Dickens in the digital age

May 6, 2021

On the 18 February, the ‘Deciphering Dickens’ team hosted ‘Dickens in the Digital Age’, an exciting online symposium that brought together academics and museum professionals working on a range of digital projects related to Dickens, manuscripts, and textual editing.

We were very pleased to welcome the Director of the V&A, Tristram Hunt, to open proceedings. Tristram introduced attendees to the history of Charles Dickens’s connection with South Kensington and explained how the Dickens collection came to the museum via Dickens’s good friend, John Forster.

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Professor John Bowen, one of the Deciphering Dickens project’s co-leads, then introduced the museum’s manuscript holdings and shared some of the work undertaken on the project so far. The ‘Deciphering Dickens’ project aims to create an accessible, interactive digital platform that will enable the museum’s extraordinary collection of Dickens material to be shared as widely as possible. John talked through some of the transcription workshops that the project team have organised so far, which have allowed members of the public to work on deciphering some of the many crossings-out on Dickens’s manuscripts. These have included several sessions at the annual ‘Dickens Universe’ conference in California, and a ‘transcribe-a-thon’ event which took place online in December 2020.

This was followed by a talk from Doug Dodds, co-lead on the project and a Senior Curator in the Word and Image Department at the V&A, who showed us the V&A’s exciting new ‘Explore the Collections’ website, which hosts much of the museum’s visual material related to Dickens. He also demonstrated the FromThePage software, which we have been using to transcribe the corrections to the manuscripts in our public events. I then concluded this opening session by discussing some of my own experiences of deciphering Dickens’s handwriting as a Research Fellow on the project, and reflected upon the unique access the manuscripts give us to Dickens’s mind in the process of creation.

Digital Projects

The afternoon focused upon a number of recent digital projects. Our speakers shared with us some of the challenges and opportunities in using digital tools to interact with literary and historical texts.

We began with Professor Michaela Mahlberg and Dr Viola Wiegand, who discussed their work on the brilliant CLiC portal, a web-based application that enables you to search all of Dickens’s texts for keywords and combinations of phrases. The application enables high-level analyses of the ways Dickens constructs his fictional worlds, by running concordances focused on different parts of the text. The portal also hosts a range of other nineteenth-century texts that can be analysed in this way, and has recently added an African American writers corpus, which includes texts by Frances Harper and James Weldon Johnson.

The next speaker on this panel was Professor Kathryn Sutherland, who provided an update on her work on the digital edition of Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts, first launched online in 2010. Professor Sutherland demonstrated some of the similarities between Austen’s and Dickens’s writing practices, and the ways in which sharing manuscripts online can enable authority to be transferred from the editor to the reader or user. She also stressed the importance of considering the technical difficulties inherent in hosting a digital project online long term – the Jane Austen site has faced a number of digital challenges over the years, including the recent withdrawal of Flash Player, which has necessitated a move to a different imaging platform.

Questions of digital sustainability were also key in Dr Emily Bell’s talk, ‘Digital Paratexts’, in which she provided a fascinating overview of her work on the Atlas of Digitised Newspapers, and raised some important questions on how to maintain records digitally. One of the Atlas’s aims is to provide users with the history of digitised collections, documenting the decision-making process around these digital objects and highlighting potential gaps in collections. She also recommended the use of the Software Sustainability Institute’s sustainability evaluation tool, which provides project owners with an overview of future areas to consider depending on their chosen digital tools.

Editing Dickens

Our second panel of the afternoon focused on editorial processes, and we were thrilled to welcome three editors from the board of the new Oxford Dickens editions.

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Our first speaker was the General Editor, Professor David Hewitt, who explained the editorial rationale of the Oxford Dickens editions, and the importance of the original manuscripts in putting the new editions together. Professor Hewitt also discussed how participants in the Deciphering Dickens project will be able to contribute to this process, through potential new discoveries of alterations made to the manuscripts.

The second speaker was Professor Joel Brattin, who shared with us the meticulousness of the editing process, and the discoveries he has made of some fascinating and thought-provoking alterations to the text of A Tale of Two Cities. Quoting the film Good Morning Vietnam, he declared some sympathy for the character who states, ‘I live to collate’: in his collations of various editions of the novel he has found some 5781 variants between them, from changes of phrasing down to alterations to spelling and punctuation. Interestingly, we discovered that Dickens often favours American spellings.

Our final speaker on this panel was Professor Leon Litvack, who talked us through his own textual editing process, which makes use of a fascinating piece of software, Juxta. This allows him to collate variations between the different versions of the text he is editing on screen. Once again, it was fascinating to see in Professor Litvack’s talk how meaning subtly shifts from edition to edition, even with the tiniest of changes to punctuation, and how excisions from the manuscript can reshape the reader’s experience of the story.

Deciphering Texts

Our final panel of the day concentrated on questions of deciphering texts and manuscripts. Our first speaker was Dr Pete Orford, who discussed his work on Dickens’s Travelling Letters, which make up the text of the travelogue Pictures from Italy. Dr Orford revealed a fascinating puzzle connected to these letters – some of them are written in different handwriting, with edits to the text made in Dickens’s own hand. This suggests that these letters were likely copied out from Dickens’s originals – perhaps by his wife Catherine, or sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth. Such a discovery gives us a fascinating new angle on Dickens’s creative process, suggesting the collaborative element of some of his writing practices.

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Our next speaker was Dr Philip Palmer of the Morgan Library and Museum, who showcased some of the museum’s fascinating Dickens collection. The Morgan holds, amongst others, the original manuscripts of A Christmas Carol and Our Mutual Friend, as well as other texts in Dickens’s hand, including letters and various memoranda. Dr Palmer also allowed us to have a closer look at both the Christmas Carol and Our Mutual Friend manuscripts, and to try to decipher some of the trickier parts. (The Our Mutual Friend manuscript is notoriously one of the most difficult of Dickens’s to read!)

Our next speakers were Dr Claire Wood and Professor Hugo Bowles, who are working on an even trickier deciphering project: hoping to decode the ‘dots, curves, and squiggles’ that make up Dickens’s shorthand!  The project is particularly challenging because there are only small amounts of Dickens’s shorthand available. It’s also difficult to work out what the scripts say, as in some places Dickens has invented his own symbols that depart from the traditional Gurney shorthand system. The project launches later this month and will also make use of crowdsourcing: more information on how to take part can be found on their project page.

Our final speaker of the afternoon was Professor John Drew, who talked us through the history of the Dickens Journal Online website, a fantastic resource which brings together scans and transcripts of Dickens’s journals, including Household Words and All the Year Round. Professor Drew discussed the text correction element of the project, in which members of the public volunteered in large numbers to help edit the computerised scans of the original documents. Professor Drew stressed the extraordinary amount of work that the volunteers were able to complete in a short time by collaborating as a very large team. To date the site has had around 2.25 million page views in total – a brilliant digital humanities success story.

As Joanna Norman, the Director of the V&A’s Research Institute, commented in her closing remarks, the symposium was a fascinating demonstration of how often digital tools can work to highlight the number of different people and objects involved within the creative process of a single text, and can lead us back to thinking about the materiality of the objects that we are studying. We hope to continue to explore these questions at future events.

We would like to thank all our speakers for contributing to such a fascinating series of discussions over the course of the afternoon. Thank you also to all those who attended the event and who submitted such stimulating and thought-provoking questions.

1 comment so far, view or add yours


So interesting feels like I have gone via the rabbit hole and out the other side.

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