Charles Dickens and "Boz": The Birth of the Industrial-Age Author

July 26, 2012

The story of Charles Dickens' development as a storyteller - from his first anonymous unpaid sketch in December 1833 to the publication of Barnaby Rudge in 1841 - is told extremely well in this fine volume. But Robert Patten confesses in his final paragraph that quite a different book could yet be written on the "Industrial Age Author" in the context of the industrialisation of print culture.

So ignore the subtitle and just enjoy Patten's wide-ranging knowledge and insight about Dickens as a narrator of stories: a lifetime's understanding of the author is laid out for our enjoyment. Patten has been working on Victorian literature and culture for more than 30 years, and is a world expert on Dickens' illustrator George Cruikshank. Two main areas concern him here: Dickens' authorial voice, and his development as a self-conscious and self-respecting purveyor of the written word.

Dickens' first extraordinary tranche of writing - which came to a halt in 1841, when he took a complete break from writing commitments and subsequently visited the US for the first time - is the book's focus. Patten analyses this intense eight-year period of creativity, showing how very uncertain it was that writing would be the focus of Dickens' career: there were other good possibilities, including theatre and law.

His first essays were not only anonymous but unpaid: a state of affairs that could not continue. One learns to sympathise with Dickens' burgeoning awareness of his own value as a writer, his growing exasperation with the injustice of the "free" marketplace - the predation upon his creativity not only by his own publishers but also by other writers who imitated and impersonated him, and adopted and adapted his stories for the stage and for all kinds of spoof works - and his increasingly urgent need for economic recompense.

During the same period, as he was becoming a public figure, Dickens altered and adjusted his own authorial voice and vista, from the anonymous observer to the pseudonymous "Boz", "Tibbs", and "Timothy Sparks", the aged "Master Humphrey", "Charles Dickens", and the omniscient narrator.

Some of these name changes were devices to circumvent restrictive clauses in publishing agreements inhibiting his publication elsewhere. Dickens was driven, it seems, for these first few years to agree to far too much - to the creation of two or more novels at a time, and to the editing of books and journals, as well as other writing. It is no wonder that at the end of this period - especially after Barnaby Rudge, whose weekly issues became a treadmill of Dickens' own making - that the writer felt he needed a break.

Despite his extraordinary productivity, Dickens, beleaguered and in debt, was increasingly exercised by the desire for a fair share of the profits of his own industry, like a modern pop star who ill-advisedly signs with a big record company for a pittance, and realises too late the exploitation embedded in the contract. It was this awareness that caused him to develop a fierce determination to reform the law of copyright, and to seek to control the use of his own image or "brand", as Patten shows. Dickens was fortunate in having two loyal personal friends to fight his corner: Thomas Mitton, who became his lawyer, and John Forster, who effectively served as his agent and later as his first biographer.

Even so, it was not until later years - when Dickens shook off subordinate status to become his own publisher, and especially after he undertook his great programme of public readings - that the novelist was eventually able to reap the real financial rewards of his own prodigious creativity.

Charles Dickens and "Boz": The Birth of the Industrial-Age Author

By Robert L. Patten

Cambridge University Press

426pp, £45.00

ISBN 9781107023512

Published 10 May 2012

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