Dickens & Serial Fiction
by Prof. Joel J. Brattin, Honorary Curator of Fellman Dickens Collection
Every one of Charles Dickens’s novels was published serially--that is, the novels appeared not all at once, but in parts or installments, over a space of time. Publishing his novels in serial form expanded Dickens’s readership, as more people could afford to buy fiction on the installment plan; publishers, too, liked the idea, as it allowed them to increase sales and to offer advertisements in the serial parts. And Dickens enjoyed the intimacy with his audience that serialization provided.
Dickens tried a variety of serial schemes, publishing his fiction in both weekly and monthly magazines (which might include material by other authors as well), and in stand-alone monthly parts. Most of Dickens’s novels were published in twenty stand-alone monthly parts. Each number or installment (after the first two installments of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, when Dickens and his publishers were still experimenting with the form) contained exactly 32 pages of text, along with two engraved illustrations; each installment also contained 16 or more pages of advertising. These serial parts cost only a shilling. The final installment cost two shillings, and was a double one, including a more generous amount of text, four illustrations (including an engraved title page and frontispiece), and front matter--preface, dedication, table of contents, a list of illustrations, and so forth.
The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), Dombey and Son (1846-48), David Copperfield (1849-50), Bleak House (1852-53), Little Dorrit (1855-57), and Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) all appeared in twenty monthly serial installments.
Oliver Twist (1837-38) appeared at irregular intervals in a monthly magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, edited by Dickens; the magazine included articles and works of fiction by other authors as well.
In 1840, Dickens began editing his own weekly magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock, in which The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41) and Barnaby Rudge (1841) were published. Early issues of Master Humphrey’s Clock included other creative work by Dickens, but he devoted later issues exclusively to the novels.
In 1854, Dickens returned to weekly installments, publishing his shortest novel, Hard Times, in the pages of his weekly magazine Household Word. This journal also included fiction and articles by other writers.
In 1859, Dickens founded a new weekly magazine, All the Year Round, in which he published A Tale of Two Cities. The novel appeared without illustrations in its weekly form, but Dickens’s publishers simultaneously produced a version in monthly numbers, with two illustrations per installment. Great Expectations also appeared in the pages of All the Year Round (1860-61), but Dickens published no monthly version of this novel.
Dickens's final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), was planned to be complete in twelve, rather than twenty, monthly installments, but the work was interrupted by the author's death on the 9th of June, 1870, after a massive stroke the previous day. Only six of the projected parts were published, and the identity of young Edwin Drood’s murderer will forever remain a mystery.