Dickens’s magical power over his readers has frequently expressed itself in cult objects. For Victorians, the most widely reproduced was probably Luke Fildes’s elegiac picture, The Empty Chair. This image of the vacant authorial throne conveys a sense that there can be no successor to Dickens. Together with the irreparable loss, Fildes’s confident entry into the sanctum sanctorum, the study in the chalet at Gad’s Hill, confirmed the delusive intimacy which reading publics yearn to be reassured they enjoy with their idols. We were close to him, and he is gone, the painting says.
Our yearning is satisfied differently now. Dickens House retains its loyal visitors, but for the late 20th century, closeness to the author is most commonly achieved by our privileged access to his manuscript remains and to the biographical privacies kept from his own age. Dickens’s so-called working notes have become the fetish of modern Dickensian veneration and are reproduced with extraordinary redundancy. Harry Stone’s makes the fifth set of the working notes for Edwin Drood. His is the most attractive set by far, but not even the most finicky Dickensian could claim that on the face of it there is a crying need for an edition de luxe of these materials.
The shavings from Dickens’s workshop floor have not always been regarded as important literary documents. Victorians were evidently as unexcited by the number plans as we are by Dickensian armchairs. Dickens himself took care to preserve his memoranda with the manuscripts of his works, and passed them on to Forster. In his life of Dickens, Forster alludes to the working notes but mainly leaves the impression that the author’s planning was principally carried out in conversation or correspondence with his faithful biographer. The far-sighted Forster did, however, bequeath Dickens’s literary remains to the Victoria and Albert Museum, with the instruction that they be kept together and accessible to readers. Scholars seem not to have disturbed them until after the Second World War. Sylvère Monod’s Charles Dickens Novelist (1953) is credited with being the first study to revive interest in the working notes as a royal road to Dickensian interpretation. This was followed by Kathleen Tillotson and John Butt’s Dickens at Work (1957), and by the same authors’ ‘Clarendon’ Dickens project, which enshrined a full transcription of the working notes as essential editorial apparatus.
If archaeology into the substrata of Dickensian composition is how we nowadays choose to get close to Dickens, then Stone’s sumptuous volume is very welcome. Not only does he bring all the surviving sets of notes together, he offers full-size facsimile reproduction opposite transcription in mimetic typography with deletions skilfully ferreted out from under Dickens’s furiously thick erasures. There are clear benefits in this laborious procedure. What elsewhere reads as ‘A Sunny day in coketown? – Picture? Yes’ can be seen by cross-page reference in Stone’s version of the Hard Times notes as a first query in one ink and quill thickness, answered by another query in a different ink and quill, clinched by a decision (underlined three times) in yet a third ink and quill and palpably hastier pen strokes. In other words, Stone’s volume allows the reader to put time values (but infuriatingly, no definite dates) to Dickens’s jottings. Innumerable other nuances are now observable without a trip to South Kensington.
Stone withholds from annotating Dickens’s notes line by line, offering instead general (and formidably knowledgable) introductions. His forbearance allows readers to try their own explanations of what remain, after all scholarly exegesis, fascinatingly enigmatic and often downright frustrating documents. It helps, I think, to consider them alongside the literary preparations other Victorian novelists were in the habit of making at different stages of their careers. The last factor is more important than it may at first appear. Dickens, it is often observed, apparently embarked on working notes only with his fourth novel, The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), and systematised the practice with Dombey and Son (1846-47), his seventh novel. Like other commentators, Stone stresses the preparation for Dombey as a threshold in Dickens’s artistic evolution: ‘the first novel of his maturity’.
In fact, graduation into note-making after one’s first few novels would seem to have been a natural artistic step. The first coherent notes we have from Thackeray are for his third major work of fiction, Henry Esmond, for which he filled some seven pages of a notebook with jottings and sketches. The fullest notes are for his last incomplete novel, Denis Duval. George Eliot seems to have begun making her collections of notes, or quarries, for novels with her third full-length work, Romola. Charles Reade began to rely on his system of note-making with his third novel, It is never too late to mend. Trollope claimed not to make preparation for his fiction, charging at his narratives, as he put it, like a horseman at a fence unaware of what lay on the other side. Nevertheless, there remains almost a complete set of advance plans for a late novel, The way we live now, which suggests that in his later career, like his fellows, he too was a note-making novelist.
