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2000-03, 325, Alan Dilnot, Book collecting, Dickensia

Collecting Dickens

In this article I will discuss collecting Dickens, and in particular my own collection of Dickens. I will begin with an outline of what Dickens has left us to collect. First of all there are the fourteen novels, from The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which began appearing in 1836, to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was left unfinished when Dickens died in 1870. Most of these novels were published in at least two forms, serial parts and volume. Nicholas Nickleby, for example, appeared in nineteen monthly parts from April 1838 to October 1839, the last part being a double number. Each part cost one shilling and consisted of 32 pages of letterpress together with two illustrations. These were surrounded by several pages of advertisements and the whole was contained within a green wrapper which carried on the front a design suggesting in outline the course of the story. Publication in volume form brought together the parts, omitting the advertisements but adding a title page, a frontispiece (in this case a reproduction of the Daniel Maclise portrait of Dickens), a Preface, a table of contents and a list of plates. This volume could of course be bound in a variety of ways.

Dickens‘s longer novels – 800 pages or so in modern paperback editions – were all monthly-part productions in the first instance, as was Edwin Drood. The shorter novels were first published in magazines that Dickens edited. Oliver Twist appeared in the fortnightly Bentley’s Miscellany; The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge appeared in Master Humphrey’s Clock; Hard Times came out in Household Words; while A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations were published in All the Year Round. Each of these appeared in volume form just as its final episode came out in the magazines.

There were of course other editions in Dickens‘s lifetime. Oliver Twist, for example, was published in a Cheap Edition at 6 shillings in 1846, and in the same year appeared in ten monthly parts. Together with Dickens‘s other novels, Oliver Twist was also published in the Charles Dickens Edition of 1867. These editions of Oliver Twist exhibit interesting textual variations, and there are further differences to be found in American editions authorised by Dickens.

In addition to the novels in their various forms, there are the journals that Dickens edited, as I have indicated. These contain other material from his pen – essays, editorials, short stories and the passages that he added to pieces by his contributors.

Dickens‘s most notable short fiction is probably his series of Christmas Books, published in single volumes starting with A Christmas Carol in 1843. From 1850 onwards his Christmas Stories came out in one or other of the magazines and were written in collaboration with a range of writers, the most distinguished of whom was Wilkie Collins.

Dickens wrote a great many tales and sketches, especially at the outset of his career. These were often for newspapers. Many of them were collected in Sketches by Boz. Dickens also wrote several plays and a handful of poems. He gave many speeches, which often have to be reconstructed from newspaper reports. There were two travel books, a history book, a version of the Gospels for his children and books edited by Dickens or with a Preface from him. There were also at least fifteen thousand letters from his pen.

The foregoing will give some idea of the fertility and size of the Dickens field. Of course, much of the field has already been cultivated, for people began to collect Dickens‘s works and Dickensiana early, and he has continued to attract collectors.

Dickens in Melbourne: from the Catalogue of the Pickwick Centenary, 1936.

The nature of my own Dickens collection has been governed by a range of possibilities. For example, by the time I became a collector, it would have been foolish for me to set out to collect Dickens‘s manuscripts and letters, for most of the manuscripts and very many of the letters were already in collections, either institutional, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the New York Public Library or the Dickens House Museum, or the great private collections, such as those of the Comte du Suzannet, Colonel Gimbel and John F. Dexter. Any choice items not in such collections that came on to the open market would necessarily command very high prices. Such items would normally be beyond me. So one limiting factor on the nature of my collection has been affordability.

Another limiting factor arises from the origins of my collection. I began as a collector of Dickens almost by accident. Of course, I had some books by Dickens when I was a student, but these were hardly worthy of the name of a collection. My collecting really began in 1974 when I purchased some volumes from someone who had completed a Masters degree on Dickens at Monash University. He was moving countries and disposing of all his books, including his books by and about Dickens. Some had already been sold when I arrived at his house out in Ferntree Gully. A complete set of Bleak House in the original parts had gone. However, David Copperfield in parts and a first edition of the same novel bound in cloth remained, together with a bound Bleak House. There was also the three-volume first edition of Master Humphrey’s Clock in which The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge first appeared. There were several volumes of Household Words and All the Year Round. There were a couple of volumes of The Household Narrative of Current Events and one or two other nice things such as the Dickens Memento, which included a seductive essay called ‘Hints to Dickens Collectors’ by John F. Dexter. Equally attractive to me were a great many issues of the magazine called The Dickensian, which began appearing once a month in 1905, and continued as a monthly until 1919. Thereafter it came out as a quarterly until the 1970s, when it began to be published three times a year.

I thus acquired a ready-made, though rather small, collection. I now had to decide what I had acquired it for, and what I was going to do with it. My answer to the first question was that I had acquired it as a scholarly resource and as an aid to teaching. I think that was partly true. It was also the case that I wanted to have a respectable cover for my self-indulgence. Whether or no, this rationale seemed to justify purchasing extra items – they were to assist in my teaching. And so I came to understand what I had acquired the collection for. I had acquired it in order to add to it.

