The Completely Inimitable

The Life of Charles Dickens Volume1,1812–1842 by John ForsterWe will all be shortly blown away on a great gust of Dickensiana – 7 February 2012 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, and already the literary and artistic world is gearing up, with a Dickens 2012 website (which contains a link – under ‘In his own write’ at the bottom of the home page – to our activities), a major exhibition at the Museum of London, and Great Expectations as the BBC’s Christmas Blockbuster Bonnetfest. There is to be a new film version of Great Expectations as well, with an ending which will be neither of the two actually written by Dickens…

We at the CLC coalface are of course making our own modest contribution. We were most excited to be asked some months ago if we could scan and reissue Dickens’ manuscript of Great Expectations, which he (as was his custom) had had bound in leather to present to a friend, in this case Chauncy Hare Townshend (1798–1868), who combined an interest in mesmerism and the occult and a fascination with Napoleon with being an ordained Church of England priest (though, being of independent means, he never took a living).

Townshend left his library, his collection of Napoleonic relics (included the Emperor’s portrait and his coffee set from St Helena), and the crystal ball with which he and Dickens performed séances, to the local museum at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire.  A Museum Society had been formed in 1835 by worthy local gentlemen, who soon acquired a collection of natural history specimens, antiquities local and foreign, and all sorts of curios. In 1847 a purpose-built museum was erected close to the church and in front of the former castle mound, and it remains to this day, now named the Wisbech and Fenland Museum, a fascinating (and free) reminder of the sort of thing the Victorian Big Society was able to do. It is certainly a very good reason (along with Peckover House and the Octavia Hill Birthplace) to visit this beautiful town.

The pride of the Museum’s collection is the manuscript. Dickens gave most of them to his close friend, proofreader, advisor, literary executor and biographer John Forster, and he in turn bequeathed his library to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The one at Wisbech (which is usually on display on the first Saturday of every month, but is down in London for the duration of the exhibition) is remarkable in that it has never been rebound: it is in virtually the same condition as when Dickens gave it to Townshend in July 1861.

After preliminary arrangements about security and insurance (I signed a document which mentioned £1,000,000…), the manuscript was brought to Cambridge in splendid style. The Chairman of the Museum Management Committee, Richard Barnwell, is also High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire, and he drove the Curator, David Wright, and the manuscript over on a day when he was on official duty at the Shire Hall. He was therefore splendidly dressed in full eighteenth-century regalia, with cocked hat, lace collar and cuffs, and a sword – to say nothing of 42 silver buttons which are apparently a real problem to match if you ever lose one. (It pains me to report that my more vulgar colleagues kept asking me who the bloke in the pantomime outfit was…)

Our offices are always kept locked anyway, because we usually have a number of rare books being worked on; but the manuscript was kept in the Press’s safe all the time it wasn’t actually being scanned, and two weeks later, to our great relief, it was escorted back to Wisbech (again by the High Sheriff in his regalia).

The resulting book is a first for us for two reasons: we have never reissued a manuscript before, and this is the first book we have printed in colour (though we hope it won’t be the last). I should explain that all our books are scanned in colour, and the electronic versions available through Cambridge Books Online are in colour: the limitation is the high cost of on-demand colour printing, though we are hoping that this will be reduced the level where we can price such books at a rate that customers might be willing to pay. If you look at our on-line catalogue, you will know that we provide colour images of maps and plates as free downloads, but this is not an option for a whole book, so we have taken the plunge, and the result is (we think) wonderful. You can see David Wright talking about the manuscript here.

At the same time, we are reissuing the serialised version which Dickens published in his own periodical, All The Year Round, from December 1860 to July 1861, and the three-volume first book edition which came hard on the heels of the serial in 1861. Scholars and enthusiasts can thus do a three-way comparison between the manuscript, the serial and the book, and see the writer’s mind in action. Take, for example, the famous first sentence, ‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip . . . ‘: ‘infant’ is written over a crossed-out word –‘childish’, perhaps? (They can also marvel at how on earth the typesetter managed to decipher the handwriting and to distinguished between the text of the novel and the instructions which Dickens addressed to him occasionally in mid-page.) For serious researchers, the on-screen version, which can be enlarged to 200% without loss of quality, will be a brilliant tool.

As well as Great Expectations (and some examples of Dickens’ travel writing, the famous American Notes for General Circulation, and the less well known Pictures from Italy), we are also offering books about Dickens: John Forster’s three-volume Life of 1872–4; the edition of Dickens’ letters edited by his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth and his favourite daughter Mary (‘Mamie’); a little-known work called Charles Dickens As I Knew Him, by the manager of his famous reading tours in Britain and the United States; and the volume on Dickens in the first series of Macmillan’s ‘English Men of Letters’, which we  are reissuing in its entirety (39 books, all also available individually), and which deserves a blog of its own.

But the manuscript is our Best Thing: and you don’t have to take my word for it – we were thrilled to get this response to it from Claire Tomalin, author of the new Dickens biography which has shot into the best-seller lists immediately on publication:

‘It is a wonderful privilege to be able to pore over a facsimile of the manuscript of Charles Dickens’ greatest and most compelling novel, to see his alterations and working notes, and to get as close as can be possible to following his mind as he wrote.’


PS (25 March 2012), you might like to read this post about Dickens on our sister blog from over the pond:

This entry was posted in English Men of Letters, Literary Studies, Printing and Publishing History, Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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