Dickens as soap opera: is Little Nell dead?
A free public event next month will examine this ‘serial publication’ and give Dickens fans/scholars a chance to examine some fantastically rare Dickensiana from the University Library’s collection as well as some unique items loaned to us by the Charles Dickens Museum.
Dr Holly Furneaux from our School of English considers that the serial nature of Dickens’ original publications made them akin to modern day soap operas. Unlike contemporaries such as Trollope, Dickens didn’t wait to finish writing a story before publishing the first instalment so while he wasn’t quite ‘making it up as he went along’ there was a degree of freedom to respond to the public reception of characters and themes. Dickens was also known to sometimes take inspiration in later chapters from the details of illustrations provided for his earlier ones.
‘Serial Readers: Dickens and the Victorian Soap Opera’ takes place in the Special Collections Room of the David Wilson Library on the University campus at 5.30pm on Tuesday 5 October 2010. Dr Furneaux, whose book Queer Dickens caused quite a stir last year, will demonstrate and discuss the way that the Victorian experience of Dickens differed from our own retrospective understanding of the work, with a costumed actor from the University Drama Society providing illustrative readings.
The library has a good collection of first edition Dickens books including a very rare full set of the serial parts of Martin Chuzzlewit. The Charles Dickens Museum is very kindly bringing up to Leicester some of the author’s original manuscripts and personal possessions, making this a unique opportunity to get really up close to the great man.
The event, which is part of the Leicester-wide Everybody's Reading festival of literature, is free but numbers are strictly limited. If you are interested in attending, please contact Dr Furneaux at email@example.com.
Killer serials: how Dickens kept audiences on tenterhooks
Dickens’ novel-length stories were usually published in 20 parts but only 19 instalments, the last of which was a double-sized edition. Keeping the price down to a shilling for each edition (two bob for the finale) kept the works within the budget of a much wider audience than if the whole book were published bound in one volume for a guinea.
As well as writing serial novels, Dickens also edited some of the magazines which published them. He was employed as the first editor of Bentley’s Miscellany in 1836, within which he published Oliver Twist, but he resigned after three years because of disagreements with the publisher and founded his own weekly, Master Humphrey’s Clock, which ran for a year and a half.
Within Master Humphrey’s Clock, Dickens published Barnaby Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop, the latter originally intended as a short story - but when Dickens realised that the tale had more scope, he ditched the framing narrative and extended the story to novel length. This explains why, when one reads it today as a book, the narrator – ‘Master Humphrey’ himself – suddenly disappears after a few chapters.
The Old Curiosity Shop is probably the most famous example of Dickens’ episodic writing technique, giving rise to the popular tale of New Yorkers crowding the docks, awaiting shipments of the final part of the story and (allegedly) shouting up to the sailors on incoming ships, “Is Little Nell dead?” This concern with the fate of fictional characters certainly has a parallel in modern soap opera narratives.
Between 1850 and 1859, Dickens edited (and part-owned) the monthly publication Household Words within which he serialised his own Hard Times. Unlike Master Humphrey’s Clock, this magazine featured the works of numerous other writers including such well-known names as Wilkie Collins – who was actually related to Dickens by marriage - and Elizabeth Gaskell. But Dickens had another argument with a publisher and abandoned the title for a new one, All the Year Round, which he would edit until his death in 1870, after which his son Charles Dickens Jr continued the magazine for a further 25 years.
All the Year Round serialised A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations as well as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (generally regarded as the first detective novel) and The Woman in White, together with works by Gaskell, Trollope, JS Le Fanu, Edward Bulwer Lytton and other giants of the Victorian literary scene.
The final, lasting legacy of all this is, of course, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Planned as a twelve-part serial, only six parts had been completed when Dickens died in June 1870 as a result of a stroke, leaving Edwin Drood as the most famous unfinished work in English literature...