Dickens, The Illustrator's Suicide, & The Runaway Success Of The Pickwick Papers

There is something quite magical about beginning a book by a beloved author, especially when the writer is Charles Dickens and the book is one you've never read before. I searched my bookshelves and located my copy of The Pickwick Papers. It's a Great Illustrated Classics edition that I purchased at a library book sale (yet another reason to love libraries). I knew very little about this work. Dickens wrote it after the huge success of his Sketches by Boz, a collection of columns and essays he had written for various London newspapers. 

Like all of Dickens' novels, The Pickwick Papers was published as serials with the first installment coming out on March 30, 1836. The series was built around the illustrations of Robert Seymour. Seymour had already established himself as one the great English illustrators by producing over 300 humorous drawings and political caricatures. There is a controversy as to who actually originated the idea for The Pickwick Papers: Seymour or Dickens. After marrying Catherine Hogarth, Dickens went on a honeymoon and, upon returning to London, looked at the second plates that Robert Seymour had done for the series. Dashing off a congratulatory note, Dickens was pleased with all "the pains you (Seymour) have bestowed on our mutual friend Pickwick." Dickens did, however, have one criticism, the etching for The Stroller's Tale, and he asked if the artist would mind making another drawing for it. He also went into great detail how it should be drawn. Dickens asked if Seymour would redraw the sketch, come around to his house the next Sunday evening and talk it over. Seymour worked all night creating a new etching for The Stroller's Tale and, in the morning, shot himself. There has been speculation that Dickens told the artist that he was being dropped from the project. 

Now The Pickwick Papers was in jeopardy. Would the whole project now fall apart?

Charles Dickens suggested that the focus switch from the illustrations to the text and that they hire a new illustrator. The publishers, Chapman and Hall, readily agreed. Among the illustrators they interviewed and considered was a young man by the name of William M. Thackeray. He was told that all of his figures looked too similar and was not hired. Thankfully, because Thackeray would give up drawing and begin writing novels.

It was when the shift from the illustrations to the text happened that The Pickwick Papers became wildly successful, a runaway bestseller, and established Charles Dickens. Readership bumped from four hundred in sales to four thousand then to forty thousand. Everyone was reading Pickwick, including John Ruskin, who read it so many times he claimed to have memorized every word of it by heart. Dickens was now a household name. Not only was the novel immensely popular but it also sparked merchandising. There was Pickwick cigars, songbooks, and china figurines. 

Darkness was like a blanket outside, but inside I was snug under a blanket with book in hand. "The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted." Whew! Despite the length of this opening sentence, as well as the length of Dickens' novels, the myth that he was paid by the word was far from true. He was paid by serial installment. 

As I began to read this book, I found myself hearing it being read by the actor Stephen Fry. It sounded far more delightful imagining Fry's voice reading the novel than my own. 

I must admit, I had first read the word "Pickwick" from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy hold their Pickwick Club in the attic and even write their own newspaper entitled The Pickwick Portfolio, in which each of the sisters contributes articles. All of this is a wonderful nod to the success of Dickens' novel, which is about papers. I must admit, this was always one of my favorite scenes in both the book and the 1994 film (easily my favorite of the adaptations).  Because The Pickwick Papers was such a huge bestseller in America as well as England, Pickwick Clubs did indeed spring up everywhere. 

And so it is with all of this backstory that I now begin the novel that launched the career of the most successful novelist in English literature (until the appearance of a certain series about a boy wizard by J.K. Rowling). 


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