The Composition, Publication, and
Reception of Our Mutual Friend

Robert L. Patten

Rice University

OMF cover

Our Mutual Friend in serial

OUR MUTUAL FRIEND was the last novel Charles Dickens issued as a twenty-part monthly serial, from May 1864 to November 1865. He and his publishers, Edward Chapman and William Hall, had devised this mode of publishing in 1836, when they were jointly producing The Pickwick Papers. By the time of Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865), the formula for Dickens's serials had become standardized: a new shilling part every month for eighteen months. Each part contained two illustrations that preceded thirty-two pages of letterpress. Plates and text, along with such advertising inserts as the publishers had been commissioned to include, were stitched into flimsy green-paper wrappers. On the front wrapper was imprinted a wood-engraved design incorporating the title and figuring characters, incidents, and allegorical allusions to the themes and other concerns of the novel. The last monthly part was a "double number" (numbers 19 and 20). It comprised 4 illustrations and 64 pages of letterpress and cost 2 shillings. The four illustrations included two plates depicting scenes in the closing chapters, a frontispiece that, like the wrapper design, represented the principal themes and persons of the story, and an illustrated title page that provided a small vignette scene. The 64 pages of text comprised the last chapters plus those pages that would be inserted at the front of the first number if the monthly parts were reassembled and bound up as a volume. Thus there would be a half-title page, dedication, Table of Contents, List of Illustrations, a Preface, and sometimes instructions to the binder where the illustrations should be placed, so that they appeared on the page facing the scene described in the text.

Issuing a novel over 19 months had advantages for the author, for the publishers and printers, and for the public. Authors got paid for each installment, instead of having to starve until the novel was completed and then hoping to sell it to a publisher. Dickens married in the spring of 1836 on the strength of his monthly stipend for writing Pickwick Papers, and throughout his lifetime, whenever a new serial was being issued, he enjoyed a payment nominally made around the 20th of the month when he turned in his manuscript for the printers to set in type. Most Victorian authors hated the royalty system, which deferred any remuneration not only until after the whole book had been completed and accepted for publication, but also until after the publisher had received accounts for all costs and receipts, reckoned his administrative overheads, and figured out the net sales or income on which royalty was to be paid. Serials gave authors income while writing, with the possibility of more income should the book prove popular with the buying public.

Moreover, the monthly format broke down the task of writing several hundred thousand words into more manageable pieces, pieces that themselves could be designed in sub-sections of the whole. Dickens tended to write three-chapter numbers, including materials in each number about his primary and secondary plots or themes, often orchestrated in alternating chapters. In one number, for instance, the main plot/characters/theme might appear in chapters 1 and 3 while the comic or subplot/characters/theme were broached in chapter 2; in the following number, the subplot might be prominent in chapters 4 and 6, the main plot in chapter 5: an ABA BAB construction. (Dickens tried out many variations of this paradigm, just as nineteenth-century composers tried out variations of the ABA sonata form.) Dickens also tended to demarcate the mid-point of the novel, and sometimes the mid-points of the mid-points, so that numbers 5, 10, and 15 complete stages of the larger narrative trajectory. By the 1850s, Dickens was also thinking in terms of binding the parts into two entities, rather than one: Little Dorrit (1854-55) was divided into two "books," and Our Mutual Friend is divided into four "books" designed to be issued in two bound volumes, each separately paginated, thus:

  • Volume I (numbers 1-10; pp. 1-320)
    • Book the First. The Cup and the Lip (numbers 1-5)
    • Book the Second. Birds of a Feather (numbers 6-10)
  • Volume II (numbers 11-20, pp. 1-309)
    • Book the Third. A Long Lane (numbers 11-15)
    • Book the Fourth. A Turning (numbers 16-20)

The first volume, bound up from unsold numbers and encased in a stamped cloth binding, went on sale in February 1865, after number 10 had been issued, at 11 s. Included in the 32 printed pages were a half-title, title page, dedication page, contents, and "Illustrations to Volume I." The very first illustration for the first number, "The Bird of Prey," showing Gaffer and Lizzie in the boat on the Thames, was used as frontispiece. The second volume appeared in November 1865 at the end of the serial run. In addition to the usual preliminary leaves, volume II contained a "Postscript in Lieu of Preface," since the issuance of volume I in February precluded adding a preface to it in November. As there was no vignette title, the illustrator Marcus Stone supplied an extra illustration (three rather than two) and a frontispiece of John Rokesmith retrieving the Dutch bottle from a dust heap while Venus and Wegg spy on him. Subsequently unsold parts were reused to make up a one-volume edition.

