The more we see of life and its brevity, and the world and its varieties, the more we know that no exercise of our abilities in any art, but the addressing of it to the great ocean of humanity in which we are drops, and not to bye-ponds (very stagnant) here and there, ever can or ever will lay the foundations of an endurable retrospect. — Letter from Charles Dickens to William Macready, January 14, 1853
It leaves me — as my Art always finds and always leaves me — the most restless of created Beings. I am the modern embodiment of the old Enchanters, whose Familiars tore them to pieces. I weary of rest, and have no — satisfaction but in fatigue. Realities and idealities are always comparing themselves before me.... — Letter from Charles Dickens to Mrs. Winter, December 7, 1857
As to my art, I have as great a delight in it as the most enthusiastic of my readers; and the sense of my trust and responsibility in that wise, is always upon me when I take pen in hand. If I were soured, I should still try to sweeten the — Letter from Charles Dickens to Angela Burdett Coutts, April 10, 1860
In an article written by Wilkie Collins for Household Words in 1858 contains the following observations on the new reading public which had arisen in the wake of the spread of literacy in Victorian England:
The Unknown Public is, in a literary sense, hardly beginning, as yet, to learn to read.... it is perhaps hardly too much to say that the future of English fiction may rest with this Unknown Public, which is now waiting to be taught the difference between a good book and a bad. It is probably a question of time only.... When that period comes, the readers who rank by millions, will be the readers who give the widest reputations, who return the richest awards, and who will, therefore, command the service of the best writers of their time. A great, an unparalleled prospect awaits, perhaps, the coming generation of English novelists. To the penny journals of the present times belongs the credit of having discovered a new public. When that public shall discover its need of a great writer, the great writer will have such an audience as has never yet been known.
Yet, twenty years earlier Dickens had already captured this audience; indeed, the success of his early [61/62] writings may be said to have called attention to its existence. A well-known anecdote illustrates the envying wonder with which contemporary writers acknowledged his supremacy. Thackeray, then at work on Vanity Fair, greeted the fifth number of Dombey and Son with this comment: "There's no writing against such power as this — One has no chance! Read that chapter describing young Paul's death: it is unsurpassed — it is stupendous!" After Pickwick Papers took hold, the sales of monthly installments rarely fell below 25,000, and averaged between 30,000 and 40,000. While The Old Curiosity Shop was running, the weekly circulation of Master Humphrey's Clock rose to 100,000; and Great Expectationspushed the circulation of All the Year Round well above that of the London Times. These figures, of course, do not take into account the continuing popularity of the novels in book form, whether in the original editions or in cheaper reprints. A fourth printing of Great Expectations, for example, was called for within a few weeks of its publication in covers; and more than four million copies of the novels were sold in the twelve years following the author's death. It has been estimated that during his lifetime Dickens addressed an audience of a million and a half, or approximately one out of ten readers in Great Britain. There is no way of guessing the numbers of the illiterate for whom the writer's name was a household word. Forster recounts a delightfully informative episode of 1847, relating to a visit by the novelist to one of his sons who was ill with scarlet fever in the home of his grandmother:
An elderly charwoman employed about the place had shown so much sympathy in the family trouble, that Mrs. Hogarth especially told her of the approaching [62/63] visit, and who it was that was coming to the sick-room. "Lawk ma'am!" she said. "Is the young gentleman upstairs the son of the man that put together Dombey?" Reassured upon this point, she explained her question by declaring that she never thought there was a man that could have put together Dombey. Being pressed farther as to what her notion was of this mystery of a Dombey (for it was known that she could not read), it turned out that she lodged at a snuff-shop kept by a person named Douglas, where there were several other lodgers; and that on the first Monday of every month there was a Tea, and the landlord read the month's number of Dombey, those only of the lodgers who subscribed to the tea partaking of that luxury, but all having the benefit of the reading; and the impression produced on the old charwoman revealed itself in the remark with which she closed her account of it. "Lawk, ma'am! I thought that three or four men must have put together Dombey!"
