Although 2012 marks what would have been his 200th birthday, Charles Dickens is far from passé. His novels, with their inimitable energy and their comic, tragic and grotesque characters, are still some of the most widely read around the world, often reworked for film and television (The Muppet Christmas Carol, anyone?), and even chosen by Oprah as the last selections of her legendary book club.
Dickens had the original manuscripts of his works bound and presented them to his friends: Great Expectations was given to Chauncy Hare Townshend, a fellow writer who also shared an interest in mesmerism. The pages of the manuscript offer a unique opportunity to look inside Dickens' creative process and get a glimpse into his mind.
Unlike for some of his other novels, Dickens didn't use planning notes for Great Expectations. The pages of the manuscript are dense with corrections, ink splotches suggest where he was might have been distracted, and many revisions (including a reworking of the famous first line of the story) can also be seen. Famously, the ending of Great Expectations also went through several revisions - and the manuscript also validates the original conclusion, where the protagonist Pip isn't rewarded with the traditional happy ending.
Upon his death, Townshend bequeathed his library to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England. In the nearly 150 years since, the manuscript has only left the museum once, for an exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. In December 2011, it traveled for the second time, to a showcase at the Museum of London. But readers all over the world now have the opportunity to study it up close, as Cambridge University Press published a same-size color reproduction of the manuscript in December.
"Readers can imagine themselves accompanying Dickens on his creative journey following the narrative as it develops--corrections and all--and the novel becomes real," said David Wright, Curator of the Wisbech and Fenland Museum." These pages reveal some of the highlights along that journey to create one of the classics of English literature.
Dickens often gave completed manuscripts to his friends, and dedicated the manuscript (in this case, Great Expectations) to Chauncy Hare Townshend (1798-1868), a fellow writer who shared Dickens' interest in mesmerism and the occult. Becoming close friends, the two referred to each other in their work: Townshend dedicated a collection of his poems to Dickens, while some of Dickens' characters--including Cousin Feenix in Dombey and Son and Mr. Twemlow in Our Mutual Friend--are said to be portraits of the chronically-ill Townshend.
Townsend bequeathed the manuscript to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum in Cambridgeshire, England upon his death, along with his library and many other artifacts, including the crystal ball with which he and Dickens had tried to divine the future. The manuscript rarely leaves the Wisbech museum, which was built as a free museum and library by Victorian philanthropists and is substantially unchanged in layout and collections today. This fall, curator David Wright brought the document to Cambridge University Press, where high-resolution images were made of every page. The manuscript is insured for £1 million.
"My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip." Here we see Dickens' famous opening line of Great Expectations, but we also see the first evidence of Dickens' constant need to revise (a habit which would pose a challenge to the printer). In this first line, instead of "infant," Dickens originally used a different word, what might have been "childish."
In several places in the manuscript we can see instances of early "text speak" - shortening full words to letters and numbers. As one of several examples on this page, when Dickens imitates Pip's own writing, he uses "2 u" instead of "to you."
Nearing the end of the novel, Dickens has clearly done away with a selection of the text; the boxed section with vertical lines drawn through it was a sign to the printer not to include these lines in the final typesetting. We know that Dickens completed this alternate version of the ending, the beginnings of which are seen here, in which Pip and the object of his affection, Estella, go their separate ways. But Dickens' friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton suggested he end with something a little more uplifting. In this manuscript, Dickens continues after the deleted portion with the version we know today, in which Pip and Estella come together at last. The manuscript pages with the original ending have not survived.
Although Dickens came up with a happier ending for the novel, he struggled with the tone of its closing words even after finishing the manuscript, and made a few changes for the serialization and the book that aren't reflected in these original pages. When the story was published in 1861, as part of Dickens' magazine All The Year Round, the last line read, "I saw the shadow of no parting from her." But the manuscript shows that Dickens originally wrote, "I saw the shadow of no parting from her but one" - a happy ending with a slightly mournful note.
Dickens kept notes in the back of the manuscript about several key character and plot points, so he could stay consistent and refer to them as he went along. Here, he lists important dates, as well as characters' ages at different points in the story. On the final manuscript page, he marks down tide times in the Thames estuary, which he used in a climactic escape scene for the prisoner Magwitch at the end of the book.
All images courtesy of Cambridge University Press.
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