Friday, September 13, 2013

Hey, Rare Book Guy! What Happened To Dickens & Thackeray In Parts After Publication?

by Stephen J. Gertz

Hey, Rare Book Guy:

You know how Dickens and Thackeray were originally published in installments? What happened after that - are surviving copies usually bound together into a complete book? Is it possible to buy a single installment sometimes (maybe even with the original wrapper?). I have tried a few search engines but couldn't get an answer - thanks!


Dear David:

It's Friday the 13th. This is your lucky day. 

I know about Dickens and Thackeray novels published in their original parts and first editions in book form. Correctly collating a complete set, checking if all advertisements (including slips) and first state engraving points are present, and checking all text points with a first book edition requires care. If you get things wrong you either leave money on the table or an unhappy client leaves you. A bookseller can always blame their cataloger. Booksellers who catalog on their own do not, alas, have this excuse to proffer; the client thinks they're an idiot and credibility goes out the window. We're supposed to know what we're talking about.

Simultaneous with issuing the last parts of each novel, Dickens' and Thackeray's publishers routinely removed the ads that appeared at the beginning and at the end of each part, removed the illustrated  plates found together after the ads and before the text, replaced them at intervals within the text, then bound-up the remaining, continuously paginated parts and published them in cloth-bound book editions. Collectors seek the book editions with stab-stitch holes deep in the gutter margin - evidence that the book is composed of the original parts, which were stab-stitch bound; stab-holes are absent in later printings of the book editions. Once that is established, then you have to check for the earliest issue points.  David Copperfield, for instance, has twenty text points to consider as well as points for each of the forty engravings that originally appeared in the serialization - etched twice for a total of eighty. You want to know what distinguishes each from its duplicate.

If you're looking to buy individual parts to complete a set it can be done but they are very difficult to come by and expensive. Depending upon the Dickens or Thackeray title you might have to pay upwards of $1,000+ if you can find one; you may have to wait. And wait. And wait. Individual installments to the first American edition of David Copperfield in parts (New York: John Wiley/G.P.Putnam, 1849-1850), however, are currently available online at $150 each. With twenty parts in nineteen volumes the price for a complete set would be $2,850. Compare that to a set of first U.K. edition Copperfield in parts in fine condition without repair currently online at $17,500. Even a set lacking a few advertisements and with repairs and foxing is being offered at $5,500.

I don't have quite as much experience with Thackeray in the original parts as I do with Dickens but his publisher followed the same plan.

If you're serious about collecting Dickens or Thackeray in original parts or first editions in book form I strongly suggest that you get a hold of the appropriate bibliographies so you are armed and prepared on the points to look for. For Dickens in the original parts that's Hatton and Cleaver's Bibliography of the Periodical Works of Charles Dickens. For the books, it's Walter E. Smith's Charles Dickens in the Original Cloth, which supercedes John C. Eckles' The First Editions of Charles Dickens. For Thackeray, it's Shepherd's bibliography.

A word about provenance. The most desirable sets of original parts are those that came from a single original owner with signatures to each part or proof of provenance. The majority of sets, however, do not have this identification (or not all parts signed) and many are likely composed of parts brought together from various sources to form a complete set. This is not a crime. The parts were never meant to last and booksellers and collectors who built complete sets in the past were doing collectors in the present a favor. Without positive markings to indicate otherwise there is little way to distinguish an original complete set with one put together at a later date, beyond obvious variances in color or condition of the wrappers, whether by seller or collector. It's not an issue to sweat; the parts were read to bits by the original owner and friends they passed the parts along to, and we're lucky that any have survived.

It was not unusual for booksellers to insert individual advertisements (in the form of variously colored slips) from parts beyond redemption and sale into a same, otherwise salable part lacking them. Performed correctly there is no way to tell if this has been done without tearing the installment apart and, using forensic science, determining if the glue used is period or modern. This matters only if you're an obsessive purist on the verge of a nervous breakdown with a lot of money in search of a perfect, untouched set, otherwise refer to last paragraph, final sentence.

Concerning condition, the flimsy wrappers to the original parts are commonly found with some sort of restoration, usually along the easily damaged spine and/or at the corners. If the job is done well it's very difficult for the untrained eye to discern the repair. Reputable booksellers will declare the extent of restoration. If you have concerns, you can view the parts under a black light and most repairs will be evident.

It can be very frustrating to collectors with an interest in Dickens and/or Thackeray to get into first editions in parts or cloth; they are expensive. To those aspiring collectors I suggest that you collect Dickens or Thackeray in their first American editions. It's an area of collection just beginning to emerge now that Walter E. Smith has published his bibliography of Dickens' American editions (2012) and bibliographical sense has been made of the heretofore chaotic subject. First American editions are available and reasonably priced.

To find original parts or book editions the best online resources are ViaLibri and AddAll, rare book search sites that aggregate results from all others worldwide; one-stop shopping.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

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