Dickens in Melbourne: Recital of 1913.

My first objective was to fill in gaps. So, I set out to acquire first editions of as many of Dickens‘s works as I could. Here I had to accept some restraint. Sets or parts of some Dickens novels were beyond my reach; some first editions in volume form were pretty pricey too. Nevertheless, I now have at least one first edition in volume form of all the novels except Our Mutual Friend; and I do have the first volume of a two volume first edition of that. I have all but one volume of The Hosehold Narrative, all of Household Words, and all but one of All The Year Round; also the volumes of Bentley’s Miscellany in which Oliver Twist first appeared. More important to me than any of these, though, is that I have now almost a complete run of The Dickensian, the only volume missing being that of 1919.1

It is therefore possible for me, from my own collection, from that of the Monash University Library, and with the aid of modern technology, to give students a reasonable idea of the progress of a Dickens novel from pen through proof, serialisation, publication in volume form to the modern paperback edition in which they will probably read it.

Since the early days my collection has acquired two emphases. One is to trace Dickens and his work as they have been received in Australia, and especially in Melbourne. The second is to trace the ways in which Dickens‘s works have been illustrated, and how this illustrative material has been brought to a public that does not necessarily read his books.

I think we can say that Dickens has been appreciated in Melbourne for almost as long as Melbourne has been in being. Pickwick Papers began to appear in 1836, and John Pascoe Falkner was soon promoting his new lending library with the announcement that parts of Pickwick Papers had arrived. Soon after that a ship called the Pickwick was plying between Van Diemen‘s Land and Port Phillip; and the first cricket club in Melbourne was named after the Pickwickians. The Launceston Pickwick is another sign of this early enthusiasm for Dickens. Dickens mentions Australia, or at least Botany Bay, several times in his early novels. The Artful Dodger, the Micawber family, Little Em‘ly and Mr. Peggotty are just some of the characters who land on these shores. When Dickens founded the journal Household Words in 1850 scarcely an issue went by without some reference to Australia. These references were designed to encourage some of the readers to emigrate to Australia. In the 1850s Dickens began to cooperate with the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, of the famous banking family, in establishing Urania House, where an attempt was made to reform prostitutes and then to assist their passage to Australia. Dickens was by now thinking of Australia as a land of opportunity, a place where British society could be imitated, but a society without those old country elements which Dickens had habitually satirised. Dickens used Australia as part of the background for Great Expectations, and the tragedy of Magwitch is seen partly in his inability to be content with his success in Australia, and in his urge to get even with the corrupt old world which he felt had wronged him so many years before.

The popular image of Dickens: postcard illustrating an incident in the Christmas number, Pickwick Papers.

Dickens himself considered making a reading tour of Australia, in 1860. He had been guaranteed a profit of £10,000 by the firm Spiers and Pond if he would make the trip. He was very keen on the idea, and hoped to get material for a novel as well as for a series which would have been called ‘The Uncommercial Traveller Upside Down’. But in the event his doctors advised him that he would not be able to stand the rigours of the trip. Spiers and Pond brought out a team of English cricketers instead, which led ultimately to all kinds of humiliations for English cricket, while Dickens in due course sent out two sons to Australia, Alfred and Edward. Alfred settled for a while in Hamilton, Victoria, and then moved to Melbourne. He had two daughters, Violet and Kathleen, and I have a photograph of them taken at Lorne in about 1913. I believe this has never been published. One of our Melbourne Dickens Fellowship members has a locket that was given to her mother by Violet Dickens.

In 1902 in London the Dickens Fellowship was founded, and branches sprang up around the world in quick succession. The Melbourne Branch, founded in 1904, is the oldest surviving Branch outside of England, its 95th Birthday falling in July 1999. I am always interested in acquiring anything for my collection that bears on the history of the Melbourne Branch. In 1909 a volume called Dickens in our Commonwealth was published, edited by Miss F. Deering Johnstone. I am pleased to say that I have a copy once owned by Mr. J.H. Crowther, who was really responsible tor setting up the Melbourne Branch. Early in 1904 he wrote to The Argus and The Age proposing that people interested in Dickens should form a Branch. Within two years, there were 550 members, and Mr. Crowther was the Secretary. They met monthly, as they still do today. I have one or two of the early annual reports. Meetings featured papers on the novelist and his times, recitations, dramatic sketches, songs and concerts – again, just as they do to-day. The Branch undertook a certain amount of fund-raising for charities. In the First and Second World Wars they put on concerts and readings. They supported, and sometimes organised, exhibitions of Dickens‘s works. In 1936 they assisted with the centenary exhibition at the State Library. I have several copies of the catalogue, including one that belonged to Mr. W.G. Southwell, secretary of the Fellowship for many years, and later President. But the Branch‘s entertainments were essentially for home consumption. In my collection I have copies of many of the Branch‘s programmes, including some which are pre-1914, and pictures of some of the entertainers, such as Mr. Victor Trotman, Miss Elsa Holyoak and Miss A. Godwin-Smith.

