CHARLES DICKENS AND HIS PUBLISHERS, SECOND EDITION by ROBERT L. PATTEN, Reviewed by Sean Grass
 

CHARLES DICKENS AND HIS PUBLISHERS, SECOND EDITION
By ROBERT L. PATTEN
(Oxford, 2017) xxiv + 441 pp.
Reviewed by Sean Grass on 2018-06-01.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

When the first edition of this book appeared from Oxford University Press in 1978, it joined immediately the pantheon of books that fairly established Dickens studies between 1950 and 1980. They include Edgar Johnson's Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1952), J. Hillis Miller's Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (1958), Philip Collins's Dickens and Crime (1962) and Dickens and Education (1963), Steven Marcus's Dickens, From Pickwick to Dombey (1965), and the first volume of the Pilgrim edition of The Letters of Charles Dickens (1965) produced under the careful editorship of Madeline House and Graham Storey. These works laid the intellectual groundwork for modern scholarship on Dickens, and Patten's innovative account of Dickens's complex relationships with his many publishers took its place among them instantly. Moreover, appearing just after John Sutherland's important Victorian Novelists and Publishers (1976), Patten's book wedded Dickens studies immediately to the burgeoning study of the Victorian literary market. By a happy coincidence, Dickens's quarrels with Richard Bentley, decisions about serialization, editorial work, and entrepreneurship became part of a broad and enduring scholarly conversation about novels in parts, triple-deckers, Charles Mudie's circulating library, and W. H. Smith's railway stalls. In 1991 by arrangement with Oxford, The Dickens Project at the University of California, Santa Cruz brought out a softcover reprint of Patten's book, thus widening its audience and influence. Now, forty years after its original publication, Patten and Oxford have produced a second edition and given the work a new form: a hardcover slightly larger than the original, and with a new Preface and a substantial Epilogue that extends the final chapter of the original. Since the Preface and Epilogue constitute the only new material in the second edition, this review highlights them.

In the Preface, Patten recalls that he wondered what he might do with the ledgers of Dickens's publishers after seeing them for the first time at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1963. He knew that they were important. But as he points out with the aid of Rachel Malik, who charted the "horizons of the publishable" in a 2008 ELH essay, the sense of what is publishable ultimately "governs what is writeable and what is readable," and in the scholarly climate of the 1960s, he says, "a study of publishing costs was ... distinctly outside the horizon of Romantic and Victorian literary criticism" (vii-viii). Scholarship on Dickens had only begun to emerge from the New Criticism and from biographical inquiry; critics wanted, above all, to plumb the great novelist's "genius" and take the measure of his "achievement." To be sure, Edmund Wilson's "The Two Scrooges" (1940) had long since offered the first major exposition of the interplay between language and symbol, surface and depth, in Dickens's fiction, and critics such as Miller and Marcus were already building on Wilson's work. But even these new readings of Dickens had little to do with what Patten hoped to construct from the business ledgers of Dickens's publishers. As he puts it, "anything I might do with more than 1,100 leaves of records would fall both outside the traditional strategies of comprehending Dickens's 'genius' and the new psychological and structuralist directions emerging critics were exploring" (xi).

But were the records worth exploring? According to Patten, even his thesis advisor for his Fulbright year, the accomplished Kathleen Tillotson, doubted whether the ledgers could justify a critical project. So did the editors he contacted at Princeton University Press and Routledge and Kegan Paul. Everyone he consulted--Tillotson, Collins, Michael Slater, Royal A. Gettman--agreed that something should be done with the ledgers. No one knew quite what. Given this quandary, Patten notes that some eight years passed before he finally conceived the idea for a "possibly publishable book": "an expository narrative about Dickens's relationship with his publishers over his lifetime" (xvii). In the years since this "possibly publishable book" first appeared, it has become indispensable to Dickens studies.

