The Digital Dickens Notes Project (DDNP) is a digital initiative that seeks to transcribe, interpret, and explore the significance of the working notes Charles Dickens kept for most of his novels.1 Our online platform (dickensnotes.com) presents color transcriptions that display Dickens’s use of space, ink colors, and nontextual markings to capture his intricate use of these pages over the course of the many weeks or months he planned, composed, and published his novels serially. Pairing these transcriptions with comprehensive editorial annotations and critical introductions, the DDNP aims to shed new light on the temporal dynamics of these working notes as fascinating records of serial composition, and in the process to open new avenues and methodologies for analyzing Dickens’s works.
Scholars have long noticed and made critical use of these notes. The note for the first installment of David Copperfield (1849–50) is presented in John Forster’s 1872 biography of Dickens, and the working notes are a key pillar of John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson’s study Dickens at Work (1957). However, their significance has been underappreciated, we believe, due to the difficulty in capturing their complex and dynamic relationship to Dickens’s compositional practices. While the materiality of the working notes brings this relationship into view more clearly, it has been accessible only in an archival setting. Harry Stone’s 1987 scholarly edition of the working notes provided complete text transcriptions alongside black-and-white facsimiles, and these transcriptions have subsequently been reproduced as appendices in popular trade editions of the novels. But, as Nicola Bradbury acknowledges as editor of the Penguin Bleak House, such black-and-white linear transcriptions have significant limitations: “No attempt has been made here to indicate the physical appearance of the notes with precision: only a photographic reproduction could do that.”2 The DDNP’s images of the working notes aim to make some of their material facets accessible: our images are not photographs; instead, they provide legible transcriptions of Dickens’s notes while also reproducing their color, size, and placement on the page (see figure 1). More importantly, annotations interpret these notes with reference to the manuscript, corrected proofs, and final text of their respective novels to show their important role in Dickens’s compositional practice. Dickens did not use these working notes simply to plan a given serial installment; he usually returned to the pages multiple times before, during, and after the writing of a number. He used them, among other things, to conceive, consider, question, decide, document, prompt, and remember. The DDNP aims to leverage the multidimensionality of a digital environment to make these processes accessible to readers and in turn to provide new ways of exploring the temporal dynamics of serial form.
Accessing Dickens’s Process
These working notes provide unique insight into both the serial composition of individual novels and the ways Dickens’s navigation of serial form developed through his career. Beginning with Dombey and Son (1846–48), Dickens kept complete sets of working notes for his novels published in monthly installments, as well as for Hard Times (1854), which was published in weekly installments in Household Words.3 In most cases, he would divide in half a single seven- by nine-inch sheet of paper (the pages clearly folded and creased) for each serial installment. On the right side of the page he indicated the installment number and chapter numbers, filled in the chapter titles, and jotted down chief events and characters, occasional quotations, and memorable details, testing out names and phrases here and there. On the left side he added “generative” notes and memoranda, including long-term plans and motifs. Here he typically poses questions about character combinations or plot details, tests out new ideas, and returns (often in a different ink) to answer his questions, frequently changing his mind. In some cases he returns to offer summaries of work already completed; in others, he records his overwriting or underwriting of chapters and moves them around. From the evidence that survives from the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)—titled but blank pages for installments never completed due to Dickens’s death—we can see that, late in his career, Dickens adopted the practice of creating a blank working note for each serial installment at the very outset of the novel’s composition.
