‘Till I have a letter from Colonel Campbell’, said she, in a voice of forced calmness, ‘I can imagine nothing with any confidence. It must be all conjecture’. ‘Conjecture – aye, sometimes one conjectures right, and sometimes one conjectures wrong. I wish I could conjecture how soon I shall make this rivet quite firm’.(Jane Austen, Emma, ch. 28)
In the subject of conjecture, several themes that have emerged in previous chapters – the absence of certainty in textual studies, the lack of consensus among critics, and the role played by persuasion – reach a joint culmination. No other aspect of textual criticism divides scholars so sharply. Unlike the disagreements I discussed in Chapter 1, which relate specifically to the present state of classical studies, divergent views of conjecture and its practitioners have been held for centuries.
To begin, a terminological note. Some writers use ‘conjecture’ and ‘emendation’ interchangeably, whereas others distinguish conjectures, which may be thought correct or not, from emendations, defined strictly as successful conjectures. I prefer ‘conjecture’ for the sake of transparency, and also because ‘emendation’ implies that there is a textual flaw that needs correction, which is often precisely the point at issue.
Outstanding ability in conjecture has usually been a necessary qualification for heroic status, with the notable exception of Lachmann, whose achievements in the area of recension would have earned him a place of honour in the history of classical scholarship even if he had never made a conjecture. In the case of other heroic critics such as Scaliger, Bentley, Housman, or Shackleton Bailey, what has impressed their admirers above all else has been their ability to generate striking conjectures in abundance.
Among connoisseurs, the qualities of conjectures and their authors are debated with something of the same passion and familiarity that baseball fans or opera buffs bring to their favourite performers. A. S. Gratwick in his commentary on Plautus Menaechmi 867 speaks of ‘an untypically poor conjecture of Dousa sen<ior>’, as one might refer to ‘an uncharacteristically dull rendition by Callas’. Michael Reeve, in a memoir of the late Josef Delz, recommends a number of conjectures that in his view give ‘the flavour of Delz in top form’.