Monday, 7 December 2015

Dickens and The Victorian Serial

The early Victorian period was the time of great developments and changes in printing technique – the biggest being that of cheaper literature mass-production (10, Wynne). Where novels had previously been a privilege of the higher classes, stories were now becoming increasingly accessible for the growing number of readers in society.  With this development came the trend of serialization, which is “the division of narrative into separately issued instalments” (Sutherland, 87). Not only did this allow the public to continually purchase segments of a story rather than the - more costly - full novel, but it also came with great commercial potential. This was exploited greatly by publishers, who used the surge of newly-literate to maximize their sales, offering cheap literature rather than “work of artistic merit” (Wynne, 11).

                      Nonetheless, the serialization also held value for the readers beyond the financial benefits. Because of the “ability of serial narratives to capture and retain the attention of a wide readership” (12), there was a prominent social aspect to the experience. This showed in what is referred to by scholars as a ‘community of readers’. Since a majority of magazines came out on Saturdays, it became a habitual and communal event to read the new instalment together – perhaps even
The Pickwick Papers (Figure 1)
out loud. As a result, the serial mode of publishing became so popular, that some critics worried for its dangers. They suggested that, because of “each instalment offering so many shocks and thrills” (13), the readers may become addicted to this consumption of literature. Others, however, argued in favour of the serialization, speaking of how it increased the quality of the plots of the novels as every segment needed to contain excitement to keep its following of readers. Regardless of the opinions of the critics, there was no denying the truth: serial fiction was the new literary trend.

                    When speaking of serialization, it is impossible to not mention Charles Dickens. After all, his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (more commonly known as The Pickwick Papers), is considered to be the novel that established this huge trend in Victorian publishing. The Pickwick Papers tell the adventures of a kind and wealthy gentleman, Mr. Samuel Pickwick, who is the founder and president of the Pickwick Club. The story was published in twenty parts, one every month during the years of 1836 and 1837, each instalment sold for one shilling. Because of Dickens’ success with this The Pickwick Papers, he “played an important role in raising the status of serial fiction” (Wynne, 11). This mode of publishing was hardly a new phenomenon, however, but in fact dates back to the seventeenth century. Dickens’ novels, however, spoke to a new audience and, after a slow start of a mere 400 copies per issue, The Pickwick Papers soared up to 40,000 by the forth issue. Dickens followed with Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and the sales increased with another ten thousand. In the end, he published no less than eight of his novels in this format (Sutherland, 92-93).
All The Year Round (Figure 2)

                   Alongside his writing of serial fiction, Dickens started a career as an editor of the magazine Household Worlds in 1850. It featured stories such as his own novel Hard Times and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. The novels featured social problems and were accompanied with articles dealing with the same issues and themes. In 1859 he left Household Worlds for another periodical; All The Year Round. Its contents were considered somewhere within the “borderline between ‘highbrow’ literary culture” and “’lowbrow’ weekly penny magazines”(Wenny, 22-23), which suited the larger numbers of middle-class readers. But whereas Household Worlds handled serious issues, All The Year Round grew to be all about entertainment and serial fiction. The first novel to be featured was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, shortly followed by Great Expectations in 1860-61. However, while Charles Dickens established his profession as an editor with his two periodicals, he was not, after all, the author of all its serials. Still, there was a clear implication of ownership, especially with “his demand that contributors remain anonymous” (Wenny, 25). This resulted in displeased authors who did not receive proper credit, as well as in misconceptions regarding the source of the work. When discussed in the press, the stories were often spoken of as if Dickens himself had written them. Even though this caused a great debate, Dickens continued to have highly regarded writers in All The Year Round, thus keeping its status and firm position on the market (Wenny, 25-26).

                 Naturally, as with all winning concepts, others were quick to join in to that of serialization. Several famous authors of the time started their careers through serial fiction. The list includes names such as Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and, as previously mentioned, Elizabeth Gaskell.  With Gaskell, several scholars found her writing unfit for serial fiction. According to them she was “repeatedly unable to provide the proper climactic ending for each weekly instalment” and instead using a more “rambling narrative” (Hughes & Lund, 96). When writing for Charles Dickens’ Household Worlds, Gaskell’s style of writing was a reason for an argument with the editor. Dickens wanted each part to “be self-contained” and have “a clear climax and resolution”, while Gaskell preferred a                     

The Offices of All The Year Round in Wellington Street, London
(Figure 3)
more slow-paced storyline. However, previous to North and South, Gaskell had written a three-part serial, Lizzie Leigh, which held more of the ‘self-contained’ quality that Dickens sought. Although its instalments may not end with dramatic cliff-hangers, they had a more subtle hook. For instance, Gaskell would end a part right before a conversation, leaving the reader intrigued as to what words were to be exchanged between the characters (Hughes & Lund, 97-98). This was at least enough for the editorial eyes of Dickens, who continued to feature her stories. In retrospect, one may wonder if the following - North and South and the argument it sparked - may have had him regret this decision in some respects.

               Two writers, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Lever, had a go at the Dickensian way of serialization (twenty parts, one every month). However, both soon found the form of publishing undoable. Not surprising, as releasing a novel in numbers equals an entirely different kind of pressure. If the story wasn’t complete before the release of the first instalment, one had to keep to the writing deadlines for every upcoming release. Furthermore, as with the conflict between writer and editor with Dickens and Gaskell, the plotline of the story had to be formatted to keep the readers interest. If the novel was not written to provide interesting and exciting events in every instalment, it would be very hard for it to survive in the market of serial fiction. 

                But the time for these novelists may have come later, as the number of serials published dwindled in the following decades. In the late 1830’s, at the beginning of the serialization trend, “there were at maximum some 15 part-issued shilling serials a year” (Sutherland, 87). The amount decreased to around five in the 1840’s and to one or two at the end of the 1860’s. Ultimately, and quite suitably, the person to revive the serialization was also the last great Victorian writer to truly stick to this format of publication. Charles Dickens remained faithful to the serial novel until his death in 1870. This is rather curious, since his books would have sold well in any format of publishing. Even though his serial publication paid extremely well, Dickens was one of few privileged writers to have the option of publishing his works however he wanted – this due to his large and faithful Victorian readership. And yet, for reasons unknown, he happily proceeded to publish in numbers for 35 years, until the end of his life and the end of the great time of serialization (Sutherland, 87-88).


Hughes, Linda, K. & Lund, Michael. Victorian Publishing and Mrs. Gaskell’s Work.Virginia: The University Press of Virginia, 1999. Print.
Sutherland, John. Victorian Fiction: Writers, Publishers, Readers. London: Macmillan Press,1995. Print.
Wynne, Deborah. The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine. Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Figure 1:

Figure 2:

Figure 3:


  1. Hi Amelie,
    I really enjoyed reading your post. I had never realised how important was Dickens for the serialization. He was basically the forefather and as you say in your conclusion his death marked the end of the use of that technique.
    You've done a very interesting work.

    1. Hi Nerea,
      Thank you for your comment! I, myself, had not realised exactly how important Dickens was for serialization. Before beginning my research I was only aware of that some of his novels were originally published that way. But I had no idea, however, of just how many, nor of his career as an editor. It was interesting to learn more about one of the most famous authors in English history.