The Transatlantic Value of Victorian Novelists’ Manuscripts

By Lucy Whitehead, NYPL Short-Term Fellow
June 16, 2022
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

This post was written by Lucy Whitehead, a Short-Term Research Fellow at the NYPL’s Berg Collection in fall 2021. Lucy received her Ph.D. in English Literature from Cardiff University, and is currently the EHU Nineteen Fellow at Edge Hill University’s EHU Nineteen Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. During her time at NYPL, she conducted research on the transatlantic trade in Victorian literary manuscripts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was the winner of the Journal of Victorian Culture’s Graduate Essay Prize in 2019 for her article “Restless Dickens,” and has spoken about her research into Charles Dickens biographies on BBC Radio 3. She is currently preparing her doctoral dissertation for publication as a monograph on the history of Dickens biographies.

Charles Dickens portrait, painted one week after his arrival to the United States in January 1842.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection portrait file. 

As a child, I knew The New York Public Library from the outside, as a dramatically beautiful building I walked past while visiting my New York-dwelling grandparents from the UK. Only as I began researching my doctoral dissertation on Dickens biographies did I realize the treasures inside that I’d been walking past unawares. Inside those walls was the Memoranda notebook which Dickens kept between 1855 and 1865, with suggestions for plots, names and dialogue used in his fiction––an item at the center of the internationally dispersed Dickens archive, fizzy with Dickens’s brain. Here was his pocket diary for 1867, with the notes which helped twentieth-century biographers draw out his hidden relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan. And here was the largest single collection of the reading copies of his published works that Dickens prepared for himself, annotated with stage directions to guide his public performances in Britain and America. Notes such as "Breakfasting," "Stir," "Smack" and "Wiping mouth" for a scene from Nicholas Nickleby give modern readers a vivid if inconclusive sense of the sound effects and actions that Dickens may have added to the text to entertain his nineteenth-century audiences.

Discovering that such a significant part of the Dickens archive was held at NYPL stirred my own curiosity: what other literary riches had made their way from Victorian Britain to America, and how had this cultural transfer happened? Books such as Carl L. Cannon’s American Book Collectors and Collecting (1941) and Szladits’s Brothers: The Origins of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection (1985) quickly showed me that Dickens was a drop in the (Atlantic) ocean. Between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, thousands of literary manuscripts by hundreds of  British authors made their way to America. [1] While initial acquisition was driven by private collectors, these holdings increasingly became part of American public institutions as the twentieth century went on. This wider pattern is of course reflected in the history of the Berg Collection at NYPL, which was built on the foundation of the private collections of British and American books and manuscripts curated by the Berg brothers, W.T.H. Howe, and the industrialist Owen D. Young. 

The changing value of literary manuscripts

Victorian novelists’ manuscripts may have become hot commodities by the end of the nineteenth century, but did the novelists themselves see them that way? On the contrary, a letter by Charles Dickens held in the Berg Collection suggests that, early in his career, he didn’t even see his manuscript leaves as worth preserving. Writing to the American author and diplomat Charles Edwards Lester on July 19, 1840, Dickens sends him a page of the manuscript of Oliver Twist (this page is now also held in the Berg). Dickens tells Lester: "As I have not the complete MS of Oliver (I wish I had, as it would one day have an interest for my children) I am enabled to send you a scrap, in compliance with your request; and have much pleasure in doing so." On the second sheet of the letter, Dickens writes in postscript: "I should tell you perhaps as a kind of certificate of the Oliver scrap, that it is a portion of the original and only draught.––I never copy."

This letter shows Dickens valuing his manuscript in certain kinds of ways: it would be of interest to his children when they are older, he has pleasure in giving a page as a gift, and he offers a "certificate" of its uniqueness, suggesting his awareness that the original record of his creation of this novel would be of interest to fans of his work. However, nothing in the letter indicates that Dickens sees the manuscript as having a particular financial value. He is willing without recompense to send a page to a man who was not a close friend, at a time when his own financial situation was not assured.

By contrast, letters and auction catalog clippings in NYPL's institutional archives show the prices that any kind of Dickens manuscript material was able to command by the early decades of the twentieth century. Writing to Owen D. Young in 1926, the New York rare book dealer Edward L. Dean offers him the manuscript minute books of the Guild of Literature and Art, an organization which Dickens co-founded in the 1850s––interesting, certainly, but scarcely of the same importance as a Dickens novel manuscript––for $6300 (or over $100,000 today). Encouraging Young to "add these last great pieces of Dickens manuscript material to your collection," Dean mentions that another gentleman is coming to see them, and adds mischievously, "May the first one to arrive––get them." While not every writer is as sought-after as Dickens, the Berg Collection helps me to track the intervention that American collecting made in the business of being a British author.

Charles Dickens's prompt copy of Nicholas Nickleby (London: Privately printed by W. Clowes, 1866)

Manuscripts and transatlantic relations

The significant transfer of British literary heritage to America across the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not go unnoticed by commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. As the Berg Collection’s holdings show, this transfer served to forge transatlantic connections, and communities of shared interest and pleasure in the artifacts created by favorite authors. But it could also be the source of unease, or competitive jostling, as both countries negotiated their changing relationships to the wider world in this period. My time at the Berg has enabled me to investigate the sometimes explicit, sometimes subtle ways in which national and international identities are at stake in discussions of the American acquisition of British literary manuscripts.

For example, the American book collector A. Edward Newton writes tongue-in-cheek to Sarah Dickson, librarian to his fellow collector Owen D. Young, in a letter of 1931 held in NYPL's institutional archives, that "I am bitterly disappointed to receive a post office order for one dollar [from Young]. I wanted a check from the great man. I did not intend to cash it: I wanted to frame it and present it to the Johnson House in Gough Square [i.e. Dr Samuel Johnson’s House in London, open as a writer’s house museum since 1914]. Perhaps you will see that I get it for this purpose." 

Newton’s teasing letter suggests a reversal whereby, rather than British literary manuscripts being prized within an American collection, the handwriting of a major American collector becomes a desirable and framed item within a British cultural heritage institution. The complexities, paradoxes, and shifts in the relationship between Britain and America revealed by manuscript transfer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is a key part of my inquiry. My fellowship at NYPL has been vital to developing this picture, and the next stages of my research. 

[1] While the focus of my research is on the collection of Victorian literary manuscript holdings––which form a particularly large part of the Berg Collection––American collectors also acquired British manuscripts from before and after this period. See for example Laura Cleaver and Danielle Magnusson, "American Collectors and the Trade in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts in London, 1919–1939," in Collecting the Past: British Collectors and their Collections from the 18th to the 20th Centuries, ed. by Toby Burrows and Cynthia Johnston (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 63–78.