Dickens Writes the Pickwick Papers

by Edwin Watts Chubb

We are always interested in the beginnings of a successful career, for humanity with all its selfishness takes a generous pleasure in the advancement of those who have made an honest fight for fame or wealth. The first success of Dickens came with the publication of the Pickwick Papers, by the publication of which the publishers, it is said, made $100,000,—much to their astonishment.

We all know the early career of the famous novelist: How he passed a boyhood of poverty; how he became a stenographer, a good one, for said a Mr. Beard, "There never was such a shorthand writer," at the time Dickens entered the gallery as a Parliament reporter; how he later became a reporter for the Morning Chronicle. In the December number of the Old Monthly Magazine his first published story saw the light. This was in 1833, when Dickens was twenty-one. The story first went under the name of A Dinner at Poplar Walk, but it afterwards was changed to Mr. Mims and his Cousin. Then came Sketches by Boz in 1835, and in 1836 Pickwick appeared in serial form, the book coming out a year later.

An amusing and striking illustration of the widespread interest in the story of Pickwick, if we may call so rambling an account as Pickwick a story, is related by Carlyle: "An archdeacon with his own venerable lips repeated to me the other night a strange profane story: of a solemn clergyman who had been administering ghostly consolation to a sick person; having finished, satisfactorily as he thought, and got out of the room, he heard the sick person ejaculate, 'Well, thank God, Pickwick will be out in ten days any way!'—this is dreadful."

We are always interested in knowing whether the author received adequate remuneration for his work. Literature is not a commercial venture. The man who says, "Go to, now I shall make money by my pen!" is not the one who achieves a masterpiece. Nevertheless we are glad to know that genius is rewarded. It is more comforting to learn that Pope received $45,000 for his translations of Homer than that Milton got $25 for his Paradise Lost; that Scott received over $40,000 for Woodstock, a novel written in three months, than that the author of the Canterbury Tales two years before his death was obliged to petition the king, "for God's sake and as a work of charity," for the grant of a hogshead of wine yearly at the port of London.

Did Dickens receive anything for his Pickwick? Mr. Chapman, one of the publishers, told Mr. Forster, the friend and biographer of Dickens, that there was but a verbal agreement. The publishers were to pay 15 guineas for each number and as there were twenty numbers it is not hard to estimate his receipts on such a basis. The publishers, however, were to add to this compensation according to the sale. Mr. Chapman thinks that his firm paid about 3,000 pounds for Pickwick, but Mr. Forster thinks the sum was about 2,500 pounds. While this sum bears but a small proportion to what Dickens would have received had he made a good bargain with his publishers, it is yet a large sum to one beginning his literary career, and must have been deeply appreciated by Dickens, who had been so poor that he was paid 30 pounds in advance for the first two numbers, so that he might "go and get married."

Pickwick was soon followed by Oliver Twist, and then came Nicholas Nickleby, and the long series of successful novels that brought the author both fame and money. For when Dickens died he had a fortune of £93,000. Some of this was made in America, where his "readings" were attended by great crowds. On his second tour to America, after he had given thirty-seven readings, about one-half the entire number, he sent home a check for £10,000. Some evenings he took in $2,000.

One reason why Dickens is a popular novelist is that he understands the common emotions of humanity. He may be "stagey," be lacking in plot, given to exaggeration, indulge in cheap pathos, but in spite of all these defects his abounding vitality, his sympathy with the common lot, his imagination, are of such transcendent power that his world of readers adores the name of Dickens. Dickens was a good man. While not closely following the forms of religion, his life was better than that of many who follow the letter but break the spirit. As an illustration of his Christian belief I quote an extract from his letter to his youngest son, who was about to go to Australia:

September, 1868.

Never take a mean advantage of any one in any transaction, and never be hard upon people who are in your power. Try to do to others as you would have them do to you, and do not be discouraged if they fail sometimes. It is much better for you that they should fail in obeying the greatest rule laid down by our Saviour than that you should. I put a New Testament among your books for the very same reasons, and with the very same hopes, that made me write an easy account of it for you, when you were a little child. Because it is the best book that ever was, or will be, known in the world; and because it teaches you the best lessons by which any human creature, who tries to be truthful and faithful to duty, can possibly be guided.... You will remember that you have never at home been harassed about religious observances, or mere formalities—I have always been anxious not to weary my children with such things, before they are old enough to have opinions respecting them. You will therefore understand the better that I now most solemnly impress upon you the truth and beauty of the Christian Religion, as it came from Christ Himself, and the impossibility of your going far wrong if you humbly but heartily respect it.... Never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your own private prayers, night and morning. I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it.