Among the dozens of Dickens publications connected with the bicentenary of the author’s birth on February 7, it is hard to imagine one more necessary than this, a one-volume, generously priced selection of his letters. The Pilgrim edition from which the text is derived (published in twelve mighty volumes by Oxford University Press and the British Academy between 1965 and 2002) was a landmark in scholarship that had the unfortunate effect of shutting Dickens’s letters away from normal readers; exhaustive, definitive and taking up two-and-a-half feet of shelf space, a used set costs around £3,000. Cutting such a vast body of work down to less than a thirtieth, some 450 letters, makes it impossible for an editor to represent the whole very accurately, but Jenny Hartley has attempted to do something of the kind, producing a “taster” selection rather than a series of epistolary knock-out blows (with which she could, surely, have filled several volumes). Hence she has included in her selection brief business notes to Dickens’s colleagues and collaborators, tender missives to intimates, letters to fans, autograph collectors and aspiring writers, formal complaints and petitions, set-piece travel descriptions, letters to The Times and other papers, along with the longer, more discursive letters that the novelist delighted in writing to his closest friends. This varied texture gives a fine sense of Dickens’s range of tone, purpose and acquaintance and shows what an integral part of his life letter-writing was.
more from Claire Harman at the TLS here.