While the textual content of the working notes can be easily represented, the DDNP aims to capture and communicate spatial and temporal properties of the notes that are currently legible only in an archival setting. Dickens’s working notes are bound with his manuscripts, most of which are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s National Art Library in London.4 If Dickens’s preservation of these notes is one indication of their significance for the novelist himself, scholarly efforts to understand and interpret that significance are hindered by the simple but frustrating limitations of accessing their material richness. For example, when readers encounter the working notes as text transcriptions in a paperback’s appendix, the constraints of the small printed page obscure and distort the notes’ use of space, size, angles, colors, emphasis, and nontextual markings. Stone’s scholarly edition captures considerably more by placing transcriptions alongside black-and-white facsimile images, but can indicate differences in color only through elaborate descriptions in an introduction to each set of transcriptions. Coupled with the volume’s unwieldy size (and the fact that it is out of print), these contrivances highlight the limitations of the print format in which Stone’s edition was produced thirty-five years ago. And while the V&A’s planned digitization of Dickens’s manuscripts means that color images of the working notes will soon be more readily accessible, his handwriting is notoriously difficult to read (as the V&A’s own Deciphering Dickens project seeks to address). The DDNP’s transcriptions of the working notes therefore aim to overcome these different limitations by replicating both the placement of text as well as nontextual markings (lines, blots, erasures, underlinings, check marks). Our online platform provides easy and open access to these transcriptions, thus facilitating renewed scholarly engagement with these vital records of serial composition.5
Perhaps because of Dickens’s methodological use of these pages, the notes have primarily been viewed as planning documents, described as “number plans,”6 “blueprint[s],”7 “worksheet[s],”8 and “reminders.”9 Although Stone and others acknowledge the complex temporality of the notes—the insight they provide into “Dickens in the act of creation”10—they are often framed as “clue[s] . . . to authorial intention,”11 evidence of “systematic planning,”12 or “ingredients for a particular number.”13 This inclination to interpret the notes as products of preparation, design, and planning also arises from—and subsequently reinforces—the predominant view of the trajectory of Dickens’s career, whereby the “open and improvisational”14 nature of Dickens’s earliest works develops into a commitment to coherence and a formal unity that transcends the monthly installment.15 This is the story Dickens himself told about his craft, which he first articulated in the preface to Martin Chuzzlewit (written at the conclusion of the novel’s serial run): “I have endeavoured in the progress of this Tale, to resist the temptation of the current Monthly Number, and to keep a steadier eye upon the general purpose and design.”16 Given that Dickens begins to keep complete sets of working notes with his next novel, Dombey and Son, their very existence can be taken as evidence of Dickens’s growing concern for and commitment to the larger design of his novels.
This predominant view of the working notes as plans or blueprints for coherent design has been reinforced by how their content has been physically seen to this point. When viewed simply as a text transcription or black-and-white facsimile, the content of the notes can understandably appear to be “ingredients” for a given number that Dickens first conceived and then incorporated into the installment. But the materiality of the notes themselves reveals far more complex temporal dynamics: a static “plan” is shown to in fact comprise multiple, temporally distinct moments in Dickens’s use of the notes before, during, and after composition. This is most evident on notes where some memoranda appear in blue ink and others in black or brown ink (a shift that can often be linked to a change in the ink used in the manuscript itself), or on notes where Dickens poses questions to himself and the replies clearly appear in a different hand or nib, indicating a return to the note at some later point. These explicit and obvious examples help us to see how almost every page of notes—even where the physical appearance might seem rather uniform—is the product of Dickens returning multiple times in the process of conceiving, composing, and editing a given number. Analysis of the manuscripts and proofs in their archival settings offers further evidence of the complex temporality of these notes, and confirms that Dickens frequently returns to notes after the completion of an installment. For example, the majority of the chapter titles of Bleak House were conceived and added at proof stage, as Dickens adds a title (sometimes with deletions or changes) in ink to the typeset installment, and then returns to the manuscript and working notes to retroactively document this decision. There are also instances where we can see an extended decision-making process in the manuscript—Dickens writing, reworking, and revising a particular name or phrase—that then results in that name or phrase being recorded, later, in the notes.
Since these pages were intended and kept “for no one’s eyes but Dickens’,” the insight they provide into his creative process is at times constrained by their (il)legibility.17 While most everything in the notes can be confidently transcribed, there are certain deletions, erasures, and nontextual markings that obscure words and characters.Our transcriptions agree in almost all points with Stone’s, but there are times where we do not validate his more speculative interpretations. In such cases, our transcriptions render the deletions as they appear on the manuscript page, as nontextual markings. Our color transcriptions register obvious changes in ink (e.g., from black to blue), while other discernible changes in ink are noted in annotations. While some differences in ink weight might lead us to identify distinct temporal layers—Dickens’s engagement with the notes at different times—some may be due to changes in nib or quill; redipping the ink; variation in pressure, speed, or angle of writing; or subsequent oxidation of the pages.18 Such ambiguities may limit our identification of precise temporal relationships between notes and manuscript, but they also generate intriguing textual complications that illuminate the processual nature of both the notes and Dickens’s serial novel form.
