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Book of the Month

November 2004

Charles Dickens

Bleak House

Sp Coll Hepburn 186-203

In its oppressive atmosphere of fog, mist and mud, nothing conjures up the dreary days of November and its 'implacable' weather like the celebrated opening of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. This month's choice is a copy of the novel in its original parts, issued serially between March 1852 and September 1853. It is from the Hepburn Collection.

front cover of No. 1, March 1852: Hepburn 186

Published by the firm of Bradbury & Evans, the work first appeared monthly in twenty numbers. Each part consisted of 32 pages of text illustrated with two plates, and cost a shilling. The 'copy' in Special Collections survives intact in these parts as originally issued, stitched together in their blue wrappers. Although now somewhat fragile, together they provide a fascinating insight into the production of the novel and how it would have been received by its original Victorian audience.

beginning of the novel ( No. 1, March 1852): Hepburn 186

Written during the middle of his career as a novelist, Bleak House marks a turning point in Dickens' vision. While his earlier books are renowned for their ebullience and haphazard comedy, this work sees a shift to a more sombre tone. As always, Dickens is vehemently critical of social inequalities and is sympathetic to the plight of the poor. While the fog of the opening personifies the whole state of society as he sees it, his main target for satire is the Court of Chancery which in its outmoded and labyrinthine practices caused misery and ruin for thousands of its victims in the nineteenth century.
The Court of Chancery deals with disputes over legacies, wills and trusts. By the 1840s its modus operandi had become a national scandal. Dickens had had first hand experience of the system in 1844. After his work, A Christmas Carol, appeared in a plagiarised edition, he was advised to seek legal redress. The subsequent proceeding involved him in no less than five Chancery suits; although he ultimately won his case, when the fraudulent publishers claimed bankruptcy, Dickens had to pay all the costs.

The Lord Chancellor copies from memory
detail of plate from No. 2, April 1852 (Hepburn 187)

The intricacies of the plot with its double narrative and many coincidences and interconnections point to a well planned work. Dickens actually began writing it in November 1851, only four months before the first issue appeared, and did not complete it until August 1853, just one month before the last number was published.

Nurse and Patient
plate from No. 10, December 1852 (Hepburn 195)

ending of No. 10, December 1852 (Hepburn 195)

Although the main structure of the novel was mapped out in advance, as was usual in the way Dickens produced his novels serially, he was flexible in changing his plans as parts were issued to the public. After the first issue was published, for example, he received a pamphlet describing a particular Chancery case that had dragged on for twenty years and was still unresolved; as well as increasing his determination to expose the abuses of Chancery, he used the details of the case for the character of Gridley, the man from Shropshire. Other changes were enforced by the sheer practicalities of producing a set amount of pages per issue. The second chapter, 'In Fashion', for instance, was not originally supposed to appear in the first number. It was inserted in position only after it was discovered that the other three chapters did not constitute enough copy for the requisite amount of pages. Therefore, the Dedlocks (and the main plot of the novel) were introduced far earlier than Dickens originally intended. Reading the novel in its original parts, meanwhile, makes clear his use of 'cliffhanger' style endings to the parts to entice readers to purchase future numbers. Typical is the ending of the tenth issue in which Krook meets a spectacular demise by way of spontaneous combustion, a phenomenon that at the time was widely believed to be caused by excessive drinking of alcohol.
Many of the characters in the novel were based partly on real people. The overly philanthropic Mrs Jellyby, for example, was reputedly based on Caroline Chisholm, the so called 'emigrant's friend' who established a Family Colonisation Loan Society to assist poor families in emigrating. The childlike Harold Skimpole, meanwhile, was so like the writer Leigh Hunt that Dickens was forced to rewrite a chapter to tone down the resemblance.

Mr. Turveydrop was an amalgamation of three men: George IV, Lord Chesterfield and John Henry Skelton, an ageing dandy well known in London at the time. The illustration (shown to right) gives him the attributes of King George in later life. His pose, stature and costume are modelled on a well known portrait of the king in private dress, a copy of which hangs on the wall behind him (top centre).

A model of parental deportment
plate from No. 8, October 1852 (Hepburn 193)

Mr Guppy's entertainment
late from No. 7, September 1852 (Hepburn 192)

The Lord Chancellor copies from memory
plate from No. 2, April 1852 (Hepburn 187)

Tom all alone's
plate from No. 14, April 1853 (Hepburn 199)

The illustrations were an essential part of the original edition, helping to interpret and complement the atmosphere of the text. Forty plates were included in all, two per issue. Hablot Knight Browne was responsible for all of them, as well as the emblematical front cover. Browne first collaborated with Dickens in 1836 on his anti-Sabbatarian pamphlet 'Sunday under three heads' and then provided the illustrations for the Pickwick Papers following the suicide of the well known artist Robert Young. He went on to become Dickens' main illustrator. To begin, he used the pseudonym  N.E.M.O. (Latin for 'nobody') but later changed this to 'Phiz' (i.e. a depicter of physiognomies). The mysterious law writer in Bleak House may well have been called 'Nemo' by Dickens as a joke between them in reference to the early pseudonym.

