Michelle Levy is marking up a digital text version of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage manuscripts.

Research Matters - Fall 2012

Blogging in the early 1800s

November 01, 2012

A hidden history of social culture is just now being revealed. Until recently, with the advent of digital technology, countless 18th and 19th century handwritten manuscripts were locked away in archives, accessible only to select experts. Often called fair copies or commonplace books, these works were original versions of poems or stories, carefully copied by hand and passed among friends, mostly women.

English professor Michelle Levy studies digitally scanned versions of such documents, now available online from academic libraries in England. “What most interests me is that these are not conventional books where an editor has selected what we call a ‘single reading text’. There may be several versions of the same poem, words crossed out, notes in the margins, and even newspaper clippings pasted in,” says Levy. She is currently examining the Dove Cottage Manuscript 120 of Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the poet William Wordsworth.

The siblings lived together in Grasmere, a village in England’s Lake District, and it is well known that Wordsworth borrowed freely from his sister’s works. She was never published under her own name in her lifetime.

The Wordsworth Trust has digitized Dorothy’s diaries and commonplace book, but not transcribed them. “You get beautiful full colour images but they are hard to read because it’s handwriting, not print,” says Levy.

She and her research assistant Britney Burrell are transcribing and encoding selections from the text, about two dozen poems, to make it searchable and machine-readable. “I just love the period,” says Burrell, who was drawn to Levy’s course due to her love of Jane Austen and other Romantic era writers.

Levy supervised Burrell as a research assistant, funded by an SFU Undergraduate Student Research Award. The pilot program developed by the Office of the V.-P. Research funded 86 students in 2012 for 16 weeks of hands-on experience, under the guidance of faculty researchers.

“Transcribing the handwriting is relatively easy. The tricky part is the encoding,” says Levy, who is working with the Wordsworth Trust on the project, only the second of its kind for the Trust.

The markup language must capture every detail. “If Dorothy crossed something out, we encode that. If you can still read the word that was crossed out, we encode that as well,” says Levy. The work is quite challenging, and totally new for her. The Trust already has mark-up conventions that must be followed. “It can get complicated, like where she starts writing sideways,”  says Levy, adding that they don’t encode the inkblots.

Evolving electronic literary resources such as this one allow readers to see all the different versions of a work. “You can see writing as a process, and not just an end product,” says Levy, who is working on a book about the vast amount of writing that was done outside of print publication, a sort of manuscript culture of the period not unlike today’s blogs.

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