Exploring Serial Temporality
Even if it were possible to pin down precisely the relationship between the working notes and Dickens’s published installments, our project is motivated by the belief that the value of the notes is not in their ability to provide a definitive interpretation of the text. Rather, the DDNP’s annotations and editorial apparatus highlight the temporal dynamics of seriality. Our color transcriptions are at the project’s center, but the user experience encourages a rich, exploratory engagement with these texts. Critical introductions to the notes, Dickens’s serial form, and the project draw attention to serial form in process. Each set of working notes—beginning with David Copperfield and Bleak House—is presented alongside a critical introduction, which explains the significant features of that novel’s notes in the context of its many other documents of serial publication (manuscript, letters, edited proofs, published installments) and alongside working notes for other novels. The transcriptions are served as zoomable IIIF images in Mirador,19 an intuitive platform that allows users to explore parts of each page in varying degrees of detail. Clicking on selected elements of each working notes page (words, phrases, markings, etc.) pulls up editorial annotations in a sidebar: these annotations highlight connections between notes and novel; draw out temporal layers made evident by side-by-side comparison of notes, manuscript, and edited proofs; offer insight into Dickens’s writing process drawn from scholarly and biographical sources; and provide editorial commentary about authorial practice and other interpretive insights (see figure 2). Users can search within and across the working notes and the editorial annotations for key terms. This digital project facilitates an interactive exploration of the notes that mirrors their creation and use by Dickens himself. Just as Dickens engaged with these pages in a nonlinear, creative process over time, scholars and students can use the DDNP to dip in and out of, across and between, the notes, annotations, and novel text. Moving beyond the constraints of a printed page allows the DDNP to facilitate a multidimensional and dynamic exploration of these rich texts.
The attention to serial temporality afforded by the DDNP’s transcriptions and annotations of Dickens’s notes can open new frameworks for interpreting Dickens’s approach to novel form. As already noted, much scholarship on Dickens’s serial composition emphasizes what Butt and Tillotson describe as his careful management of his novels. Thus, the notes are frequently read for their insights into what Robert Patten and Daniel Siegel both call the “architecture” of Dickens’s serial installments, their spatial or cartographic form.20 We believe that our attempts to render the complexity of Dickens’s use of his working notes offers a different perspective on the dynamics of composition. It is not simply that the “improvisational” nature of Dickens’s early novels is gradually replaced and superseded by a commitment to coherence as his career progressed. Rather, the tumultuous dynamics of the working notes themselves—for example, Dickens’s occasionally fraught questioning and decision making within the planning and production of a single installment—should prompt renewed analysis of the ongoing tensions between the pressures of an impending installment and the larger design of a given novel that emerges, month by month, chapter by chapter, manuscript page by manuscript page.
