Charles Dickens: Novels by Installments
Right around the publication of Sketches by Boz, Dickens was hired to write a series of monthly stories to accompany some humorous illustrations by the artist Robert Seymour. Extremely without humor and quite tragically, Seymour committed suicide after completing just two drawings.4 Dickens went ahead with the project anyway. With just a few tweaks, it was published in monthly installments until November 1937. The Pickwick Papers, as the book later became known, was extremely popular. Dickens's career as a novelist was off and running.
In 1836, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth. A year later, their first child, a son named Charles, was born. (The couple went on to have ten children, but, unfortunately, the marriage wasn't a happy one.) In 1837, Dickens published the first monthly installment of Oliver Twist, his novel about an innocent orphan and the seamy underworld in which he finds himself. Like all of Dickens's novels, it was published in monthly installments. Oliver Twist ran in Bentley's Miscellany, of which Dickens was also the editor. No matter how much success his novels gained, Dickens almost always held a full-time job as well. His childhood experience with poverty left him deeply scarred, and he worked all his life to avoid a similar fate.
Let's talk a little about this installment thing. Generations of bitter students have looked on these installments (and the enormous novels they eventually resulted in) as a strange form of torture, especially while they're stuck on what feels like page 6,000 of Great Expectations. Dickens wrote for money! you cry in angry despair. He was paid by the word! Why should we suffer because this guy was trying to boost his paycheck?
To that, we say two things.
The first is that, except for the pay-per-word part (Dickens was paid by the installment, not by the word), the charge that he wrote for money is completely true.
The second is: Well, duh. Charles Dickens was a professional writer. Novels, stories, and the like were his means of supporting himself – what, did you want him to go back to the factory? And he did not dream up the installment plan as a way of bilking publishers for more money. Publishing novels in monthly installments did result in massive volumes once the books were completed. But the plan actually made a ton of sense for publishers and readers alike. By publishing a novel like Oliver Twist in a series of twelve to twenty-four cliffhanger installments, magazine publishers could guarantee themselves up to two years of magazine purchases from readers hooked on the story. Once the book was finished, they could sell it as a single volume and make money all over again.
Also, in mid-nineteenth century England, most people could not afford to fork over the cash for a whole novel, which was an expensive investment. The only person who partially lost out in this deal was the writer himself. Dickens had to work at a pretty ferocious pace to keep up with the magazine's schedule, and he didn't really get too great of a cut from either the magazine or bound-book sales. Add these factors to his killer work ethic and his deep-seated terror of poverty, and you've got a guy who is going to be cranking out some serious wordage.