In His Own Words
Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. A beautiful building with some rooms left as they were when Morgan died it is a testimony to a very wealthy man who chose to amass a collection of rare books and documents and hired a librarian, Belle da Costa Greene to manage and augment his collection, a job she did for forty years.
Despite the treasures, such as the Gutenberg Bible, on display it was a temporary exhibit celebrating Dickens, who was born two hundred years earlier in February 1812, that captured my attention.
A number of original texts were there including the first three pages which comprised the entire first chapter of A Mutual Friend. Written in a tiny script with much crossing out and correcting the pages have an immediacy that is compelling.
The opening lines, “carried along in the corpse-fisher’s boat, we seem to enter the dark side . . .” appealed to the mystery writer in me. On the same page he had changed, “touch of fear and horror”, to “touch of dread or horror”. The changes were numerous and interesting.
Dickens produced a Christmas book every year and these were easily recognized at the booksellers as they had distinctive bindings. However he wrote that it was a challenge to meet his annual deadline. A Christmas Carol was published on the nineteenth of December 1843 and by Christmas the edition of 6000 was sold out.
As we know he used these books to underline the plight of the poor and roundly condemn a society that allowed the poor to suffer. In fact, as he grew wealthy he contributed much to charity including the establishment of Urania cottage designed to train the poorest of poor women and help them make their way in the world. Some of these women immigrated to the colonies and I wonder if any came to Canada.
Dickens also had a playful side. When he was renovating and redecorating Tavistock House he amused himself by thinking up fanciful book titles for his library. One was to be entitled A History of a Short Chancery Suite (20 volumes) and a second was to be called The Scotch Fiddle. Scotch Fiddle was a euphemism for itchiness and reportedly reflected his opinion of Robert Burn’s work.
In response to a letter from a fan asking if he dictated his work he replied:
“I can no sooner imagine a painter dictating his pictures. No. I write every word of my books in my own hand. . . I write with great care and pains (Being passionately fond of my art, and thinking it worth any trouble.)”
Inspirational words matched by the chance to examine the original manuscript but not something tomorrow’s readers will be able to do. Today’s writers may write the first draft by hand but then they transfer the work to a computer where all thoughtful changes are lost forever.
Joan Boswell is a member of the Ladies Killing Circle and co-edited four of their short story anthologies: Fit toDie, Bone Dance, Boomers Go Bad and Going Out With a Bang. Her three mysteries, Cut Off His Tale, Cut to the Quick and Cut and Run were published in 2005, 2006 and 2007. In 2000 she won the $10,000 Toronto Star’s short story contest. Joan lives in Toronto with three flat-coated retrievers.