Notes on Dickens 5
During his career, in addition to writing the 15 major novels, managing and organizing amateur theatricals for charity, campaigning for political causes, touring the country giving readings and generally just living, Dickens also was involved in four magazines as an occasional writer, and as chief editor and shareholder. These magazines give us a fascinating glimpse into the development of the entrepreneurial side of Dickens the professional writer, his uncanny business sense of what the public wanted; and how he was creative not only in the imaginative space between mind and hand as he wrote at his desk, but also in the public space of the market for literature.
The first of these magazines was Bentley’s Miscellany.
During the summer of 1836, when Dickens was 24, barely out adolescence, flush from the wild successes of The Sketches by Boz and Pickwick especially, he was approached by the 40-year-old experienced publisher Bentley, who exploited Dickens’s youth and inexperience. The terms he agreed with Bentley were these: for £20 a month to produce (edit, manage, arrange contributions) a monthly magazine for one year (with a three year renewable option), including a long piece by him to appear in each issue, for which he was paid an additional £20 per month. He was also contracted to write two three-decker novels. He was forbidden to undertake any other work for any other publisher. Bentley had him tied down.
It’s easy to attribute these unfavorable terms to Dickens’s anxiety over money, an anxiety which stemmed from his childhood experiences, and which was never to leave him, even in his maturity, when he was the biggest selling and richest professional writer in the country. At the same time, we can see his burgeoning business acumen: his awareness of the need to build on his recent success by seizing opportunities as soon as they presented themselves. The unfavourable terms can be attributed to the still uncertain sense of his own worth as a bankable commodity. Moreover, with a wife and new son, the contract gave him what he most needed at that time: a regular salary. The job lasted for roughly 18 months and then Dickens resigned in exasperation at how the terms were tying him down. His writing for this magazine has the easy charm and gently satirical freshness of the Sketches and Pickwick: The Public Life of Mr Tulrumble being a good example.
The second magazine was Master Humphrey’s Clock.
This was a weekly magazine of 16 pages produced by the publishers of Pickwick and Oliver Twist: Chapman and Hall, which started in spring 1840. Dickens was editor, manager and contributor, doing much the same kind of work that previously he had done for Bentley. His motivation for getting involved in this project seems to have been much the same as the reasons why he became involved in Bentley’s project; but this time, the publishers offered him much better terms: in addition to a weekly salary he was given a 50% share of the profits.
The idea was to include stories linked by a framing device of an old man -Master Humphrey- , and his companions, (one of whom is our old friend Pickwick) sitting by the fireside. The stories are culled from manuscripts discovered in the base of an old clock.
A lot of the writing has a padded feel to it. It seems flat and lifeless, without spark or energy. It’s what I suppose we would call ‘puff’: written to fill space in a magazine, not necessarily to be read. But two things are noteworthy about it. First, I find it interesting that at the age of 28, in all the flush of his growing success, with Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby already under his belt, Dickens takes on the persona of an old man, Gerontion by the fire, withdrawn from the world and living in his imagination only. Secondly, out of this chthonic soup of language occasionally there rise up bubbles of ideas which later become the full blown characters and plots of his great novels: Bred to a profession
for which he never qualified himself, and reared in the expectation
of a fortune he has never inherited, he has undergone every vicissitude of which such an existence is capable. (seeds of Richard Carstone’s story in Bleak House) He and his younger brother, both orphans from their childhood, were educated by a wealthy relative, who taught them to expect an equal division
of his property; but too indolent to court, and too honest to
flatter, the elder gradually lost ground in the affections of a
capricious old man, (seeds of the relationship between the Martins in Chuzzlewit) and the younger, who did not fail to improve
his opportunity, now triumphs in the possession of enormous wealth.
His triumph is to hoard it in solitary wretchedness, and probably
to feel with the expenditure of every shilling a greater pang than
the loss of his whole inheritance ever cost his brother. (Seeds of Scrooge and Jonas Chuzzlewit) Tone and image are also prefigured in this early work:
It is night. Calm and unmoved amidst the scenes that darkness
favours, the great heart of London throbs in its Giant breast. (It is night in Lincoln's Inn-perplexed and troublous valley of the
shadow of the law… Bleak House).
Wealth and beggary, vice and virtue, guilt and innocence, repletion
and the direst hunger, (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…, Tale of Two Cities) all treading on each other and crowding together, are gathered round it.
Readers did not respond well to Master Humphrey’s wandering old voice, however, and sales fell rapidly. Dickens responded characteristically swiftly, and developed a short story he had started in the magazine into The Old Curiosity Shop. After the next novel, Barnaby Rudge, the magazine folded.
The third magazine was Household Words.
This magazine was produced by his new publishers Bradbury and Evans, who were also the owners and producers of Punch. The idea was to produce a sister magazine to Punch, which would be slightly more serious. Dickens was chief editor, commissioning editor, manager and occasional contributor. He had a 50% stake in the magazine’s profits, received an annual salary of £500 for his editing duties, as well as additional payments for his own contributions. The demands of producing his huge novels were overwhelming, but magazine production offered a way to maintain a steady income through writing without the immense strain and concentrated effort of perpetually writing novels to stringent deadlines
A weekly, the first number appeared early in 1850 and it folded in 1859. It had an average circulation of 38,000 which more than doubled during the famous Christmas numbers, in which such classics as A Christmas Carol and The Chimes appeared.
