Rediscovering Dickens

A chronicle of the transcription of 20 issues of Household Words by Charles Dickens.

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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

I'm working on a pet project to digitize all of the issues of Charles Dickens's weekly magazine, Household Words, that contained portions of his novel Hard Times. Since OCR software is expensive, I'm transcribing all of 20 issues by hand. Since I am actually interested in what I am typing (and am therefore reading as I go), and I not the speediest of typists, this will take me a little while. This blog will chronicle my progress and my thoughts about the project and its content along the way. Why should you care? If you are at all interested in how popular culture evolves, how the middle class came to be, and how literature is affected within and without its context, you should read on. If you couldn't care less of such things, then you might want to go elsewhere. Thanks for visiting - I hope you will return. - Lynn

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Wow - what a busy last couple of weeks this has been. Because of the hectic crunch of a new semester, I've had to put much of my work on the Dickens project on hold. I'm still hella busy, but I'm going to try to get more up soon. I've added four articles since I last posted here. Let's discuss, shall we?

The big news is that Henry Morely's "Ground in the Mill" is up. To me, this is the "money shot" of this project. One of the most glaring absences in Hard Times is the lack of in-depth commentary on the plight of mill workers. Face it, life really sucked for people like Stephen and Rachel. The Gradgrind children, and even Sissy Jupe in her circus days didn't have it as bad as the kids and adults who had to live and work in a mill. At least the Gradgrinds had all their limbs. "Ground in the Mill" focuses attention on the neglectful oversight of safety in favor of profit, and of work over education. Dickens brilliantly includes "Ground in the Mill" in the issue of Household Words that includes chapters of Hard Times that do not deal with the characters who must live in the grizzly reality of mill-life. Instead, this article comes after two chapters on Bounderby and the Gradgrinds. This is significant because here is an example of Dickens the author telling one story, and Dickens the editor telling another part of the same story, helping to keep the relevant themes of the entire novel on the minds of readers, regardless of where the novel took them in that issue. Pretty clever, huh?

The article "Missing, a Married Gentleman" mentions that one of the short stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales was actually a retelling of a story Hawthorne read in a newspaper, and that article was a retelling of a story originally published in a book by Dr. William King (1685-1763) called Political and Literary Anecdotes of His Own Time. I haven't read Twice-Told Tales, so I don't know which story is being referred to here. However, I was always under the impression that Twice-Told Tales was so named because Hawthorne published them all first in magazines and journals, hence them being consolidated into a single source and republished made them "twice-told." In reality, if this article is to be believed, "twice-told" means "plagiarized." Interesting. Obviously I can't prove that Hawthorne plagiarized anything because 1, I can't find the original Political and Literary... online and can therefore not verify that it actually contained a story about a missing husband, and 2, I am too lazy to research if Twice-Told Tales was supposed to have been an original work by Hawthorne, or if he was retelling folk tales and other anecdotes he picked up along the way. At any rate, maybe this page will be number one on Google if anyone ever searches for "Nathaniel Hawthorne plagiarized." That would be cool.

In "A Marvellous Journey with the Old Geographer," Dickens gives us a tour of the world as if 16th century historian, Peter Heylyn, is our guide. Dickens doesn't care much for Heylyn or his views of other cultures, and all but comes out and says that Heylyn is an ignorant racist. Dickens takes particular pleasure in pointing out all the times Heylyn predicts something will happen in the future, and Dickens, standing nearly almost 250 years hence, has the advantage of seeing that Heylyn's predictions did not materialize and therefore Heylyn is, again, and ignorant racist. It's quite funny, really, especially when you consider that we are standing nearly 250 years hence of Dickens, and I am sure if we look hard enough that there are a few instances in Dickens's publication career where we might find evidence that Dickens was an ignorant racist, too. Just as those who stand 250 years hence of us will see us as ignorant racists. It's par for the course, really. If you live in the distant past, you are an ignorant racist. Ah, who doesn't love sweeping generalizations?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

It has occurred to me that I may not be making myself very clear when I refer to Dickens as the author of all of these articles. Dickens did not - I repeat did not - write all or even most of these articles. There were many journalists and authors contributing to Household Words. However, Dickens did have a huge influence on what went into the magazine, and often edited (sometimes heavily) the articles prior to publication. Therefore, when I refer to my literary conversation with Dickens, I am using Dickens as a composite of all the contributers to his magazine. It's far easier to criticize one person than a full cast of Victorian characters.

I will try to mention the actual author of the articles when I can remember to do so.