Dickens did not simply welcome, he courted popular acclaim. The satisfactions of artistic repute and financial gain must not be discounted; but the novelist's endeavors to get on more and more intimate terms with his audience involved, as well, psychological factors. Although he was at all times uncommunicative about his literary habits, much may be inferred from his reliance on the stimuli provided by the amateur theatricals and public readings in which he successively engaged. According to Otis Skinner, when the novelist one day expressed to his protege Edmund Yates regret that he had not made a career on the stage, and when the young man pointed out that he was, after all, a great writer, Dickens answered: "That's all very well, but I would rather have been a great actor and had the public at my feet." To a friend, Mrs. Watson, he confessed the gratification he had derived from playing the lead in Wilkie Collins' melodrama, The Frozen Deep:
All last summer I had a transitory satisfaction in rending the very heart out of my body by doing that Richard [63/64] Wardour part. It was a good thing to have a couple of thousand people all rigid and frozen together, in the palm of one's hand — as at Manchester — and to see the hardened carpenters at the sides crying and trembling at it night after night.
The sense of fulfillment which Dickens found in theatrical make-believe cannot be disassociated from his literary career. In a letter of 1857 to the artist Daniel Maclise, again with reference to his part in The Frozen Deep, the novelist declared: "In that perpetual struggle after an expression of the truth . . the interest of such a character to me is that it enables me, as it were, to write a book in company instead of in my own solitary room and to feel its effect coming freshly back upon me from the reader." Mary Dickens reported a remarkable scene, indicative not only of her father's close identification with his characters, but also of the manner in which they sprang dramatically to life as their creator enacted their roles on the stage of his imagination. The young girl, who had been admitted to Dickens' study while she was recuperating from an illness, recalled in after years:
On one of these mornings, I was Iying on a sofa endeavoring to keep perfectly quiet, while my father wrote busily and rapidly at his desk, when he suddenly jumped up from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung near and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror. The facial pantomime was resumed, and then ruining toward, but evidently not seeing me, he began talking in a low voice. Ceasing this soon, however, he returned once more to his desk, where he remained silently writing until luncheon time. [64/65]
Dickens' hope that the paid readings would lead to a still closer rapport with his public was amply realized. Shortly after the start of the second series in 186r, he wrote to Forster: ". . . everywhere I have found that peculiar personal relation between my audience and myself on which I counted most when I entered on this enterprise." These performances, however, were prompted by an additional motive which Dickens was perhaps more reluctant to admit, one which had its origin, as did his mesmeric experiments, in the will to dominate. At the end of December 1844 he made a flying trip from Italy to London in order to read aloud to an inner circle of friends his new Christmas book, "The Chimes." In describing this session, he jubilantly wrote to his wife: "If you had seen Macready [the great Shakespearean actor-manager] last night undisguisedly sobbing, and crying on the sofa as I read, you would have felt, as I did, what a thing it is to have power." There can be no doubt that in undertaking against the advice of his closest associates the violently emotional rendition of Sikes' murder of Nancy which hastened his death, Dickens wanted to test the full extent of his sway over the feelings of his auditors. To Forster he announced the new performance in the following terms:
I have made a short reading of the murder in Oliver Twist, I cannot make up my mind, however, whether to do it or nor. I have no doubt that I could perfectly petrify an audience by carrying out the notion I have of the way of rendering it. But whether the impression would not be so horrible as to keep them away another time, is what I cannot satisfy myself upon.
All evidence points to the fact that Dickens became in a manner possessed by the role and that he derived [65/66] a guilty pleasure from night after night working up his audience to the requisite pitch of terror. A friend was invited to the first performance in these words: "Come early in January, and see a certain friend of yours do the murder from Oliver Twist. It is horribly like, I am afraid! I have a vague sensation of being 'wanted' as I walk about the streets." Writing to an American friend, he further amplified his involvement in the part:
I begin to doubt and fear on the subject of your having a horror of me after seeing the murder. I don't think a hand moved while I was doing last night, or an eye looked away. And there was a fixed expression of horror of me, all over the theatre, which could not have been surpassed if I had been going to be hanged to that red velvet table. It is quite a new sensation to be execrated with that unanimity; and I hope it will remain so!
All of Dickens' novels made their first appearance in serial form. Nine came out in monthly installments: Pickwick Papers, nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, and The Mystery of Edwin Rood. Five were composed for weekly serialization: The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge in Master Humphrey's Clock; Hard Times in Household Words; and A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectationsin All the Year Round. [Dickens' last novel, only six parts of which were written, was to be completed in twelve, instead of the usual twenty monthly parts.] [66/67] Oliver Twist appeared in the monthly issues of Bentley's Miscellany, which Dickens was editing at the time. Although he took up the weekly form with the intention of getting into more frequent correspondence with his readers, Dickens never ceased to fret under the restrictions of tailoring his narrative into briefer segments; and indeed, with Hard Times he returned to the practice of blocking out his stories as if for monthly installments. Thus, the novelist's preferred and characteristic method was that of monthly serialization, calling, as he said, for "the large canvas and the big brushes."
