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Collecting and Studying Dickensiana at Vassar

By Ronald D. Patkus

One of the great strengths of Vassar’s Archives and Special Collections Library is English literature of the nineteenth century. The library holds many first editions of novels, books of poetry, essays, and other works by the major authors. In addition, there are anthologies and several important periodicals from this time period. Given Vassar’s history as a school for women until 1969, it is no surprise that a certain amount of this material relates to women writers. We have, for instance, first editions of writers such as Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Maria Edgeworth.

Another important part of the nineteenth century literature collection is material relating to Charles Dickens. Today it includes original monthly parts of novels, first editions, periodicals edited by Dickens, and early American editions. A number of significant late nineteenth century and twentieth century editions of Dickens are also present, and there is a selection of non-print material relating to the author. In addition, the nineteenth century literature collection boasts materials which complement the Dickens holdings. Of special note are a number of works by the caricaturist and illustrator George Cruikshank, who became especially famous for his illustrations in Dickens’ novels. In Special Collections alone there are no fewer than sixty-seven titles which mention Cruikshank.

How did Vassar develop these holdings? It is clear that many items were collected at the time of their creation. Vassar’s library has operated since the earliest days of the college, and books which were added long ago to the Main Library have since been moved to Special Collections. Some examples, though, were acquired by the library in later years, either through purchase or gift. Alumnae/i and other friends of the college have been extremely generous. There is a long-standing tradition of donations to Special Collections, which is largely responsible for the depth of our holdings. This is especially true when we consider the Charles Dickens material.

A few key donors may be mentioned. Francis Fitz Randolph, a former trustee of the college, and the person after whom the reading room in Special Collections is named, was an active book collector with a particular interest in Dickens. He donated many Dickens items to the library, among them an original copy of Bentley’s Miscellany, featuring the first periodical appearance of Oliver Twist; the original parts of novels such as The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit and Little Dorrit; and a limited printing of The Lamplighter. Rebecca L. Lowrie (Class of 1913), gave a number of works relating to Dickens in memory of Vassar librarian Fanny Borden (Class of 1898); these include a beautiful large red multi-volume set of the Works of Dickens, one of 1,000 Édition de luxe copies, and the first octavo edition of Sketches by Boz, published by Chapman and Hall in 1839. Mabel L. Rossbach also gave several Dickens items, such as Bleak House in its original parts and a first edition of The Pickwick Papers. Louise Seaman Bechtel, who donated many children’s books to the library, also gave several such books with connections to Dickens, like a special copy of The Magic Fishbone, which features a drawing and inscription by the illustrator, Louis Globodkin. There are many other donors who have contributed to the collection as well, but unfortunately this brief essay does not permit us to mention them all.

The A.H. Whittaker-Charles Dickens Collection

The gifts of the previously mentioned donors are significant, but there is one other acquisition to highlight, and that is the A.H. Whittaker-Charles Dickens Collection. This collection was added to Special Collections in 2008. It expanded our Dickens holdings in very significant ways, and has opened up many new curricular opportunities at the college. An essay written by the Whittaker family - which appears later in this publication - provides insight into their interest in collecting material related to Charles Dickens and his work.

Here it is appropriate to offer some sense of the contents of the A.H. Whittaker-Charles Dickens collection. I would begin by noting that it includes various editions of Dickens’ many novels: first editions, but also later editions from various times and places. There are, in addition, texts of readings by Dickens, dramatic works, speeches, book sets, musical scores, drawings and illustrations, playbills, letters and manuscript material, audio-visual material, and three-dimensional artifacts. Periodicals, bibliographies and biographies of Dickens are also part of the collection. Some of the material provides context for understanding Dickens and his career, such as books on London, and the Victorians. In total there are well over 800 distinct titles, thus adding measurably to Vassar’s existing Dickens collection. These items document Dickens work, and many of them are visually interesting.

