July 14, 2015

Charles Dickens just gave us the “Rosetta Stone of Victorian literature”


A late edition of All The Year Round, from 1891. (Wikipedia)

A late edition of All The Year Round, from 1891. (Wikipedia)

Many of us in the book trade are experiencing burnout this week on the topic of previously “lost” works by iconic authors. Which is unfortunate, because Lazarus books are one of my favorite things. Whenever a previously unknown or unpublished work by a major writer is “found,” I can’t help but experience a moment of pure excitement, though it is always immediately mitigated by the inevitable questions of the work’s quality, provenance, literary relevance, and potential as a simple, cynical cash-in.

But still, that moment of excitement has fueled us through months of protracted publication schedules for the Neversink Library, and in particular the book 33 Days by Leon Werth. The manuscript, though lost for over fifty years, eventually surfaced; however, the fabled introduction to the book, written by Werth’s friend Antoine De Saint-Exupery (who also smuggled the book out of Nazi-occupied France), remained lost. That is, until — as Rachel Deahl reported in a story for Publishers Weekly — our editorial team found it. We published the book in its full intended form earlier this year, and if you also think resurfaced literature is exciting, 33 Days is an exceedingly inspiring example.

However, there’s a particular challenge that awaits publishers who seek to reconstruct a prolific author’s bibliography: connecting unattributed work to its source. We’ve covered the slow, painstaking work of the Mark Twain Project, which seeks to track down the huge body of journalism that Twain wrote under a (different) pen name, or anonymously. And the older the writing, the harder it gets to connect the dots.

So when a collection of antiquarian magazines recently cracked open an enduring mystery of anonymously written Victorian literature, it was, to quote our Vice President, a big fuckin’ deal. Via the Independent:

The authors of thousands of articles, short stories and poems, printed anonymously in a literary magazine edited by Charles Dickens, have finally been revealed after an antiquarian book dealer discovered a bound collection of the periodicals annotated by Dickens himself.

Among the biggest revelations are works by Elizabeth Gaskell, Lewis Carroll and Dickens’ close friend Wilkie Collins, as well as two articles co-written by Dickens.

The find also gives insight into Dickens’ nepotism, showing that he used his weekly magazine All the Year Round to publish three articles of dubious quality by his then teenage sons, Frank and Sydney.

All The Year Round was published from 1859 to 1895, with editorial duties passed to Dickens’ oldest son, Charles Jr., after the author’s death in 1870. With an emphasis on fiction and, to a lesser extent, journalism, All The Year Round was where Dickens first serialized A Tale Of Two Cities. And while it was widely understood and acknowledged that Dickens solicited work from a wide variety of contributors, their authorship remained unclear, as Dickens’ editor credit was the sole attribution provided for each issue.

Jeremy Parrott, the book dealer who purchased the Dickens set of ATYR, first did his due diligence by commissioning handwriting analysts to verify the annotations as belonging to Dickens. Once they confirmed it, he publicized the find.

Dr Parrott announced his discovery at the weekend in a lecture at the annual conference of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals at Ghent University. He had kept the news secret, save for a select group of scholars who helped him verify its contents.

The BBC financial broadcaster Paul Lewis, who is also a renowned expert on Wilkie Collins and secretary of the Wilkie Collins Society, was at the conference. He said there were “audible gasps” when the scale of the revelation dawned on the audience of about 50 academics. “Everyone was completely blown away by it. This is the Rosetta Stone of Victorian studies because it gives you the key to what hundreds of people wrote. When this list emerges it will change Victorian scholarship.”

At this point, Parrott’s find identifies more than 300 authors and confirms the authors of some 2,500 contributions.

Dickens’ previous magazine Household Words, which also featured plenty of anonymous pieces, has been an easier mystery to solve thanks to the work of Anne Lohrli, who drew on an extant accounting ledger kept by the magazine’s co-editor William Henry Wills, which included a list of authors were paid for their contributions. And while partial reconstructions of ATYR’s contributor list do exist, the struggle to identify the missing authors stalled.

In the early aughts, John Drew, a professor at Buckingham University, founded Dickens Journals Online, “the first open-access, online edition of this extraordinary and neglected part of our national patrimony”. A group of Australian researches announced they would be analyzing ATYR with computers programmed to recognize certain language patterns that might point toward specific authors.

Now, assuming Parrott’s find doesn’t go the way of other literary hoaxes, Drew and his editorial ilk will be taking a major step forward. And in the meantime, you can expect newly published work by your favorite Victorian authors to slowly but surely make its way into stores around the country, and probably before the embargo date.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.