Just in time for the 200th anniversary of the beloved British scribe’s birthday, Jenny Hartley, head of English and Creative Writing at Roehampton University in London, pored through the 12-volume British Academy Pilgrim collection of Charles Dickens’s correspondence to produce The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens (Oxford University), an invaluable treasure for fans of the legendary British scribe who don’t have the time or patience to go through the 14,000 letters themselves. Tip Sheet spoke with Hartley through the epistolary medium of the day, e-mail, from her home in the U.K.
So how long does it take to go through 14,000 letters?
Well, it took me about two years to do the selection—but I have a university post, so the editing wasn't a full-time thing. But it was hugely enjoyable—if agonising, as so many good ones didn't make the final cut.
What kind of criteria did you use to narrow the field?
The first priority had to be letters to do with the novels, because they are mainly what we know and love Dickens for. So I chose letters to illustrators, letters to or about originals of his characters, letters about his creative process, or the progress of a novel. After that I was keen to get in as many facets of Dickens's life as I could: the journalist, the magazine editor, the traveller, the lover, husband, father and family man, the organiser of amateur dramatics, the friend, the man with an active social conscience.
What would the average Dickens fan be surprised to find in these letters?
The variety, I think, and the range. Here was a man who wasn't only a novelist, but so many other things besides, and other things into which he threw himself with the energy of twenty men. Take, for instance, his letters to would-be contributors to his magazine. Rather than deputing a sub-editor or assistant, Dickens writes lengthy letters of constructive criticism, virtual tutorials by post to suggest improvements and explain why they're necessary. Also, I have to say, many of the letters are very funny—but that shouldn't be a surprise to Dickens fans.
Do you have a favorite letter?
My favourite letter has to be the one about the death of his pet raven. “My Dear Maclise/ You will be greatly shocked and grieved to hear that the Raven is no more.” And my favourite lost letter (we know there are many lost letters, some destroyed on purpose, some by accident) has to be the one he wrote to the raven who was being looked after by the artist Edwin Landseer while Dickens was out of London.
What contemporary author do you think is doing the most satisfactorily Dickensian work?
I loved the sense of time and the city evoked by Jennifer Egan in A Visit from the Goon Squad.