Dickens the authorpreneur

Bigger than the Zuckerberg Bump, bigger even than the Colbert Bump or the Oprah Bump—arguably the most historic bump in English publishing is the Sam Weller Bump, triggered not by a tastemaker with a megaphone but a sharp-talking, warm-hearted servant.

In June 1836, Charles Dickens published the fourth installment of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, one of the many shilling monthlies that were the backbone of Victorian publishing. Printed on low-cost acidic paper and sold in pale green wrappers, they were aimed at the middle and newly literate working classes on the lookout for entertaining fare. But many of these readers had grown accustomed to the gobbets of melodrama offered by the cheap press—they were utterly uninterested, then, in the picaresque misadventures of Mr. Pickwick and his chums as they bowled through England collecting scientific information for the betterment of mankind. The first three installments of Pickwick barely sold four hundred copies.

But that June, sales began to grow by orders of magnitude: from four hundred to four thousand to an astounding forty thousand as the serialization drew to a close in November 1837. Everyone up and down the social ladder began to devour Pickwick, from butchers’ boys to John Ruskin, who read Pickwick so often he claimed to know it by heart. Copies were passed from hand to hand and read aloud as family entertainment. The critics effused with praise. Dickens, who was twenty-four and expecting his first child, had become a household name.

What changed? It was in this fourth installment that readers met Sam Weller, a cheerful young bootblack with a distinctive cockney idiolect—a character, in other words, in whom many readers could recognize themselves. Dickens gave Weller a fine comic entrance; his first appearance finds him in the yard of the White Hart Inn, polishing eleven and a half pairs of shoes. The half, he explains, belongs to the man with the “vooden leg” in No. 6. Dressed in a striped waistcoat with blue glass buttons, a bright red handkerchief wound loosely around his neck, and an old white hat worn rakishly on his head, Weller was thoroughly urban but with old country values—a good son and a loyal servant. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “Sam Weller introduces the English people.” Responding to the market’s roar of praise, Dickens brought Sam to the center of the novel by having Pickwick hire him as his valet: a cockney Sancho Panza to his naive esquire, Quixote.

Readers were enchanted by Sam’s wisecracks, his unabashed laugh-lines, his outlandish habit of quoting Dr. Faust to the chambermaid the one minute and Bluebeard the next, while smoothly interchanging his v’s and w’s. Charles Darwin, writing in 1838 to his friend and mentor, the geologist Charles Lyell, referred admiringly to “Samivel, that prince of heroes.” Sam was especially famous for what came to be known as Wellerisms—one-liners that turned proverbs on their heads. (An example from Pickwick: “That’s what I call a self-evident proposition, as the dog’s-meat man said, when the housemaid told him he warn’t a gentleman.”) Puzzled by this strange, aphoristic creature, one of the Pickwickians says cautiously, “You’re a wag, ain’t you?” To which Sam coolly replies, “My eldest brother was troubled with that complaint, it may be catching—I used to sleep with him.”

Sam was certainly catching: even before the serialization of Pickwick was complete, plagiarized stage versions were up and running, and soon imitators calling themselves Bos and Buz were writing spin-offs—one married off Pickwick, another sent him to Madras. Then came the merchandise men with Pickwick cigars, playing cards, toby jugs, candy tins, china figurines, Sam Weller puzzles, Weller boot polish, jest books, and even Weller Taxicabs, named after Sam’s loquacious coachman father, Tony, whom Dickens introduced to exploit the Weller wave.

Sam Weller not only carried the lumbering Pickwick chaise to the top of the best-seller list, he valet parked it there for the next thirty years. Though it’s now regarded as one of Dickens’s weakest novels, Pickwick was his most popular book during his lifetime, selling 1.6 million copies. At Dickens’s last public reading, writes his biographer Claire Tomalin, when he bid farewell to the “garish lights” he loved, Dickens was so ill and weary he stumbled on the name, saying Pickswick, Pecknicks, Pickwicks—but he was called back several times and got a prolonged standing ovation. Shortly before he died, in 1870, when Chapman and Hall brought out its handsome Charles Dickens Edition, Pickwick had to be reprinted four times: a total of seventy-six thousand copies.

The Sam Weller Bump testifies not merely to Dickens’s comic genius but to his acumen as an “authorpreneur,” a portmanteau he inhabited long before The Economist took it up. Thomas Carlyle once remarked on his “remarkable faculty for business.” Driven as much by commercial success as critical acclaim, he juggled novel writing, journalism, plays, theatrical productions, charity works, public readings, and twenty-mile walks with an inexhaustible energy.

Tomalin rightly calls 1836 Dickens’s annus mirabilis—but he made almost nothing from Pickwick. The profits went straight to Chapman and Hall, his publishers, who held the full copyright. It was a bitter lesson, and Dickens learned it well: if ever he felt underpaid, he quarreled with his publishers or simply broke his contract. Since he was England’s blockbuster writer, publishers conceded to his demands—Our Mutual Friend, serialized from 1864–5, earned him more than any other novel, though it sold less than half as well as Pickwick. By then, Dickens had arranged to share in advertising revenues, and he’d sold Chapman and Hall half copyright for six thousand pounds. They lost seven hundred pounds on the novel.

For a writer who made his reputation crusading against the squalor of the industrial revolution, Dickens was a creature of capitalism; he used everything from the powerful new printing presses to the enhanced advertising revenues to the expansion of railroads to sell more books. In a speech he gave at Birmingham, a factory town, he spoke eloquently about how the people had freed writers from the unseemly patron system. Grimly conscious of how his hero Samuel Johnson had been humiliated by his patron, the Earl of Chesterfield, Dickens was infinitely grateful to market forces—they’d delivered him “from the shame of the purchased dedication, from the scurrilous and dirty work of Grub Street, from the dependent seat on sufferance at my Lord Duke’s table today.”

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