Charles Dickens’ first novel, commonly called The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), sent the memorable characters Samuel Pickwick and Sam Weller on a series of comic adventures through picturesque England. The book—a first edition of which is held in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library—also launched Dickens into prominence. The author, whose 200th birthday will be celebrated this year, became the publishing phenomenon of the Victorian age. His novels crossed boundaries of class, gender, and race to become worldwide favorites.
Dickens also transformed the business of writing, publishing, and selling literature. Most of Dickens’ novels were published in monthly serialized parts, with delightful illustrations by his main collaborator, Hablot K. Browne (who used the pseudonym “Phiz”). This format became a strong brand, but it also transformed the works themselves. Plots often changed midstream to spur sales, and new works such as Hard Times were begun to save a struggling magazine or promote a charitable cause. Dickens became an industry unto himself, with innumerable agents, booksellers, imitators, plagiarists, pirates, and hangers-on making a living from his name.
One of the earliest and most notorious of the plagiarists, Thomas Prest, wrote many knockoffs of Dickens works, with misleading titles such as Oliver Twiss and The Penny Pickwick. These and other rare works from his time, as well as other works of Dickens, will be on display in the Rubenstein library exhibition “Charles Dickens: 200 Years of Commerce and curator of collections Controversy,” through April 1.