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  • The Case of the Initial Letter: Charles Dickens and the Politics of the Dual Alphabet by Gavin Edwards
  • Kathy Rees (bio)
Gavin Edwards. The Case of the Initial Letter: Charles Dickens and the Politics of the Dual Alphabet. Manchester UP, 2020. Pp. x + 169. £80.00. ISBN 978-1-5261-4629-8 (hb).

I have often wondered about the scene in A Christmas Carol (1843) when Scrooge is talking with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and he asks: “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?” (108; Stave 4). It is odd that those modal auxiliaries, “Will,” and “May,” are capitalized. Teaching students about grammar is tricky enough without one of Britain’s greatest writers breaking the rules himself. Anyone who has pondered over this, or similar instances, should read Gavin Edwards’s The Case of the Initial Letter, a study of Dickens’s innovative use of the dual alphabet. For although we might not have realized it, the dual alphabet – the combination of upper-case and lower-case letters in a single system – is what most Europeans have been using since the days of Emperor Charlemagne (742–814), so it’s likely to stick around for a little longer. What Edwards shows us, by meticulous scholarship, is how Dickens used the capital letter “as a precision instrument” and thereby as “an important generator of meaning” (2).

Positioning Edwards’s book in the Dickens critical corpus is not straightforward, for as he indicates, “the dual alphabet has usually been taken more seriously by bibliographers and scholarly editors than by literary critics” (12). But, since Dickens took it seriously, so should we. To explain Dickens’s workings, Edwards combines sensitive close readings across Dickens’s oeuvre with bibliographical research into manuscripts, corrected proofs, serialized forms, and single-volume editions, tracing the to-ing and [End Page 97] fro-ing of the production process. He also speculates about Dickens’s practice having stimulated experiments in typographical case in genres as dissimilar as that of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867) and Augusta Webster’s Portraits (1870). For me, the heart of Edwards’s book is in the detail, so what follows are three examples of Edwards’s analysis of Dickens’s use of the majuscule in passages very familiar to us all.

What, we might ask, does the non-standard application of a capital initial letter do to a word? It draws attention to it, certainly, but according to traditional printers’ grammar-guides, it expresses “dignity and stateliness,” an effect evident from Dickens’s regular ennobling of “the People” (8, 17). Edwards’s analysis of Mark Tapley’s comments on arriving in New York in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44) illustrates a more subtle effect. “‘And this,’ said Mr Tapley, […] ‘is the Land of Liberty, is it? Very well, I’m agreeable. Any land will do for me, after so much water’” (qtd. in Edwards 42). Note the proximity of “Land” and “land.” Edwards supplies two photographs at this point, showing the manuscript and the corrected proof relating to Tapley’s comment. We can see that the compositor has changed the initial capitals from Dickens’s manuscript to render it, more consistently, “land of liberty” but then we see that Dickens has marked up the proof, resolutely reinserting his capitals (43–44). By capitalizing abstract nouns in the context of American political rhetoric, Dickens implies that such “Liberty” is a misrepresentation of reality. “Liberty” and “Freedom” are “elevated words which screen low motives and practices,” especially those of slavery (70). Likewise, the capitalization of Pecksniff’s “Virtue” and “Truth” indicate “the gap between high-flown rhetoric and […] mercenary reality” (40). Dickens’s “expressive capitalization” does not undermine the qualities themselves but highlights their “systematic use as a fraudulent prospectus” (40). In 1883 Anthony Trollope grumbled that Dickens’s style was “ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules …” but by the early 1840s, Dickens was making so much money for his publishers that he could overstep conventions, even typographical ones that had been in place since the 1450s (Trollope 2: 71).

Edwards does not shy...


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