Great expectations: Treasure trove reveals how author shaped Victorian literature


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The Independent Online

It is the literary discovery of the decade. Not Harper Lee’s long-lost second novel, Go Set A Watchman, published today after being locked in a safe for half a century – but another cache of historic works belonging to Charles Dickens and his band of writer friends.

Many modern readers forget or ignore the fact that Dickens was more like a scriptwriter on EastEnders than a literary novelist as we think of them today. His periodicals were the soap operas of the age and his twisted tales of love, money and death were bought at news-stands to relieve the boredom of travel in the 1800s.

But his legacy cannot be disputed, and this week’s revelation that scores of stories published anonymously in his weekly magazine All The Year Round were not written by him but were the work of some of the best-known names in literary history will only cement his reputation – not only as a writer but as a shrewd supporter of other talents, a hands-on editor who went on working with his contemporaries well after he became a literary superstar. It’s hard to think of any later parallel.

The fact that the periodical was also used to publish the substandard efforts of Dickens’ children need not detract from its success in adapting and sharing the works of hundreds of others – not least that of the female writers of the time, such as the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and Eliza Linton, the first woman to earn a regular living from journalism.

Interest in the Victorian era waxes and wanes, but the discovery comes only months after Gaskell’s former home was restored and as Victoriana TV adaptations – of Conan Doyle most prominently – draw in huge audiences. 

The new material this discovery provides will hand thousands of pages of texts to researchers in their quest to understand some of our most important literary figures. More than that, it serves as an important reminder of the significant creative role Dickens played in the creation of the Victorian canon as it is read and enjoyed today.