Dickens in Many Voices: Plagiarism and Appropriation in Literary History
back to English Matters
In The Philosophy of Money, Georg Simmel argued that exchange is one of the bases of society; indeed, extending the concept of exchange beyond economic considerations, he came close to asserting that exchange creates society:
Simmel defines exchange quite broadly, so that the term includes many activities not usually thought of in economic terms (conversations, games, glances, etc.). The defining feature is the presence of reciprocal interaction. He restricts the category of economic exchange to reciprocal interactions involving sacrifice (82-3).
Karl Marx was less sanguine about the social benefits of exchange, although he shared with Simmel a belief in its importance. According to Marx, "universal interdependence" and "complete isolation of . . . private interests" are the two sides of exchange in modern capitalist societies; the "social coherence" provided by "exchange value" entails the "mutual and universal dependence of individuals who remain indifferent to one another" (Marx 66). Exchange, for Marx, does not provide the kind of "inner bond" Simmel posits: exchange unites, but those it unites remain strangers; it connects, but without breaking down the distances that separate people. In Simmel's terms, it creates collectivities rather than societies.
Aside from questions about price and distribution--which I will discuss in a moment--what does exchange theory have to do with literature? To answer this question we first have to suppose that more can be exchanged than money (or goods and services). If we believe that information can be exchanged, that the images people have about one another circulate, supplementing if not surpassing monetary exchange, then we can see society as a system of multidimensional communication, not just a system of economic exchange. And if society is a system of communication, then an understanding of literature can play an important part in the study of social history. Because representations of social life shape the ideas that people have about one another, literature (in so far as it depicts society) can foster either cooperation or conflict and contribute to the formation of collective identity. Particularly in more democratic societies, where the power of ideas often depends on their availability, the distribution of literature plays a crucial role in determining its impact.
Dickens provides perhaps the foremost illustration of this dynamic in literary history. The size and diversity of his audience made it possible for him to mobilize public opinion and promote specific reforms. His criticisms of the new poor law in Oliver Twist, for example, affected public debate on the subject in part because they were so well known. But Dickens also influenced his society in more diffuse and less immediately practical ways. Interest in his stories was so widespread that their circulation helped to create a shared vocabulary and fund of images, a national imaginary with the potential to ground collective action. His readers might disagree about political economy or the poor law, but they all knew about Oliver's request for "more." Precisely because Dickens' appeal was so broad, however, the uses to which such scenes were put varied depending on the specific needs and interests of his readers. Equally important, because his writings entered the imaginative life of early Victorian England in multiple forms (with different versions of his stories produced for different audiences), his work provided a vocabulary in which to articulate difference as often as it was used to express common purposes.
Today, many know Dickens' stories without having read his books. Some of his novels are assigned in high school and college English courses, but beyond that a significant portion of those who know Dickens, know his works through adaptations--through movies, stage and television dramatizations, musicals, and even cartoons. The situation was analogous in early Victorian England. Illustrations, dramatizations, and public readings widened his appeal just as television does now; abridgements and plagiarisms reached less literate and less affluent readers. But while economics does not usually determine who reads Dickens today--cheap paperback editions are common and many high schools distribute his books for free--his audience in the 1830s and 1840s, although larger than any previous novelist's, did not extend much below what we would call the lower middle class.
By the early 19th century, improvements in the technology of printing and the expansion of literacy had made the publication of inexpensive fiction for large audiences a potentially viable commercial enterprise. But until Chapman and Hall issued Pickwick Papers in monthly installments, few publishers had taken advantage of these possibilities and produced new copyright fiction for purchase by the middle and lower middle classes. In this context, the publication of Dickens' novels was both a commercial and an artistic breakthrough. By releasing Pickwick Papers in shilling monthly parts, Chapman and Hall enabled many readers to buy the work who could not afford an expensive three volume novel--the standard format for serious fiction at the time.
Dickens' works were still too expensive for many poor and working class readers, however. He did have a lower class following, but a significant number of these readers got their Dickens second hand, through dramatizations and cheap plagiarisms. Here, Edward Lloyd was one of the chief innovators. He published penny weekly plagiarisms of Dickens' early novels that even the poor could afford. Equally important, Lloyd went on from these plagiarisms to publish original fiction in penny weekly installments, setting the pattern for much of the so called slum fiction of succeeding years. The son of a poor farmer, Lloyd began a small stationery and bookselling business in the early 1830s, achieved tremendous sales with his Dickens' plagiarisms, and went on to become one of the first mass market publishers of fiction and journalism in England.