Unlike the Preface, the Epilogue contains substantial new scholarly work, beginning with Patten's recognition that his title hardly fits what happened after Dickens's death in 1870. "After Dickens's death," writes Patten,

the title of this book no longer applies. In the first place, for 'Charles Dickens' we must substitute the names of his heirs, the percentage of assets each inherited, and the binding conditions Dickens prescribed. ... 'His Publishers' is even more inappropriate in the long run, because, even before his passing, Dickens's copyrights were being ignored by publishers and newspaper proprietors around the world. (259)

The three sections of the Epilogue take up the complexities of these substitutions and transformations. The first section, "1870-1920: 'Stick to Dickens,'" details the provisions of Dickens's will, the division of his copyrights between his family and Chapman and Hall, and the proliferation of his works across the United States and the British empire and in various translations throughout Europe. On this last subject, Patten draws heavily upon his own prior work as well as the substantial work of Joanne Shattock, Sylvere Monod, Anthony Cummins, and Michael Hollington, among others. In the second section, "1920-1970: Scandalous, Socialist, and Symbolist Dickens," Patten widens the sense of these substitutions and transformations, arguing that after 1920--and especially after the deaths of his last surviving children, Kate Perugini (in 1929) and Henry Dickens (in 1933)-- " 'Dickens' transitions from family to 'Dickensians' ... while 'publishers' grows to encompass daily newspapers, film studios, radio programmes, theatrical producers, tour managers, and purveyors of entertainment in many forms based on Dickens's works" (276). A key development in this phase, Patten notes, was the rapid multiplication of Dickens's publishers after his last copyrights expired, which prompted in turn the formal intellectual coalescence of "Dickensians" Arthur Waugh, Thomas Hatton, Walter Dexter, and Hugh Walpole around the publication of his collected novels and a 3-volume edition of his letters by the Nonesuch Press. "A significant production appealing to buyers of fine private editions," Patten writes, the Nonesuch Dickens "signified the arrival of Dickens among the ranks of classic authors" (283).

Patten suggestively links this development to the reconceptualization of Dickens during the 1930s and 1940s. He was reassessed then, Patten writes, not only by Wilson but also by Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, who for the first time treated Dickens as "the creator of an immense allegory about emerging capitalist culture" and who thus prepared the ground for major revaluations by Lionel Trilling, Miller, and Marcus (283). Through all of this, as Patten illustrates in the rest of the Epilogue, Dickens remained immensely popular, brought out every year by hundreds of publishers in hundreds of thousands or even millions of volumes. Citing Nielsen's compiled data on retail sales in just nine countries, Patten shows that nearly one million volumes of just five of Dickens's works--A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1850), Great Expectations (1861), Oliver Twist (1839), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859)--were sold during the bicentennial year of 2012 (290). Patten also notes that Dickens's works have been translated into dozens of languages and many media, from film to musical theater to television serial. After 1970, as we learn from section three, "1970-2015: From Mass Markets to Emoji," Dickens "becomes a logo that can sell all kinds of products, from dramatizations to china figurines, cigarettes, liquor, kinds of characterization, plots, humour, and tea. He even buys these things: his portrait appeared on the £10 note for several years" (288). Given this mass-proliferation, Patten asserts, " [t]here is, therefore, in one sense, no Dickens--only plural Dickenses. Nor is there, in one sense, a publisher. A print-world function no longer applies to the multiplicity of media Dickens inhabits" (288).

Patten is obviously right--in one sense. But one wonders whether the conditions he describes differ substantially from those that marked even the early part of Dickens's career, when he was endlessly imitated, adapted by unlicensed hacks for the London stage, and pirated so brazenly in America that he complained of it repeatedly during his 1842 visit here. This does not invalidate Patten's larger point, but it does suggest that we might understand the Dickensian proliferations of the last half-century as a renewal rather than a novel state of affairs.

