The November 1838 Three-Volume Edition of "Oliver Twist"

Why did Richard Bentley publish Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress in three volumes when Dickens’s other publishers, Chapman and Hall and Bradbury and Evans, chose a one-volume format for his serialized novels? The one other previously serialized novel that appeared in the triple decker format was Great Expectations (1861) — a work specifically published for lending libraries, which favoured the three-volume format because they could lend them separately. Our Mutual Friend appeared in two volumes, were then followed by a "cheap" (single-volume) edition. Prior to Oliver Twist, the only "novel" that Dickens had published was The Pickwick Papers, which first appeared after serialization as a single volume. Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, Hard Times, and David Copperfield all first appeared as single volumes after part-publication.

In all likelihood, Bentley proposed the three-volume format, even though Oliver Twist is not nearly as long as Pickwick, which had appeared as a single volume at the close of its serial run, in November 1837. The success of Dickens' collected pieces in two volumes in Sketches By Boz and then a third volume ("New Series") planned — and issued — gave young Dickens the impetus to think about future works in three volumes. Even though he wrote Pickwick Papers for Chapman and Hall in twenty parts (no. 19 being a "double number") and maybe even because of the part-issue format, he had felt comfortable about the single-volume format for Pickwick as the parts involved continuous numbering of the pages. However, in mid-1836 Dickens had contracted with John Macrone to write a three-volume novel to be called Gabriel Vardon, to be finished by November of that year. As we know, that work never saw print, although it may have been subsumed in Barnaby Rudge.

Dickens had met Bentley at around the same time, and agreed to become the editor of the new monthly Wit's Miscellany, for which he would also write a certain number of pages each month, about sixteen. After some disagreements with Macrone, not unusual for Dickens and his publishers, he decided that the contract with Macrone was no longer valid and that he did not need to write the promised novel.

In addition, Dickens, who at that time just could not say no to any offers to write for anyone who asked, also agreed to write two three-volume novels for Bentley. Eventually, the two agreed to that Barnaby Rudge was to be the second of those two novels, and that Oliver Twist, after its publication in Bentley's Miscellany, was to be counted as the first of the two contracted novels. That is why even in the 1839 second edition of Oliver Twist there is still an advertisement for Barnaby Rudge "to be published in Bentley's Miscellany forthwith" — although Dickens had resigned as editor and severed his connection with the magazine in January 1839:

He was exasperated by the prominent and premature announcements of it [Barnaby Rudge] as a serial 'immediately on completion' of Oliver Twist filled the end cover of the November [1838] number, another announcing publication 'forthwith' appeared in the first volume of Oliver Twist; Forster had already suggested that this was not 'exactly prudent' [Letters, i, 451 n.], but Bentley repeated it on the flyleaf of the December number, and (as a new work of fiction 'in three volumes') in the January Bentley's Advertiser. [Tillotson, "Introduction," xxv]

We know that Barnaby Rudge never appeared for Bentley, but was part of Dickens's own subsequent weekly, Master Humphrey's Clock, for Chapman and Hall. It must be remembered that, during this time, Dickens, as well as writing the Pickwick Papers until November 1837, was also working on The Village Coquettes, a "Comic Burletta" produced by John Hullah at the St. James's Theatre on 6 December 1836 and subsequently published by Bentley, along with the biographical The Life of Joseph Grimaldi (26 February 1838), and on various short pieces for Bentley's Miscellany to make up his sixteen pages every month — along with being the editor for Bentley's Miscellany until 31 January 1839. As if all of this was not enough work, after the Pickwick Papers was published in one volume on 17 November 1837, and not long after, he began working on his next assignment for Chapman and Hall, Nicholas Nickleby beginning 31 March 1838, the first monthly number appearing in April 1838. In other words, at this formative stage as a novelist, he constantly had two novels on the go.

It is easy to surmise that it was Dickens's idea to publish some of his future works in three volumes, with the assumption that his remuneration would be three times of that of a one-volume edition. Consequently, when it came time to issue Oliver Twist as a book, initially planned for September 1838, but which actually did not happen until 9 November 1838, it was, of course, as the young writer had planned all along, in three volumes. The publication in book form ahead of its conclusion in Bentley's Miscellany in April of 1839 was perhaps a rushed attempt to cash in on the Christmas book trade in the autumn of 1838. Dickens gave up the editorship of Bentley's Miscellany after the volume publication of the novel, and fellow-novelist Harrison Ainsworth became the new editor.

In spite of Dickens's plans to publish more novels as three deckers, Oliver Twist remains the only one to appear until Great Expectations. That edition, of course, was driven by the pre-purchase of most of the first edition run by Mudie's Lending Library. Master Humphrey's Clock was also issued in a three-volume editon, after appearing in 88 weekly parts and 20 monthly parts. That work, however, is really made up of two novels held together by some additional story-telling that has long since vanished from editions of Barnaby Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop.