Monday, August 07, 2006

I just finished transcribing an article about 19th century bards in Brittany, "Modern Ancients." The article mentions the Breton tradition of storytelling and oral history ( alive and well in 1854) as a way to pass information down from generation to generation, but also mentioned that it could be used to relay important health notices, such as how to keep cholera at bay. This was pretty interesting stuff, really.

The article mentions several people and phrases that I am not familiar with, so I thought I'd provide a bit of a vocabluary list:

Finistère - most westerly part of metropolitan France, in Brittany.
Autolycus - renowned for this wiliness and his cleverness as a thief.
Father Mathew - Irish temperance reformer.
Gaberlunzie - a beggar.

I tried to find more information on the "rebbe," a musical instrment mentioned by Dickens, but could find nothing. So unless you have information about this that is unknown in the Googleverse, you will be as in the dark as I am.

First there was "Oranges and Lemons," then came "Patchwork," and this week we have "Wire-drawing." What do these articles have in common? They are all very long, very boring, and deal with very specific topics. While a couple of paragraphs on the fruit trade, or wood inlays, or wire making may be appropriate, devoting 4 or 5 pages to these topics is at the very least overkill, and at the worst, torture to the reader. Honestly, there is only so much a person can take.

I think I am the only person, ever, to have actually read these articles word for word. I can't say I am better for it, although I now know the difference between parquetry and marquetry (the first is wood inlays in flooring, the second is inlays in furniture) and that the thinnest wire ever produced (as of 1854) was one thirty-thousandth of an inch in thickness.

The worst part about these types of articles is that I know that every issue is going to contain one. Why? Because they lend themselves perfectly to alterations in length. See, every issue of Household Words is exactly 24 pages long. In order to fill these pages each and every week, it appears Dickens used filler articles such as these, and as space was needed to be taken up, he would add to the list of items you can make from wire, or the types of items created using wood or metal inlays, or what kinds of fruit are grown and where and why and how. Take a look at this excerpt from "Wire-Drawing:"
He who would know all the forms into which wire is now twisted, and woven, and linked, must rise betimes and give me a long day to it. He must look at the wire-netting fences, for excluding hares and rabbits from gardens, for enclosing poultry-yards and pheasantries, and for guarding tender young plants. He must see how this wire is galvanized for some purposes, to render it durable without painting or tarring. He must know something about very strong wire-netting for confining sheep and dogs; and the various kinds used for aviaries, trellis-work, flower-training, window-guards, and sky-lights; and wire fencing of a more ornate character for gardens and pleasure grounds; and wire-pheasantries, something like large bird cages; and pheasant or hen coops; and wire garden-borders, around flower-beds and parterres; and wire plant-guards, encircling the young plants and shielding them from all intruders; and stronger tree guards made to open at the sides. There are, too, wire fences, with or without wire netting attached; wire umbrellas or canopies, around and over which roses may cluster in the middle of a flower-bed; wire flower-stands, for conservatory, or greenhouse, or hall; wire chairs and garden seats, wire gauze blinds, wire bird cages; wire fire guards and fenders; wire lamps and lanterns; wire meat covers and meat safes; wire lattice for bookcases and windows; wire sieves and strainers; wire cloth for flax-dressing and paper-making. The wire-gauze is a pretty material, woven in a loom as if it were some fibrous material. We have seen some brass wire-gauze so exquisitely fine as to have sixty-seven thousand meshes in a square inch.
Substitute "shrimp" for "wire" and you have a speech that would make the Bubba Gump folks proud.

I'm not sure what delightfully dry article will be filler in next week's issue. Maybe Dickens will prove me wrong and each article will be an absolute gem. I seriously doubt it, though - I am beginning to think that Dickens actually enjoyed torturing his readers with long, boring stories. I have a feeling it made him sort of giggle, picturing people plodding through some of the articles, actually trying to absorb them, while he knew that they were nothing but fluff, not actually meant to be read by anyone at all.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

I just finished another article - Love and Self-Love - a short fiction involving a handsome, brooding artist, a young and wealthy countess, and a shameful secret. Trust me, it's far less interesting than I just made it sound. Maybe it's because the story is over 150 years old (at least), but I found it way too predictable. I thought that it started off well enough, and seemed like it was going to be a pretty good mystery, but I found the mystery part to be a bit of a let-down. I don't read many fiction pieces in contemporary magazines, so maybe this one is just as good (or bad) as any.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

One of this week's articles, From California, introduced me to the town of Salmon Falls, El Dorado, California. The article appears to be penned by a gold prospector who goes into great detail about the many types of people and products that fill the village. This article reminded me of a couple of things. First, even though the town is in California, and the article in no way references shady outlaw types, I couldn't help but think of Deadwood. I've only seen a few episodes of that show, but I know that the main "good guy" character owns a store, much like the one described in this article. I also know that there is a pretty notorious population of "Chinamen" in Deadwood, just like in Salmon Falls.

