"If I were to live a hundred years, and write three novels in each. I should never be so proud of them, as I am of Pickwick, feeling as I do, that it has made its own way. . . ." — "Charles Dickens to Chapman and Hall." November l, 1836.1

The Pickwick Papers stands at the end of a long, complex, and accelerating series of developments in book publication. The success of the flimsy shilling parts, issued in green wrappers once each month from April 1836 to November 1837, was unprecedented in the history of literature. "It is doubtful," Edgar Johnson writes, "if any other single work of letters before or since has ever aroused such wild and widespread enthusiasm."2 The lion's share of credit for that success has always, and properly, gone to the pseudonymous "Boz," a twenty-four-year-old shorthand writer and journalist with a quick eye, a fluent pen, and an inexhaustible, buoyant, and loving imagination. Critics from 1836 on have slighted the part played in the runaway reception of the novel by its unusual format; yet subsequent to Dickens's success with Pickwick, parts publication became for thirty years a chief means of democratizing and enormously expanding the Victorian book-reading and book-buying public. Dickens and his publishers discovered the potential of serial publication virtually by accident. In so doing, they changed the world of Victorian publishing, and the Victorian novel, permanently. And, at the same time, their discovery yielded profits hitherto thought impossible for any publisher or author, transforming them all from minor figures in Victorian letters to titans. What forces made that format suddenly possible, and how the changes in publishing converged in 1836 and were married by two shrewd, courageous, and lucky booksellers to the one man who could write letterpress tor all the people, is the subject of the following narrative.

The piecemeal publishing of books," observes R. M. Wiles, "was well established a hundred years before Dickens put pen to paper."3 Early serial publications were generally of five kinds: fascicle issue, cheap part reprints, [51/52] newspapers and magazines, installment fiction, and series. Most visible, though probably not most common, were long, expensive books — dictionaries such as Johnson's, encyclopedias such as Chambers's, histories such as Smollett's — issued in fascicles periodically as printed to subscribers or to booksellers for retail sale. The first leaf of each gathering, or the dust wrapper, would have the special signature of that fascicle. A part might end in mid-chapter, mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence, the catchword for the next part dangling below the final line. When all the gatherings were printed and distributed, the buyer would take the fascicles to his bookseller or bookbinder to be appropriately encased. Some customers were wealthy, and had their own binding styles for their gentlemen's libraries. But others might be less affluent: number books sold for as little as a farthing a part. The advertisements repeatedly insist that "the Design of publishing Books in this manner Weekly is to lighten the Expence of them" (Wiles 10.)

Though the relationship between cheap books and a wider reading public is undoubtedly reciprocal, there is no doubt that the availability of a number books encouraged reading.5 It became possible, even easy, for middle and lower class Englishmen to buy and read books, and the range of their interests was enormous: biographies, translations, collections of songs, jest books, and treatises on mathematics, topography, astronomy, architecture, officinal herbs, painting, and calligraphy (Wiles 238). Prior to 1725 only a score of books was issued in consecutive parts; the boom began around 1732, and continued throughout the rest of the century.

After 1732, publishers tended to the weekly, rather than monthly, issue, lowering costs and increasing cash flow. Regularity of purchase, a key to the success of serial publication, was encouraged by every possible means. On those rare occasions when some unavoidable delay occurred, proprietors usually inserted an elaborate notice in newspapers, or carried some announcement within the shop or the window. Advertisement was an integral part of selling serials: the first notices "had to be detailed, explicit, and if possible enticing," in order to establish the habit of buying (Wiles 207). The most exciting features of the work were stressed, as in modern movie posters.8 John Wilford’s announcement of the third number of Select Trials at the Sessions-House in the Old Bailey (1734), issued in 6d. fortnightly numbers, proclaimed:

This Number . . . contains the remarkable Trials of George Duffus for Sodomy; Mary Harvey and Ann Parker for privately stealing Money from Dr. Kassel; Butler Fox for robbing Sir Edward Lawrence on the Highway . . .; Christopher Kraft for ravishing Sarah Pearse; George Nicholas for forging a Bank Note; James Shaw and Richard Norton for Robbery & Murder, &c. Ibid., p. 207, from The Daily Advertiser for May 11, 1734.

Descriptive details of the contents were often set forth in eye-catching type on the covers or dust wrappers; sometimes the whole prospectus was reproduced. Anything that would bring the potential customer into the store to buy the first few numbers might be tried: there is an apocryphal story, that over twenty thousand copies of Smollett's History of England were sold because the publisher tipped every parish clerk in the kingdom a hall-crown to scatter prospectuses in the pews.9

Though parts publication was sometimes "a paltry money-grubbing enterprise undertaken by a handful of book pirates on the outer fringes of the publishing business" (Wiles 4.) there were also eminently respectable publishers; and fine editions of important works were distributed to a much wider readership than were the single-volume bound versions.11 For the publishers, who sometimes combined into "congers" to bear costs and share the profits of a particularly expensive work, the rewards could be enormous.12 Seldom did the authors or translators benefit from these huge profits, however; most had sold their copyrights outright, or were already dead.​


Victorian Web Literature Charles Dickens Pickwick Papers Overview

Last modified 22 May 2013