The Man Who Loves Dickens and Hendrix Edits 135-Year-Old Novel

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WORCESTER, Mass. - "Love is in all things a most wonderful teacher," wrote the immortal Charles Dickens in his last complete novel, "Our Mutual Friend." Now, love of all things Dickens inspires a most wonderful teacher.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Joel J. Brattin, professor of English in the Department of Humanities and Arts, has just come out with his latest tribute to Dickens. "Our Mutual Friend," completed in 1865, has been published as a new paperback thanks to its latest editor, who established the text and provided an introduction, explanatory annotations and notes. It's the first scholarly edition of "Our Mutual Friend" ever published.

Brattin began the massive job of editing the 930-page book nearly five years ago. President of the international Dickens Society, the professor is a renowned expert on the author as well as on another world-famous icon: rock musician Jimi Hendrix. But more on that later.

During his tenure at WPI, Brattin has helped secure a major collection of Dickens materials, now housed in the Gordon Library Special Collections. WPI's Dickens Collection includes first editions, autograph letters, original serial installments of most of the novels and a museum quality sketch by the illustrator Marcus Stone, whose work graced the original edition of "Our Mutual Friend."

Brattin offers a literature course this term on Dickens that uses his new edition of "Our Mutual Friend." His students enjoy the unique bonus of daily displays of Dickens artifacts that parallel the reading in progress. Next year the professor will take a group of WPI students to England to study Dickens and Shakespeare.

A glance at an original manuscript explains why, more than a hundred years after his death, scholars are still editing Dickens. The longhand script is marked through, written over and crossed out repeatedly, leading to errors only caught by patient, painstaking work. One of the most amusing mistakes Brattin found involved a migrating hyphen. One character was supposedly using a "camel's hair-brush," instead of a "camel's-hair" brush. One is a grooming tool for a camel; the other is a type of paintbrush.

To produce his edition of "Our Mutual Friend," Brattin compared the first edition with the 1868 "Charles Dickens Edition," the last produced during the author's lifetime.

"I made a list of the 2,200 places there was a difference, and then weighed each case. Do I want that comma there, or not? Do I want that spelling? Do I want this word or that word?" he said of the time-consuming process.

"Our Mutual Friend" was written during the Civil War; Dickens died in 1870 at age 58, having packed a lot of living into his relatively short years.

"He looked a good 10 years older than that," Brattin said. "He was enormously productive and worked all the time, and that may have aged him a bit."

"Our Mutual Friend" is one of Brattin's favorite books.

"The fundamental thing it's about is love, but it is about a lot of other things too," he explained. "It's got a lot of social criticism of the greed and selfishness in society. It's about money and the desire for money. It's about waste and the transformation of waste: turning something that's worth nothing into something that's worth something. And more important, it's about the transformation of character: how a person can be changed-especially, I would argue, by love."

In addition to scholarly journals on 19th-century British literature, Brattin writes for a number of publications devoted to the legendary American guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Are there any parallels between two such disparate men?

"They both were influential and energetic with a kind of restless, relentless creativity," Brattin reflected. "Dickens was always working, and Hendrix was the same way. They are fascinating characters as well as great artists."

A non-stop performer, writer and musician, Hendrix often worked all day and into the night. Dickens had a similar unquenchable vigor.

"Not only did Dickens write all these amazing books, he gave public readings, he thought nothing of a 20-mile walk after dinner, he went to the theater four or five nights a week for all of his life, wrote something like 20,000 letters and did a lot of work for charities," Brattin recounted. "He was the father of 10 kids; he wrote travel books and a great deal of journalism, and he came to America, which wasn't easy because you couldn't just climb on a jet. He came to Worcester twice and celebrated his 30th birthday here."

During the writing of "Our Mutual Friend," Dickens suffered a traumatic accident that forever changed him. Returning from a trip to France, he and two companions took a ferry across the English Channel, then boarded a train to London. A half hour later, the train approached a viaduct over a river. Some rails were under repair, and the locomotive swerved off the track. All seven first-class carriages fell into the gorge, except the last, which dangled over the edge. That carriage contained Charles Dickens.

Dickens and his companions were shaken, but safe; other passengers were not so lucky. Dickens worked feverishly to help the distraught, dying and wounded. When it appeared his help was no longer needed, he at last remembered something.

"In the pocket of his overcoat, still inside the dangerously tilted car, was the manuscript of 'Our Mutual Friend' he had been working on," wrote Peter Ackroyd in his biography of Dickens. "He went again into the carriage and got it. The papers were soiled by the adventure, but the story survived, however."

Brattin noted, "The experience shattered him. He died five years to the day after the accident."

Fortunately for readers through the ages who curl up before the fire with this classic story, Dickens completed his novel about love and transformation. Now, another wordsmith has added his own loving touch to the tale. Joel J. Brattin's edition of "Our Mutual Friend," part of the Everyman Dickens paperback series, is available in the United States through Vermont publisher Charles E. Tuttle ($7.50).

WPI, founded in 1865, is renowned for its project-based curriculum. Its students integrate classroom studies with research projects conducted on campus and around the world.

For more information about WPI's Dickens holdings, visit The Robert D. Fellman Dickens Collection.