Lab 9: BPL 18th and 19th Century Materials

In monthly installments that spanned from March 1852 to September 1853, Charles Dickens released the parts that would be joined to form the full story of Bleak House.  As we’ve spoken about the evolution of the novel, the serialized publication of books can be compared a lot to the way television shows are enjoyed by modern masses.  Each book’s content was always different was presented with the same illustrated front cover and a back cover with an ad from the same bed-making company.  This is comparable to the way that a sitcom presents its characters in varied situtions, yet the theme song remains the indicator of the link between the previous and subsequent episodes.  Amongst the Bleak House, the only time consistency is broken is when the June


June 1852 and July 1852 installments

1852 issue doesn’t include its month of publication on the cover, as all the other books do.  Continuing on the topic of consistency, I noted that all installments included ads at the end of the book, as well as a listed price of 1 shilling on the cover.  Not only is the inclusion of price and ads illustrative of the uniformity of the collection, these two aspects are also indicative of the growing commodification of books during this time.

The burgeoning novel structure of the nineteenth fostered a new culture of consuming books.  The cheaper production of books allowed for more copies of any text to be in circulation than ever before. This expendable nature of books lent itself to the growing serialization of writings and also brought about criticism about the “mental gluttony” that came from this culture of text consumption.  The frequency of publication of serialized works also provided a new platform for businesses to advertise their goods. Many ads in the back of the Bleak House installments resembled each other but some others stood out because of their different size or use of color.  The formatting differences of these ads could suggest that certain businesses were willing to pay more to have their advertisements stand out amongst others, which further displays the shift in readers being viewed primarily as consumers.  I also noticed that the last and largest installment was 2 shillings as opposed to the normal 1 shilling.

Dicken’s awareness of the potential money to be made of books like his is noted in the warnings that he gives at the bottom of Bleak House’s front covers.  On the March 1852 cover, it is written: “NOTICE is hereby given that that the Author of “BLEAK HOUSE” reserves himself the right of publishing a Translation in France.  So not only can physical books of this time be commodified but because copyright laws exist, protecting intellectual property is also a priority for authors.

It’s amazing the way in which we progress technologically, yet still find ourselves incorporating methods or structures from the past. Thinking about the Bleak House series and comparing it to the way we consume (and often, binge watch) television shows provided an intriguing way for me to draw parallels between the past and present.  For example, I recently read an article about the way in which most people use their cellphones in place of watches today. Many people, especially those that are younger, don’t own watches or may just prefer to pull their phones out of their pockets to check the time. What is noted as being absurd about this is the fact that, despite all the apps and features of phones today, many of us use our cellphones in the same way that people used pocket watches in the past.  It’s just strange/cool to think that although we have advanced in the way that we can go about our daily lives, we still incorporate practices from our past in the way we engage with our technology.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *