I’m very pleased that even though Charles Dickens is not the primary focus of my collection, I do have one of his novels, Little Dorrit, in the original monthly parts. In case you don’t know, Dickens originally issued most of his novels in monthly installments that looked something like 19th-century magazines. In paper covers with illustrations, each part included several chapters of the novel, plus advertisements for everything from insurance to magic lantern slides to umbrellas to “Du Barry’s Delicious Revalenta Arabica Food.” (This last cures, among other things, “Flatulence, Distension, Acidity, Heartburn, Palpitation of the Heart, Nervous Headaches, Noises in the Head and Ears, and pains in almost every part of the body.”) For the patient reader, the last two parts were often combined into a single monthly issue.
One of the things I love about Dickens parts is that they drive home how very different the experience of reading his works was originally from what it is now. I often think it would be a good experiment to read one of his novels one part at a time, forcing myself to wait a month until I could find out what happens next.
A Sophie Collingwood, one of the two protagonists of my forthcoming novel First Impressions (the other is Jane Austen) says, “Can you imagine what that must have been like, to be reading David Copperfield and to have to wait a month for the next installment?”
I wonder if, a hundred years from now, collectors will revel in the opportunity to have a similar experience. Will their experience of new books be wholly digital? Will they find it an interesting historical experiment to try reading one of those antique books printed with ink on paper and put into a binding? I like to think that printed books are here to stay—a mantra I will repeat often in this blog. But I can’t see the future any better than Dickens could, and I do think that one service that book collectors serve is to give readers the opportunity to experience a text as it was originally experienced.
None of this explains why I have a set of Dickens parts in my Lewis Carroll collection or why I am blogging about it today. “Lewis Carroll” was the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he first used that name to sign a poem in the March 1856 edition of a short-lived magazine called The Train. As near as we can tell the March issue hit newsstands about the fifth, but on the first, readers could buy a copy of the third installment of Little Dorrit, in which they would find a detailed advertisement for The Train. The advertisement is the first place where the name “Lewis Carroll” ever appeared in print. So, on the 158th anniversary of that occasion, I tip my hat to Messrs. Dodgson and Dickens. Come back in a couple of weeks and I’ll tell you what else connects them.