Writing about punctuation forces critics to reckon with deeply held beliefs about what contributes to a work of literature. I can accept that texts are social products, and I can ask that those social forces co-operate and yield an order suggestive of a coherent and judicious intelligence, whether authorial or not; and I can still doubt whether the minutiae of punctuation are necessary to it. How much, and what sort of, critical engagement can they sustain? Can we sufficiently trust in punctuation to posit reasons why one mark contributes to a work more than another would in its place?

Textual criticism does not provide answers to the questions. Even in the case of a poet like Tennyson, whose manuscripts and proofs reveal persistent tinkering with punctuation, the relationship of manuscript history to published text, the responsibilities and assumed responsibilities of authors, editors, printers, and publishers, and the consequent bearing of any given mark on any given reading, remain thorny and contested subjects. Manuscripts might guide and deepen understanding once critics have decided to make something of a mark of punctuation, but they cannot establish what to make of a mark, or whether it is worth making anything of it at all.

The trouble is not whether punctuation is ‘accidental’, as it has traditionally been described by editors, with a technical sense (accidens, contrasted with substans) that is influentially misleading; what is accidental may still direct and inform thought. The trouble is whether punctuation is essential. Close analysis of texts depends on a critical question, ‘What difference does it make that we find one feature rather than another?’ Those critics who would work on punctuation care about minutiae. They proceed in the trust that a work of literature is a fortuitous skein, gathering into its order particular felicities that both invigorate the critical imagination and inspire a sense of editorial responsibility; they desire to get the text right, to have it accurately before themselves in one or more versions, and also to say something about what seems new and alive in it.

In Ellipsis in English Literature, Anne Toner is happily possessed of both desires: she knows that different texts will present and employ punctuation differently, and that there is no one metaphor, and no one response, that can do justice to all of them. She nimbly shifts from one possibility to another, entertaining various perspectives as author or case demands, without letting her readers lose sight of the rigorous attention to book history that conditions her imaginative feats. Hence consideration of circumstances of publication, conventions of language, critical reception, and authorial intent allows her to set punctuation in any number of lights – or rather, to set punctuation as a light over any number of a work’s aspects.

In her crackling chapter on the eighteenth century novel, for instance, ellipsis is viewed as ornament, symptom of honesty, and ruin. It is also viewed as a legal necessity. When the laws of libel altered in the late seventeenth century the function of asterisks shifted, partially obliterating names on the page, while leaving sufficient traces for recognition; here, Toner explains, was new fodder for the satirical genius of Swift. With the expansion of newspapers in nineteenth century Britain, punctuation was entrusted with clarifying representations of transcribed speech; here, Dickens, the former parliamentary reporter, found new techniques for his novelistic art. Similarly to words, punctuation in literature is charged with conventions and abuses from non-literary domains of life.

But punctuation also represents an indissoluble mystery for critics: a contradiction that cannot be resolved by analysis. And in no form of punctuation is that mystery more clearly present than in the ellipsis that Toner takes as her subject. A key critical principle for approaching punctuation asks that we see it as both a continuity and a discontinuity between words; to borrow a helpful figure (offered by Christopher Ricks in an essay on Geoffrey Hill), punctuation is the mortar that binds as well as divides the bricks. Ellipsis expands the mortar, so that at times a reader feels as if a brick is missing, and at times it feels as if the mortar is a substitute for it. Ellipsis refers, capaciously rather than confusingly in Toner’s hands, to a rhetorical figure as well as a symbolic device: the two are related, but the rhetorical and symbolic are each open to various representations. Hence in rhetoric, ellipsis is, at its origin, a ‘falling short’, an interruption of thought or speech, occurring, as Toner observes, ‘invisibly in the most common exchanges, in formal and informal language and in written and spoken forms’; and on the page, ellipsis may be represented by dashes, asterisks, full stops, blank space, or even icons (as in the first edition of Clarissa, where the interruptions in the heroine's letters are marked by a floral ornament reserved for her alone).

Toner is not anxious about the range the term covers – and we may be led to ask, though Toner does not take us quite so far, whether a comma may not serve as an ellipsis as effectively as a dot-dot-dot. Deciding if it does so requires a weighing of circumstances, conventions, and licence on the part of a reader. In her examples, Toner is sufficiently broad (a dot-dot-dot was not the established mark for ellipsis until the twentieth century) without making hazardous forays into tenuous cases. She allows us to know what, at a given moment in literary history, it would be perverse to judge as an ellipsis; but perversity is the charge that critics of punctuation must risk facing, and the interruption of thought or speech felt in even a single comma might be worth elevating to articulate discussion.

