Published date: 15 Sep 2011
Books are durable things. Most will look better than their owners after 50 years. But some varieties of book are fragile and, after a short life, they disappear from the scene. One such variety is 'books in serial'.
Selling books over a period of time in parts, or 'fascicles', is a practice as old as the printed codex itself. It's a kind of hire purchase and spreads the cost. But at certain periods of literature serialization produces objects that are both culturally important and even peculiarly beautiful.
One such set of objects is the Victorian Novel in Monthly Parts. Relatively little scholarly work has been done on them for the good reason that these serials are extremely hard to come by. Most were, like newspapers, read and tossed away. There are, to my knowledge, two comprehensive collections. One is in the Huntington Library in California. The other has been assembled by the distinguished bibliophile Robert H. Jackson. It is scheduled to come up for sale at Bonhams New York in October.
There is much of interest in Mr Jackson's collection. But the mouthwatering core is the extraordinarily full set of part-issued fiction. In order to appreciate its literary worth some literary history is required.
There is much of interest in Mr Jackson's collection. But the mouth watering core is the extraordinarily full set of part-issued fiction. In order to appreciate its literary worth some literary history is required. Papers in April 1836. Looking back in later life, the novelist recalled that he and his publisher, the newly founded house of Chapman & Hall, had been distantly inspired by one of the comic classics of the Regency period, Life in London. A 'Corinthian' (ie: low life) tale of two young bucks on the razzle in town, Life in London was written by Pierce Egan and illustrated by George and Robert Cruikshank. It sold at three shillings a part and the story – for what it was – served merely as a platform for the illustrated plates. In most cases these were extracted, hand-coloured, and framed. Life in London was what is called, in the book trade, a 'breaker'. For that reason very few intact copies survive.
Chapman & Hall began the same way – with a 'name' illustrator, Robert Seymour. Seymour had made his reputation as a 'Nimrod' specialist: an artist, that is, specializing in hunting scenes. The publishers recruited a young unknown to do the letterpress. But the 22-year-old 'Boz' (Charles Dickens) turned out to be no mere scribe. Within a couple of months, he had taken over the project, driven Seymour to suicide, and recruited a new illustrator, 'Phiz' (Hablot K. Browne) to work with him in the driving seat.
The project nearly came to grief. By the fourth number it was down to 400 sales per month. Then, by word of mouth, Pickwick took off like a rocket. By the end of its run, sales reached 40,000. Dickens' reputation saw an equally explosive boost. His next novel in parts, Nicholas Nickleby, sold a phenomenal 70,000 per monthly number.
How was this achieved? Steam power is part of the answer. Historians of the period will note that the take-off of the Dickensian novel in parts coincides with the early Victorian 'railway mania': more
particularly, the sale of reading material at the huge railway termini whose tentacles were spreading across the country. The reader in Manchester could now get their 'Dickens' on the same day as the reader in London.
In between Pickwick and Nickleby, Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, which was first serialized in Bentley's Miscellany, then reissued in monthly parts. This 'social problem' novel attacking the 1834 Poor
Law Amendment established Dickens as something more than a comic writer. Oliver Twist is interesting for another reason – it is the only novel that George Cruikshank, the greatest illustrator
of the mid-Victorian period, and the 'Inimitable' Boz worked on together. It was a dream ticket.
But it didn't work out. When two men ride a horse, went the Victorian proverb, one must ride behind. The respective egos were too big for either to accept second billing. Cruikshank went on to work with less headstrong serial novelists whom he could dominate. The results, as evidenced in the Jackson collection, are visually stunning. Highpoints are illustrations to the serialized Tower of London (with the hack historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth) and, my particular favorite, 1851: or, The Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and Family..., the serial Cruikshank worked on with Henry Mayhew, for the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Dickens, meanwhile, carried on working with Phiz. He was a notch or two less gifted than Cruikshank but he was biddable. That was the prime consideration. Dickens, Phiz and Chapman & Hall, now a team, went on to standardize the novel in monthly parts. It would cost one shilling per issue, or a pound altogether. There would be 20 monthly installments over 19 months, the last being a 'double' that cost two shillings. Each monthly part would be precisely 32 pages long. This was what printers call a 'gathering' (a folio sheet folded four times). It meant that no inch of paper was wasted.
There would be a paper 'wrapper', with the same design for all 19 numbers. For purchasers in a hurry (off to catch their train, perhaps) it would be color coded. Dickens's color was duck-egg blue, Thackeray's was canary yellow, the Irish author, Charles Lever, had shamrock green, and Surtees' was hunting pink. Inside the wrapper would be advertising – offering everything from male corsets to remedies to help cure constipation. The last double part would usually contain a detachable 'Preface' (in fact an afterword) that could be taken out and bound at the front of the monthly parts for those who had kept them and wanted to make up a volume for their shelves. Each monthly part was distributed across the country, by train, on what was called 'magazine day', at the end of the month. Coinciding with the last number there was a bound volume of the complete novel for the library market.
These serials had an impact on the architecture of the Victorian novel. A novelist like Dickens, for example, was writing to 'two unities' – that of the installments, and that of the whole. A novel such as, say, Dombey and Son, needed to be sold 19 times (unlike a bound book, which needed to be sold only once). Suspense was one way to keep the purchaser on the monthly hook. Hence that technique that Wilkie Collins (a Dickens disciple) called: "make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait!" It is no accident that the fi rst detective story in English, Dickens' Bleak House was published in monthly parts. Chapman & Hall went on to dominate the part-issue market for ten years.
Alongside Dickens they recruited the aforementioned Irish novelist, Charles Lever. He, too, was partnered with the ever-ready Phiz. Never as popular as Dickens, the two of them nevertheless produced some of the most beautiful wrapper designs and the cover for Luttrell of Arran stands out.
However, the field Chapman & Hall had pioneered was too inviting to be left to one publishing house. Bradbury and Evans, publishers of the weekly magazine Punch, were also keen to get involved in novels in parts. In its four years of existence, Punch had patented a hugely popular brand of comic writing and illustration. Bradbury and Evans found their rival to Dickens in Thackeray, whose first major novel began its serial run in January 1847. This was Vanity Fair.
The bulk of Thackeray's full-length fiction, like Dickens' and Lever's would first come into the world in monthly parts. Trollope also published many of his 47 novels in parts. But, whereas the other three big Victorian writers thrived on having the printer's boy at the door, waiting for next month's copy, the Chronicler of Barsetshire hated the pressure. As a result, he wrote his novels entire before publication, and then sliced them up, like salami. Yet, Trollope worked with an illustrator greater even than Cruikshank, John Everett Millais. After Thackeray's death in 1853, Bradbury and Evans's leading serial writer was Robert Surtees, in partnership with illustrator John Leech. Leech had been recommended by Thackeray (whom Surtees first wanted) because he could draw horses, which Thackeray could not. Leech's covers for Surtees' serials are sumptuous, as are the illustrations he created for the text. The novel in monthly parts gave way, after the death of Dickens in 1870, to the novel serialized in magazines. For a quarter of a century, it had helped create one of the great periods in English Literature. There is much else to be said about the Victorian Novel in Parts, and the novelists who practiced it. The Jackson Collection will surely enrich that discussion. Both literary scholars and lovers of Victorian fiction in general owe a debt of gratitude to him for the feast he has put on their table.
John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL.
Sale: Robert H. and Donna L. Jackson Collection
Part 1: 19th Century Literature
Tuesday 18 October at 1pm
Enquiries: Christina Geiger +1 212 644 9094