Celebrating a Dickens of a local treasure…

In the month that celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of England’s greatest-ever novelist, KL magazine looks at how the manuscript of his best book came to find a home in Wisbech…

Charles Dickens

This month sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of England’s greatest novelist – in fact, it’s sometimes argued he was the man who invented the novel as we know it. Charles Dickens was born on 7th February 1812, and became responsible for some of English literature’s most iconic novels and characters – not to mention our modern view of Christmas.

Wisbech and Fenland Museum

The Wibech and Fenland Museum - full of fascinating artefacts and home to a national treasure

Dickens enjoyed a wider popularity and fame during his lifetime than any previous author, and though he’s often seen as a ‘Londoner’ there’s a very real local link to one his greatest works – the Wisbech and Fenland Museum is home to the priceless handwritten manuscript of Great Expectations.
Though it’s called his darkest work by some, Dickens’ 13th novel was very well received by Victorian readers and remains one of Dickens’ most popular works today. Many people consider Great Expectations shows Dickens’ greatest use of plot, characterization, and style – perhaps one of the reasons it’s been adapted for stage and screen over 250 times.

The book was first published in serial form in Dickens’ own weekly publication All the Year Round from 1st December 1860 to August 1861, the author choosing to publish the book this way (rather than in the traditional monthly parts) in order to revive slumping sales. The decision led to a more tightly written novel, without the multiple subplots which were a staple of Dickens’ longer novels. Needless to say, sales increased.

The original manuscript of Great Expectations was bequeathed to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum by the Reverend Chauncy Hare Townshend in 1868, two years before Dickens’ own death – and the story of how it came to be there is an interesting enough one in itself.

Townshend came from a wealthy family with estates in Walpole St Peter, Walsoken  and West Walton – he painted, wrote poetry and had a keen interest in natural history and geology. He became an avid collector (as many Victorians did), and his association with the Wisbech Museum dates from the 1850s, when his visit is recorded in the Visitors Book.

During the 1830s Townshend had suffered a bout of illness which led him to develop an interest in mesmerism, the new cult of hypnotism that was then enjoying considerable popularity.
It was this interest that led to him being introduced to Charles Dickens (who also had a great interest in the subject) by a leading practitioner of the ‘art’, Dr John Elliotson in 1840 – and a life-long friendship between Dickens and Townshend ensued.

Townshend published his poetry and in 1859 dedicated his The Three Gates to Dickens – the latter returning the favour by inscribing the bound copy of his manuscript of Great Expectations and giving it to Townshend in 1861.

Seven years later, it arrived in Wisbech, and it’s been treasured ever since. Until the end of last year, the only way people could see the manuscript (which is extremely fragile and still in its original binding) was to visit the Wisbech and Fenland Museum on the first Saturday of every month, when it’s proudly put on display.

Now, however, thanks to a unique publishing project between the Wisbech and Fenland Museum and Cambridge University Press, all of the Dickens’ 195,500 words can be viewed in his own hand as the manuscript has been scanned and reproduced in book format for anyone to own and enjoy.
“You can see the beginnings of the original ending,” says David Wright, the museum’s curator.Wisbech Museum
“He’s boxed it and crossed through it with vertical lines, confirming that a different version of the ending was written. What we don’t know, however, is what happened to the remainder of the manuscript with that different ending.”

The publication of the book is especially good news for anyone who can’t wait to see this local treasure, as the manuscript has been borrowed by the Museum of London for its major Dickens and London Exhibition, which runs until 10th June – after which it will return to its home in Wisbech. 


THE MANUSCRIPT OF GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Cambridge University Press, £29.99) can be ordered from Waterstones and directly from the Cambridge website at http://www.cambridge.org/

David LearnerReviewed by David Learner
Assistant Manager
Waterstone’s King’s Lynn
Opening up CUP’s facsimile manuscript of Great Expectations is done with… well, great expectations. Marginalia from the writer? Scrawls to show original thoughts discarded for better words? A note to self perhaps to buy another bottle of Quink?

None of the above apply. This exquisitely produced, life-sized and gloriously photographed book is as faithful a quarto reproduction of the story of Pip and Estella as one could wish. It comes with a municipal stamp: Wisbech and Fenland Museum. They became the proud owners at the will of Chauncey Hare Townshend, the book’s original dedicatee and close friend of the writer. He and Dickens discussed the supernatural and the occult late into the night.

There’s a clue: Townshend was the author’s literary trustee and Dickens would become The Manuscripthis friend’s literary executor after his death. The lovely Wisbech and Fenland Museum would in time receive a legacy whose beauty and rarity would ultimately cause it to be worth in excess of seven figures. If a scrap of unpublished Austen can make eight hundred thousand pounds what then might be the value of several hundred pages of Dickens’ almost illegible, high-speed scratching, including casual notes to the printer and supplementary notes regarding tide tables? Finding a place of safety for Magwitch, Dickens needed to ensure the Great Sewer was in full flow for the flight to the London Pool.

This book is just the start then of one’s own Victorian mystery. And where the Dickens will that end?

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