Transcribing Victorian handwriting

My introduction to the Digital Dinah Craik project was in the Winter 2015 Digitizing Victorian Women Writers class. Below are my early thoughts on the challenges — and fun — in transcribing and encoding the letters of Dinah Craik to her daughter Dorothy:


Our ENG607 class completed and submitted the TEI markups of our Dinah Craik letters a few days ago. It’s been a fascinating project. Some surprises and lessons learned in the process:

  • Most of us in the class found transcribing the letters to be much more challenging and time intensive than we have first thought it would be.
  • It was an enormous help to work with partners (and other classmates) to decipher the sometimes obscure, often challenging handwriting, words and names. This is definitely an instance where collaboration felt not just helpful, but necessary.
  • Working collaboratively was not only rewarding—it meant that we were all able to do a better job on our projects by doing better, more complete transcriptions—but also surprisingly fun.

  • Transcribing these personal letters, which were written for one particular set of eyes from a mother to a daughter, was often a challenge, yet offered a unique insight into the person behind the author, expanding our knowledge of both Dinah Craik as well as the time and place in which she lived.
  • The TEI encoding, which I think Karen felt would be the most challenging aspect of this assignment, went quickly and fairly easily. Again: working collaboratively (i.e., knowing that someone else would be checking our work) helped in this area and removed much of any potential anxiety about learning TEI for the first time (and creating TEI markups that would be immediately published in a REAL project!). Plus: Karen made it easy by having the template and site index.
  • Most of us enjoyed the detective aspect of the project. As researchers, it was fun and rewarding to try to figure out what some of the strange words and phrases in the letters meant. It was especially entertaining to use 19th century sources to try to find answers. I found helpful information in places such as Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers (1884), The Querist’s Birthday Book (1882), Passing English in the Victorian Era (1909), A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English (1905), books and websites containing typical Victorian names, medical procedures and terminology, geographical place names, and details on the railway system in the latter half of the 19th century.
  • The Victorian Web site, in particular the fulltext of Sally Mitchell’s 1983 book on Dinah Mulock Craik, was indispensable.
  • An important reminder: always consult the experts. When we were flummoxed at some detail in the letters, Karen, who had read them all and knows more about Dinah Craik’s life than (I would imagine) anyone, could often quickly clear things up. (So finding out Blackie was a cat helped make sense of the fact he was often on Dinah’s lap, for example.)
  • While I expected to find an interesting, educated, confident woman in the Dinah Craik letters, I was surprised by the humour and gossipy bits (I don’t know why that surprised me—don’t all personal letters contain that?) and especially by the incredible, generous love she consistently showed to her daughter.
  • With my background in family history research, I couldn’t help but scour genealogical sites (in particular Ancestry.ca) and archives for details about Dinah and often the people, places and events mentioned in her letters. Although I initially did this because of my own interest (obsession?), I found this information to be useful in our research in countless ways. I think I’ll reflect on the use of detailed historical research in another blog post.

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