An analysis of ellipsis must tussle with its peculiar Janus-faced character, and, even though Toner does not fully spell out the nature of the duality, a central virtue of her book is a consistent regard for both of sides of the device. Ellipsis is both mimetic and a check against mimesis, or an anti-mimetic device. Turned to mimetic ends, ellipsis represents the failure of thought, speech, or the written word: hence George Meredith, Toner explains in one of the most rewarding of her case-studies, returns to the ellipsis in his efforts to represent both incomplete speech and incomplete thought. As a check against mimesis, an ellipsis indicates and stands in for what is unthinkable, unsayable, or unprintable, each of which constitutes a different field, depending, as Toner shows, on whether a work is most invested in the spoken voice, the liabilities and libels of satire and the public arena, or the dramatisation of an author’s mind (‘a non-verbalized internal state’). As a mimetic device, ellipsis represents the breakdown of thought, speech, or word; as a check against mimesis, an ellipsis marks off an area where thought, speech, or word will not move. In both cases, we are left to ask what has been withheld and why. But in the latter case, the anti-mimetic, the ellipsis draws a boundary between what is permitted and what excluded from the text for reasons external to it: what force of censorship, what experience of the author, what hazard of textual transmission has left the crater or the pockmark of ellipsis? When an ellipsis is mimetic, the reader asks what within the imagined world of a text has impeded the progress of thought or word. Whether presented by inky dots or the pristine pulp of page, ellipsis registers two inevitable limitations on language, two places where it falls short: internal to the imagination and external to it.

Toner is fascinated by ‘the perceived unorthodoxy of ellipsis marks in contrast to other marks of punctuation’, but in light of what she does with and makes of ellipsis, she encourages us to see in ellipsis a distillation of all punctuational practice: here is a space where words cannot go and must be separated, either owing to the intentions of a character and the contours of what is represented in a work, or else owing to the standards of clarity and comprehension that a text anticipates in readers. Even an exclamation point indicates both a limitation of the voice on the page (its silence), and a limitation within the work: we can posit the intensity of feeling that draws a phrase to its close, or, in the Victorian era where exclamation marks come mid-sentence, we can posit the intensity of feeling that a speaker announces without articulating. The study of punctuation, then, is the study of limits in literature and language, and the history of punctuation is a history of what has counted as a limit and how those limitations have been presented; the consequences of such a view are social and historical as well as metaphysical. At a limit, forces converge; something happens there; in those works where the drama of reasons and feeling is most intense and active, punctuation, whether authorial or editorial, will bear a special burden of significance.

It is no wonder that grammarians, authors, editors, and others have been especially concerned to prescribe standards of punctuation. In the case of ellipsis, though, the prescriptions have less to do with where ellipses occur than with how often and how they are marked. Toner is especially good on anti-ellipsis snobbery of the late eighteenth century: especially susceptible to mockery were novelists of sentiment tottering on the limits of the unsayable, and Gothic novelists presenting for public consumption the sad remains of once whole texts were especially susceptible to mockery. To exceed in the deployment of ellipsis is to exceed the bounds of sentimentality, to act too frenzied too often, or to advertise for one’s text a tumultuous and implausibly ravaging past; here the limits are of contested proprieties. But though ‘it often feels possible to predict with a reasonable degree of accuracy where ellipsis marks might appear within Gothic novels’, writes Toner, ‘it is much more difficult to predict the choice of mark’.

Here, the analysis leads to the material conditions of textual production which, though susceptible to robust positivism, are resistant to broad social claims. The choice of mark may be owing to the scant supply of type, as in the case of the first quarto of King Lear, in which ‘the choice of hyphens’ is, as it is not in the second quarto or folio, ‘unambiguously a matter of type supply rather than compositorial preference’. The limit is one of material resources; the road opens on which a scholar might advance a discussion of production and dissemination of font and type in early modern Britain, but at what point is punctuation left behind in such an account, and is there any advantage to placing punctuation at its centre? As a scholar of the eighteenth century, Toner takes special care with ellipsis in Swift, Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. She suggests that Fielding’s most significant ellipses take the form not of dots or marks but of chapter breaks, ‘those vacant Pages which are placed between our Books’. As a printer, Richardson could intervene artistically in the choice of mark. In Clarissa, where ‘marks of ellipsis are part of a narrative trajectory in which we see the disabling of the heroine’s verbal agency’, ellipsis is an opportunity for ornamentation as the novel’s different letter-writers were provided with differently stylised marks indicating interruptions. In the second edition, rosettes were reserved for Clarissa alone, and Lovelace is deprived of idiosyncratic ornamentation, receiving only the standard asterisk. For most authors, however, ellipses were not an occasion for ornamentation; the choice of mark was determined by the physiology of writing (the somatically significant term ‘dash’ was formally adopted only in the 1780s) and by the resources of printers. The final pages of Toner’s study face the possibilities of digital ellipsis, where the now standard dot-dot-dot often indicates a limit on how much time any one of us wants to devote to communicating with another. Where our words fail, there is also available a range of emojis that dwarfs the cases of the earliest typesetters; we can avoid words as never before, but in each case the desire to do so indicates some limitation that we might want to explore.

I have not done justice in my review to just how many authors Toner considers. She does not pursue a handful of extensive close readings or author-centred chapters: she sprints with wonderful concision and economy through five centuries of English literature. The only author I felt should have been included was an American, the printer-poet Walt Whitman, whose first edition of Leaves of Grass deploys dots in sequences of twos, threes, and more, mid-line. I would like to have read Toner’s speculations on the mystery of Whitman’s punctuation, but also, reflecting what I appreciate most about her book, to have had access to the facts of publication, convention, and context that might have helped me make sense of Whitman’s marks. But neither the title nor the study falls short. English literature is Toner’s territory, and it is dense with ellipsis: chasms, boulders, and rows of pebbles, each affording access, under Toner’s guidance, to a history of letters and language glacial in its sweep.