt was the foremost authority on Older Scots literature. She belonged to the same tradition as W. A. Craigie, the great lexicographer and editor, and Denton Fox, the meticulous Oxford editor of Robert Henryson’s works. Admiring both for their scholarly rigour, she set the editing standard even higher, tactfully correcting them on occasion.

Her most enduring legacies, produced over more than fifty years, will be her major editions, The Shorter Poems of Gavin Douglas (1967; revised 2003), The Works of William Dunbar (1998), and The Eneados: Gavin Douglas’s Translation of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ (2020–), the first of these, and the last (its volumes two and three due for publication this year and next), for the Scottish Text Society.

Bawcutt was born on 3 June 1931, in Malton, North Yorkshire to Thomas William Preston and May Preston (née Humfrey). She attended the local girls’ school in Scarborough, of which she spoke with affection. At the University of London, Bawcutt’s undergraduate tutors included the distinguished critic and scholar, Kathleen Tillotson, who introduced her to Chaucer and the ‘Scottish Chaucerians’, as they were then described. Bawcutt was awarded a BA with first class honours, and an MA (begun under the supervision of Phyllis Hodgson) in 1954, work for the latter a firm basis for her Shorter Poems of Gavin Douglas.

She soon began publishing her research, from 1957 as Priscilla Preston and, after her marriage in May 1962 to the specialist in seventeenth-century literature, Nigel William Bawcutt, as Priscilla Bawcutt. Initially, her main focus was Gavin Douglas—disproving his commonly-assumed authorship of King Hart; examining his sources, lexical distinctiveness, relationship to Chaucer, and abilities as a translator. The Shorter Poems, including The Palice of Honour and Conscience, appeared in 1967. Her work on Douglas culminated in Gavin Douglas: A Critical Study (1976), of which Alastair Fowler, in his review for The Times Literary Supplement (22 July 1977), observed: ‘[i]n their estimates of Douglas’s value, critics to come will owe an incalculable debt to Mrs Bawcutt.’ Early in this period, while she was lecturer at Durham University, Bawcutt revealed in an engagingly erudite article on T. S. Eliot and Sherlock Holmes (Modern Language Review, 1959), what alternative careers were open to her had she not chosen to specialize in early Scottish literature. This was glimpsed again later in published letters and notes, such as those on Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, N&Q, 1982, and Shakespeare’s sonnet 38, Shakespeare Quarterly, 1984.

Thenceforward, although continuing her interest in Douglas, Priscilla Bawcutt produced work of remarkable range and depth, the issue of textual integrity often at its core. William Dunbar gradually became another major focus—his imagery, sources, language, modes and genres, textual uncertainties, and the liberties taken with his writing by the early editors. Bawcutt was awarded a Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in 1978; an award for travel and research from the British Academy in 1980, and a Visiting Fellowship at the Australian National University’s Humanities Research Centre, in 1983. These, and a Fellowship at the Huntington Library, California in 1990, gave her access to the early material and time to write. One outcome was Dunbar the Makar, published by OUP in 1992, in which she illuminated the poet’s literary context and provided detailed critical evaluations of all poems.

Having found various deficiencies (of punctuation, stanza layout, manuscript authority, and use of titles) in James Kinsley’s Dunbar edition of 1979, Bawcut edited the poems afresh, publishing an accessible teaching text of seventy poems, William Dunbar: Selected Poems, for Longman in 1996; and a complete two-volume edition in 1998 for the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. Its excellence—the fresh consideration of the early prints and manuscripts, including the Osborn (her discovery during a 1998 Visiting Fellowship at Yale’s Beinecke Library), with expert commentary on Dunbar’s literary themes and use of language—was recognized when the edition became the 1999 National Library of Scotland and Saltire Society Research Book of the Year. Bawcutt called this year ‘an annus mirabilis for me’: she was also given a rare Honorary Professorship by the University of Liverpool, where from 1989 she had been Honorary Fellow in English.