If serial publication rewarded the author while writing and helped to organize his structures and composition, it had at least as great advantages for publishers. First of all, the expenses of each number were partially recovered before the next was manufactured, so publishers could print the novel at a fraction of its usual cost, recycling their profits every month. Second, the periodicity of issuance made serial fiction a good place for advertising; Our Mutual Friend contains the largest number of advertising sheets of any Dickens serial. Revenue from this source reached £2,750, a very sizable addition to the profits, shared fifty-fifty between author and publishers. Third, serials often elicited multiple reviews; in the early days, when they were a novelty, each part might receive separate notice. Not that multiple reviews necessarily affected sales: for most of Dickens's serials, sales declined through the serial run. But having the novel discussed in the periodical press monthly further blurred the distinction between reading a book, a closed container whose contents are enjoyed in a private space and time separated from diurnal activities, and reading an installment that is simultaneously circulating, through reviews and conversation, in the public world of daily events. As is often the case with movies, word-of-mouth keeps up the public's interest; and when the product is a serial with a shelf-life of nineteen months or more, such word-of-mouth and multiple reviewing could be a crucial and highly cost-effective way of sustaining interest in the title. Finally, once a serial run concluded, the publisher could offer the text in many other formats: Chapman and Hall could sell publishers' cloth covers to bookbinders for encasing the parts, and sell bound copies made up from the parts, and print new editions aiming at a higher (large expensive paper, good quality plates) or lower end of the market (small type set in columns, cheap paper, no or few plates). These editions substantially contributed to back-issue receipts. And thus a book designed and issued as a periodical might take on a lucrative half-life for decades after its serial appearance.

For the public, serialization provided many attractions. Labourers might actually own a copy of a novel, instead of borrowing one from a circulating library or looking at it in a working man's reading room or missing out altogether. The standard price for a three-volume novel from the 1820s to the 1890s was a guinea and a half: 31s. 6d. That was well beyond the means of most people. But an outlay of a shilling a month over eighteen months, and two shillings the last month, converted one-off book purchases into no-interest installment payments. The serial parts could be taken home, read privately, read aloud to the family, perused by the non-literate for their illustrations and advertisements, and eventually bound up or thrown out or replaced by a new copy. We know of cases where the hard-up pooled their pennies to buy an installment, and of workers who couldn't afford even that luxury but who nevertheless knew Dickens by having his work read aloud as entertainment at tea or in the evening, or who found rubbishy used copies in bookstalls and took them home. Dickens's books entered into the lives of his readers more thoroughly than those of most other writers. Serial novels are seen today as loose, baggy monsters, almost impossible to get through in our crowded, rushed lives. But in the nineteenth century, breaking down the novel's bulkiness into twenty snippets of entertainment allowed readers to "inhabit" a world, like a television soap opera, in manageable segments. Deprived of the luxury of installment reading, readers today find features of Dickens's prose overbearing that would be much more appealing if read, especially read aloud, over a year and a half.

Our Mutual Friend was not one of Dickens's greatest success at the time of its initial publication. Whereas twenty years before serial fiction was the rage, by the mid-1860s even cheaper formats had been devised: monthly magazines that sold for a shilling or less included installments of several novels as well as informative essays on a wide range of topics, and sometimes incorporated pictures, letters to the editor, hints about housekeeping and grooming, and other matters of interest to an increasingly urban, working audience. Of the opening numbers of Our Mutual Friend, an average of under 30,000 were sold; only 19,000 copies of the final double number were stitched into the paper wrappers. Dickens was, of course, an international celebrity, so Frederick Chapman, now managing partner of his uncle Edward's publishing firm of Chapman and Hall, sold copies, or stereotypes of the pages, around the world: to Harper and Brothers in New York for serialization there, to Canada and India and Australia and New Zealand, to Bernard Tauchnitz for reprinting in Germany, and to Italy for reprinting in English in an Italian newspaper.

The reviews were respectful, but they sometimes compared Dickens's latest production unfavourably to his earlier, sunny works. Dickens's biographer, John Forster, said in his biography of the author a decade later that Our Mutual Friend "wants freshness and natural development," and that too was a familiar complaint at the time of the book's reception; Henry James said it was "poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion." The attack on the Poor Law was generally appreciated, although some wondered whether fiction was the appropriate place to issue political ideas. The Saturday Review protested the "odious vulgarity and malevolence which Mr Dickens has put into the mouth of Society": "mere moonshine, and not creditable to the author's insight or shrewdness." Critics of the last half century have, on the whole, been more appreciative of Dickens's late achievement than his contemporaries were, and recent studies have begun to explore the complex and profound ways Dickens's novel wrestles with the dehumanizing effects of capitalism.

