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Manual Dickens in America (Modern Plays Series)

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In Dickens's case, each monthly part had a separate " Advertiser " section. As artefacts, these serial parts are very interesting socio-economic evidence. Every Dickens novel had green covers. Each novel had an engraved cover that gave some clues as to the contents of the novel. We recognise this today as branding. Punters would always recognise the " new " serial parts of a Dickens novel. It would stand out and identify itself on the booksellers' shelves. It cost a shilling.

Not really cheap, when compared with wages of the day. Publishing was to become a major industry in the Victorian period -- magazines, newspapers, bibles and religious works, novels, poetry, histories, travels, sporting news, muckraking, sensational publications of all kinds, cheap reference works were all grist to these busy mills.

The market was voracious. Social class income, education was a major influence in reading tastes. Drawing on the crude categorization of Matthew Arnold, we can say the well educated but "barbarian" upper class was but a small part of the Victorian reading public. According to Walter Bagehot: " A great part of the 'best' English people keep their minds in a state of decorous dullness.

Consequently, the appetite for cheap publications increased, feeding on a diet of religious tracts, self-help manuals, reprints of classics, penny newspapers, and the expanding range of sensational publications featuring crime, violence, police reports, bawdy ballads etc. It was Arnold 's ever expanding middle class "philistines" that formed the largest reading public for these consumer goods from the publishing industry - both prose and verse -- prose and poetry.

Dickens in America Excerpt

And the members of the rapidly developing profession of authorship, of which Dickens was to become such a shining example, supplied this demand. Professional writers regularly supplied uplift, instruction and entertainment for this greedy new market. This was the golden age of the English novel, but poetry and serious non-fiction also thrived. Books as purchasable commodities were still rather a luxury in the earlier Victorian period.

The system relied on co-operation between writers, publishers and libraries to produce " three deckers ," long novels packaged in three separate volumes in order to triple rental fees and allowing three readers to consume a single title at one time. Serial publication provided an alternative lucrative method.

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In monthly serial parts publication could be underwritten by advertising revenue. This kind of publication thrived from the beginning of Victoria 's reign until the s. The evidence is very interesting. It is not only a matter of considering the nature of the fiction contained in the pages -- the cover price, the style and vocabulary of the writing and the nature of the advertisements tell us a great deal about the intended consumers. It is my firm opinion that Dickens was, in the main, appealing to the lower middle and middling middle classes - the class to which he considered he belonged.

The sentiments, ethics and moral attitudes of his fiction are tailor-made for this readership. The language is at the right level. Advertisements, as with the case of modern commercial television advertising, tell us a great deal about the audience addressed. A quick glance through a random sample of the advertisements that appeared in the monthly serial numbers of Bleak House helps us roughly identify the class of the readership that advertisers believed they would reach.

They would seem to have ample disposable income. Among household goods and furnishings we find:. Then there's the eider down quilt offered by Heal and Sons " the most luxurious Covering for the Bed. The Couch or the Carriage ". There are numerous advertisements for clothes. Edmiston and Son offer their "Versatio, or Reversible Coat It is assumed readers of Bleak House would patronise the Italian opera. Thomas Harris and Son call for the " It is assumed that readers of this novel will have time to read much else besides the monthly parts of Bleak House. Readers of these monthly serial parts are inclined to take an interest in news and current affairs, as there are advertisements for the London Weekly Newspaper " and Organ of the Middle Classes " as well as Lloyds Weekly Newspaper , that shows elegantly dressed young ladies scanning the latest intelligence as they take a drive in their carriage that we note is manned by two liveried black servants.

Understandably, such middle class confidence stands on firm capital foundations. Banking services are advertised, such as those offered by the Bank of Deposit and Savings Bank: " But, let us make no mistake; the claims made by BBC media publicity that our greatest novelist was churning out Victorian soap operas for mass popular consumption are quite unambiguous.

Nigel Stafford Clark, who produced this new version of Bleak House, has no doubts on this score:. He was unashamedly writing for a mainstream popular audience and that tends to get slightly forgotten today because his books have become classics. His stuff was serialised and sold on the streets, so once a month a new episode of the new Dickens would come out and be sold like a magazine to everybody. By the time he wrote Bleak House, Charles Dickens was very well established and there was enormous excitement and anticipation about each instalment.