It was to become the chief literary organ of the decade, including literature in the form of poetry and serialized novels by Dickens and his contemporaries, social comment and criticism, of both domestic and foreign issues, investigative reporting, and letters. It soon became a platform for Dickens’s views on some of the most important social problems of the day, including sanitary reform, public education and the bungled mismanagement of the Crimean War. In tune with the socially conscientious tone of the magazine, the only novel that Dickens published in its pages is the didactic and highly allegorical Hard Times, perhaps the weakest of all his novels.
Contributors to the journal included Bulwer-Lytton, John Forster, Wilkie Collins, Coventry Patmore, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Adelaide Anne Procter, William Blanchard Jerrold, Harriet Martineau, George Meredith, Leigh Hunt, Sheridan Le Fanu, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Lever, Eliza Lynn and two well known colonial journalists John Capper and John Lang Linton -in short, a who’s who of Mid-Victorian letters.
Dickens’s right hand man on this project was Mr. Wills, who was in effect the operational manager of the magazine.
At the end of 1859, Dickens, in the process of effecting a separation from his wife, and trying to manage the resulting scandal, had a row with his partners in the magazine, Bradbury and Evans. After a Chancery court case, which Dickens won, he effectively bought up the magazine and closed it down.
The fourth magazine was All The Year Round.
This was started some months before the acrimonious demise of Household Words, and for a while the two magazines were published concurrently, competing in an increasingly competitive market. Taxes on printed matter, paper and advertising had recently been lifted, and the market was suddenly adrift with publications, as publishers and proprietors, many of them inspired by Dickens’s success with Household Words leapt to take advantage of an avidly growing readership. The magazine continued to be published for 20 years after Dickens’s death.
Under Dickens’s guiding hand, micro-managed editorial skills and bankable name, and the astute business management of the indefatigably loyal Wills the magazine had an astonishing circulation: 100,000 for normal numbers, 300,00 for the Christmas numbers. Dickens took 75% of the profits, and Wills 25%. Profits were an immense £2,750 - £3,000 per year on average
Wills was an astute business manager. He used the new company WHSmith, who had outlets all over the country in railway stations, as a distributor. He also employed nifty advertising campaigns, announcing forthcoming numbers. As Dickens’s other career, that of highly emotional public reader of his own works, began to absorb most of the remaining energies of the author, Wills was left more and more in charge of the running of the magazine.
Contents of the journal focused on the serialization of long novels, either by Dickens himself or by other novelists, starting on page one, in double columns of closely spaced writing, with no illustrations. (Can you imagine how well such a venture would do today?) However, it also included more articles on foreign affairs (the unification of Italy and the American Civil War were just two of the burning international issues of the day) but much less commentary on domestic social matters than Household Words had contained. Perhaps the most memorable issue was the one in which Dickens finished A Tale of Two Cities, and Collins began The Woman in White: two Mid-Victorian masterpieces appearing side by side. Among the most famous novels serialized in its pages were Great Expectations, No Name, and The Moonstone.
Contributors included Wilkie Collins, Bulwer-Lytton, Gaskell, and Anthony Trollope, whose contributions were solicited and edited by Dickens. For many of the Christmas numbers, many of these authors worked together to produce stories such as Mrs. Lirriper and The Haunted House.
We can see Dickens the business manager and magazine proprietor at work in the story of his negotiations with George Eliot.
While Collins’s The Woman in White was appearing, Dickens, looking ahead as any good manager should, began to look for another novel to serialise once The Woman in White should end. The aim, as always, was to maintain the current high readership and to increase it, or at least not to allow a lull in story telling cause a decline in sales. He approached George Eliot through his friend and Eliot’s partner, Lewes. Eliot had already completed Scenes From A Clerical Life and Adam Bede, both of which had been highly praised by Dickens. Eliot was hesitant, and despite Dickens’s assurances that money would be no object in her remuneration, she eventually declined. Many reasons have been put forward for this. Perhaps she feared the rigorous demands of weekly serialization. Eliot was not a fast, disciplined professional, writing set numbers of words to exacting editors and deadlines, in the way that Collins and Dickens were. Perhaps she feared the exposure of her unconventional private life that publication in such a highly successful magazine might bring. Perhaps she was also motivated by the faint intellectual snobbery in which she and Lewes held the hugely successful and popular Dickens. In the end, Eliot published her fiction in The Cornhill, a magazine edited by Thackeray, which was the main competitor to All The Year Round. Dickens still had his problem of who to ask to fill the gap after the conclusion of The Woman in White. Gaskell also declined, scared off by the weekly deadlines; a novel provided by Charles Lever failed to spark interest. In the end Dickens decided to fill the space himself and began work on Great Expectations.
In these four magazines, from the early days of Bentley’s Miscellany in the first few decades of the century, a highly risky and almost amateur effort, to the High-Victorian All The Year Round, with its carefully plotted business strategy, immense wealth and status, we see the birth and flourishing of a uniquely Victorian phenomenon: the literary periodical, a phenomenon whose importance and success is greatly attributable to Dickens’s own gifts as artist and entrepreneur. It is Dickens perhaps more than any other writer in the culture who did more in his lifetime to establish the writer of fiction as a respectable professional occupation, a status that it enjoys to this day thanks to his vision and energy.