The first monthly number of Pickwick Papers came out in April of 1836. It did not do well at first, but by the fifteenth number it was selling 40,000 copies a monthly issue--an unheard of number at the time. Others were quick to take advantage of Dickens' success. Dramatizations of Pickwick were first staged as sales were accelerating, in the spring of 1837. In April or May of that year, Lloyd began publishing a plagiarism of Dickens' novel entitled The Post-humourous Notes of the Pickwickian Club or Penny Pickwick. Thirteen or fourteen numbers of Pickwick had already been published and Oliver Twist (which started appearing in February of 1837) was in its third or fourth installment.
Although not Lloyd's first publication--The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen and The Calendar of Horrors were serialized in 1835 and 1836--Penny Pickwick was his first big success, with reported sales of 50,000 per week. Its popularity encouraged Lloyd to publish more works of its kind and provided him with funds to expand his business. Equally important, by demonstrating the size of the audience for cheap serialization, his success encouraged others to enter the field. Between 1837 and 1845 at least eleven Pickwick imitations and sequels were published, as well as three club satires, four political satires, five song books, two calendars, and six joke books based on the novel. There were even Pickwick hats, Weller corduroys, and Boz cabs (Johnson 156).
Though many publishers rushed to meet the demand for Boz, Lloyd was the most prolific. He came out in quick succession with plagiarisms of Sketches by Boz, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Master's Humphrey's Clock, and Barnaby Rudge--all carefully adapted to the interests and capacities of poor and barely literate readers. Lloyd also published a club satire loosely based on Pickwick's adventures, a book of Pickwickian songs, and a continuation of the novel. All except the song book followed the model established by Penny Pickwick. They were published in eight page weekly installments which sold for a penny (or four part monthly issues at 4d.), had two columns of closely printed letter-press per page (Clock and Budge were printed in single columns) and had two crude woodcut illustrations per weekly issue. For more than a decade, much of the fiction published for poor and working class readers came out in the same format.
In the 18th century, chapbooks had provided the bulk of the cheap fiction available to the poor. Often hawked by itinerant peddlers, they sold for around a penny and were illustrated with crude woodcuts. Beginning, according to Leslie Shepard, "as a kind of printed folklore," many chapbooks were shorter versions of the 6d. and 1s. romances favored by more prosperous readers, but they also reproduced fairy tales, recounted famous battles, dealt with supernatural or religious phenomenon, or told jokes (Shepard 26-30; Neuberg 51). They were printed on single sheets, which were then folded anywhere from 4 to 16 times to produce a pamphlet of 8 to 32 pages. Although there were regional variations, the chapbook audience started to shift later in the century and by the 1830s the form was used primarily in children's literature. Penny serials--and, beginning in the 1840s, cheap miscellanies and Sunday newspapers--replaced chapbooks as the primary format for publishing cheap fiction.
But while penny serials took the place of chapbooks at the lower end of the adult fiction market, the new form reproduced many elements of the older tradition. Individual numbers resembled chapbooks in both size and cost and like chapbooks were published for relatively uneducated readers. There had been chapbook versions of Defoe, Bunyan, and Swift in the eighteenth century, but as Pat Rodgers has pointed out, they were condensations, which radically simplified the originals (Rogers 162-182). The serial format Lloyd used in publishing Penny Pickwick, in contrast, meant that characters and incidents did not have to be left out, as in eighteenth-century chapbook condensations (or in the more recent chapbook gothics).
This potential was not always fully utilized, however. Although it includes most of the major characters and incidents from Dickens' novel (and adds a few of its own), Penny Pickwick accentuates the slapstick elements in Pickwick, endlessly repeating the same gags rather than exploring the possibilities opened up by events like Pickwick's employment of Sam Weller. In Dickens, Pickwick's relation to his servant comes to define both as the story develops, whereas in Lloyd's version, scenes of carnival release alternate with scenes of deference, subordination with license, without any cumulative change in the characters. Except during their periodic bouts of drinking, Pickwick's relation to Sam never changes; even then, the alteration is temporary and a hierarchy quickly restored. Penny Pickwick never exploits the possibilities for development opened up by its two-year serial run and the Pickwickians remain static characters throughout.
Lloyd's publications were closer to popular forms of street literature like the chapbook and broadside than were Dickens' novels. It is true, of course, that Dickens was himself a child of the streets, in both a literal and a figurative sense. From his first exposure to London as a child, the city deeply affected his imagination and sense of self, not the least because of the new cultural forms he encountered there. Exposed from an early age to the 19th-century equivalents of traditional oral culture (including chapbook fairy tales and his nursemaid's horrific stories), he was abandoned to the streets during his father's imprisonment for debt and immersed in urban popular culture. However nightmarish the streets might have seemed to the young boy, the cheap miscellanies, gothic serials, and penny gaffs he encountered there left a lasting impression (as had fairy tales already). As Raymond Williams and others have pointed out, Dickens drew on a variety of these forms in writing his novels, and brilliantly combined novelistic conventions with the vitality of street literature and traditional popular entertainment (Williams 28-32; ). But although a significant part of his early reading overlapped with that of the lower orders, his works did not simply reproduce the conventions of popular culture but mixed cultural registers in a new way.