And Dickens? How did he feel about what was to be his final completed novel? He had trouble all the way through its composition. He had been haunted by a great Dust Heap for sixteen years, ever since 1850 when he published an article on the topic in his journal Household Words . And Dickens also had his title in mind for years, finally settling on it in October of 1862, well in time for his illustrator to begin designing the wrapper (done early in 1864) and his publishers to begin soliciting advertising. But then, nothing. "I am trying to plan a new book, but have not got beyond trying," he wrote in March in 1862. The lament was repeated throughout the next six months. Finally in October his creative energies began to stir. By the end of January 1863 he had written two numbers--Dickens always tried to stay a few months ahead, and did so by composing several numbers before the start of publication. But he felt "dazed" by the hugeness of his undertaking; twenty numbers seemed an impossibly large volume to fill. As usual, he constructed "number plans" in advance for the whole work, with facing pages for notating the contents of the number and suggestions and decisions about what to put in, leave out, or postpone. But the blank sheets seemed to stretch into infinity.

Once publication commenced, Dickens fell behind, gradually losing his advance because he could not keep up the pace of writing. He often was ill, his life was constantly interrupted by other commitments, and his energy and attention were compromised. "I have dropped astern this month instead of going ahead," he reported at the end of August 1864. He struggled on, plagued with work and worry, until he had to get away to France in June 1865 for a brief holiday or "break down." The train in which he returned was involved in a bad accident; ten passengers were killed and forty seriously injured. Dickens was heroic in his endeavors to rescue and comfort the injured and dying; at the last moment he managed to retrieve from the teetering railway carriage the installment he had been carrying with him. (That event is referred to in the last sentences of his "Postscript" to the novel.) Shaken but determined, Dickens canceled all social and professional engagements and worked "like a Dragon" at a "labour of love" which had now seized him "by the throat." He managed to complete the last double installment in the nick of time.

Dickens's illustrator for Our Mutual Friend , Marcus Stone (1840-1921), was the son of a former neighbour and close friend, Frank Stone. Although Marcus had drawn a few designs for reprints of Dickens's stories, he had never been engaged for a serial before. Stone's predecessors had executed steel etchings; Stone designed plates which highly skilled craftsmen transferred onto endgrain blocks of wood that they then carved to make wood engravings. Stone worked rapidly and on the whole congenially with Dickens. He introduced Dickens to the St. Giles's taxidermist's on which Dickens then modeled Mr. Venus's shop, and he took Dickens's painstaking suggestions about every dot and line of his trial drawings without complaint. "The doll's dressmaker is immensely better than she was," Dickens told the young artist after he revamped an unsatisfactory sketch. Such praise was less forthcoming than corrections, but Stone never complained about his collaboration with Dickens. He also never worked again in book illustration. As an aged and distinguished member of the Royal Academy, Stone denigrated his Dickens plates as immature work.

When the last "t" had been crossed and the "Postscript" proofed and printed, Dickens did something quite unusual. He had been giving his manuscripts and proofs to his authorized biographer, John Forster, for twenty-five years. But this time, moved by the not-altogether-favourable review (issued anonymously) that the critic E. S. Dallas had published, Dickens gave Dallas the holograph. Subsequently Dallas sold it, and eventually J. P. Morgan, a far more vital and fearsome plutocrat than Mr. Veneering, bought it for his library. The manuscript is now housed at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

Installments of Our Mutual Friend

Volume I

Part I. May 1864. Book the First. Chapters 1-4, pp. 1-32
Part II. June 1864. Chapters 5-7, pp. 33-64
Part III. July 1864. Chapters 8-10, pp. 65-96
Part IV. August 1864. Chapters 11-13, pp. 97-128
Part V. September 1864. Chapters 14-17, pp. 129-60
Part VI. October 1864. Book the Second. Chapters 1-3, pp. 161-92
Part VII. November 1864. Chapters 4-6, pp. 193-224
Part VIII. December 1864. Chapters 7-10, pp. 225-56
Part IX. January 1865. Chapters 11-13, pp. 257-88
Part X. February 1865. Chapters 14-16, pp. 289-320, plus 12 pages (six leaves) of preliminary matter (half-title, etc.)

Volume II

Part XI. March 1865. Book the Third. Chapters 1-4, pp. 1-32
Part XII. April 1865. Chapters 5-7, pp. 33-64
Part XIII. May 1865. Chapters 8-10, pp. 65-96
Part XIV. June 1865. Chapters 11-14, pp. 97-128
Part XV. July 1865. Chapters 15-17, pp. 129-60
Part XVI. August 1865. Book the Fourth. Chapters 1-4, pp. 161-92
Part XVII. September 1865. Chapters 5-7, pp. 193-224
Part XVIII. October 1865. Chapters 8-11, pp. 225-56
Parts XIX and XX. November 1865. Chapters 12-[17] ("Chapter the Last"), pp. 257-306, plus "Postscript" (4 pp.) and eight pages (four leaves) of preliminary matter