BOOK NEWS: V&A museum pleads for cash to save Charles Dickens's manuscripts
Handwritten drafts of David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and The Mystery of Edwin Drood are suffering from acid paper rot
When Charles Dickens picked up his quill in 1859 to write the words, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," at the top of a clean sheet of paper, he was setting down some of the most enduring opening lines in world literature. The novelist's striking phrase helped to set the scene for his celebrated story of love amid the turmoil of the French Revolution, but the famous passage with which he began A Tale of Two Cities might not endure for much longer without urgent intervention.
This weekend the Victoria and Albert Museum is launching a campaign to raise funds to conserve the original manuscripts of three of Dickens's best-loved works, including A Tale of Two Cities. Rescued from the novelist's home by his close friend John Forster, the manuscripts came to the V&A in 1876 when Forster, a literary agent, bequeathed his library to the fledgling museum.
The V&A now hopes to restore the priceless originals – which are still legible although blotched and underscored – in time for international celebrations of the bicentenary of Dickens's birth in 2012. "At the moment we can't display these manuscripts safely because they are so damaged and so fragile," said John Meriton, deputy keeper of word and image at the V&A. "They were last conserved in the 1960s, when they were rebound and placed in what are called 'guard books'. But the backing paper used, unfortunately, was very acidic, causing a lot of stress to the original manuscript leaves."
Some parts of the manuscripts are also impossible to read because the leaves were pasted down, making the left hand or verso pages inaccessible.
If the museum – which, like other national heritage institutions, is now facing severe budget cuts – can raise £25,000, curators say it will be able to protect the full manuscript of A Tale of Two Cities, the story of the love between Lucie Manette and the aristocrat Charles Darnay, as well as the original manuscript of the equally loved David Copperfield, published in 1850.
The third manuscript is Dickens's perplexing, unfinished last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. If this manuscript is restored and conserved, museum visitors and Dickens scholars will be able to study the author's own notes and textual alterations and even perhaps deduce their own solution to one of the most intriguing unsolved cases in literary history.
"You can see the corrections Dickens has made to each section of the stories," said Meriton. "And these are the pages that he would have handed into the printers for typesetting, before receiving the galley proofs for correction in return. We have some of those proofs too, and so it will be possible for visitors to trace the editing process that went on."
Written in "iron gall" ink on low-grade blue writing paper, purchased by the author from WH Smith, the manuscripts were never "wonderful quality", according to Meriton. But they remain a crucial part of Britain's cultural heritage.
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