Most serious novels, when Dickens began to write, appeared in three volumes. These "three-deckers" normally sold for a half-guinea a volume, a prohibitively high price for those who could not afford to subscribe to circulating libraries. At a shilling a number Dickens' works commanded a significantly wider market. The green-covered parts, issued on the last day of each month, contained exactly thirty-two pages of text (three or four chapters), accompanied by two illustrations. There were nineteen parts in all, since the last was a double issue of sixty-four pages and with four illustrations, selling for two shillings. Included in the final installment was a frontispiece, title page, preface, and other introductory matter, so that the entire work could be bound in book form.
In the announcement ( 1847 ) of the "Cheap" or People's Edition of his works, Dickens asserted that the shilling monthly numbers were "a very unusual form" when he adopted it at the outset of his career. It was known to him, as he wrote in the Preface to Pickwick Papers [67/68], through "a dim recollection of certain interminable novels in that form, which used to be carried about the country by peddlers, and over some of which I remember to have shed innumerable tears before I had served my apprenticeship to Life." Actually the mode had been successfully used in series of sketches of sporting and low life by Pierce Egan, the most popular of which was entitled Life in London (1821). This work, however, made its appeal principally through Cruikshank's illustrations, as was intended to be the case when Dickens was first invited to collaborate with Seymour on Pickwick Papers. Dickens was thus taking over a relatively untried medium, flexible enough to call forth his originality and to stimulate the free exercise of his imaginative resources.
The drawbacks of adhering to a rigorous schedule and of producing the precise amount of copy necessary to fill out thirty-two pages were for Dickens more than counterbalanced by the sense of immediate audience participation which he derived from serial publication. Unlike other novelists who were unwilling to commit to print unfinished manuscripts, he rarely had a backlog of more than three or four numbers when the works began to appear, and before long he was hard pressed to keep up with the typesetters' monthly deadline The sales of parts Dickens regarded as a kind of barometer registEring the periodic fluctuations in his reputation. One of his reasons for sending young Martin Chuzzlewit to the United States, as has been said, was the hope that a change in locale might revive lagging interest in that story.
Dickens' dependence on public approbation, however, is not primarily traceable to materialistic concerns. In the introductory remarks to his first reading for his own profit the novelist specifically linked his auditors with his readers, saying: [68/69]
. . . I have had a pretty large experience of the interest my hearers are so generous as to take in these occasions, and of the delight they give to me, as a tried means of strengthening those relations — I may almost say of personal friendship — which it is my great privilege and pride, as it is my great responsibility, to hold with a multitude of persons who will never hear my voice nor see my face.
The confident tone of such remarks reflects the ready give-and-take between the writer and his public, built up over the years by the circumstances under which his novels were published. Thackeray, who also adopted the serial mode, observed that it promoted "communion between the writer and the public . . . something continual, confidential, something like personal affection." And Professors Butt and Tillotson in their important study, Dickens at Work, state: "Through serial publication an author could recover something of the intimate relationship between story-teller and audience which existed in the ages of the sagas and of Chaucer...."
