The life of a freelance writer is a varied one. This week, for example, I’ve devised a script for a corporate video on bad management practices, written some copy for a craft catalogue, worked on a charity website, and told Charles Dickens where he was going wrong.
Yes, you read that last part right. I spent a chunk of my time this week editing the words of Dickens himself. In 2006, The University of Buckingham embarked on a frankly barmy quest: to make every issue of Charles Dickens’ weekly magazines available to the world via the Internet. Dickens edited two magazines, first Household Words, from 1850-1859, then All the Year Round, from 1859 until his death in 1870. He wrote extensively for both on the widest possible range of subjects, but also serialised some of his novels as well as works by other prominent Victorian writers like Wilkie Collins. Upon his death, his son Charles Dickens the younger, took over the editing of All the Year Round, and the magazine was still published weekly until 1890.
The University of Buckingham project is concerned with the issues from 1850-1870, and their aim was to have an image of every page online, with a text version alongside, by Dickens’ bicentenary in February 2012. Twenty years’ worth of weekly magazines, at 24 pages each makes for a total of nearly 25,000 pages, so it’s not surprising that earlier this year, they realised that there was no way they could complete all the editing in-house by the February deadline. As a result, the university team appealed through an article in the Guardian for volunteer editors to take on individual magazines. So any Tom, Dick or Rosie who fancied themselves a copy editor would get a chance to check the text version of the pages alongside Dickens’ original.
Well, I couldn’t register fast enough, and I was allocated the 31 January 1857 edition of Household Words. The team has scanned each page, and then used a system called Optical Character Recognition, which “reads” the text and then creates a file you can edit. Unfortunately, sometimes it misreads a letter or word, especially if there is a shadow or smudge, and for some reason it can’t see dashes, so any dashes In the original were omitted in the text and had to be inserted There are also many hyphenated words, and paragraphs split across columns. As an editor, it was my job to go through every line and check for errors, and reunite split words and paragraphs. It was fiddly and precise work, but the trickiest part was staying focused on the editing. The articles and stories were so fascinating, it was all too easy to get caught up in them, and forget to insert the commas and cross the ts, as it were. None of the volunteer editors will earn a penny from helping the University of Buckingham meet their 2102 deadline, but it’s an experience I, and I’m sure any others, would happily have paid for.
The first article in my magazine concerned the extraordinary efficiency and cost-effectiveness of British manufacturing. The article showed how the rise of specialised machinery in manufacturing had changed the face of both the industry, but the type and skill-level of work labourers would be expected to do. Indeed, the English factories were the cheapest and most efficient in the world. Witness this extraordinary example:
“…a single steam engine,continually working with the power of five thousand men, moves one hundred and fifty thousand spindles, and delivers thirty thousand miles of thread per hour. The Hindoo spinner [In India, where cotton would originate], earning bare subsistence,can produce only a mile of thread for four pence;nineteen miles can be produced in England for three-halfpence, and the yarn or cloth spun from the Indian cotton can be delivered back to the Hindoo by rail and ship and road, employing labour to and fro, and be, after the double journey, still a cheaper article than the Hindoo can make.”
How times have changed!
There is also a very detailed article about the coco plant (coconut to you and me), its use around the world, and the animals and humans who depend upon it for food. This contains some extraordinarily racist conjecture about the people of the coastal countries in Africa, and is a fascinating snapshot of the attitudes of the time.
The magazine also contains an uncredited poem, a chapter of a Wilkie Collins novel called The Dead Secret, an essay on the poetic nature of rail travel and an extract from A Journey Due North, by George Augustus Sala. In just 24 pages, my randomly selected magazine offered a snapshot of economics, politics, culture and travel in 1857.
I’m extremely proud to have been a small part of this astonishing project. At the time of writing, 90% of the magazines were corrected or in the process of being corrected, and the team is on course to meet their deadline (edit: and indeed they did!). Hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers have worked together so that this wonderful record of Victorian life will be accessible to scholars and the curious forever.
It’s just extraordinary that a writer as prolific as Dickens also found time to produce an edition of these magazines every week for twenty years, while still generating some of the greatest writing in the English language (and being a father to ten children!). Like me, do you feel maybe you could have got a bit more done today?