Martin Chuzzlewig

John Sutherland

  • Dickens’s Working Notes for his Novels edited by Harry Stone
    Chicago, 393 pp, £47.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 226 14590 5

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.

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