Digitising Dickens: A modern treatment for a 19th century icon

Digitising Dickens: A modern treatment for a 19th century icon

The Summer Gold awards recognise research completed through the summer scholarship programme. This year, Frankie Goodenough won the award for Most engaging demonstration of research, for her work transcribing and annotating Charles Dickens’ working notes for his serial novels. In this myView blog post she explains how the Dickens it all came about.

Frankie Goodenough in her Dickensian den, where she’s been studying the great author’s working notes for David Copperfield.

My summer scholarship working on the Digital Dickens Notes Project involved a meticulously studied thousand-page novel, twenty pages of digitally transcribed and annotated notes, four hundred hours of mahi, and a great many long blacks. While it might not have sounded especially exciting to some of my friends, it was a great opportunity to get paid to read, write, and research–tasks we’d ordinarily be paying to do in term-time.

The project, co-directed by Adam Grener from Te Herenga Waka’s English Programme and Anna Gibson of North Carolina State University, is digitally transcribing Dickens’s working notes. The notes are currently held in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; the project will make them accessible to students and scholars online. The transcriptions will be published alongside explanatory essays, annotations, and the novel texts themselves on a platform that will allow users to trace connections between each working note and its corresponding serial instalment.

A treasure trove for scholars and casual readers alike, Dickens used these working notes to experiment with combinations of potential story elements, jot down reminders for future instalments, and document and reflect upon his work. More than simple blueprints, they were crucial companions to composition.

Not only do they suggest alternate trajectories and potential intentions, they also provide a fascinating insight into Dickens’s writing practices. Although we tend to read his novels in large, intimidating doorstop-volumes today, their original readers would have digested them in short monthly or weekly parts, eagerly anticipating the next instalment. Because he wrote this way, it’s unsurprising that Dickens’s compositional habits were often as dynamic and chaotic as the characters and stories they produced.

Frankie (far left) with fellow winners at the Summer Gold Award ceremony held in the Hub on 27 April 2021.

During the scholarship I studied, transcribed, and annotated the working notes for David Copperfield, published from May 1849 to November 1850. I found there was an interesting transition in Dickens’s creative practice from a loosely planned, instinctive approach to a more rigorous and disciplined one as the novel drew to its conclusion. When analysed alongside the original manuscripts and the final text, the notes provide evidence for the way the specific demands of serial publication impacted on the shape and style of the novel.

At the end of the summer, I used my work to make a submission to the Summer Gold competition, and I encourage future research assistants to do the same. The Gold awards invite summer scholars to create a presentation of their research in poster or video form, aimed towards an audience outside their field. This is trickier than it sounds, but it’s also important: no matter the topic of your research, communicating it effectively to those who might not immediately understand its significance is crucial to making sure it counts for something.

There were loads of fantastic submissions in the competition. Congratulations to all participants and the winners:

Best overall poster: Kerstin Thornton

Best overall video: Michael Weir

Most engaging demonstration of research: Frankie Goodenough

Best visual presentation: Zoe Attwood

Winner Group 1 (Science): Daniel Wrench

Winner Group 2 (Science): Charm Phear

Winner Group 3 (A&D, ENG): Sophia Neill

Winner Group 4 (Humanities and Health Sciences): Manfred Manglicmot

Frankie Goodenough is in her third year of a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature.

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