Dickens experts believe they may have uncovered fresh additions to the writer's canon after completing a project to digitise the 19th century weekly journals that the celebrated author once edited.
Punchy opinion pieces, penned anonymously by Dickens in response to the social ills of the day, reveal the campaigning writer to be the first “blogger”, scholars now believe.
Dr John Drew, editor of Dickens Journals Online (DJO), issued a plea for volunteers to take part in a project to upload freely accessible, online versions of the weekly journals which the author edited. Readers of the Independent responded to the appeal after being alerted to it in an "editor's letter" in the i paper.
Charles Dickens’ contribution as editor of two of the 19th century’s most successful weeklies, Household Words and All The Year Round, is often overlooked in the clamour over his famous novels.
Overseen by Dickens between 1850 and 1870, the journals were hugely popular. They not only carried instalments of novels such as his own Great Expectations and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, but also poetry, investigative journalism, travel writing, popular science, history, and political comment.
The DJO project, hosted by the University of Buckingham, put out a call for volunteers to help sub-edit and proof-read articles for the digitisation programme.
The trained human eye is able to spot errors in language which a computer programme cannot, when the tightly-packed type on the pages is converted from the scanned image into text form.
Dr Drew hoped to complete the digitisation in time for the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth in Feburary of this year. The i paper article helped prompt a surge of interest from volunteers, he said. Just a few weeks behind schedule, the large-scale project has been completed.
Dr Drew said: “The level of expertise and dedication generated by our unpaid volunteers was almost greater than that which we could provide in-house with two post-doctoral research students.”
Three-thousand volunteers registered as editors, correcting 30,000 pages of text, some of which contained 1,000 words. Some of volunteer community of Dickens enthusiasts became “moderators”, checking and correcting the work of other editors.
With the magazines now available on the DJO website http://www.djo.org.uk/, the task for Dr Drew, an English lecturer at Buckingham, is to identify whether some of the non-bylined articles in journals might actually be the work of Dickens himself.
“We don’t have the ledger book which showed who wrote what,” Dr Drew said. “Dickens would often write short opinion pieces. He would chip in any topic from prison policy to working class literacy. There are unnattributed pieces in the journals in his style. As editor, he would also top and tail other people’s work.”
The project is seeking additional funding to run the articles through a computer programme which could attribute articles to Dickens or other writers through close examination of the style and syntax. Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins were also regular contributors, whose authorship may now be uncovered.
The completion of the digitisation programme journals is a major achievement in itself, said Dr Drew. “They have been overlooked. They were extremely popular but they are not available in local libraries. They are evidence of Dickens’ total immersion in the life and times of the world around him. I’m quite proud that a British project has made them freely available.”