Readers, periodically renewing acquaintance with Dickens' characters over nineteen months, came to think of them as living people; and they did not hesitate to communicate to the author their hopes and fears over what future installments might hold in store. According to Forster, the painter David Wilkie made a speech at the banquet held to celebrate the completion of Nicholas Nickleby in which he praised "the reality of Dickens's genius," declaring
how there had been nothing like him issuing his novels part by part since Richardson issued his novels volume by volume, and how in both cases people talked about the characters as if they were next-door neighbours or friends, and how as many letters were written to the author of Nickleby to implore him not to kill poor Smike as had been seen by young ladies to the author of Clarissa to "save Lovelace's soul alive." [69/70]
The death of Nell in Old Curiosity Shop, it is well known, became the occasion for widespread mourning. Sensing in advance that she was to die, a hoard of correspondents pled with the author to spare his heroine. Ruskin might cynically proclaim that "Nell was simply killed for the market, as a butcher kills a lamb"; but Dickens, who genuinely shared his audience's grief, was deeply gratified by the accumulating testimony that he had struck a common chord. In his first address after reaching Boston he dwelt on the enthusiastic American reception of his book. Despite their sentimentality, these remarks justify quotation at length for the light they throw on the kind of popular response which Dickens most valued:
I cannot help expressing the delight, the more than happiness it was to me to find so strong an interest awakened on this side of the water, in favour of that little heroine of mine, to whom your President has made allusion, who died in her youth. I had letters about that child, in England, from the dwellers in log-houses among the morasses and swamps, and densest forests, and deepest solitudes of the Far West. Many a sturdy hand, hard with the axe and spade, and browned by the summer's sun, has taken up the pen, and written to me a little history of domestic joy or sorrow, always coupled, I am proud to say, with something of interest in that little tale, or some comfort or happiness derived from it; and my correspondent has always addressed me, nor as a writer of books for sale, resident some four or five thousand miles away, but as a friend to whom he might freely impart the joys and sorrows of his own fireside. Many a mother — I could reckon them now by dozens, not by units — has done the like, and has told me that she lost such a child at such a time, and where she is buried, and how good she was and how, in this or that respect, she resembled Nell.
The novelist's tenderness for the sensibilities of his readers made him chary of causing gratuitous [70/71] offense, even when some compromise of artistic purpose was required. The most notable example concerns the characterization of the dwarf Miss Mowcher, who is first presented in Chapter 22 of David Copperfield as a sinister procuress in Steerforth's employ. Dickens had modeled her on a deformed chiropodist, named Mrs. Hill; and when this person wrote in heartbroken protest against the apparent cruelty, Dickens altered his plan to show Miss Mowcher in a more sympathetic light. Similarly, he created the character of Riah in Our Mutual Friend in part to make amends for Fagin, after a Jewish acquaintance accused him of anti-Semitic bias.
Three times at least, Dickens, swayed by the representations of friends whose opinions he respected, made changes in his stories radically at odds with their initial design. When Lord Jeffrey, the eminent Scottish editor and critic and one of Dickens' warmest admirers, wrote expressing incredulity that Edith Dombey was Carkers' mistress, Dickens decided on the alternate relationship which he announced to Forster as follows: "What do you think of a kind of inverted Maid's Tragedy, and a tremendous scene of her undeceiving Carker, and giving him to know that she never meant that?" Forster himself took credit for having discouraged the author's notion of having Walter Gay in the same novel come to a bad end — a resolution then held over for Richard Carstone in Bleak House. With greater hesitation Dickens yielded to Bulwer Lytton's urging that the original ending of Great Expectations, in which Pip and Estella part forever after a final meeting, he changed to allow for the union of the chastened lovers. "I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could," Forster was informed after the proofs had been revised, "and I have no doubt [71/72] the story will be more acceptable through the alteration." Yet, although critics have tended to explain away many of the elements in Dickens' art antipathetic to modern tastes on the grounds of the writer's too willing compliance with conventions in Victorian fiction, the examples which can be cited to show that Dickens went against his better judgment to satisfy the market demand are few in number. On the contrary, when his opinion of one of his works did not jibe with its contemporary reception, later generations of readers have almost invariably vindicated his own estimate. This has been the case with Martin Chuzzlewit, which continued to be lukewarmly received even after the introduction of the American episodes. Dickens wrote to Forster in 1843:
You know, as well as I, that I think Chuzzlewit in a hundred points immeasurably the best of my stories. That I feel my power now, more than I ever did. That T have a greater confidence in myself than I ever had. That I know, if I have health, I could sustain my place in the minds of thinking men, though fifty writers started up to-morrow. But how many readers do not think! How many take it upon trust from knaves and idiots, that one writes too fast, or runs a thing to death! How coldly did this very book go on for months, until it forced itself up in people's opinion, without forcing itself up in sale!