People were excited in the way that they are now about a new series of a popular television drama like Spooks or Shameless. If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would probably be writing big signature dramas like State of Play or Shameless. He would be writing for television because he recognised a popular medium when he saw it. He was absolutely tuned in to the needs of an audience so he wrote for serialisation; he used cliff-hangers as a way of getting an audience to come back for the next episode". A lot might be learned by considering the actual purchase price of a monthly serial part of Bleak House at the time of its serialization.

One shilling. The final double number was two shillings. John Sutherland rather straightforwardly says: " Dickens's novel was It is not really enough to say that a shilling in would be 5 pence in today's money. We need to know what 5 pence was actually worth in What would it buy?

How much were people paid in ? Was 5 pence in fact worth very much or not in ? There's no simple formula by which we accurately calculate the exact money values at the time of the publication of Bleak House. But we can surmise much when we take into account the money values of the early s.

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This was aimed at a middle class pocket. The advertisers wanted to reach a readership with a fair disposable income. A farm labourer was lucky to get about 7 or 8 shillings a week. Weavers during depressions received about 4 shillings and 6 pence, sometimes having to work almost seven days a week to earn it. With compulsory church attendance taking up most of Sunday. In prosperous areas some trained and apprenticed working craftsmen got 40 shillings week.

Domestic servants ranged from 50 shillings a year " all found ". A seat in the Canterbury Hall, a popular tavern and concert room, was 6 pence. We have some interesting evidence of costs and money values in Bleak House. Guppy, Jobling and young Smallweed have their lunch at a dining house " of the class known among its frequenters by the denomination Slap-Bang " and feast on veal and ham, French beans, stuffing, three pints of half and half, marrow puddings, Cheshire cheese and three small rums.

The cost is quickly calculated by Small weed :. Eight and six is half a sovereign, Polly, and eighteen-pence out! This lunch for three young legal gentleman cost nearly ten shillings, about 3 shillings 4 pence each. This slap-up lunch, then, would cost him nearly half a day's wages. It is obvious to me that such monthly serial publication was scarcely hawked about the streets to be sold to a mass public. It was aimed at a middle class public. Whenever I hear such confidant assertions, my first inclination is to ask, what is meant by a "soap opera".


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And then to go on and ask, how much Dickens have you read? We can discuss the validity of the term "soap opera" is respect of Dickens's fiction in the light of modern media theory. The question of familiarity with Dickens's novels is a personal question. But the issue of attracting young contemporary television audiences to Dickens's fiction by presenting Bleak House in thirty minutes episodes twice a week following BBC-1's transmissions of EastEnders - in my view -- raises very fundamental cultural issues indeed. Then there are some important economic, political and commercial matters to take into account.

But they cannot be avoided. Let's see what light can be shed on the 'soap opera' claim by using contemporary media genre theory. The real cause of the trouble is the confusion of any form of serial fiction with a fairly specific genre, soap opera. Did Dickens write soap operas? Although everybody grabs at the name of Dickens when the question of serial publication crops up, it is important to stress that serial publication was standard practice in British publishing throughout the period.

Towards the end of the s the publication of novels in monthly serial parts declined, as much of it was gradually taken over by the new illustrated periodical journals and illustrated magazines, made possible by advances in printing technology and improvements in graphics. This brought some of the period's greatest writers cheaply into British homes, in episodes accompanied with fine illustrations. Among those to benefit from such publication was Thomas Hardy. As a genre, it seems to have originated in US commercial radio serials in the s to sell soap powder mainly to housewives; hence its interests centred on families, friends, neighbourhoods.

Soap operas originated in s American radio serials that were chiefly sponsored by leading soap powder companies. To reach their target audience these serial dramas needed regularly to attract housewives at home with serial dramas. These dramas combined features of literary romance and melodrama, had strong affinities with female orientation, easy to grasp moral issues and extreme emotions.

Such long running serials were constructed with interlocking episodic narrative lines, full of surprising coincidences, unexpected twists and turns and plenty of cliff-hangers.