The working notes for David Copperfield’s seventh number (chapters 19–21) gives an example of Dickens’s extemporaneous decision-making process within the production of a single serial installment. On the left-hand side he jotted down potential subjects in blue ink before returning later to respond to those ideas in black. Close inspection of the shades of ink used, and comparison with the writing on the manuscript, provides strong evidence to date the first layer to a point prior to Dickens’s beginning to draft chapter 19, and the second layer to a point during the composition of chapters 19 and 20, but prior to the drafting of chapter 21. The initial layer gives “Steerforth,” “Little Em’ly,” and “the two partners” as possible elements for inclusion, among others, but although these potential subjects are all listed as queries, Dickens only responded “yes” to Steerforth at this time. It was only in making a second pass over the notes partway through composing the number that he resolved the other possibilities, confirming Emily’s role and rejecting the as-yet-unnamed Spenlow and Jorkins. If Dickens was initially sure of Steerforth’s reintroduction but unsure about the inclusion of Emily and the proctors, he embarked upon the installment undecided whether its main action would be the meeting of Emily and Steerforth or David’s entry into professional life. The deferral of the latter makes sense in relation to the rhythms of the serial narrative: its omission allows for a focused advancement of the Yarmouth subplot so carefully prepared for in numbers II–III, an advancement becoming more and more necessary as the novel approached its climactic midpoint. Dickens also made the most of the opportunity provided by the reillustration of Steerforth’s characteristic carelessness: the picture of Steerforth’s fraught domestic relations in chapter 20 plays effectively against his entry into Emily’s own domestic sphere in chapter 21, and forebodingly against his disapproval of the “chuckle-headed” Ham as a match for the “engaging little Beauty.”21 While Forster refers to the Copperfield working notes to highlight “the lightness and confidence of [Dickens’s] handling” of the novel’s material, the DDNP’s approach to the working notes draws attention to Dickens’s inconsistent compositional practices and his tendency to begin drafting a number while still deliberating between several possible subjects.22
The uncertain rhythms of Dickens’s creative process are even more obvious when comparing an example like the one above to the significantly more rigorous and proactive approach evident in the working notes for Copperfield’s later installments. Dickens was more preoccupied with pacing as he drew to the end of the novel’s serial run, clearly demonstrated by a number of notes he apparently wrote at the same time, in the same ink, across the left-hand pages of the working notes for numbers XVI–XX.23 These memoranda appear to have been written in late May 1850, shortly after the composition of number XV and around the time Dickens prepared the next section of the manuscript. In this layer of memoranda across several notes, Dickens anticipated and sketched out the major events still to come that he had to work into the final four installments, including Emily’s discovery, the storm at Yarmouth, the immigration scene, and David’s union with Agnes. As he progressed through writing the final section of the novel he added to, responded to, and amended these memoranda, resulting in several distinctly layered note pages. He also systematically reviewed the notes at the beginning of each new number, jotting down things “from [the] last No.” that had yet to be resolved. As these examples demonstrate, the DDNP’s attentiveness to the temporal complexities of Dickens’s working notes offers insight not only into the painstaking architecture of Dickens’s serial form in process, but also into its ongoing openness and dynamism. Given the inconsistency of Dickens’s practice with the working notes across a single novel, their function was clearly not purely as blueprints, plans, or even summaries. The notes provide a sense of the novel in process, acting as a crucial container for the imaginative and creative work Dickens performed in each serial installment.
The DDNP’s capacity to allow users to explore compositional practice in this way can contribute to scholarly conversations about seriality, building on insights about serial temporality offered by Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund, Jonathan Grossman, and Clare Pettitt. Dickens’s working notes ask us to attend not just to the mechanics of rhythm, pattern, progression, and forward-moving trajectory, but also to the openness and irresolution of serial form. Our hope for this project is to make available to readers a platform that can facilitate scholarly and pedagogical attention to Dickens’s writing process and encourage a reading of serial novel form that privileges the temporal and processual features of composition. Beginning in its first version with the notes to David Copperfield and Bleak House, the project will expand to include the remaining six surviving sets of working notes. Additional planned features include more comprehensive hyperlinking and search functions made possible by emerging developments in IIIF annotation. As the project progresses, the site will offer users the ability to make their own annotations for a set of working notes, a tool that will facilitate classroom projects centered around these texts. Even before such an interactive tool is available, however, the DDNP makes possible new ways of teaching students about Victorian serial form, whether as classroom illustrations of Dickens’s writing process or as springboards for student projects. For example, individual students or groups can take on one installment of a novel, reading it alongside that monthly number to examine the formal features of a single serial part, and then collaborating to read across and between installments. Both now and through future developments, the DDNP aims to provide a technological platform that can generate and support scholarly engagement with Dickens’s creative process and the temporalities of serial form.
