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THE PICKWICK PAPERS illustrated title page
Illustrated title page from THE PICKWICK PAPERS, by Hablot K. Browne, published by Chapman and Hall from 1836 to 1837.

The cover or wrapper for the monthly installments of BLEAK HOUSE, illustrated by Halbot K. Browne.
Serial Publication

Dickens and Serial Publication
by Joel J. Brattin

Dickens' first novel, the brilliantly comic THE PICKWICK PAPERS, brought him enormous fame. Like all his subsequent novels, it was originally published serially, that is, in installments or parts over time.

He not only published serially but wrote serially too, planning each installment carefully. (His contemporary, Anthony Trollope, also published this way, but unlike Dickens, he never published the first word of a novel until after he had written the last.) Dickens had to consider structure carefully, thinking simultaneously of the needs of his serial readers and of those who would eventually read the books in volume form. He published his serial fiction as part of weekly or monthly magazines, which might contain material by other authors as well, or in stand-alone monthly installments.

Most of his novels were serialized in 20 monthly installments.

First page of OLIVER TWIST
From the monthly magazine, BENTLEY'S MISCELLANY, the first page of OLIVER TWIST.
The publication of fiction in parts grew dramatically in the 1830s, as a direct result of the wild success of THE PICKWICK PAPERS. Serial publication had several advantages. For the reader, it substantially reduced the cash outlay required to pay for fiction: for a novel in monthly installments like PICKWICK, one had to pay only one shilling a month, instead of a guinea (21 shillings) or more for an entire novel. For the publisher, it expanded the market for fiction, as more people could afford to buy on the installment plan; it also allowed the opportunity to advertise, as ads could easily be incorporated into the little booklets in which a typical Dickens novel was issued. And for the author, it created a greater intimacy with the audience, something Dickens always relished.

Most of Dickens' novels were serialized in 20 monthly installments, or numbers. They were usually bound in green paper, and -- after the first two monthly installments of THE PICKWICK PAPERS -- always included precisely 32 pages of text, two engraved illustrations, and, usually, 16 pages of advertisements. The final installment of a novel was double size, including more text, four illustrations (generally a frontispiece and engraved title page), and front matter, such as a preface, table of contents, and list of illustrations; the final double installment cost not one but two shillings. Each month, the purchaser could buy the current installment from his bookseller, and wealthy patrons, after buying the last installment, could take the monthly numbers to the bookbinder, discard the covers and advertisements, and have them bound into an attractive book for their shelves.

THE PICKWICK PAPERS began serial publication in late March 1836 and continued with only one interruption. The death of Mary Hogarth, Dickens' beloved sister-in-law, in May 1837 led him to miss the only professional writing deadline of his career. While he was still finishing PICKWICK, Dickens began his second novel, OLIVER TWIST, and edited a monthly magazine, BENTLEY'S MISCELLANY, in which the serial installments of OLIVER first appeared. Dickens missed an installment of OLIVER, too, after Mary Hogarth's death.

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Photo Credits:
Robert D. Fellman Collection (left and right), used by permission of George C. Gordon Library, Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
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