"Who has not been outraged by observing that cheerfully patronising mode of dealing with poor people which is in vogue at our soup-kitchens and other depôts of alms?," runs the article, which was published anonymously on 18 April 1863 in the weekly magazine All the Year Round, under Charles Dickens's editorship. "There is a particular manner of looking at the soup through a gold double eye-glass, or of tasting it, and saying, 'Monstrous good – monstrous good indeed; why, I should like to dine off it myself!' which is more than flesh and blood can bear."
Dickens edited two weekly journals for more than 20 years, All the Year Round and Household Words, in which serialisations of his novels Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations were published. Although an office ledger for Household Words remains, showing who wrote what, the ledger for All the Year Round was lost. Scholars at Dickens Journals Online have been working for years to develop open-access digital editions of the journals, which run to 30m words, aided by over 3,000 volunteers – including Guardian readers – who have worked to correct mistakes in machine-read transcriptions of the 30,000 pages.
With the digitisation project now complete, Dickens Journals Online are starting to send articles to the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing (CLLC) at the University of Newcastle, Australia, which uses computational stylistics to attempt to pinpoint the unknown authors' identity. The short opinion piece "Temperate Temperance", which urges readers to "get it into our heads – which seems harder to do than many people would imagine – that the working man is neither a felon, nor necessarily a drunkard, nor a very little child", is the first to be analysed, and has been identified as the work of Dickens himself.
"We supplied a mystery text to them and said 'can you decide which known author this is most like?'" said Dr John Drew, project director of Dickens Journals Online and an English lecturer at the University of Buckingham. The CLLC was given a choice of six possibilities: Dickens, Wilkie Collins, his brother Charles Collins, the subeditor of the journal WH Wills and two other staff writers, and found the writing was closest to Dickens.
"Any new Dickens material is exciting," said Drew. "It's not a new opinion [from him] but on the other hand, where an author has become as important as Dickens, it's as much about how he says things as what he's saying."
The article comments in depth on the proposal to establish dining-halls and kitchens for the use of poor people – a move the author commends, as long as certain principles are adhered to. "The poor man who attends one of these eating-houses must be treated as the rich man is treated who goes to a tavern. The thing must not be made a favour of," he writes. "The officials, cooks, and all persons who are paid to be the servants of the man who dines, are to behave respectfully to him, as hired servants should; he is not to be patronised, or ordered about, or read to, or made speeches at, or in any respect used less respectfully than he would be in a beef and pudding shop, or other house of entertainment. Above all, he is to be jolly, he is to enjoy himself, he is to have his beer to drink; while, if he show any sign of being drunk or disorderly, he is to be turned out, just as I should be ejected from a club, or turned out of the Wellington or the Albion Tavern this very day, if I got drunk there."
Drew said he "very much doubted" that any new fiction by Dickens would be discovered in the journals, but hoped that around a dozen more articles by the author would be uncovered. "It's going to take time and we have to be cautious, though. It's always going to be relative. Computational stylistics gives a best fit but doesn't absolutely prove authorship one way or the other," he said. "While we're unlikely to find lots of new work we can attribute to Dickens it's possible that one or two pieces per year of All the Year Round's publication under his editorship will show evidence of his authorship or co-authorship. So, cautiously, a dozen or more new pieces is what we might hope for."
Currently supported by organisations including the Leverhulme Trust, the team at Dickens Journals Online are now hoping to find more funding to send additional texts to the CLLC for analysis. "They are looking at one mystery article at the moment, for which Wilkie Collins and Dickens are neck and neck to be the author, so that's a win-win situation, and another where it's looking as if Dickens ought to be the author but isn't," said Drew.