Revolutionary Pickwick: Modern Authorship, Mass Audience, and the Victorian Publishing Industry

In his authoritative study, Charles Dickens and His Publishers (1978), Robert L. Patten points to the interrelated effects that Pickwick Papers had upon author, publisher, and audience. According to Patten, although Sketches by Boz

inaugurated Dickens's career, Pickwick made it. Dickens's first continuous fiction — many would deny that it is a nove — ushered in the age of the novel, which critics looking backward from the perspective of the eighties and nineties thought either the glory or the curse of the Victorian era. The success of the flimsy shilling parts, issued in green wrappers once each month from April 1836 to November 1837, was unprecedented in the history of literature. The lion's share of credit for that success has always, and properly, gone to the pseudonymous "Boz," a twenty-four-year-old shorthand writer with a quick eye, a fluent pen, and an inexhaustible, buoyant, and loving imagination. Critics from 1836 onwards have tended to slight the part played in the runaway reception of the book by its unusual format; yet subsequent to Dickens's success with Pickwick, parts publication became for thirty years a chief means of democratizing and enormously expanding the Victorian book-reading and book-buying public.

Dickens and his publishers discovered the potential of serial publication virtually by accident. Even though in the half century after Pickwick most of the novels appeared "compact in three separate and individual volumes" as Mr. Omer describes David Copperfield's maiden effort, and were not bought but borrowed from the great circulating libraries like Mudie's and W. H. Smith's, serial publication opened up a new reading and buying public that subsequent publishers and formats did then exploit in a variety of ways. Furthermore, serial publication yielded profits hitherto thought impossible for any publisher or author, and transformed Dickens, Chapman, and Hall from minor figures in Victorian letters to titans. What forces made that format suddenly possible, and how the changes in publishing converged in 1836 and were connected by two shrewd, courageous, and lucky booksellers with the one man who could write letterpress for all thepeople, needs to be understood more fully than it has been so far. The prodigious success of Pickwick in parts signals a revolution in publishing. [45-46]

Some of the forces to which Patten and other scholars point involve matters of technology while others involve matters of social class and economy.


Griest, Guinevere L. Mudie's Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel. Bloomington and London, Indiana Univ. Press, 1970.

Patten, Robert L. Charles Dickens and His Publishers. Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1978.

Last modified 24 October 2002