The Case of the Initial Letter

Charles Dickens and the politics of the dual alphabet

Author: Gavin Edwards

The Case of the Initial Letter analyses attempts by Dickens and other nineteenth-century writers to challenge established ways of using the distinction between upper and lower-case letters, and to do so in the interests of a wider radicalism. It discusses Dickens’s satire – on the power of ‘Shares’ in Our Mutual Friend, on Paul Dombey’s position as the ‘Son’ of Dombey and Son – alongside the proto-modernist typography of the suffragist poet Augusta Webster and the work of Samuel Moore, Karl Marx’s principle nineteenth-century translator who transformed German conventions of capitalisation into English conventions under the influence of Dickens and Thomas Carlyle. Placing these innovations within the history of the dual alphabet from its invention by Carolingian scribes in the eighth century to its rejection by modernist poets and the Bauhaus printers, the book tracks the dual alphabet through Dickens’s manuscripts and corrected proofs, as well as the ‘prompt copies’ for his public Readings. The dual alphabet, unlike other aspects of language, works metaphorically, on the basis of visual resemblance: elevated letters are for elevated things. The book follows the dual alphabet as it moves from author, to printer, to performer, changing as it moves from handwriting to print, and disappearing in the transition from visible to spoken language.

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