One would of course detect the influence of the lending library as early as 1837 upon the formats in which new works of fiction, after initial serialisation in parts and magazines, were published. The Brigand of Burlington Street — the hard-bargaining, exploitative Richard Bentley — ever with an eye to the main chance, had that market very much in mind. Nonetheless, the decision to publish the thousand-page Oliver Twist as a triple-decker, even though it is half the length of the Pickwick Papers, was mutual, for that Dickens, too, saw the possibilities of marketing to Mudies, etc., even though the only other novel initially published in that format was Great Expectations (the decision here being exclusively Dickens's). Bentley did publish other three-volume novels in the late 1830s and early 1840s, notably Frances Trollope's The Widow Barnaby in 1837, and Ainsworth's Guy Fawkes in 1841, when Ainsworth had become his second editor.

Although Richard Bentley went to press with the third volume of Oliver Twist on 9 November 1838, having arranged for his brother, Samuel, to publish the first volume and the firm of Whiting to do the second in late October 1838 — even though the story would not be completed in Bentley's Miscellany until the following April. The two firms divided the responsibility for turning out the third volume, that publication complicated by the fact that illustrator George Cruikshank did not receive the last portion of the novel in manuscript (probably ch. xlvii onward) until after mid-October and the two printing houses did not receive their portions until 22 October. In other words, the artist was under considerable time pressure to turn out the last set of illustrations which Dickens, away in Wales from 29 October, did not see until he returned to town on the eve of publication (8 November 1838). John Forster, acting as Dickens's agent, had pushed Bentley for a delay because he had thought the illustrations substandard. Although he inscribed copies for friends on the 9th, 10th, and 11th, on the 12th Dickens requested that Bentley halt publication of the third volume, ostensibly because, upset with Rose Maylie and Oliver (otherwise known as The Fireside plate, he wanted the so-called Church plate (Part 24, April 1839) substituted. In fact, he seems to have taken advantage of the delay to effect changes in the text of the final chapters:

On 12 November he asked Bentley not to let the printers take off more impressions of the objectionable plate 'than you absolutely require, as it will be cancelled in a day or two'. He also disliked having 'Boz' on the title-page, and the new one, according to Forster's instructions to Bentley on 5 November, substituted 'Charles Dickens, author of "The Pickwick Papers"; he now asked for the advertisements to be altered accordingly. By 16 November copies with 'the amended title page, and new plate were ready. [Tillotson, "Introduction," xxiv]

About two thousand copies with the "fireside" plate may have been published before Dickens forced a halt in publication of volume three. As well, the American edition of Bentley's Miscellany did not even start publishing the novel until January 1838, with a supplement to 'catch up' being published later that year, even though the British publication of Oliver Twist began in February 1837. Overseas piracies, for the most part based on early copies of the third volume, have the "Fireside" rather than the "church" plate.

The three volumes of the first edition are divided as follows:

Volume One: Chapter I, "Treats of the place where Oliver was born and of the circumstances attending his birth," to Chapter XIX, "In which a notable plan is discussed and dtermined on."

Volume Two: Chapter XX, "Wherein Oliver is delivered over to Mr. William Sikes," to Chapter XXXVI,"In which the reader, if he or she will resort to the fifth chapter of this second book will perceive a contrast not uncommon in matrimonial cases" (concludes with Monks, as he has identified himself to Bumble, stalking off into the night).

Volume III, Chapter XXVII, "Containing an account of what has passed between Mr. and Mrs Bumble and Monks, at their nocturnal interview," to Chapter LI, "And last."

Surprisingly, Oliver Asks for More was not used as the frontispiece for volume one, perhaps because, as Kathleen Tillotson suggests, Cruikshank's low-life illustrations "seem inseparably connected with the text; they are the most vivid of all illustrations to Dickens, and it can be believed that author and artist stimulated one another" (394). Thus, the 1838 three-volume edition utilises three scenes associated with the criminal underworld of Fagin and Sikes:

Vol. 1 frontispiece: Oliver's Reception by Fagin and the Boys (331 pages, exclusive of illustrations).

Vol. 2 frontispiece: The Burglary (307 pages, exclusive of illustrations).

Vol. 3 frontispiece: The Last Chance (315 pages, exclusive of illustrations).

Interestingly, however, in the 1846 one-volume edition, the final chapter is numbered "LIII," most likely because of the revisions that were made to the revised, ten-part, wrappered edition that is the basis for the one-volume edition. It is that wrappered edition (somewhat smaller than Bentley's) which is the rarest of all, worth about $25,000.


Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress. Illustrated by George Cruikshank. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1846.

Patten, Robert L. Charles Dickens and His Publishers. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1978.

Sutherland, John. The Stanford Guide to Victorian Fiction. Stanford: Stanford U. P., 1989.

Tillotson, Kathleen, ed. Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

Last modified 2 September 2015