Sunday, January 15, 2006


Just Twenty Little Pieces

I have an article in the latest Fine Books magazine about the twenty-part David Copperfield reprint by the Charles Dickens Part-Works Project, part of a series of really beautifully made facsimile reprints of the very first original serial editions of his books. These are the 32-page paperbound monthly magazines that Dickens subscribers received hot off the press while he wrote the book. (In at least one case, a family death actually caused him to miss a month.) Typically this lasted about two years; once Dickens finished writing his book and had the last installment in subscriber mail-slots a few weeks later, readers would then take their well-thumbed magazines to a binder and have them stitched and bound as a "book."

What fascinated me in my Fine Books piece is the thing we don't see in Dickens editions anymore, but that those original readers did... namely, the ads for everything from Spermazine Wax Lights to the Invisible Ventilating Head of Hair:

Page to the end of David Copperfield, past an elaborate foldout insert for Letts, Son & Steet Stationary—also purveyors of "Packing Cases for Globes. Having hitherto from their absurd costliness formed an impediment to the transmission of Globes into the Country."—and you find the mercantile poetry that once charmed away sovereigns from hardworking Englishmen. And I do mean poetry: the inside back cover of every issue of David Copperfield featured an advertisement in verse by E. Moses & Son, Tailors. The store actually retained its own poet. One such Moses production—"On An Old Picture"—reads with a strange pathos today:

How that old picture brings before the eye
The Dress peculiar to days gone by!
Look at the figures! such outlandish styles
Seem'd fashioned only to provoke smiles.
How very diff'rent were the dresses worn
When that old-fashion'd picture first was drawn.
See! there's a curious coat—and there's a hat!
And there's a bonnie waistcoat! look at that!...

The poems always end with the triumphant splendiforousness of Moses & Son clothing, before then proceeding to such useful particulars as "MOURNING TO ANY EXTENT AT FIVE MINUTES NOTICE"—a claim that brings to mind a squad of tophatted Victorians sliding down a firehouse-style pole, all frantically running out to a funeral.

The new facsimile edition costs dearly, but it's an utterly charming and actually rather helpful way to read a Victorian work. And it has probably spoiled me: I'll feel a little cheated whenever I encounter a sterilized modern edition of Dickens.

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