Charles Dickens – The lost Leipzig letters
The relationship between Charles Dickens and Bernhard Tauchnitz was much closer and friendlier than is often the case between authors and publishers. The letters between the two men were both very numerous and very cordial. They were also preserved for a long time. But where are they now?
“I really do not know what it would be fair and reasonable to require from you.’, writes Dickens in 1846, “But I have every reason to rely upon your honourable intentions; and if you will do me the favour to state your own proposal, I have little doubt that I shall be willing to assent to it …”. Then in 1854, “… It was a matter of real regret to me that I was abroad when you were in London. For it would have given me true pleasure to have taken your hand and thanked you with all heartiness for your friendship. I hope to do so on the occasion of your next visit, and also that it will not be long before you return here. Mrs. Dickens and her sister unite with me in best regards to yourself and family.”.
Bernhard Tauchnitz and Charles Dickens
The two men had known each other since 1843, when Dickens was 31 and Tauchnitz just 26. Dickens was undoubtedly the star author in the Tauchnitz series. The Tauchnitz Editions were the only authorised editions of Dickens’ work to be published in continental Europe in English, and covered all of his novels, as well as a long series of volumes reprinted from ‘Household Words’. So the correspondence between the two men is evidence of a long and trusting relationship.
The letters from Dickens were kept by Tauchnitz, along with correspondence from other authors. When the firm celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1887 by publishing an anniversary history and catalogue, the book included excerpts from letters sent to Tauchnitz from various authors who had by then died, including Dickens. A shorter anniversary publication 25 years later in 1912 gave even greater prominence to the correspondence. This time a dedicated section on letters from Dickens preceded a general section on letters from all other authors.
In 1937 the Centenary publication contained facsimiles of a small number of author letters, with pride of place again going to a letter from Dickens. This was followed by a selection of contemporary letters of congratulation on the centenary from prominent people such as the British Prime Minister and the Archbishop of York. At that point it seems clear that the archive of author correspondence was still in existence. Presumably it remained the property of Tauchnitz, by then legally owned by Brandstetter, the firm that printed both Tauchnitz and Albatross books. However Albatross, based in Paris, exercised editorial control over both firms, so it’s certainly possible that some or all correspondence had moved location.
In December 1943, the printing works of Brandstetter in Leipzig were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid, and it has since been widely assumed that the archive was destroyed at that time. On the 125th anniversary of Tauchnitz in 1962 what remained of the Tauchnitz firm, by then based in Stuttgart, published a final short Festschrift. It again quoted extracts from two letters from Dickens, but as both of these had already been published in the earlier anniversary histories, they do not provide evidence that the archive was still in existence. Instead, rather ominously the Festschrift (roughly translated) says that ‘… most of the documents relating to the history and development of the firm in its old home town of Leipzig were destroyed in 1943, or are currently unobtainable as a result of the unhappy division of our country’.
That unhappy division came to an end in 1990 and with it the first evidence that at least some of the documents had survived. For that evidence we are indebted to Gunter Böhnke, who discovered and transcribed some of the letters from Dickens to Tauchnitz, and to his son, Dietmar Böhnke, a lecturer at the University of Leipzig, who has more recently published them. Gunter Böhnke in 1991 discovered 34 of Dickens’ letters to Tauchnitz and about 30 others by various Dickens family members and other publishers, in the archive of one of the state owned publishing and printing firms that were about to be dismantled following German reunification. He photocopied and transcribed them before handing them back. Unfortunately they have since been lost and there is now no record of what has happened to them.
Other evidence that the archive may have survived comes from a single letter that I was able to buy at auction several years ago – see my post on A letter from Charles Dickens. This letter was not one of those transcribed by Gunter Böhnke, and was not acknowledged in the auction as being from Dickens, so presumably it must have been separated from other letters, probably before 1991.
It appears that at some stage the Tauchnitz archive was broken up. Large parts of it may by now have been lost or destroyed, even if they survived the 1943 attack. But there does remain the intriguing possibility that other letters, including those seen in 1991, still exist and may turn up again some day. That could include not only multiple letters from Dickens, but a treasure trove of letters from other leading authors of the 19th and 20th centuries.