It is impossible in this essay to review all of the items in the collection, but we can get a more exact sense of the holdings by mentioning a few examples. There are original parts for nearly all of the novels, as well as first editions in book form, and also so-called “cheap” editions and private press editions. There are dramatizations of several of Dickens’ novels, as well as plays such as The Lamplighter. The collection features many speeches given by Dickens in London during the 1850s. Musical scores include the “Pickwickian Quadrilles,” and “Little Dorrit’s Polka.” Book sets include the famous “Nonesuch Dickens,” a twenty-four volume set produced in England during the 1930s which is considered by many to be one of the most handsome editions of Dickens that has ever been produced. There are an amazing number of drawings and illustrations; among the most notable are eleven original drawings by Hablot Knight Brown, better known as “Phiz,” fourteen original watercolors of J. Clayton Clark (“Kyd”), and two sets of proofs for Sketches by Boz by George Cruikshank, as well as a variety of illustrated books featuring characters by Dickens. Playbills document dramatic productions of Dickens, especially in Boston and London. There are a few original letters by Dickens, original letters by Cruikshank, and also many published editions of Dickens’ correspondence. The audiovisual material includes a number of modern movie adaptations of Dickens novels, such as A Tale of Two Cities by Masterpiece Theatre and the BBC’s Oliver Twist. Artifacts include stamps, spoons, and statues, all relating to Dickens and his stories.

It is easy to see how the A.H. Whittaker-Charles Dickens collection emerges as a wonderful resource for teaching at Vassar, especially when combined with our existing holdings. It is possible for faculty and students to see many and varied examples of Dickens work as it was published during his own lifetime and years later. Users can thus continue the great Vassar tradition of “going to the source” to learn more about Dickens, his work, and Victorian England in general.

Charles Dickens in the Marketplace

The exhibit “Charles Dickens in the Marketplace” is based almost exclusively on the A.H. Whittaker-Charles Dickens collection. The holdings of the Vassar library on Dickens are now especially significant, and the exhibit provides a way to bring this development to the attention of those in the college community and beyond. Of course there are many more items in our collection than could be exhibited at one time, but we hope that the exhibit will at least offer a sense of the collection and how it can be used in both teaching and research.

As the title suggests, the thematic focus of the exhibit is the production, distribution, and reception of Dickens’ work. During the nineteenth century there were numerous changes in the system of publishing in England and America, as publishers tried to expand the reading public and increase their own profits. As discussed by Joanne Long in her article which appears later in this catalog, Dickens provides a remarkable case study for observing these changes in the publishing industry. We see his work distributed in a variety of new ways in order to reach a growing audience of readers. Dickens’ works have also penetrated the culture via non-print media, such as film, and memorabilia. The exhibit tries to illustrate Dickens in the marketplace by displaying examples of both print and non-print media. It is arranged according to type of distribution method, such as periodicals, musical scores, videos, etc. The exhibit is not limited to the nineteenth century; it also looks at various distribution methods as they evolved in the twentieth century. Our hope is that viewers will walk away with a better sense not only of Dickens’ works, but also the means and mechanisms through which they have been presented to society. Even a quick glance at a few items reveals the tremendous influence Dickens has had in his own time and in ours.

There are several people I would like to thank for their involvement in the exhibit and the production of this catalog. For making much of this possible, I would like to thank members of the Whittaker family, particularly James Whittaker, who for many years expanded his father’s collection, and Hilary Whittaker (Class of 1952), his sister, who first raised the possibility of the collection coming to Vassar, and who worked with the college to make this a reality. I appreciate the efforts of college administrators who assisted in this effort, particularly Heather Ebner (now at Oxford University), Sabrina Pape, and Rachel Kitzinger. Joanne Long, Dean of Freshman and Adjunct Assistant Professor of English, was the library’s faculty partner for the exhibit. She has long been a friend of Special Collections, and has brought many students in her Dickens courses here to see our treasures. It has been a pleasure to collaborate with her on this project, which in a very real way grew out of our teaching together. Marisa Goudy suggested the title for our exhibit, and designed and edited this publication; as always, her many contributions are greatly appreciated. Kate Katigbak ‘09 was wonderfully helpful with the cover design. Chip Porter and Tamar Thibodeau served as photographers. In the virtual realm, we are thankful for the efforts of Baynard Bailey in the Media Cloisters and Carolyn Guyer and Kevin Davis in our College Relations office to bring our exhibit and this publication to others through the web.