Patten's Epilogue also usefully treats one more subject that has often divided Dickens scholars: whether he really needed the large sums he raised during the last decade of his life by giving paid public readings from his fiction. As Patten reminds us, John Forster "counseled Dickens against the Readings ventures because they converted a distinguished author into a performing mountebank" (268). Likewise, Patten observes, scholars have sometimes scoffed at the idea of Dickens "needing" money at this late stage of his career, instead taking his determination to read publicly as "evidence of an unpleasantly commercial side of the great man" (269). But Patten makes a powerful case for Dickens's need. He read aloud for money, Patten argues, less because of avarice than because of family obligations: he had to leave behind enough for an extraordinarily large array of dependents, many of whom he had supported for years. Drawing from Slater's excellent work on the provisions of Dickens's will, Patten notes that Dickens's estate totaled less than £80,000 at the time of his death, excluding the 7/8 interest in All the Year Round that he bequeathed to his eldest son Charley. From this sum, Dickens had to provide for Ellen Ternan, his surviving sister Letitia, the families of two dead brothers, his estranged wife Catherine, his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth, his surviving daughters Katey and Mamie, his many sons, his executor John Forster, and his domestic servants. Most of these were left comfortable but not wealthy, several of his sons ended in relative poverty, and Georgina, who lived until 1917, spent the last years of her life selling mementos to keep solvent (273). None of them benefitted substantially from the continuing sales of Dickens's works, though these were substantial. Dickens did not need to give public readings to pay his daily expenses, feed his children, or avoid falling into debtors' prison like his impecunious father. But as Patten demonstrates, he faced significant financial pressures during the last decade of his life. "In retrospect," Patten writes near the end of the Epilogue, "Dickens's drive to increase his estate was a reasonable impulse" (293). Patten makes a convincing case, though it is unlikely to sway those troubled by the substantial gap between Dickens's relative affluence and the fierce sympathy for the poor he expresses so often in his fiction.

Between the Preface and the Epilogue, the second edition of Charles Dickens and His Publishers contains all of the familiar things: the original front matter and Introduction; the sixteen chapters arranged into four major sections; the 112 pages of Appendices, most of which are tables of information taken from the publishers' ledgers; and the original Select Bibliography and Index, with a slightly revised header note to the former explaining that "[t]he bibliography applies only to works cited in the first edition of the book" (413). (Full bibliographic information for the sources cited in the Preface and Epilogue does appear in the footnotes.) Nothing else has been revised or amended in the original contents, which remain what they always were: a clear, authoritative, thorough account of Dickens's relationships with his publishers throughout his life. On Dickens's tangled writing commitments during the 1830s, or his famous quarrel with Bentley over Oliver Twist, or the frustrations that caused him to leave Chapman and Hall in 1844, or the conditions that brought him back to Chapman and Hall in 1859 after his ugly break with Bradbury and Evans, Patten's book remains the magisterial work that it has been these last forty years.

Readers familiar with the first edition may justly wonder whether the second one, with just 47 pages of new material, is worth preferring to the original. The answer depends very much upon whether one wants to understand, via the Preface, the critical phase at which Patten conceived of his project, or to consider, via the Epilogue, what it means to speak or write of "Dickens" or "his publishers" amid the Dickensian mass-proliferations of the twenty-first century. If so, there is much of value here, particularly in Patten's careful delineation of what has happened to the meaning of the two key terms in his title. Discussing them, he shows, entails both practical and theoretical questions of authorship and literary production: whether, for instance, Dickens can rightly be called the "author" of things so disparate as the weekly installments of A Tale of Two Cities that appeared in All the Year Round in 1859, the 1935 film adaptation of that novel starring Ronald Colman, the Penguin Classics edition of A Tale of Two Cities published in 2003, and the digital edition of A Tale of Two Cities that appears as part of the University of Buckingham's now vitally important Dickens Journals Online. As Laurence Mazzeno noted in The Dickens Industry (2008), "Dickens" has for some time now been an "industry." Perhaps he has been one ever since he burst upon the scene as the "inimitable" author of The Pickwick Papers in 1836. The Preface to Patten's second edition of Charles Dickens and His Publishers is charming and erudite, if not precisely scholarly, while the Epilogue adds a significant new chapter, not just to Patten's book but to the broader project that he has worked at and spun out, elegantly and insightfully, these last forty years. That project is nothing less than explaining the material conditions of Dickens's rise as the first English novelist of the industrial age.

Sean Grass is Professor of English at Iowa State University, USA.


Leave a comment on Sean Grass's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments:

 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search Review19.org
Loading