The other thing I was reminded of was The Great Gatsby, specifically, a phenomenon I heard about a long time ago wherein retail stores stack piles of goods in front of their customers, almost to excess - the person describing this phenomenon called it "Gastbying." A quick Google search turned up nothing on this term, but I believe it's an accurate term for the type of displays popularized by The Gap in the 1980s, and now found everywhere from Abercrombie and Fitch to Target. The way the author describes the goods in his store and the colors of the clothes of the locals is almost Gatsbying them - romanticizing them to the point of an unatainable dream.

The town of Salmon Falls in El Dorado county, California did actually exist, and is now a ghost town near a popular hiking trail.

Read more about Salmon Falls here and here.

I’m working on a project that involves transcribing several issues of the magazine that Dickens published, Household Words. As a result, he and I are forming a relationship of sorts that trancends space and time - I am typing his words just as he did, and am therefore absorbing some his thoughts and ideas in the process. Our first encounter was a lighthearted jaunt into the realm of the fruit import/export business. Next came the sad tale of the syche sharpeners, which was nothing if not silightly interesting. Then came his long winded and rambling questions about the infamous “They” in which I started to realize that I am doing more than just transcribing - I am having a conversation with a dead man. I am actually finding myself growling back at his words, or giggling, or sighing in frustration, or just asking him to make his damn point already. But today my transcriptions are introducing me to a side of Dickens that I knew existed, but had heretofore never experienced first hand: the pompous jackass:

Her flaccid muscles, tender skin, highly nervous organization, and aptitude for internal injury, decide the question of offices involving hard body labour; while the predominance of instinct over reason, and feeling over intellect, as a rule, unfits her for judicial or legislative command. Her power is essential a silent and unseen moral influence; her functions are those of a wife and mother. The emancipatists rate these functions very lightly, compared with the duty and delight of hauling in main-top-sails or speechifying at an election. They seem to regard the maternal race as a race apart, a kind of necessary cattle, just to keep up the stock; and even of these natural drudges the most gifted souls may give up their children to the care of others, as queen-bees give their young to the workers. Yet no woman who does her duty faithfully to her husband would find her time unemployed, or her life incomplete. The education of her children alone would sufficiently employ any true hearted woman; for education is not a matter of school-hours, but of that subtle influence of example which makes every moment a seed-time of future good or ill. And the woman who is too gifted, too intellectual, to find scope for her mind and heart in the education of her child, who pants for a more important work than the training of an immortal soul, who prefers quarter-decks and pulpits to a still home and a school-desk, is not a sea captain, nor a preacher by mission – she is simply not a woman. She is a natural blunder, a mere unfinished sketch; fit neither for quarter-decks nor for home, able neither to command men nor to educate children.

What's most shocking about this essay? IT WAS WRITTEN BY A WOMAN - Eliza Lynn (later Linton). I know they existed in another time, essentially another world. I know how the Victorians valued the principle of “seperate spheres” for men and women - one public, and one private. But good lord, Dickens. Not all women wanted to be mothers, and that didn’t make them “a natural blunder.” It’s okay to want to extoll the virtues of motherhood, of domistic bliss, of the traditional family roles. But give me a break - even they had to have known what they were saying was just fodder for the masses and not really rational arguement. I can forgive them a bit because they knew their audience and Dickens was an entertainer at heart, but if they could only see how their “logic” becomes perverted even today by people who see women as less because we have actually achieved many of the goals that women of their time only imagined - despite our children turing out for the most part okay - they might change their tune a bit. Would Dickens really side with the ultra conservatives on this issue today? I don’t think he would, and that’s why I’ll keep transcribing the rest of this article, and all the others. The Victorians do have something to say to us today - but I can still get pissed at them.

Welcome to the 1850s!

If you are reading this, you most likely have some questions:

- What is this blog about? I'm working on a pet project to digitize all of the issues of Charles Dickens's weekly magazine, Household Words, that contained portions of his novel Hard Times. Since OCR software is expensive, I'm transcribing all of 20 issues by hand. Since I am actually interested in what I am typing (and am therefore reading as I go), and I not the speediest of typists, this will take me a little while. This blog will chronicle my progress and my thoughts about the project and its content along the way.

- Why should you care? If you are at all interested in how popular culture evolves, how the middle class came to be, and how literature is affected within and without its context, you should read on. If you couldn't care less of such things, then you might want to go elsewhere.

Thanks for visiting - I hope you will return.

- Lynn