Back in February, we posted about the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. To commemorate the occasion, we are currently showing a small selection of first editions of some of his most famous novels in our foyer on Level 12 of the library.
One of the items on display is Our Mutual Friend, 1864/5 which is arguably his darkest and most complex novel. The plot revolves around mistaken identity and the allure and peril of money, with the River Thames as one of the major themes of the book, representing renewal and rebirth. Our Mutual Friend was published in nineteen monthly instalments. Dickens was working on the 16th instalment of this novel when he was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash. After helping tend to some of the injured passengers, Dickens returned to his carriage to rescue his manuscript. Although he was physically uninjured, the stress of this incident took its toll on his health. Contemporary reviews of Our Mutual Friend, which was Dickens’ fourteenth novel, were mostly negative but now it is more considered to be one of the great social novels of Dickens’ later period.
Also on display is Dickens’ ninth novel, Bleak House. It was published in twenty monthly instalments between March 1852 and September 1853 by the firm of Bradbury & Evans. Each part consisted of 32 pages of text illustrated with two plates, and cost a shilling. The ‘copy’ in Special Collections survives intact in these parts as originally issued, stitched together in their blue wrappers. Bleak House is now thought to be one of his finest novels, containing vast and engaging arrays of minor characters and sub-plots. The novel, illustrated by Phiz, (Hablot Knight Browne (12 July 1815 – 8 July 1882)) was intended to illustrate the evils caused by long, drawn-out suits in the Courts of Chancery. Dickens had observed the inner workings of the courts as a reporter in his youth and observed that “The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself.” The book was launched as a complete edition on 12 September 1853 and continued to sell well. But although a popular success, it received a mixed critical reception. The Spectator declared it to be ‘dull and wearisome’ while John Forster, the friend and first biographer of Dickens, decided that it was the book ‘in which some want of all the freshness of his genius first became apparent’. For more on Bleak House, see our November 2004 Book of the Month article.
You will also be able to see our fine copy of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, 1837. Like most of Dickens’ novels, Pickwick was first issued in paper wrappers and in monthly parts. It was published in twenty numbers, bound in nineteen monthly parts between April 1836 and November 1837. The first edition in book form was printed from stereotypes of the original type settings as soon as the last of the parts had been issued. This copy has the engraved title dated 1837, with the mis-spelling ‘Veller’ on the signboard, seven plates by Robert Seymour two by Robert William Buss (often called the ‘suppressed plates’) and thirty-four by ‘Phiz’ (Hablôt Knight Browne), without titles. Dickens was only twenty-four when he began to write Pickwick and Browne was not quite twenty-one when he began to illustrate it. By the fifth number it was a triumph and when the monthly issues were drawing to a close it was declared that Dickens had taken his place as the first of all English comic writers.
Last, but not least, we also have on display The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (commonly known as Martin Chuzzlewit). This was Dicken’s sixth novel and is a copy of the first edition in book form. It was originally issued in twenty numbers, bound in nineteen, between January 1843 and July 1844. There are forty plates etched on steel by Hablôt Knight Browne. Dickens thought it to be his best work but it was one of his least popular novels. Early sales of the monthly parts were disappointing, compared to previous works, so in the sixth instalment, hoping to increase slow sales, Dickens changed the plot to send his title character to America. This allowed the author to portray the United States (which he had visited in 1842 on his “American reading tour”) as “so maimed and lame, so full of sores and ulcers, foul to the eye and almost hopeless to the sense, that her best friends turn from the loathsome creature with disgust”. American readers were outraged. The main theme of the novel, according to Dickens, is selfishness, portrayed in a satirical fashion using the members of the Chuzzlewit family. Martin Chuzzlewit is dedicated to his friend, the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts.
Please feel free to pop up to Level 12 and view this display. There will be a seasonal addition at the start of December!