This Day In Literary History
On March 31st, 1836, The Pickwick Papers - the classic first novel by legendary English writer Charles Dickens, was published. Like most novels of the time, it first appeared in a serialized format, published in twenty monthly installments.
When the first installment was published on this date, only 400 copies were printed. By the time the 15th installment came out, it was being published in press runs of 40,000 copies.
Originally titled The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, the novel had originally been commissioned by publishers Chapman and Hall as captions to accompany humorous drawings by illustrator Robert Seymour.
The members of the Pickwick Club, founded by a wealthy old gentleman named Samuel Pickwick, travel through remote areas of the English countryside by coach, then report back on their adventures when they return. Alfred Jingle, an English mangling actor, charlatan, and practical joker, joins them and plays tricks on them.
Charles Dickens wasn't the publishers' first choice to write the book, but their senior editor had been impressed by his earlier collection of serialized writings, Sketches by Boz, which had also been written to accompany illustrations.
Sketches combined nonfiction articles with short stories. Dickens was just 21 years old when he wrote them. His Pickwick writings were also originally published under the pseudonym Boz, which was the childhood nickname Dickens had given his brother Augustus.
Robert Seymour had conceived the original idea for Pickwick, but creative control of the series went to Charles Dickens, who took the idea and improved on it vastly. Seymour had previously suffered a nervous breakdown after a nasty row with Gilbert A'Beckett, editor of Figaro in London magazine.
The conflict, over money owed Seymour and the illustrator's parody of another writer's work, resulted in Seymour resigning and A'Beckett mounting a cruel public smear campaign against him. The illustrator returned to work after A'Beckett was replaced as editor.
Now, Seymour found himself in another bad situation. His original idea for Pickwick had been given to someone else, who made it his own and improved it. Seymour was never given credit for his creative input.
To add insult to injury, he wasn't even credited as illustrator. The publisher listed the byline as "Edited by Boz with Illustrations." Before the second installment of Pickwick was completed, a distraught Seymour committed suicide with his shotgun.
Seymour's widow publicly blasted Charles Dickens and the publishers, claiming that the first two installments of Pickwick were her husband's idea, i.e., that he told Dickens what to write. Actually, the opposite was true; Dickens had creative control.
Robert Seymour had struggled to come up with illustrations to compliment Dickens' writing, frustrating the author to the point that he advertised for a new illustrator. After Seymour's death, Dickens took over as editor of the publication and saved it from bankruptcy.
Scholars have agreed that although Robert Seymour came up with the original idea for The Pickwick Papers, if he'd had creative control over the series, the final product would have been completely different and nowhere near as successful.
It was Charles Dickens' distinctive style of writing that made the novel what it was. When The Pickwick Papers was issued in book form, the publishers defended themselves and Dickens with the following disclaimer:
Mr. Seymour never originated or suggested an incident, a phrase, or a word to be found in this book. Mr. Seymour died when only twenty-four pages of this book were published, and when assuredly not forty-eight were written... all of the input from the artist was in response to the words that had already been written.
Taking a final pot shot at the troubled illustrator, the disclaimer goes on to say “that he took his own life through jealousy, as it was well known that Seymour’s sanity had been questioned."
Suicide was considered a scandalous act by Victorian society and a felo de se (felony to self) by the law, so Seymour was denied a Christian burial. His estate went to the government, and his widow couldn't receive any royalties for his work on The Pickwick Papers.
Despite the controversy surrounding its conception, The Pickwick Papers made Charles Dickens' name as a novelist. His second novel would make him a legend. It was named after its main character - a poor orphan boy called Oliver Twist.
Quote Of The Day
"'I am ruminating,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'on the strange mutability of human affairs.' 'Ah! I see — in at the palace door one day, out at the window the next. Philosopher, Sir?' 'An observer of human nature, Sir,' said Mr. Pickwick. 'Ah, so am I. Most people are when they've little to do and less to get.'" - Charles Dickens, from The Pickwick Papers
Today's video features a complete reading of Charles Dickens' classic first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Enjoy!