Highlights of my lunch time during the week are usually confined to whether the turkey quesadilla special is on in the office cafeteria, or if someone is playing an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in a meeting room. But not today. Today it was meeting you.
And when I say meeting you, I don’t mean that I popped over to Westminster Abbey and exhumed your body, because that would be impractical, impossible, and more than a little gross. But I did go over to the Center for Arts and Culture at the University of Calgary with my friend Blair and we were allowed to see their very early copy of The Pickwick Papers.
This was neat enough in itself, since it appears to be a kind of author’s proof, and includes notes about where the illustrations are to appear and a list of errata and what looks like a newspaper clipping from you pasted on one of the first pages.
There’s a small note card describing the book that says:
This is a unique first edition, containing first of all a letter from Dickens to his publishers, Chapman and Hall. It contains all 43 illustrations by Seymour and Phiz. In addition it contains the plates originally done by Buss, which were later withdrawn from other issues. And, finally, it contains an extra set of illustrations by Thomas Onwyn.
Wait a second. A letter? From you? It’s true! For a few minutes today my hand rested where yours did 165-odd years ago as you tried to explain that a terrible headache had prevented you from putting pen to paper. I wonder if your friendly publishers were at all sympathetic? Probably not, if they had to work as hard as I did to decipher your doctor’s-prescription-worthy penmanship. Even if they weren’t, and even if it’s not your finest literary achievement, to me it’s almost like meeting you to see that fantastic flourish underneath your name first hand. Please excuse my going all fangirl on you, but it was just awesome to see a little piece of you.
And the fun didn’t stop there. The woman who had dug out the book had also found a huge, beautiful tome called “Dickens’ Working Notes” by one Harry Stone. It contains copies of your plot outlines, working titles and other notes on one page, and on the other the undoubtedly patient Mr. Stone has painstakingly typed them out. Since I’m almost finished Dombey & Son, I peeked at your notes for that particular work. They’re fascinating.
I especially liked seeing the questions to yourself. Things like ‘Describe Mr. Morfin here?’ and your answer ‘No.’ I’ll have to go back when I have more time and take a more leisurely look inside your brain at work. From what I saw, though, Dombey was comprehensively plotted beforehand (and it’s a great plot, as I slowly reach the final pages of the book – but more on that in another post).
But now it’s almost time for bed. It was lovely to meet you today, however ephemerally. And in spite of your terrible penmanship, I remain,