The third season of the Oxford World’s Classics Reading Group has now come to a close, but the fun isn’t over yet. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst will be answering your Dickens questions LIVE on Twitter on Friday 25th September at 3pm GMT (11am EST). Tweet your questions to @owc_oxford with the #OWCReads hashtag and Robert will answer them on Friday.
We continue our Oxford World’s Classics Reading Group this week with some biographical background on the author around the time of Great Expectations’ publication. The following is an extract from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography‘s entry of Charles Dickens.
When, in 1859, Dickens decided to publish a statement in the press about his personal affairs he expected that Bradbury and Evans would run it in Punch, which they also published. He was furious when they, very reasonably, declined to insert “statements on a domestic and painful subject in the inappropriate columns of a comic miscellany” (Patten, 262). Dickens therefore determined to break with them completely and to return to his old publishers Chapman and Hall. Bradbury and Evans’s co-operation was needed, however, for the launch of the elegant Library Edition of Dickens’s works (twenty-two volumes published, 1858–9; re-issued with illustrations and eight more volumes, 1861–74). But Dickens forced the dissolution of Household Words, owned jointly by himself and Bradbury and Evans, and the last number appeared, despite all the hapless publishers’ efforts to prevent the closure, on 28 May 1859. Dickens, meanwhile, had begun publishing from, 30 April, a new weekly periodical with the same format and at the same price as Household Words called All the Year Round. Wills continued as his sub-editor and he and Dickens were the sole proprietors, Dickens owning 75 per cent of the shares as well as the name and goodwill attached to the magazine. While maintaining the tradition of anonymity for all non-fictional contributions, All the Year Round differed from its predecessor in various ways, not least in its greater emphasis on serialized fiction. A new instalment of the current serial stood always first in each weekly number, and Dickens editorially proclaimed “it is our hope and aim [that the stories so serialized in the journal] may become a part of English literature” (All the Year Round, 2.95).
Dickens himself inaugurated the series in spectacularly successful fashion with his second historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities (serialized from 30 April to 26 November 1859), the basic plot of which was inspired by the story of the self-sacrificing lover Richard Wardour (Dickens’s role) in The Frozen Deep. In this novel, the second half of which takes place during the French Revolution, Dickens set himself the task, he told Forster, “of making a picturesque story, rising in every chapter with characters true to nature, but whom the story itself should express, more than they should express themselves, by dialogue”, glossed by Forster as meaning that Dickens would be relying “less upon character than upon incident” (Forster, 730, 731). In its tightly organized and highly romantic melodrama, and the near-absence of typical ‘Dickensian’ humour and humorous characters, A Tale of Two Cities certainly stands apart from all his other novels, although—as in his earlier historical novel—one of the great set pieces of the book is the anarchic destruction of a prison, an event to which Dickens’s imagination responded with powerful ambiguity. Thanks partly to this new Dickens story, and partly to a vigorous advertising campaign organized by Wills, All the Year Round had an initial circulation of 120,000. Wilkie Collins’s sensationally popular ‘sensation novel’ The Woman in White followed A Tale of Two Cities in the serial slot, contributing not a little to the maintenance of the magazine’s impressive circulation figures. These eventually settled down to a steady 100,000 with an occasional dip but soaring always (up as far as 300,000) for the special ‘extra Christmas Numbers’. Dickens eventually wearied of this latter feature, however, and killed it off after 1867.
Compared with Household Words, All the Year Round features far fewer journalistic pieces by Dickens himself, the Uncommercial Traveller essays (see below) notwithstanding, and had a much greater focus on topics of foreign interest, notably the struggle for Italian unification, and much less concern for the political and social condition of England than the earlier magazine. Nor could it be quite so topical as Household Words since every issue had to be finalized a fortnight before its due publication date, Dickens having contracted with the New York publishers J. M. Emerson & Co. to send them stereotype plates of every issue in order to ensure its simultaneous appearance on both sides of the Atlantic (an arrangement later somewhat modified).
On 28 January 1860 Dickens began contributing to his new journal a series of occasional essays in the character of the Uncommercial Traveller. They were discontinued when he began work in earnest on Great Expectations (1 December 1860 – 3 August 1861) and not resumed until 2 May 1863 (carrying on until 24 October 1863). The Uncommercial Traveller essays, which feature some of the finest prose ever written by Dickens, take sometimes a quasi-autobiographical form, with reminiscences of childhood, like Nurse’s Stories or Dullborough Town (that is, Rochester), and are sometimes examples of superb investigative reporting, notably of lesser-known aspects of life in London; yet others focus on the process of travel itself, in its many various forms.
As for his fictional writing, Dickens had intended his next novel to be published in the old twenty-monthly-number ‘green-leaved’ format, but changed plans when Charles Lever’s A Day’s Ride, which followed The Woman in White, failed to hold readers’ interest and caused a perceptible drop in the circulation figures. Dickens assured Forster that “The property of All the Year Round’ was “far too valuable, in every way, to be much endangered” by this development (Forster, 733); nevertheless he was determined to take no risks and so ‘struck in’ with his new story, Great Expectations, the second of his novels to be written wholly in the first person, now replanned as a weekly serial. The circulation figures promptly recovered and in this chance way (at least, as regards its format) there came into being the story that for many critics (and for many ‘common readers’ too) represents the very highest reach of Dickens’s art as a novelist—even with the revised ending that Bulwer Lytton persuaded him to write in order to avoid too starkly sad a conclusion to this masterfully structured and brilliantly written story of money, class, sex, and obsessive mental states with, for the first time ever in Dickens’s major fiction, a protagonist who is unambiguously working-class. The novel was published in three volumes unillustrated, Dickens probably recognizing that Browne’s style had not really kept pace with the development of his own novelistic art, as was evidenced by the feebleness of the illustrations Browne supplied for the volume edition of A Tale of Two Cities.
Featured image: Old Books by jarmoluk. CC0 via Pixabay.