How science is unlocking the secrets of Dickens

Previously unseen passages from Charles Dickens's manuscripts are being revealed for the first time, thanks to digital technology which removes his crossings-out and corrections.

The new technique allows researchers to discover how the author shaped and reshaped his prose.

The Victoria & Albert Museum pilot study focused on his Christmas story, The Chimes, using technology developed by Ian Christie-Miller, a former visiting research fellow at London University. Although no dramatic revelations emerged from deletions in that short story, scholars are excited by the technology's potential on novels such as Bleak House.

Florian Schweizer, director of the Charles Dickens Museum in London, told The Independent: "We're talking of tens of thousands of manuscript pages that could potentially be unlocked."

The technology, separating layers of text, involves combining two or more digital images – a frontlit and backlit image of a page.

By digitally subtracting one from the other, differences are revealed.

In The Chimes, the tests showed for example that the published sentence – "Years … are like Christians in that respect" – originally read: "Years … are like men in one respect."

Dr Schweizer said: "Why did he make that change? Quite a change. Literary scholars will ask themselves those questions."

Rowan Watson, a senior curator at the V&A, described Dr Christie-Miller's technology as "ingenious and inspiring". The manuscripts show Dickens "almost thinking aloud on to paper," he said.