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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 June, 2003, 19:49 GMT 20:49 UK
Dickens: The original publisher's dream

By Matthew Davis
BBC News Online

The runaway success of Harry Potter is rewriting the record books. But one of the greatest revolutions in publishing came more than 150 years ago, from the pen of 24-year-old Charles Dickens.

Dickens shot to fame in 1837 - the year Queen Victoria came to the throne - with his first great comic novel The Pickwick Papers.

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By the time he died in 1870 - to be buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey - he had become a national institution whose stories and characters had defined an era.

His works - including A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist - were serialised in weekly or monthly parts and have been described as the soap operas of their day.

This method of publication fuelled anticipation about the next twist in the plotlines - and boosted sales.

The serialisation of The Old Curiosity Shop saw weekly circulation of the magazine which carried it - Master Humphrey's Clock - reach 100,000 as the journey of "Little Nell" neared its tragic end.

Dickens' major works
The Pickwick Papers (1837)
Nicholas Nickleby (1839)
The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)
Barnaby Rudge (1841)
Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)
A Christmas Carol (1844)
Dombey and Son (1848)
David Copperfield (1850)
Bleak House (1853)
Hard Times (1854)
Little Dorrit (1857)
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Great Expectations (1861)
Our Mutual Friend (1865)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

Dickens was inundated with letters from readers pleading for Nell to be saved and it is said that crowds on the New York harbour front greeted passengers from England with cries of "Is Nell dead?" as the novel reached its climax.

During the serialisation of Great Expectations, instalments of the story outsold the Times newspaper.

Dickens sold a vast amount of copies considering that half the population couldn't read. It is thought he was read by one in 10 of the reading public.

Many more illiterate people enjoyed his works, gathering in lodgings and coffee houses to hear readings from the latest chapters.

In a trend foreshadowing the modern movie spin-off, Dickens' works were immediately turned into plays, and souvenirs of his books - like Pickwick hats or cigars - were sold to an eager public.

Charles Dickens
Dickens said he was as well known in London as St Paul's Cathedral

Dickens expert Professor Michael Slater told BBC News Online: "Dickens once said he was as well known in the streets of London as St Paul's Cathedral, and he was probably right. He used to joke that he was a dangerous man to be seen with."

But the author's main problem was that copyright laws were very weak at the time, Professor Slater said.

Dickens could not control the vast merchandising of his works, and derived no profit from the many plays made from his novels.

So while his popularity was comparable to JK Rowling's, the money was not. Nevertheless, he died worth 93,000 - no small sum in 1870 - but hardly richer than the Queen, like 280m Rowling.

Nation's favourite

But so pervasive are his writings that they have spawned an adjective - Dickensian - which even Harry Potter's creator has yet to achieve.

Cast of BBC production of Great Expectations
Instalments of Great Expectations outsold the Times newspaper

And his influence is still keenly felt today, even if his face has now disappeared from the 10 note.

In a recent BBC survey of the nation's favourite books, no author had more books in the top 100 than Charles Dickens, with five.

Admittedly, JK Rowling posted four entries - and that was before the publication of the Order of the Phoenix.

Amid the many big and small screen adaptations of Dickens' books - the latest being a new film of Nicholas Nickleby - celebrations of the author's life and works still take place today.

Thousands attended the recent Dickens festival in Rochester, Kent - a favourite haunt of the author when he lived in nearby Chatham as a boy.

Costumed couple at Dickens Festival
Rochester's Charles Dickens festival draws thousands to the town

Thelma Grove, of the Dickens Fellowship, told BBC News Online: "Dickens was not a man just of his age, but a man for all time. Many of the institutions he was critical of still have many of the same problems.

"We still argue about whether we should teach facts in schools, and we still hear terrible stories of the mistreatment of children in institutions, even today.

"His characters are immortal. People today send birthday cards and wedding presents to characters in soaps like EastEnders - but even last month I had someone asking me where they could find little Nell's grave."

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