Over the last couple of weeks, my social media feeds have been overflowing with excitement about the ‘Dickens Discovery’. However, I realise this isn’t perhaps as important to everyone else as it is to me and my colleagues, so although I haven’t really got anything new to add, I wanted to comment on why it is so exciting.
What happened is well-described here in the Guardian. In a nutshell, Dr Jeremy Parrott, an antiquarian bookseller and Dickens scholar, bought a 20-volume set of All the Year Round, the journal which Dickens edited (or ‘conducted’, as he preferred to say) for ten years up to his death. It seemed like a particularly beautiful set, but when he opened it, there were names written in the margins by the articles. Now, the contributors were all anonymous, so although it is known who some of the contributors are, we can only guess who wrote what. But in these volumes, every article was attributed in pencil; and when one was attributed to Dickens himself, it was with his own signature. It transpires that this was Dickens’ own set, in which he noted the contributors in annotations.
1. We know more about Dickens as editor, now – about whose writing he published, and the decisions he made, and that, for example, he published work by his family.
2. It’s enlightening about the contributors: pieces previously attributed to Wilkie Collins, for example, turn out not to be by him at all, while other pieces which are by him add to the extant works by Collins. This is huge, impacting on our perceptions of the work of a range of writers which also includes Dickens himself, Elizabeth Gaskell, Lewis Carroll, Eliza Linton (the first professional female journalist) and Fanny Trollope. This is HUGE!
3. Though Dickens has been considered something of a misogynist (perhaps partly because of his scathing comments about working with Mrs Gaskell, despite his respect for her work) but it’s estimated that around 40% of the contributions are by women. This adds to modern views on gender and writing.
4. It shows that what we know, or think we know, isn’t set in stone, and reminds us not to be smug or complacent. Literary history can still surprise us, and prove us wrong. It also – most excitingly – gives us hope that there might be other thrilling discoveries out there to be made, any day now!
5. All of the above means that there is now new work to be done on Dickens and his journals – new angles to be considered, new contributors to be researched, etc.
You can read Dickens’ journals online here. The Dickens Blog also has more information. Dr Parrott will be publishing an article in the Victorian Periodicals Review about his discovery. The excitement of the discovery is captured well in an interview with Dr Parrott on Radio 4’s Front Row – the podcast is available here.