Charles Dickens’ journals online at last

Dickens Journals Online (djo.org.uk) is a fascinating project, to digitise – and give free, searchable, access to – the two weekly magazines edited by Charles Dickens during the 1850s and 1860s, namely  ‘Household Words’ and ‘All the Year Round’. These total more than 30,000 pages of eloquent articles that have largely gone unread for 150 years. These titles were hugely popular and carried instalments of novels such as ‘Hard Times’ and ‘Great Expectations’, as well as articles on science, travel, history, politics and the occasional poem.

The project is led by John Drew, of the University of Buckingham. It started in 2006 and should be completed in time for the bicentenary celebrations of Dickens’ birth, in February 2012. I will wait until then before I ask if there is any plan to publish the contents in e-book format (for reading offline on Kindles, etc.).

I understand there were perhaps 200 contributors to these titles but, since they were not given bylines, it is impossible to identify the author of any individual article from the printed publication. Having said that, DJO will publish the writer’s name where known.

As you can see from the scanned page above, the dense copy was unleavened by colour or ornamentation, display headlines or artistic layouts. The content of this 24-page issue, presented in a modern magazine format, would make  80+ pages once the designers got to work and the inevitable advertising was thrown in. During the 19th century, there was stamp duty, paper duty and advertising duty (source: Gale), all reasons to keep the contents concise. The Victorian reader got good value for his, or her, twopence. (Incidentally, the average wage in 1860 was £44 pa  [source: C4 history] – about 17 shillings a week, according to my calculations.)

For the DJO project, each page was scanned, then converted to editable text using optical character recognition (OCR) software. As you can imagine, the source material, being 150 years old, includes creases, smudges and other imperfections. Consequently, there are errors in the resulting editable copy. It would be impractical for the team of three organising this project to correct and spell-check 10,000 pages each, so they called for volunteers to carry out this work. The typical journal is 24 pages, so the concept was for a thousand volunteers to each work on one or two issues.

As a keen advocate of the ‘many hands make light work’ principle drummed into me as an infant, I signed up and opted to work on an edition of the ‘Household Words’ magazine from 100 years before my birthday. I started my working life as a compositor (typesetter) and found it fascinating to see how my counterparts, contemporaries of my great-great-grandfathers, worked. I suspect that they were paid by the line. They seem to have settled on a convention of inserting spaces both before and after punctuation, as well as including a liberal sprinkling of long dashes. Paying such close attention to the typography, I fancied I could even discern when the work passed to a new pair of hands.

I was even more impressed by the breadth and quality of the content. The first issue that I worked on started off with a review of Dr Livingstone’s travel writing, the critic comparing his own character unfavourably with the explorer’s. There followed the short story of two acrobats, their friendship foundering on jealousy over the love of their landlady’s daughter. Then a piece about the recent discovery of the point between precisely which vertebrae a break will kill, along with its implications for forensics and hangmen. This in turn is followed by a stroll around London streets, including colourful vignettes of contemporary manners and ending with a condemnation of the barbarism of the slaughterhouse. Then comes a poem about trees and a reflection on the benefits of running away, citing examples throughout history and literature.

The last, and best article, titled Wanderings in India, gives a snapshot of life (and death) in the Raj. The author contemplates the maintenance of cemeteries, witnesses a hanging, learns of love thwarted by Victorian convention and sees first-hand the mythical monkey-festival, attended by thousands of the stick-wielding creatures every few years.

The Editor

The Editor

There was little in this edition to justify any accusations of racism, which have been levelled against Dickens previously. He was sensitive to any such criticism and publishing his novels in parts allowed him to immediately modify his writing (for example, compare and contrast the descriptions of Fagin between the early and late chapters of Oliver Twist). Indeed, I would say that the prevailing tone of Household Words is even-handed and enlightened, in a Victorian context. Admittedly, some of the language used would not be considered politically correct by today’s standards, but then I wonder how future generations will view our own attitudes and behaviour.

I could probably have worked faster on the proof-reading and corrections if I didn’t repeatedly find myself distracted by the content. The second issue went quicker, but this time I was frustrated by missing out on the endings of gripping stories published in instalments.

If the character of the editor is refracted in the content of the issues I worked on, I would say that he was interested in everything and curious about people above all. He was well-read, outspoken, opinionated, energetic; a moral, independent thinker. I sense a liberal and progressive attitude, warm-hearted but devoid of sentimentality. Above all, Dickens must have been driven to communicate with his fellow man, in plain language. He wanted to educate, to entertain, and to explain.

I can’t think of a present-day magazine with the same range and quality of content, but today there is much more competing media and more of us turn to the BBC than to the written word.

When I first started this work, I thought what a great blogger Dickens would make today. This led me to wonder what he would be doing if he were in his prime in London today. He would still be a great conversationalist and fantastic company.  There is no doubt in my mind that he would also be an exceptional character in the modern world, with energy, ambition and talent to spare; enjoying worldwide fame, fortune and success in whatever field he chose.

Charles Dickens - yes, he was left-handed.

Charles Dickens - yes, he was left-handed.

PS: Online donations for this project are welcome at: http://www.buckingham.ac.uk/djo/djodonate1.html

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