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Selected Letters of Charles Dickens : edited and arranged by David Paroissien (Twayne: $35, hardcover; $12.95, paperback; 408 pp.)

February 23, 1986|John Espey | Espey is emeritus professor of literature at UCLA. and

In 1938, the Nonesuch Press brought out an edition of Dickens' works limited to 877 sets. Three of the volumes, edited by Walter Dexter, contained the largest number of Dickens' letters yet published. I cannot speak for other institutions, but as soon as the Nonesuch Dickens was put on the UCLA Library's open shelves the volumes began to disappear, and the Department of English, with the approval and help of the library staff rescued the remainder, replaced the stolen volumes at considerable cost and moved the set to the protection of the English Reading Room. A new and as complete as possible edition of the letters, known as the Pilgrim Edition, is now in progress. "At the publication of their most recent volume (the fifth) in 1981, the editors stated that the total number of letters known to them currently stands at 13,452, more than double the number known and published in 1938." At the current rate of progress, David Paroissien wryly observes, the final volume of the Pilgrim Edition will (with luck) appear at some date in the 21st Century. To fill this considerable gap, the current volume has been published, using selections from the first five Pilgrim volumes and often expanded texts of the Nonesuch. But it is far more than a stopgap. It is a full review of almost all that we know of Dickens' activities as editor, public figure, father, husband, lecturer and lover. Paroissien has arranged the letters in three groups: Personal, Social and Political, Professional, with a full introduction for each and countless informative footnotes.

Dickens, like most Victorians, was a prolific letter writer. Paroissien points out that with 12 daily deliveries of mail in London, not to mention the use of servants and messengers for service "by hand," letter-writing was often the equivalent of today's telephone exchanges. " . . . Victorians could post a letter in the morning, receive an answer in the afternoon, and then send a response the same evening." Dickens' letters may not contain his most brilliant writing, but with the editor's knowledge and skill, this volume should satisfy for some time both the general reader and the specialist.

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