In the festschrift marking the publication of the Dunbar edition, William Dunbar, “The Nobill Poyet”: Essays in Honour of Priscilla Bawcutt (2001), Sally Mapstone wrote in her Preface that Bawcutt’s huge contribution to Older Scots Literary studies included her help to all those who have ‘an interpretative quandary, thinks one has discovered something new, or wants to know about recherché bibliography’. The injunction, Mapstone noted, is always ‘Ask Priscilla’. Aided by a superb and accurate memory, Bawcutt was most generous with her time and expertise—always to the point—to students and colleagues alike. She shared her knowledge even in her reviews of editions of Older Scots texts. In her careful assessments of textual accuracy and constructive contending with over-simplified critical discussion she often contributed new information on the particular subject.

Bawcutt was elected Member of Council to the Scottish Text Society (May 1989), and a Vice-President (January 1993), retiring (although continuing to supervise novice-editors) in 2011. She travelled up to Edinburgh from her home in Liverpool to attend most of the STS meetings, combining this with research in the National and University libraries and meetings with friends and colleagues, often with Jack Aitken, editor of DOST. Her contributions, in particular to the Scottish Text Society’s Editorial Committee, were strikingly selfless. For many years she read and carefully reported on most STS editions, thereby picking up numerous errors before publication. These commitments might have more than occupied her, yet during this time, Bawcutt, with Felicity Riddy, prepared Longer Scottish Poems. Volume I (1987), for which she edited afresh lengthy selections from Henryson, Dunbar, Douglas, Montgomerie, Hume, and Drummond. Later, as a teaching text, they brought out Selected Poems of Henryson and Dunbar (1992).

Priscilla Bawcutt was an enthusiastic participant in formal and informal discussions at the many conferences she attended. They included meetings of The Scottish Medievalists, to which she had been elected a member in 1985; and the triennial international conferences on Scottish Language and Literature (Medieval and Renaissance). She was one of the very few who had participated in every one of the latter, from the first in Edinburgh in 1975 to that in Glasgow in 2017. Her paper at Edinburgh, ‘The “Library” of Gavin Douglas’, an erudite reconstruction drawn from the poet’s comments, caused a stir, to be repeated over and over again as Bawcutt was invited to present conference plenaries. She enjoyed giving surprises, opening new areas of study, or showing that supposedly known areas were not so. Such, for example was her paper at Germersheim in 1986, when she spoke with delight of Dunbar’s poem, known as ‘The Petition of the Auld Hors, Dunbar’, as a Christmas carol. Her proof overturned the ‘wholesale misreading of [the poem’s] structure’ by previous editors.

Her expertise was acknowledged in a variety of ways. Repeatedly Bawcutt was invited to write contributions (on James I, John Barbour, Robert Henryson, Gavin Douglas, William Dunbar, Walter Kennedy, Robert Sempill, religious verse, Early Scottish Literature) to companion volumes, bibliographies, encyclopædias, biographical dictionaries, and histories of Scottish literature. These articles are not repetitive; when they have the same subject—there are, for example, more than seven for Gavin Douglas—each one provides not only the necessary information, but the latest fruits of her ongoing research. She was a consultant (‘for specialist advice on aspects of entries’) for the New Edition and the three Additions volumes of the OED; and a recognized Contributor to The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue. The National Library of Scotland valued her work, their Maps of Scotland catalogue, for example, including her transcription of the poem in Adv. MS. 70.2.9 (Pont 23v). In 2010, for her substantial and distinctive contribution to Scottish literature, the Association for Scottish Literary Studies awarded her an Honorary Fellowship.

By 2013, Bawcutt had largely completed her revision, with Ian Cunningham, of D. F. C. Coldwell’s edition of The Eneados (1957–64). Publication was delayed because the use of Optical Character Recognition software to digitize Coldwell’s original text did not easily accommodate Older Scots. The digitization required extensive correction, and careful checking of every word. The edition’s first volume was published in 2020, its wealth of new scholarship evident; all that required Bawcutt’s editorial wisdom was in place for volumes two and three. This great scholar has left an immense legacy.

Janet Hadley Williams, 26 March 2021.