Publication in parts did present certain challenges to the author, which Dickens described in the Preface to the first book edition of Pickwick.
The publication of the book in monthly numbers, containing only thirty-two pages in each, rendered it an object of paramount importance that, while the different incidences were linked together by a chain of interest strong enough to prevent their appearing unconnected or impossible, the general design should be so simple as to sustain no injury from this detached and desultory form of publication, extending over no fewer than twenty months. In short, it was necessary — or it appeared so to the author — that every number should be, to a certain extent, complete in itself, and yet that the whole twenty numbers, when collected, should form one tolerably harmonious whole, each leading to the other by a gentle and not unnatural progress of adventure.
The experience of a 21st century student who encounters Dickens in a thick volume (perhaps with scholarly footnotes) is vastly different from that of the Victorian reader eagerly awaiting the next monthly installment of an exciting story! Dickens published most of his later novels in installments, and it was in the writing of Pickwick that he learned and mastered the form.
By 1837 Dickens had become so famous that when he had to delay the May issue following the death of his sister-in-law, his readers became distraught. The author had to address their concerns in a note in the June issue.
The popularity of Pickwick opened up a new source of revenue for its publishers: advertising. The first few issues featured only Chapman and Hall book notices on the back cover. But later issues contained “Pickwick Advertisers”– thick pamphlets advertising all manner of goods and services.
As the serial publication neared completion, Chapman and Hall began to advertise their single-volume edition of Pickwick.
The “new work” advertised was Nicholas Nickleby, which Chapman and Hall would begin publishing in serial form the next spring.
First edition of Pickwick as a single volume, 1837
Pickwick proved as popular in book form as it had in parts. ZSR Library’s copy of the first edition has the signature of the English artist Thomas Leeson Rowbotham, who apparently opted for the half-morocco-with-marbled-edges option for the binding of his volume. It was donated to the Wake Forest College library early in the 20th century and has clearly seen some enthusiastic use.
February 7, 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth. The author whose career was launched by The Pickwick Papers remains beloved by readers worldwide two centuries later.