Dickens had read cheap reprints of 18th-century novels and essays as a child and aspired to become a man of letters from the beginning of his career. Rather than writing a picaresque farce like Pickwick, he initially wanted to publish a historical novel in three volumes. So strong were these aspirations that he never abandoned his plans for a historical novel and eventually subordinated the slapstick humor of his first novel to his portrait of Pickwickian innocence and benevolence. The author of Penny Pickwick, in contrast, returned to Dickens' sources and rewrote his works according to the conventions which dominated popular forms like the chapbook, broadside, and farce. The result was a kind of periodical chapbook novel, filled with crude humor, based on Dickens' plots and characters.
While Dickens tried to elevate popular forms and subjects, the author of Penny Pickwick adapted Dickens' writings to the expectations and abilities of poor readers. In the process, Lloyd's plagiarisms reproduced (although in varying degrees) the ultimately static approach to class relations characteristic of popular carnivalesque forms as well as their repetitive structure. The endless cycles of inversion and return in Penny Pickwick, for example, end up defusing the egalitarian urges present in the work by providing a temporary release of class tension. Dickens' use of the kind of magical transformations found in fairy tales and romance, on the other hand, makes change possible, but only through superimposing it on the world from the outside. In Penny Pickwick, change occurs through regular social processes (carnivals were--or had been--real events), but without any long term alteration in the arrangement of power
Today, Dickens is often identified with the "hidden connections" view of society, the faith that beneath the impersonality and fragmentation of modern life there exists a network of personal ties that would bind people together if only they recognized their common humanity. His critique of his contemporaries for ignoring the poverty and degeneration "lying within the echoes of [their] carriage wheels," is often cited in this regard, as is his attack on the "contracted sympathies" which obscure man's "common origin" in God's "one family" (Dombey and Son 647-8). Less often remarked upon, but equally important, Dickens' faith that mutual recognition would lead to reform was indissolubly linked to a distrust of institutional reform. Suspicious of parliament, he was often more concerned with the moral consequences of seeing or not seeing than he was about the mechanisms for translating the resulting sentiments into action (The City of Dickens 40).
Though he never specified how, Dickens believed reform would follow individual moral renovation; presumably, small-scale, local improvements would multiply and gradually change the whole. Above all, the wealthy and middle class would come to accept their responsibilities. While his audience included both rich and poor, his primary readership was middle class. Despite his sympathy for the lower orders, he assumed that change had to come from above, from the morally renovating effects of sympathy and recognition. He rarely addressed his calls for change to the poor--their role in his novels is to elicit sympathy or threaten retribution, not to act. In spite of this limitation, however, Dickens' writings contributed to the development of a more inclusive national culture in nineteenth-century England--in part because he was unable to control their appropriation by small entrepreneurs like Lloyd.
Because of the size of his audience, the "society" he formed with his readers was more dependent on the impersonal exchange of information than Dickens was willing to recognize--at least until later in his career. He liked to think that he entered his reader's "households," but he could never fully realize the metaphor behind Household Words; the community he formed with his readers was still based on a commercial transaction. This tension--between market relations and family relations, intimate and impersonal ties--was to trouble him from Pickwick on. No matter how many public readings he gave or letters he received from his readers, and no matter how sensitive he was to monthly or weekly sales figures, in many ways he stood before a "faceless" audience. Indeed, in some cases he had no direct contact with his audience at all, since they were not reading what he wrote, but instead the writings of his imitators.
Dickens' great social novels from Dombey and Son to Little Dorrit respond to social fragmentation through positing a dense texture of hidden connections the plot slowly uncovers. Our Mutual Friend, in contrast, represents social coherence as a process of information exchange, not plot; society in the novel is bound together by ties of gossip, while family ties remain local and isolated. As Peter Garrett has said of Our Mutual Friend, "society no longer appears as a network of hidden connections, but as an economy of fictions its members produce and exchange" (Garrett 80). Alexander Welsh, speaking of the effects of urbanization on the development of what he calls the "information revolution," provides a partial explanation for this shift. He argues that the greater aggregate numbers involved in expanding Victorian cities necessitated a greater reliance on knowledge at a distance and that as a result, "rumor and print" took the place of "personal contact" in Victorian society (George Eliot and Blackmail 67-70).