Gissing wisely insisted that "Dickens never conceives himself when he aims at popularity, as writing down to his audience." This statement suggests the basis of the novelist's faith in his public. He perceived that the traditional system of aristocratic sponsorship, against which Samuel Johnson had rebelled, had been replaced by a new dispensation of corporate patronage. Now, thanks to the democratic revolution and the [72/73] spread of education, the artist worked under the sufferance of the entire literate populace. Dickens' sense of the importance of this radical shift in responsibility is a recurrent theme in his addresses to literary and artistic groups; but he developed it most forcibly in a speech at Birmingham in 1853:
To the great compact phalanx of the people, by whose industry, perseverance, and intelligence, and their result in money-wealth such places as Birmingham, and many others like it, have arisen — to that great centre of support, that comprehensive experience, and that beating heart — Literature has turned happily from individual patrons, sometimes munificent, often sordid, always few, and has found there at once its highest purpose, its natural range of action, and its best reward.... From the shame of the purchased dedication, from the scurrilous and dirty work of Grub Street, from the dependent seat on sufferance at my Lord Duke's table today, and from the sponging house and Marshalsea tomorrow, from that venality which, by a fine moral retribution, has degraded statesmen even to a greater extent than authors, because the statesmen entertained a low belief in the universality of corruption, while the author yielded only to the dire necessity of his calling, — from all such evils the people have set Literature free. And my creed in the exercise of that profession is, that Literature cannot be too faithful to the people in return — cannot too ardently advocate the cause of their advancement, happiness, and prosperity.
At all times unconcerned with the opinions of professional literary critics, Dickens resolved in 1838 to avoid reading reviews of his own writings. "What I had most indeed to notice in him at the very outset of his career," Forster said, "was his indifference to any praise of his performances on the merely literary side, compared with the higher recognition of them as bits of actual life, with the meaning and purpose on their part, and the responsibility on his, of realities rather than creatures of fancy." On the other hand, [73/74] Dickens' eagerness that his fiction be disseminated as widely as possible among the masses led in 1846 to plans for a "Cheap" edition to appear at weekly intervals in halfpenny numbers. The original Preface to this edition, subsequently discarded, was "dedicated to the English people, in whose approval, if the books be true in spirit, they will live, and out of whose memory, if they be false, they will very soon die." Dickens was never content to think of himself t merely as a popular entertainer; and he coupled enjoyment of success with a grave sense of the responsibilities entailed on a writer whose following numbered in the millions. The address to the reader in the first number of Household Words endorses with humble eloquence the conditions under which he held his sovereign position:
We have considered what an ambition it is to be admitted into many homes with affection and confidence; to be regarded as a friend by children and old people, to be thought of in affliction and in happiness, to people the sickroom with airy shapes "that give delight and hurt not," and to be associated with the harmless laughter and the gentle rears of many hearths. We know the great responsibility of such a privilege; its vast reward; the pictures that it conjures up, in hours of solitary labour, of a multitude moved by one sympathy; the solemn hopes which in awakens in the labourer's breast, that he may be free from self-reproach in looking back at last upon his work, and that his name may be remembered in his race in time to come, and borne by the dear objects of his love with pride. The hand that writes these faltering lines, happily associated with some Household Words before to-day, has known enough of such experiences to enter in an earnest spirit upon this new task, and with an awakened sense of all that it involves.
J. W. T. Ley, the editor of Forster's Life, is undoubtedly correct in ascribing the exculpatory statement [74/75] which Dickens published on separating from his wife, to legitimate concern over the damage which malicious rumors might inflict on the public image which he had so carefully fostered. Ley writes:
It is true that he did value the peculiarly intimate relations that had always existed between him and his public, and that he did always conscientiously hold that those relations imposed upon him a moral responsibility. Anything which seemed to him even remotely to threaten those good relations always gave rise to a sensitiveness which was altogether worthy and above criticism.
Dickens embraced his position as one of the accredited literary spokesmen of his age the more readily because he did not find it in any way incommensurate with artistic growth. From the outset of his career he was never content to repeat his successes, so that it may be said that, far from allowing the tastes of his readers to determine his practice, he more than any other writer of his time was instrumental in forming those tastes. Even while Pickwick Papers was running its merry course, Oliver Twist began to appear, serving notice that the audience which rejoiced in the author's comic vein must also be prepared to share his somber probings of the dark undersurface of Victorian society. The influential journals of the day viewed the later novels with increasing asperity for a variety of reasons: regret over the writer's failure to cultivate the humorous and sentimental strains in his early work; official resentment of his satiric onslaughts on institutionalized evils; growing regard among sophisticated readers for the more deliberate artistry of Thackeray and George Eliot. Yet, Dickens remained a better judge of the temper of the general public than his critics; and the great social novels of his maturity, for which he is today preeminently admired, [75/76] enjoyed an unrivaled popularity in his own time, the sales of each successive story rising until at the time of his death the circulation of monthly parts of The Mystery of Edmund Drood had attained the unprecedented figure of fifty thousand.
Last Modified January 2000