Deciphering Dickens

Charles Dickens left behind a remarkably complete record of his literary output, including handwritten drafts for most of the major novels, marked-up page proofs, and planning notes. These manuscripts and other materials, gifted to the V&A by Dickens's agent and executor John Forster, are uniquely important. They show both his hand and mind at work, and the dense thicket of revisions allows us to see his first thoughts, changes of mind and innumerable refinements of expression. Together, these manuscripts form a unique resource for understanding the whole process of composition by Dickens, from 'planning to proofs'.

The 'Deciphering Dickens' project is led by Douglas Dodds, Senior Curator in the V&A’s Word & Image Department, and John Bowen, Professor of English and long-time Dickens Project faculty member. It will eventually create a digital platform with high resolution scans of the novels together with proofs, planning material, the published text of the novel and supporting material. Most excitingly, members of the public would be invited to help decipher in a guided way as much of Dickens’s deleted and revised manuscript material as possible, to produce a powerful and lasting resource for readers, scholars and editors of his work.

We are currently trialling ways that we might crowdsource these new transcriptions of Dickens's manuscripts, and would like your help. If you like Dickens, visual puzzles, reading bad handwriting, and trying to figure out crossed-out things, this project is for you. We’d like to form a group of volunteers to look closely at some sample online pages of Dickens’s manuscripts to see how successful we can be at finding out how his manuscripts changed and what if anything of the deleted material we can recover.

Please read Edgar Rosenberg’s brilliant essay ‘Writing Great Expectations’ from his Norton edition of the novel for an example of what can be recovered from the manuscript of one of Dickens’s novels.

At the 2018 Universe, we had a lot of success in digging out some really interesting details from the Little Dorrit manuscript. We'll be continuing this project this year, building on what we learned last year and with some new resources and knowledge. Old and new hands most welcome!

We will be meeting Monday to Thursday at 5:15 PM.

Please bring your laptops! Seats are limited, pre-registration is required.