To round out my account of the Australian part of my collection I will mention two rather curious posters, produced by the Victorian electoral commission. These give instructions on how to indicate preferences on your voting form. What is strange is that they use names of Dickens‘s characters for suppositious candidates, so that Uriah Heep, Sydney Carton and Paul Dombey appear to be standing for election. There are ten characters in all, with Quentin Durward somehow creeping in among the Dickensians. These forms do not appear in polling booths now, but they still did twenty years ago, when with the aid of a sympathetic re-turning officer I managed to ‘liberate’ about a dozen copies.

I would like to consider now another emphasis of my collection – illustrative material. This includes several sets of cigarette cards, with an especially attractive companion piece, Cope’s Smoker’s Album, which features illustrations over and above those in Cope‘s set of fifty. There are packs of playing cards. There are postage stamps from around the world, many issued in 1970, the centenary of Dickens‘s death. And there are a great many postcards. Far and away the most common, and certainly some of the best, are those issued over many years by Raphael Tuck. I am also fond of those cards printed in Bavaria around the turn of the century by S. Hildesheimer & Co.; Mrs. Gamp is a popular character in this, as in most other, series.

Another attractive postcard item is a modern one, entitled, ‘‗What are the wild waves saying?‘, Brighton beach’, from Dombey and Son. It is postmarked Brighton, 15 September 1976, and is based on a painting by Charles Nicholls: ‘Florence sits beside Paul‘s ‘little carriage‘ and in the background is the old man in his ‘battered oilskin‘ who wheels it down to the sea-side. The Chain Pier can be seen in the distance.’

‘What are the wild waves saying?’ became a popular parlour ballad in late Victorian times, and I have the sheet music for this too.

No British author is more closely associated with Christmas than Dickens, and yet another substantial part of my collection consists of Christmas Cards. A curiosity here is the card issued by the Dickens-Klubben of Denmark, featuring Hans Christian Andersen.

Such material introduces the world of Dickens to many people who have never read a novel of his. For example, the cigarette cards have a little bit of information about the characters on the back. Here is what the Player‘s card says about Mr. Squeers, of Nicholas Nickleby:

A brutal illiterate pedagogue, keeper of a “Yorkshire” school. He possesses but one eye, while “popular prejudice runs in favour of two” and when he smiles his expression borders “closely on the villainous”. His utilitarian method of imparting instruction is simplicity itself: ―C-l-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement. When the boy knows this out a book, he goes and does it.

Nowadays many people base their ideas about Dickens on the various films of his works. Many film companies release collectable mementoes. When the film of Little Dorrit was made in 1987, a set of postcards was issued featuring the main characters of the film. There were, for example, cards of Joan Greenwood as Mrs. Clennam, Eleanor Bron as Mrs. Merdle, Alec Guinness as William Dorrit, and Max Wall as Flintwinch. The studies themselves were excellent, by Snowdon! A rather good booklet was also published when the film appeared.

A collection such as mine, then, can offer some insight into cultural history, and the history of taste.

The changing text: the first paragraph of Oliver Twist in “Bentleys Miscellany”, 1837.

The changing text: the first paragraph of Oliver Twist in the Cheap Edition, 1846.

I also use my collection to demonstrate aspects of the production of Dickens‘s texts. For example, I have two different issues of the first edition of The Pickwick Papers. Robert Seymour designed the original plates for the first numbers of this novel, but when the publishers wished to expedite printing, they had Phiz, Seymour‘s successor, draw a copy of Seymour‘s plate so that two printing presses could roll at once. As a result, genuine first editions of The Pickwick Papers show a considerable number of differences, some the result of haste, such as plates marked with the incorrect page number.

Great Expectations is the novel of Dickens which is most frequently studied today. A point for discussion is the novel‘s end-ing, because of the modifications which Dickens made to it. From my collection I am able to show the first printed ending as it ap-peared in All The Year Round, and can invite students to compare it with the revised ending which concludes most modern paper-back editions, as well as with the ending of the novel in manuscript, now usually published as an appendix.

Students are usually interested in the various illustrations added to this novel (it was unillustrated when first published). The little-known edition of the novel by Norman Lindsay, with forty-six illustrations by him, is useful for discussions of “Illustration as Interpretation” .

Extra illustrations: Fred Pegram’s “Tea Parties of Dickens” given away by International Tea Company, 1922.

I also teach a course which concentrates on “Reworkings” – treatments of one author‘s material by another. In my collection I have copies of Michael Noonan‘s Magwitch, and Peter Carey‘s Jack Maggs. John Fowles‘s The Magus may be considered in this category too, and I have copies of both editions together with an article in which Fowles confesses his indebtedness to Dickens.

Probably the item in my collection which I delight in most is a letter written by Dickens in 1836 to Charles Whitehead, who eventually settled in Melbourne and died here. Students are especially thrilled by seeing something that Dickens actually touched – and so am I.

Alan Dilnot


I am pleased to report that since writing this article I have managed to complete my run of The Household Narrative of Current Events as well as my run of The Dickensian – a satisfying way to mark the end of my first twenty-five years of collecting Dickens.



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