The DDNP is directed by Anna Gibson (North Carolina State University) and Adam Grener (Victoria University of Wellington). Scott Bailey (Gretel) is technical lead, and Frankie Goodenough (Victoria University of Wellington) is editorial contributor. We would also like to acknowledge and thank Isabel Parker as a contributor to the DDNP. The project has been generously supported by Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington; North Carolina State University Department of English; the Wimmer Family Foundation; Duquesne University’s NEH Endowment Fund; the Duke PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge; and NINES. We are grateful for collaboration with the Pierpont Morgan Library and the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and we are particularly grateful to Douglas Dodds and Catherine Yvard at the V&A for their assistance.
Nicola Bradbury, “Appendix 3: Dickens’s Number-plans for Bleak House,” in Bleak House, ed. Bradbury (London: Penguin, 1996), 992.
Complete sets of working notes exist for Dombey and Son (1846–48), David Copperfield (1849–50), Bleak House (1852–53), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855–57), Our Mutual Friend (1864–65), and the completed installments of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). Planning documents and notes also survive for The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41), Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44), and Great Expectations (1860–61), although they are not organized by installments.
The National Art Library holds the majority of Dickens’s manuscripts, which were bequeathed to his friend John Forster. The manuscript of Great Expectations is held at the Wisbech Museum in Cambridgeshire, England, and the Our Mutual Friend manuscript is held at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.
Tony Laing has produced similar transcriptions of, as well as editorial commentary for, the working notes for Dombey and Son, which make even greater efforts to capture and account for variations in ink color and weight. Laing offers a particularly detailed account of the many issues that accompany efforts to transcribe the working notes, including those that follow from the ink and quills Dickens used. His 226-page open-access book both establishes the richness of each set of working notes and highlights some of the challenges of accessing that richness. Tony Laing, Dickens’s Working Notes for Dombey and Son (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2017), 15–21.
John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson, Dickens at Work (1957; London: Methuen, 1968).
Harvey Peter Sucksmith, “Dickens at Work at Bleak House: A Critical Examination of his Memoranda and Number Plans,” Renaissance and Modern Studies 9 (1965): 47.
Laing, Dickens’s Working Notes, 11.
Sucksmith, “Introduction and Notes,” in Little Dorrit, ed. Sucksmith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 691.
Harry Stone, Dickens’ Working Notes for his Novels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), xxvi.
Jeremy Tambling, “Appendix II: The Number-Plans for David Copperfield,” in David Copperfield, ed. Tambling (London: Penguin, 2004), 907.
Adrian Poole, “Appendix 2: The Number Plans,” in Our Mutual Friend, ed. Poole (London: Penguin, 1997), 845.
Bradbury, “Appendix 3,” 992.
Stone, Dickens’ Working Notes, xi.
For instance, Butt and Tillotson’s treatment of Dickens’s compositional practice considers the notes as the cornerstone for Dickens’s intricate craft, and Paul Herring acknowledges the notes’ central function in facilitating the complex networks of interrelation in Little Dorrit. Butt and Tillotson, Dickens at Work; Paul D. Herring, “Dickens’ Monthly Number Plans for Little Dorrit,” Modern Philology 64 (1966): 22–63.
Charles Dickens, “Preface,” in Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. Patricia Ingham (London: Penguin, 2004), 5.
Stone, Dickens’ Working Notes, xvii.
See Laing, Dickens’s Working Notes, 18–21, for a detailed discussion of ink corrosion, density, and color in the working notes to Dombey and Son. Stone also discusses this issue briefly in his introduction. Stone, Dickens’ Working Notes, xvi.
The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) is an open standard for delivering digital objects common in libraries, archives, and museums. Mirador is an open-source image viewer that supports IIIF and enables image display, comparison, and annotation.
Robert L. Patten, “Publishing in Parts,” in Palgrave Advances in Charles Dickens Studies, ed. John Bowen and Robert L. Patten (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 11–47; Daniel Siegel, “Finding Form in David Copperfield: The Architectural Installment,” Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction 48, no. 1 (2017): 121–43.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, ed. Jeremy Tambling (London: Penguin, 2004), 326.
John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, vol. 2 (1872; London: J. M. Dent, 1927), 182.
See also Nina Burgis, “Introduction,” in David Copperfield, ed. Burgis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), xlvii–xlviii.