Dickens obviously relied on "print" in his efforts to reestablish connections between people, but he also ended up relying on "rumor" in the sense that many only knew his work second-hand, through dramatizations, illustrations, and plagiarisms. The shift away from the hidden connections model Garrett notes in Our Mutual Friend indicates that Dickens was grappling with the issue in 1864, if not before. The spread of news about the Harmon murder, for example, provides a close analogue to the kind of social relations that Dickens' popularity and influence presupposed:
Like John Harmon's lack of control over the "news" about his murder, Dickens' influence (extending as it did from "palaces" to "hovels") depended on processes over which he had little control. Just as no one had control over the transmission of news about the Harmon murder, just as no one was at fault in Little Dorrit, no one controlled the appropriation of Dickens' novels.
In the late 30s and early 40s, Dickens' hostility toward those who used his works for their own profit--especially plagiarists like Lloyd--was rooted in more than just financial considerations, although that was an important factor. Because access to Dickens' works for many people occurred through unauthorized means, his stories were often altered in the retelling in a way not unlike the transformations of oral transmission--the very kind of transformation that the stabilizing effects of print had supposedly eliminated. Because Dickens wanted to be an "author" in the modern, text-centered meaning of that word, he objected in principle to the transformations of "oralized" mass communications. In the 1830s and 1840s he was interested in improving the security of copyright not only because of the financial losses he suffered at the hands of pirates and plagiarists, but also because of his interest in securing the "integrity" of his texts. He had drawn on popular forms in writing his novels, but he objected to their conversion into penny serials and other forms of street literature. He wanted, in other words, the right to control the terms of the communication exchange.
The kind of exchanges involved in such extensions of Dickens' audience was far from simple. Aside from copyright battles, other (less obvious) forms of resistance came into play and the diffusion of Dickens' writings faced both ideological and material blockages. Consequently, the further into "alien territory" the revisions traveled, the more refracted the stories became. The kind of communicative exchange involved was far from the free flow of information assumed by many theories of communication or conversation today. In Bakhtinian terms, the extension of Dickens' audience through reworkings for particular groups radically intensified the normal, "double-voiced" character of language. As Bakhtin himself has pointed out, we all must use words that others have used before, words that contain ghosts of their previous usage. A writer, to the extent that he uses an alien language, has to refract his meanings through another's discourse and therefore ends up shadowing his own discourse with that of another:
Using Bakhtin's terms, we could say that plagiarism is an ersatz single-voiced speech event because it pretends to be the speech of another, pretends to erase its own supplementary voice. In order to read such a text properly, one has to reconvert it into a double-voiced event, reconstruct the context for both the original and the re-saying, and separate out the multiple intentions layered in the text. In the process, the blocked and incomplete system of exchange that produced the text becomes apparent. What one finds through this kind of analysis is that literary and ideological elements circulate in a number of directions at once. At the same time Dickens is drawing on popular culture, for example, popular culture is drawing on him, converting his works back into the forms and idioms of the street. Because of the degree of refraction involved when socially "alien" groups engage in this kind of exchange, however, the common ground is sometimes lost in the transmission. In such a situation, the achievement of what Raymond Williams has called a "knowable community" becomes a problematic goal (The English Novel 14-16).
Dickens' plots and characters contributed in many ways to the development of a common culture in the period, but in doing so they also became a common ground on which conflict and negotiation between groups could occur. How common we think this ground was depends on how much we think the transformations involved in the working-class appropriations of Dickens' work altered the original. Are we confronting different voices and languages, or just different accents? In reading Dickens' early works in these terms, we study them not in terms of authorship per se, but in terms of the struggle for appropriation that developed during and after the time they were written. We study Dickens as collective rather than individual property, Dickens as society in addition to Dickens' representation of society.
Bakhtin, M.M. Discourse in the Novel, in The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1966.
Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend . Oxford: Oxford UP, 1966.
Garrett, Peter. The Victorian Multiplot Novel: Studies in Dialogical Form. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.
Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1952.
Marx, Karl. The Grundrisse, trans. David McLellan. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
Neuberg, Victor. The Popular Press Companion to Popular Literature. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1983.
Rodgers, Pat. Classics and Chapbooks, in Literature and Popular Culture in Eighteenth Century England. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1985, pp. 162-182
Shepard, Leslie. The History of Street Literature. Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1973.
Simmel, Georg. The Philosophy of Money, trans. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
Williams, Raymond. The English Novel: From Dickens to Lawrence. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
Welsh, Alexander. The City of Dickens. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971.
Welsh, Alexander. George Eliot and Blackmail. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.
|back to English Matters|