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Soap opera made a seamless transformation onto television. British soaps are special in their working class location, probably the long term result of their emergence in the early days of ITV in the s, a decade marked by the strong revival of British social realism - films and novels such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top, Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving, plays by Arnold Wesker and John Arden and the popularity of such groups as the Beatles.

The material is substantially repetitive including courtship, marriages, infidelity, divorces, deaths, disappearance, sudden arrival of "lost" friends or relatives. No single character is indispensable. Relationships are more important than plot. They continue to be aimed at women, especially working class women. Soaps have no beginning and no end, no structural closure. No single narrative thread dominates.

The plot lines interweave different characters and situations all the time. Several stories may be carried on and over for a number of episodes. It has been argued that soaps with their structural openness represent a particularly feminine narrative form. All told, not much seems actually to happen because frequent action is rare.

British soaps seem to supply a regular source of interest and anecdote that replaces gossip of former communities and generations. To sum up. So far, so interesting. But media publicity is claiming that Dickens's fiction was the "soap opera" and that if Dickens were alive today, he'd be writing for Coronation Street , EastEnders etc. In my view this glib media blatherchat is culturally and historically illiterate.

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This soap opera claim will not bear examination and falls apart the moment one starts seriously to discuss the evidence. Soap opera was a new genre pioneered on commercial radio in the USA. The aim was to attract advertising for soap, washing powders and domestic commodities by broadcasting an endless serial drama in short, daily episodes, aimed mainly at women listeners.

The soap opera prototype thus created was centred on a locality a street, locality and dealt with the everyday goings-on of families, friends and neighbours. Storylines inevitably focused on relationships, love, loss, marriage and minor "tragedies". As the narrative thread was required to be unending, with no extreme actions or noticeable resolution, various interlocking and interchangeable themes recur. We all know what these are as we see them every week. It seems clear to me that Dickens's novels do not conform to the established conventions of soap opera.

Dickens's plots are never like this. The well-known fact that his novels were first published in serial form is a critical and theoretical red herring. Dickens's novels invariably have a recognisable beginning exposition , followed by development, various crises and final resolution. They always have that sense of going somewhere towards a denouement in which all the threads are gathered up. Even apparently unconnected characters, themes, communities etc are always finally seen to be all inter related.

The gender interests and social range is much wider than in soaps. Unlike soap operas, his locations are varied and often widely distant from each other. His appeal was mainly to the genteel lower or middling middle classes. They were aimed at a mixed readership.


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  • Over and above these considerations, it can be said that Dickens's authorial style is certainly not that of soap opera. Soaps are not " realistic " yet they aim to achieve a surface quality of British social realism, strongly marked by the working class "realism" of the s. Yet soap operas, because of their need for mass appeal, are ready enough to be Politically Correct, shy away from socially or politically controversial themes. The issue of social realism is interesting. Most modern critical and theoretical work on Dickens suggests that Dickens, unlike so many of his Victorian contemporaries, was by no means a social realist.

    It is a serious mistake to apprehend Dickens's achievement by approaching his fiction as social realism. He is not sensibly to be compared with, say, Emil Zola and his imitators [43]. His fictions are dreamlike, psychological, grotesque, fairytale versions of social experience. Yet he deals with real social issues, such as the conditions of the poor, work houses, education, prostitution, the class system and so on. As Harold Bloom commented: " Although Dostoevsky and Kafka frequently shadow him, Dickens has no true heir in his own language. How can you achieve again an art in which fairy tales are told as though they were sagas of social realism?

    Nor can I accept that if Dickens were alive today he would be writing popular television dramas. Yes, we know he loved acting and performing his own works. He enjoyed going to the theatre. There are frequent moments in his fiction that employ melodramatic effects. But we know from his own feeble attempts in writing for the stage that his gift for writing drama was feeble.

    His fascination with the theatre prompted him early in his life to try his hand at plays. None of his juvenile efforts survive. It ran for a season. Though abhorring this brief descent into the working class, he began to gain that sympathetic knowledge of its life and privations that informed his writings. Also, the images of the prison and of the lost, oppressed, or bewildered child recur in many novels.

