or What I Learned about Charles Dickens, the Novelist
from My Reading of Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
As I discussed yesterday, I am not writing a review on Claire Tomalin’s biography Charles Dickens: A Life for various reasons. If you want to know why, read yesterday’s post. Instead, I am reflecting here on what I learned about Charles Dickens the novelist from Tomalin’s book. This is part two of the post.
Charles Dickens essentially invented the model of the modern day New York Times best-seller novelist. He created and fit the mold in several ways:
6. He actively pursued and advocated copyright law.
7. He wrote serials.
8. He wrote for the masses.
9. He was sensitive to criticism.
10. His novels were adapted for the stage shortly after publication.
Before Lars Ulrich and Metallica’s fight with Napster, before torrent sites, and before SOPA, there was Charles Dickens, blazing the trail of copyright laws. Just as his novels were incredibly popular in his native England, they were HUGE in America, and Dickens was barely receiving any compensation for them! In 1842, Dickens sailed to America, and one of his major purposes was to bring about international copyright laws. “Across the Atlantic there was no legislation of any kind covering the rights of foreign authors, and publishers simply took what they wanted and did what they liked with it,” (104).
Upon arrival in America, Dickens was hosted at many gatherings where he would introduce his proposal that something had to be done about copyright in America. His requests were, at first “politely ignored,” then, American newspapers took the view that “he should be pleased with his popularity and grateful for it too, and that it was mercenary to fuss about pirated copies,” (131). As his tour went on, and he continued in his pleas for international authors’ rights, the press remained hostile. Surprisingly, American authors didn’t really take up his cause either. “He complained that he got little encouragement from American writers, although he did persuade twenty-five of them, headed by Washington Irving, to sign a petition for him to take to Congress,” (132).
Eventually, Dickens began to get his rights and compensation as an author on the other continent, as “Tauchnitz, the Leipzig publisher who had been publishing English books on the Continent, had begun to deal fairly and was offering money for Dickens’ work: his edition of the Carol was sanctioned by the author,”(150). However, America did not come around in Dickens’ lifetime, as the International Copyright Act of 1891 was enacted 21 years after Dickens’ death.
As mentioned previously, Dickens was one of the original YA authors, and like many YA authors, he preferred the series format for his novels. Beginning with The Pickwick Papers, Dickens wrote his novels in serial form, appearing in monthly installments, and would often write two at a time, such as Oliver Twist‘s overlapping publication with Pickwick.
The two serial stories would be running simultaneously for ten months, and Dickens would have to work like a juggler to keep both spinning. He said later that he was warned against serial publications–’My friends told me it was a low, cheap form of publication, by which I should ruin all my rising hopes’- but whoever these friends were he triumphantly proved them wrong[.] (74)
As Tomalin points out, Dickens accomplished a major and unprecedented feat with the simultaneous publication of his works. Writers of serial novels (and also televisions serials like Lost) are unique in that they have to have much of everything already planned in their head. While Pickwick began as “a series of loosely rambling episodes,” Dickens began to introduce plot and had to take much more care in the set-up:
There was no going back to change or adjust once a number was printed; everything had to be right first time. How different this is from the way most great novelists work, allowing themselves to reconsider, to change their minds, to go back, to cancel and rewrite. Each number of Pickwick and Oliver consisted of about 7,500 words, and in theory he simply divided every month, allotting a fortnight to each new section of each book. (74)
One great advantage of series-writing, as I’m sure any modern-day author and television writer can attest, is the ability to hook an audience. Dickens utilized cliff-hangers at the end of his chapters to leave his audience begging for more. He also paid close attention to his audience, and introduced certain types of characters to increase the novel’s popularity. For example, he introduced Sam Weller, Pickwick’s cockney servant, in June 1836, and “sales of the monthly numbers in their pale green wrappers rose steadily and soon spectacularly, and the critics vied with one another to praise it. The appearance of a fresh number of Pickwick soon became news, an event, something much more than literature,” (67).
8. Dickens: A Man for the Common Man
Dickens wrote for everyone. He was not, in the least, elitist when it came to his writing. If he were a modern-day actor, he would be Nicholas Cage, pumping out action flick after action flick. Well, if Nicholas Cage made movies that spoke to one’s soul.
He wrote for and about the common man, and “the ordinary people saw that he was on their side, and they loved him for it,” (68). He knew his audience and delivered what the masses wanted. They found truth and cameraderie in his writings, much as the groundlings did with Shakespeare.
Upon publication of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens found his first major success with the masses:
It was as though he was able to feed his story directly into the bloodstream of the nation, giving injections of laughter, pathos and melodrama, and making his readers feel he was a personal friend to each of them. Dickens knew he had triumphed, and this sense of a personal link between himself and his public became the most essential element in his development as a writer.
One remarkable effort that Dickens made to connect with his public was his publication demands for A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol is perhaps the most well-known and beloved Dickens tale, annually read at the holidays by people around the world. This was precisely Dickens’ goal when he wrote it, and he made sure that the public would easily get its hands upon a beautiful copy:
Dickens asked Chapman & Hall to publish his little book on commission, as a separate venture, and he insisted on fine, coloured binding and endpapers, and gold letterings on the front and spine; and that it should cost only a few shillings. (149)
The public did indeed buy up his beautiful little Christmas tale, but unfortunately he made very little money from the sales, as “almost all of the profits were absorbed in the expenses of binding, special paper, coloured plates and advertising,” (150). It still was very noble indeed, and A Christmas Carol is still proving to be very popular with the masses.
Dickens was very popular, and he loved his popularity. But, not everyone is going to love one’s work, even Dickens’ work, and when Dickens received bad reviews, he felt it deeply.
Bleak House received bad reviews both from critics and from his closest friend John Forster:
[W]here it was noticed, although many critics allowed that Dickens was popular and possessed of genius, they also expressed disappointment that he had abandoned humour for the grotesque and contemptible, and that it was ill-constructed. (245)
Even his friend Forster said that Bleak House was “too real to be pleasant,” and that “while Dickens pretended to be indifferent to criticism, he was hurt by it, and ‘believed himself to be entitled to higher tribute than he was always in the habit of receiving,’” (245).
In 1857, Dickens broke his rule about not reading his negative reviews, and was again hurt by an attack on Little Dorritt:
[I]n Blackwoods [a magazine] was an unfavourable view of Dorritt which upset him, appearing just before he began on the last section of the book. He was accused of bad construction, of making an unsuccessful attempt to write on social questions, and of giving ‘twaddle’ to William Dorritt to speak.[...][Dickens] told Forster he was ‘sufficiently put out by it to be angry with myself being such a fool.’ (281).
Not much has changed. There will always be bad reviews, and, as in the case of Bleak House, there will always be bad reviews when you diverge from the simple and easy, and try something different than what is already popular.
Before the BBC got a hold of Dickens’ tales, players were acting out scripts of his novels only months after publication. Beginning with Nicholas Nickleby, dramatizations of his works were played in theatres all over England. Dickens loved the theatre, but according to Tomalin, his own dramatized works “caused him some groans” (99). Sometimes Dickens got into the spirit himself, and put on his own theatricals (though not of his own stories). While I’m sure the audience enjoyed the dramatizations of Dickens’ work, as many of his novels are written perfectly for theatrics, I’m sure there was an audience member or two who walked out the theatre muttering, “Meh. The book was better.”
If you’re interested in more about Dickens, check out Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life and/or read my post on Thursday where I will consider Dickens’ views on philanthropy.