Some books are never finished, at least not as long as their authors are still living. Dissatisfaction with a manuscript prevents some writers from sending it to their publisher in the first place. In other cases, authors continue to tinker with a novel even after it has been published, trying to make changes each time the work comes out in a new edition.
The latter was true of Thomas Hardy and in particular his novel Two on a Tower, which I reviewed here last Friday. I read the Oxford edition of the book, which includes both textual notes and explanatory notes at the end. The textual notes explain changes made in the edition I read from earlier editions.
One problem for Hardy was that, like Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and other authors of the Victorian era, he wrote first for serialization in periodicals before his novels were published in book form. This meant a strict deadline for each installment, forcing authors to write quickly and, in many cases, make up the story as they went along. Once an installment was published, it was too late to change anything in it if the writer either caught an error or decided on a change of direction later in his novel. He had to wait until the novel was printed in book form.
Hardy's novel was first serialized in the Atlantic Monthly from May to December 1882. As the Oxford notes point out, the story published in the magazine contained errors and inconsistencies that later had to be corrected. The death of Viviette's husband was said to have occurred both in December and in February. A later note says, "Apparently, Hardy was improvising as he went along." Another note says, "Many readers of the September instalment of the serial must have wondered at the short memory of both Viviette and Swithin. But it is their creator's apparent change of direction that cause the memory-failure of his characters."
Other changes in the novel made by Hardy either in the first three-volume edition or in subsequent editions were made for reasons other than correction. The author later decided to omit many adjectives and adverbs that had been in the original manuscript. Hardy changed the age of the bishop, making him older than he was originally.
Even in the final edition of the book during Hardy's life one must read between the lines to realize just how much sexual content there exists in the story. Yet Hardy kept making small changes to make things a little more explicit. For one edition he added the phrase "smoothed the bed a little" to suggest what has just taken place. The same edition included the new phrase "yet he was a seven-months' baby" to make the situation a little more clear to his readers.
The changes made over many years and several different editions of Two on a Tower make it a little difficult for modern publishers like Oxford University Press. Which version of the book should they print? Oxford went to a lot of work to do it, but they managed to publish Hardy's final version of the work while at the same time showing how it evolved from its original form.