On “Dishonest Dullards”: The Penny Pickwick and other Dickens Plagiarisms by Morgan Leeson
Housed in the Museum’s collection are a handful of Dickens plagiarisms, ranging from part-publications, to play titles, to series illustrations. Each plagiarism is different, with some copying Dickens’s text nearly word for word, changing only minor spellings in name or title, while others use Dickens’s characters and setting as a template for their own writing, much as we see in today’s fan fiction.
An example of three Dickens plagiarisms in our collection: “Mister Humfries’ Clock,” “Posthumous Papers of the Cadgers’ Club” and the play “The Peregrinations of Pickwick.” Charles Dickens Museum collection.
The first and most famous publication in this string of plagiarisms was The Posthumourous Notes of the Pickwick Club, referred to simply by its readers as The Penny Pickwick. First appearing in April of 1837, The Penny Pickwick was penned by the author Thomas Peckett Prest and published by Edward Lloyd. Prest published the series under the pseudonym ‘Bos,’ an obvious play on the pseudonym Dickens used for his earlier publications, Boz.
The genius of The Penny Pickwick plagiarism was that it marketed itself to the lowest class of readers. As I discussed in a previous post, by serializing The Pickwick Papers, Dickens made fiction affordable to middle and lower class readers for the first time. Unfortunately, however, some readers still couldn’t afford the reduced price Dickens’ part publication offered. Thus, in response, The Penny Pickwick plagiarisms took Dickens’ formula one step further, selling Dickens knock-offs for only a penny, which further expanded the novel’s readership.
According to Paul Schlicke, author of the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens, The Penny Pickwicks were sold “through tobacconists and small shops” in order to reach “a market of semi-literate readers outside the range of middle-class booksellers.” Although we don’t know how many copies of The Penny Pickwick series were sold, the series claimed weekly sales of 50,000, a number which far surpasses that of Dickens’ publisher, Chapman and Hall. Even if Lloyd’s numbers are exaggerated, when we take into account other Dickens plagiarisms, such as The Posthumous Papers of the Cadgers’ Club or even The Posthumous Papers of the Wonderful Discovery Club, it is possible more people read the plagiarisms than Dickens’ original work.
Furthermore, the enormous readership spelled out great financial success for Prest and Lloyd, encouraging the pair to publish The Penny Pickwicks for an additional ten months after Dickens had finished his original Pickwick Papers. Later, after publication of The Penny Pickwicks ended, Prest and Lloyd continued to create Dickens plagiarisms, including the spin-off series Pickwick in America! included in the Museum’s collection.
The frontispiece and first page of “Pickwick in America!” a follow-up publication to Prest and Lloyd’s popular plagiarism, “The Penny Pickwick.” Charles Dickens Museum collection.
Another Prest and Lloyd plagiarism: Oliver Twiss. Charles Dickens Museum collection.
Dickens, as you can imagine, was not pleased with these pirated publications. In a January 1838 letter to Richard Bentley, Dickens complains “the vagabonds have stuck placards on the walls – each to say that theirs is the only true Edition. They will follow us through the book of course.” Later that same year, Dickens broadcast his disgust publically in a public notice known as the “Nickleby Proclamation.” Dickens begins the proclamation, issued on March 31, by calling out “some dishonest dullards, resident in the by-streets and cellars of this town” who produce “cheap and wretched imitations of our delectable Works.” The scathing proclamation then goes on to threaten to hang the “pirates” on “gibbets,” while simultaneously assuring the public that the real Boz will continue to amuse and delight. The proclamation can be read in full here, and is an excellent example of the vitriol Dickens felt towards his plagiarists.
Images of the original Nickleby proclamation, where Dickens castigates the plagiarists for “their mental smallness” and promises “a mode of execution for them.” Charles Dickens Museum collection.
The battle between Dickens and his plagiarists came to a head in 1844, when Dickens filed a copyright lawsuit against two publishers, Richard Egan Lee and John Haddock, for their plagiarism of A Christmas Carol. Previously, in June of 1837, Dickens’ publisher, Chapman and Hall, had tried to sue Lloyd for The Penny Pickwick and lost, based on Lloyd’s argument that the two products were so vastly different in quality, they could not possibly be mistaken for one another.
Fast forward to 1844, and the defendants, Lee and Haddock, adopt a different strategy. Rather than arguing their work, A Christmas Ghost Story, is distinct from A Christmas Carol, Lee and Haddock argue that their work is an “improvement” on Dickens’ work, rather than a copy. Unsurprisingly, this argument didn’t stand up in court, and Dickens won his case. Immediately following the verdict, however, Lee and Haddock declared bankruptcy, forcing Dickens to cover his own court costs. This financial loss deterred Dickens from suing plagiarists again.
Ultimately, however, the plagiarists started to dwindle as Dickens’ career developed. Schlicke explains that “by the time he wrote Dombey [and Son] in 1847-8 Dickens’ development as a writer had made plagiarism of his work difficult and unrewarding.” Dickens’ work had grown from episodic tales, such as The Pickwick Papers, to increasingly complicated novels, which forced plagiarists to begin writing their own low-budget work. Eventually these works would evolve into penny fiction, or penny dreadfuls, a field of fiction whose start, at least in part, can be traced back to Dickens’s original work.
Most information gathered from Paul Schlicke’s book, Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens (New York: Oxford 1999).
P.R. Hoggart’s article “Edward Lloyd, ‘The Father of the Cheap Press” in the 1984 Spring Dickensian: 33-38.
Paul Schlicke’s article “Dickens and the Pirates: The Case of the Odd Fellow” in the 2004 Winter Dickensian: 224-225.
Morgan Leeson was a intern at the Charles Dickens Museum and a sophomore studying English at Bates College, located in Lewiston, Maine U.S.A.
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