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Recovering Lost Text at the Digital Frontier

Is it possible to recover deleted manuscript text? Thanks to new technologies in the digital humanities, some passages that have been considered lost forever can now be restored and read.

In her recent book, Revising the Eighteenth-Century Novel: Authorship from Manuscript to Print (Cambridge University Press, 2019), Assistant Professor Hilary Havens applies methodologies she developed in digital paleography to uncover deleted passages from literary texts and correspondence by five well-known eighteenth-century authors. These methodologies use image manipulation software and employ layering techniques, color levels, and filters; they are vastly more advanced than the simple image enlargement techniques used by most researchers. When applied to obliterated textual material, this technology leads to unexpected discoveries.

Burney Journal Passage on Evelina Before
Burney Journal Passage on Evelina Before
Burney Journal Passage on Evelina After
Burney Journal Passage on Evelina After

As an example of her digital detective work, Havens recovered a long episode describing satanic rites at a masquerade ball in Frances Burney’s domestic novel Cecilia (1782). Burney was one of Jane Austen’s favorite authors and, like her better-known contemporary, wrote novels with domestic themes that centered on a marriage plot. The recovered satanic rites scene asks us to revise our views of Burney as a domestic fiction author and recognize some of her less conventional interests as a novelist, which were likely suppressed before publication due to their inappropriate content. Havens’s discovery, in other words, underscores the restrictions that female authors faced as they revised their risky and challenging writings during the long eighteenth century.

These techniques have revealed hitherto unseen passages in the works and correspondence of other long eighteenth-century authors such as Maria Edgeworth, Anne Finch, and Samuel Richardson, though their application is not limited to a certain period. Although there are limiting factors in the use of this technology—the image resolution of the deleted passage needs to be very high, and the obliterating marks must not be too heavy—the method’s cost-effectiveness hints at its potentially wide application. Manuscript studies is one of the most traditional forms of literary study, but Havens’s work is part of a growing trend that refuses to be limited by conventional methodologies and instead uses digital tools as a way to better understand the past.

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