Charles Dickens: The Publishing Formats of his First Editions

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Charles Dickens: The Publishing Formats of his First Editions

Adam Douglas, Senior Specialist in Early Literature at Peter Harrington talks about the different publishing formats of Charles Dickens’ first editions.

Read our author’s page for Charles Dickens and read our blog post about the Centenary of Charles Dickens first editions.


Video transcript:

Most of the novels of Charles Dickens were originally published in monthly parts, like this copy of “David Copperfield”. Each month, you would get a part of the book, a few chapters wrapped up in printed wrappers with illustrations, by the same illustrator who did the book. There would be advertising in it, the Copperfield Advertiser, where advertisers would vie to take advertising space in these books as they were the best sellers of the age.

Dickens wasn’t the only novelist who published in this way, but he was the most famous. It was his success with “The Pickwick Papers” that led to most of his novels being published in this format.

The usual format would be that there were 20 parts and for the final part, you would get a double number, which this is part 19 and 20 of “David Copperfield”. That would include with it the printed title page, which would allow you to have the book bound up when you’d finished. This would include the engraved title page and the printed title page and you could then have the book put into a single volume.

This is a single volume of “The Pickwick Papers” in full leather binding, done in typical Victorian style. Dickens experimented with various other formats.

For “Master Humphrey’s Clock”, which is a larger work and in fact incorporates two novels into the one book; “Barnaby Rudge” and “The Old Curiosity Shop”, he did them in weekly parts. They are obviously much thinner and these are quite rare, but it wasn’t a success and he usually stuck to the monthly formula.

At the end, when the parts were finished, the publisher would re-issue the book in a cloth binding. This copy is “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in the publisher’s binding. It is noticeably thinner than other Dickens’ titles because Dickens died before he finished the book, but the publisher still felt it was worth publishing the book in original cloth.

Dickens’ career started with his Sketches by “Boz”. Boz was a nickname that he used and he wrote comic sketches of everyday life and this is its first book form edition in two volumes.

He then went on to write his first huge success, which was “Pickwick Papers”, published in parts. Again, he is known as Boz on the title pages of this book.

By now, people realised that he was going to be one of the best-selling novelist of the age and in his novel “Oliver Twist”, he decided to come out from behind the shelves with his pseudonym. In early printings of “Oliver Twist”, you still have his name as “Boz” on the title page but in later issues he changed that to Charles Dickens. From then on, he became known as Charles Dickens and was at that time probably one of the most famous man in the world, let alone writer.

Dickens did several things which were innovative in publishing, perhaps his most notable is “A Christmas Carol”, which is a story he published as a Christmas book. He had it done up in this small but still lavishly produced gift format, in a rather pretty cinnamon cloth binding with a guild writhe on the front. He took great care over it and had the title pages printed out in various colours to see which one looked best. He decided in the end that red and blue looked best and had illustrations done by John Leech, one of several illustrators who illustrated Dickens’ works.

Copies like this in original cloth and in original state are very much sought after by collectors.

We also have other books associated with Dickens. We have a book here which is from his library, it has his book plate in it, which is from his house in Gads Hill, a large house he built for himself in Kent with the proceeds of his novels.

This is a selection called “Half Hours With The Best Authors”, edited by Charles Knight. He was known as a Shakespearian scholar but he was also friend of Dickens. Here he has inscribed a book: “To Charles Dickens Esq”. He was one of the dedicatees of “Bleak House” and did some acting with Dickens in Dickens private dramatical.

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