    Much else in his character and art stemmed from this period, including, as the 20th-century novelist Angus Wilson has argued, his later difficulty, as man and author, in understanding women: this may be traced to his bitter resentment against his mother, who had, he felt, failed disastrously at this time to appreciate his sufferings.

    His schooling, interrupted and unimpressive, ended at These years left him with a lasting affection for journalism and contempt both for the law and for Parliament. His coming to manhood in the reformist s, and particularly his working on the Liberal Benthamite Morning Chronicle —36 , greatly affected his political outlook. Another influential event now was his rejection as suitor to Maria Beadnell because his family and prospects were unsatisfactory; his hopes of gaining and chagrin at losing her sharpened his determination to succeed.

    Much drawn to the theatre , Dickens nearly became a professional actor in The same month, he was invited to provide a comic serial narrative to accompany engravings by a well-known artist; seven weeks later the first installment of The Pickwick Papers appeared. Within a few months Pickwick was the rage and Dickens the most popular author of the day. Thus, he had two serial installments to write every month. Already the first of his nine surviving children had been born; he had married in April Catherine, eldest daughter of a respected Scottish journalist and man of letters, George Hogarth.

    For several years his life continued at this intensity. Finding serialization congenial and profitable, he repeated the Pickwick pattern of 20 monthly parts in Nicholas Nickleby —39 ; then he experimented with shorter weekly installments for The Old Curiosity Shop —41 and Barnaby Rudge Exhausted at last, he then took a five-month vacation in America, touring strenuously and receiving quasi-royal honours as a literary celebrity but offending national sensibilities by protesting against the absence of copyright protection.

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    Some of these feelings appear in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit — His writing during these prolific years was remarkably various and, except for his plays, resourceful. Pickwick began as high-spirited farce and contained many conventional comic butts and traditional jokes; like other early works, it was manifestly indebted to the contemporary theatre, the 18th-century English novelists, and a few foreign classics, notably Don Quixote.

    But, besides giving new life to old stereotypes , Pickwick displayed, if sometimes in embryo, many of the features that were to be blended in varying proportions throughout his fiction: attacks, satirical or denunciatory, on social evils and inadequate institutions; topical references; an encyclopaedic knowledge of London always his predominant fictional locale ; pathos; a vein of the macabre; a delight in the demotic joys of Christmas ; a pervasive spirit of benevolence and geniality; inexhaustible powers of character creation; a wonderful ear for characteristic speech, often imaginatively heightened; a strong narrative impulse; and a prose style that, if here overdependent on a few comic mannerisms, was highly individual and inventive.

    Rapidly improvised and written only weeks or days ahead of its serial publication, Pickwick contains weak and jejune passages and is an unsatisfactory whole—partly because Dickens was rapidly developing his craft as a novelist while writing and publishing it. As well as being our greatest novelist, Dickens developed a new, composite art form in his stage performances, acting out specially adapted passages from his own works and varying his expressions and speech patterns, so that it seemed as if he were becoming possessed by the characters he created.

    His reading tours won him huge popular acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. And in all probability they contributed to his premature death, from a stroke, in Why did Dickens take his show on the road? His first public readings were for charity, beginning with two performances of A Christmas Carol , before a crowd of 2, working-class people in Birmingham.

    Soon, though, the offers of payment were coming in, and Dickens, always with an eye for the business opportunity, was tempted. His close friend John Forster warned that such a "public exhibition for money" might be demeaning, and this was enough to dissuade Dickens for a while - respectability was an issue with him. But the lure of public performance proved too much, and the author turned professional in As he told Forster, most people thought he was being paid for his readings anyway.

    Dickens took a large Gladstone bag with him on his tours - a contemporary cartoon shows it stuffed with money. But if money was a motivation - he said he needed it for repairs to Gad's Hill Place, the Kent pile he had just bought - it was far from the only one. Dickens was fascinated by the stage: he had seriously considered becoming an actor as a young man, and had a small theatre fitted up at his house in Tavistock Square.

    He also clearly relished the chance of coming face to face with his readers, to whom he spoke so personally in the prefaces to his novels. What Dickens's public got for their money was something of a spectacle.