Although he conforms to pattern in making notes only once his career as a novelist was properly under way, the nature of the notes Dickens made are strikingly different from those of fellow Victorians. When he found himself on his deathbed with half his last novel, Blind Love, still to write, Wilkie Collins sent the plans to Walter Besant, who was politely asked in a spirit of authorial comradeship to finish the work. ‘Tell him I would do as much for him if he were in my place,’ Collins said. So full and logical was Collins’s ‘scenario’ that Besant could write up the third posthumous volume of Blind Love’s intricate story of Fenian assassination and misinheritance seamlessly, as from a blueprint. Dickens’s plans never divulge what lies ahead in this way. The working notes for Drood, full as they are up to the moment of death with the midway sixth number, give no clue as to how the initial ‘mystery’ was to be resolved. The sheets he allocated and labelled for numbers seven to 12 remain tantalisingly blank. Dickens’s notes, it seems, dealt almost exclusively with tactical rather than long-term strategic problems. Thus it was natural for him to jot down à propos of Chapter Five: ‘Bring in the other young couple. Yes ... Mixture of Oriental blood – or imperceptibly acquired nature – in them. Yes.’ But what the eventual destiny of Helena and Neville Landless was to be is for ever withheld. Unless he kept a secret second set of strategic plans we know nothing about, it would seem Dickens wrote in a state of continual and all-engrossing clinch with the matter in hand, giving away nothing (even to himself) of long-term narrative outcomes. A rare exception to this rule is the first chapter note on Paul Dombey’s birth: ‘Boy born, to die.’
Thackeray’s notes, as they survive for Duval, were kept mainly in a pocket book. They are some of them in pencil, indicating that the novelist carried the book about his person (as he did his novel’s manuscript, as Dickens noted with some surprise in his obituary on his fellow writer). By contrast, Dickens made all his notes in ink, and evidently while sitting in his study or at his travelling desk. Thackeray used notes principally at the start of writing, to prime his creativity. Thus the bulk of his memoranda for Duval record impressions caught on the wing of the seaside town of Rye (where the smuggling story is set) and stimulating fragments of local history jotted down from British Museum copies of Notes and Queries. Duval breaks off at the same mid-point as Drood, but Thackeray’s Cornhill editor, using date calculations in the notebook, was able to hazard a plausible conclusion. In general, however, his notes served only to get him airborne, after which the novel more or less wrote itself.
George Eliot, in her maturity, prepared herself for her novels by monumental research. Readers of her quarries, as transcribed by Anna Kitchel or William Baker, must be astonished both at the amount of background reading she did for her novels and how remote much of it seems from the finally written work. At times, her notes resemble the commonplace books which Victorians like Hardy kept. But there is a difference. His notebooks appear to be comparatively casual accumulations, while Eliot’s quarries represent the grinding ordeal of initiation demanded by her artistic conscience before she could allow herself the luxury of writing. She said that she entered her preparation for Romola a young woman, and left it an old one. Working notes for her meant work.
Trollope’s note-making was more perfunctory. From what survives it seems that he would begin by drawing up a dramatis personae, or gallery of principal actors, visualising their characters in some detail until he felt he ‘knew’ them well enough to set them loose. And for complex stretches of future narrative Trollope might schedule what serial instalments would contain. These could be significantly altered in the actual writing: Melmotte, the gigantic swindler of The way we live now, was originally forecast to go on trial rather than commit suicide. Trollope would also on occasion draw up chronologies for his action. But the most important accessories to his composition were the clock-punching calendars for a new novel. In these he entered the daily total of pages written at the statutory 250 words every quarter of an hour.