For each forthcoming monthly part, Dickens would provide Browne with the subjects of the two illustrations required, along with a proof copy or manuscript of the text if he was ahead of himself and it was available. Browne would draw these and submit them for approval before having them engraved, if there was time. If Dickens was behind in his writing, however, Browne only received generalised instructions from which to work. Despite this pressure, Browne managed to produce a set of illustrations that provide real visual drama. Although criticised for being uneven in quality, it is unanimously agreed that his use of the so-called 'dark plates' in the latter half of the novel contribute greatly to the sombre and pessimistic mood of the text. Of these, examples shown here are the plate depicting Tom-all-alone's (to the left) and the frontispiece of Chesney Wold (further below). Their intense and sinister effect was produced by machine ruling the entire plate with fine parallel lines in addition to etching the design.

advertisement for E. Moses & Son from inner back cover of No. 1, March 1852 (Hepburn 186)

advertisement for the Gutta Percha Company
page 6 of advertiser of No. 7, September 1852
(Hepburn 192)

The text of each number is preceded and followed by several pages of advertisements. Along with tipped in trade inserts and labels, these advertisements total some 300 pages of the parts, in some issues constituting over half of the physical form. They were a lucrative source of revenue for the publishers. They now form a fascinating document of contemporary Victorian life and provide further evidence of the context in which the novel was written. Shown to the left is an advert for wares suggested for emigrants to Australia in search of gold. That to the right refers to the temporary army camp found on the heathland at Chobham in Surrey in 1853, used to house troops prior to shipping them overseas to fight in the Crimean War. Other advertisements refer to the book in hand. That for the firm of E. Moses & Son from the first issue (shown above), for example, makes play of the book's gloomy title in describing themselves as an 'Anti-Bleak House' selling winter clothing that they claim 'can annihilate the effects of biting, pinching, screwing and driving bleak winds'.

advertisement for Heal and Son's
back cover of No. 18, August 1853
(Hepburn 203)

frontispiece and title-page of Bleak House, bound in at beginning of final issue (Nos. 19 & 20), September 1853

The final double number of Bleak House was issued on 31 August 1853. Consisting of the text to parts 19 and 20, it also contained the frontispiece and overall title-page along with other 'preliminary' material including the dedication, preface and contents.

advertisement for Bleak House published in one volume
p. 1 of advertiser, No. 19 & 20, September 1853

In all, the work was a great success. The first number sold out on the first day of publication, exceeding the expectations of both Dickens - who is recorded as cheerfully describing it as 'blazing away merrily' - and his publishers. It was reprinted twice and the press run for the second number was increased to 32,000, but this still required re-printing. Later issues averaged a printing of 40,000 per copy, and although interest waned as the story unfolded and the print run was therefore dropped slightly, an equivalent of 34,000 complete editions were sold in parts. These sales were greater than any of the other serials produced in the 1840s. Serial production was expensive but Dickens nonetheless made a comfortable profit from the work, although he later complained that reports of the amount of money he made from it were exaggerated.

The book was launched as a complete edition on 12 September 1853 and continued to sell well. But although a popular success, it received a mixed critical reception. The Spectator declared it to be 'dull and wearisome' while John Forster, the friend and first biographer of Dickens, decided that it was the book 'in which some want of all the freshness of his genius first became apparent'. Over one hundred and fifty years later, the overall critical view of the novel is rather more favourable, it being regarded as one of the great works of Victorian literature.

Other early editions of Dickens in Special Collections: Pickwick Papers (1837) RB 2783 (with 82 extra illustrations) and Hepburn 209; Nicholas Nickleby (1839) Sp Coll 921 and RB 2782; American Notes (1842) Sp Coll 922-923; Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) Hepburn 208; The cricket on the hearth (1846) Sp Coll 920; Dombey & Son (1848) Hepburn 206 and RB 2781; Household Words: a weekly journal conducted by Charles Dickens (1850-59) 19 volumes at Z10-n.1-19, with special Christmas issues at Sp Coll q195 and Sp Coll q196; Little Dorrit (1857) Hepburn 207; Our Mutual Friend (1865) Hepburn 204-205; Barnaby Rudge (1866) Z6-n.7; Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) Sp Coll q191.

The novel collection is of great interest to students of Victorian literature, comprising mainly of nineteenth century triple-decker editions.

Robert L. Patten Charles Dickens and his publishers Oxford: 1978  Level 9 Main Lib English MD233 PAT; Susan Shatto The companion to Bleak House London: 1988 Level 9 Main Lib English MD206 SHA; Michael Steig Dickens and Phiz Bloomington: 1978 Level 9 Main Lib English MD233 STE

BrainyEncyclopaedia article on Chobham Common: (page viewed on 25/10/04)



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Julie Gardham November 2004