The 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birthday on 7 February set off the whole year of celebrations taking place throughout the world, including Australia. While Dickens is widely known a writer and a journalist, his role as an editor is rarely mentioned. Yet he spent close to 25 years in the editor’s chair mentoring a new generation of writers and shaping the way Australia was perceived overseas.
As John Huxley wrote in Sydney Morning Herald, for someone who never made it to Australia, Charles Dickens wrote and published 'an awful lot' about it. Apart from the Australian elements in his celebrated books like David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, close to 100 stories about Australia were published in the Household Words, and another 30 in All the Year Round.
Dickens isn’t named as the author of any of the Australian stories that appeared in the Household Words, but as the editor and the Conductor he decided on the content and the style of writing that was published in his journal, and his personal interest and views are very much visible.
All the stories and articles published under Dickens’ editorship needed to conform to a strict editorial policy. As Gerald Giles Grubb wrote in 1945, Dickens was interested in writing about everyday life in a way that would be factual and accurate but at the same time entertaining. He despised plagiarism. He expected the contributions to be written in a popular language, but correct and sensitive so that in the words of Dickens 'no incident or expression occurs which could call a blush into the most delicate cheek or wound the feelings of the most sensitive person'. He wanted to reach the masses with a journal of high literary quality and morality in order 'to correct abuse and promote human happiness'.
If the contributions were not up to standard, they would be drastically revised and rewritten, and practically almost all submissions received some finishing touches. With so much minute attention to detail, it is hardly surprising that the stories and articles have a ‘Dickensy’ feel. His editing, criticism and encouragement helped to start the careers of many writers in Victorian England.
The Forthnightly Review has a reprint of a wonderful homage called 'Charles Dickens in the editor’s chair' by Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald. Originally published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1881, it is a delight to read and gives an insight into how Dickens worked as an editor. Here is a taste:
There were many little Household Words traditions. The “chief” himself always wrote with blue ink on blue paper. His was a singularly neat and regular hand, really artistic in its conception, legible yet not very legible to those unfamiliar with it. Here, as in everything else, was to be noted the perfect finish, as it might be styled, of his letter-writing the disposition of the paragraphs, even the stopping, the use of capitals, all showing artistic knowledge, and conveying excellent and valuable lessons. His “copy” for the printers, written as it is in very small hand, much crowded, is trying enough to the eyes, but the printers never found any difficulties. It was much and carefully corrected, and wherever there was erasure, it was done in thorough fashion, so that what was effaced could not be read.