Trollope seems to have relied little on written memoranda to aid composition, believing as he did that it is ‘harder to think of a novel than to write it’. Having thought through his narrative, what followed was relatively plain sailing. By contrast, Charles Reade was the most neurotically compulsive of note-makers, creating mighty preliminary apparatuses of notecards and newspaper clippings that dwarf the resulting ‘matter of fact romances’. Oxford University Press has indicated no interest in reprinting Reade’s fiction. But should they embark on a ‘Clarendon’ Reade along the same lines as their ‘Clarendon’ Dickens, the editors would need to allocate one slimmish volume for the text and several fat volumes for every set of working notes – none of these sets, as far as I know, has been reproduced in its entirety. Mrs Humphry Ward jotted down plans and ideas for the novel in hand like shopping-lists on any available writing surface. They skitter off in all sorts of hypothetical directions and one could, from those that survive for Marcella, reconstruct a handful of alternative narratives. Ward’s notes reveal a mind chronically uncertain of its own inspirations, for ever making tentative mock-ups as quickly dismantled as made.
No one made working notes quite like Dickens. After 1846, he would take a sheet of letter paper and bend or otherwise divide it in half. On the left-hand side he would enter ideas or ‘mems’ for the narrative currently being written. On the right-hand side he would enter the ration of main events for the chapters and numbers as actually written. Over the years, this dualism of loose left, tight right, remained generally consistent from Dombey to Drood. From novel to novel there are differences, however. Some, like Little Dorrit, proved very complex in the telling and required uncharacteristically verbose ‘mems’ on how to ‘work round’ the novel to its ending. Typically, Dickens’s notes tend to be telegraphic, as if every word cost him a shilling, as in this question-and-answer series from Bleak House:
Mr Guppy – His mother? Not Yet
Mr Krook Yes.
The Turveydrops No. Next time
It is strange, as Stone observes, that Dickens did not use the even more economical shorthand he had learned as a Parliamentary reporter. Perhaps he wanted his notes to be legible to his executors and to posterity.
Over the twenty years of his maturity, Dickens’s practice in his working notes was remarkably the same. But there is a growing sense of ‘art’ from novel to novel. His early directions to himself tend to be logistical: ‘Be patient with Carker – Get him on very slowly without incident.’ Later on, his ‘mems’ often show him thinking more like his own literary critic, stressing theme and symbol, as in the opening instruction in Drood: ‘Touch the Key note.’ Two features dominate the Dickens working notes. The first is what Stone calls his ‘preternatural’ sensitivity to names. Not least he took his own name very seriously and it was a moment of arrival when ‘By Charles Dickens’ replaces the pseudonymous ‘Edited by Boz’ with Dombey. (That it was Dickens’s decision to make this change is confirmed by the working notes.) But it is less clear why the novelist should have used up 12 pages on writing down variant names and titles for Martin Chuzzlewit, or 16 on trial titles for David Copperfield. It is all the odder since, as Thackeray cattily noted, Dickensian names such as Micawber are as unlike real names as Micawber himself is unlike a real person. No one in the history of British society can have been called Chuzzlewit, let alone Chuzzlewig or Chuzzletoe (discarded names). I cannot even find the more naturalistic-sounding Copperfield or Dombey in my telephone book.
If Dickens were a contemporary writer like Arthur Hailey, who routinely checks all his fictional names for non-appearance in the Manhattan telephone directory, one would assume that he was worried by libel suits. But Thackeray seems to have been nearer the mark. Naming for Dickens was an Adamic act which was co-generative with creation. For every important character, Dickens seems to have made a new mould, a mould which required a new name. The lists of trial names are the visible turbulence of this process.
The other feature which predominates throughout the working notes is Dickens’s habitual dualism. The double-column arrangement with free range on one side and tight order on the other is one aspect of this dualism. Another is the interlocution between partners implied in such ubiquitous exchanges in the working notes as: ‘Begin Clennam’s course downward? Yes.’ Who is talking to whom here? It would seem that one Dickens, an imaginative but diffident chap, has bright ideas. Another Dickens, a sergeant-major of a fellow with a clipped reluctance to waste words, gives a thumbs-up or down. Other novelists – Thackeray, for instance – would jot down the occasional ‘query’ to themselves. But Dickens, as far as I know, is the only writer to have chattered so incessantly and profitably to himself.