Behind the scenes with Charles Dickens First Editions (with errors!)

Jen Marshall, Cataloguer

Date: 9th August 2022

In the past few weeks, I have come across two Charles Dickens first editions of the collations “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Martin Chuzzlewit”. They’ve been catalogued and prepared for sale in the Auction Firsts, History, Tourism and more 81,  this Friday 12th of August, 2022.

As many book collectors would know, Dickens was a pioneer of writing serialised novels in weekly or monthly instalments, with spectacular cliff-hanger endings to ensure his audience would buy every new issue.

Nicholas Nickleby” was Dickens’ third novel and he was paid £150 for each instalment with a bonus of £1,500 at the conclusion. This was big money and was a result of the popularity of his first serialised novel “The Pickwick Papers”

“Nicholas Nickleby” ran from April 1838 to October 1839 in the serial format, with the first collation issued by publishers Chapman and Hall in October 1839.

To verify the book as a first edition, I checked the bibliography of John C. Eckel’s “First Editions of the Writings of Charles Dickens and their Values, A Bibliography”. Each page from the half title to the list of plates was matched to the record by Mr Eckel on page 58 of his book.

Mr Eckel explains the high number of copies produced in the first edition of “Nicholas Nickleby” make it less valuable to collectors. And the copy I held was not in pristine condition, with wear on the marble boards and the plates being acidic having been affected by the weather.

But there was one very interesting and rare feature in this book. On page 123, at line 17, there is a printing error. The word “sister” should read “visitor”.

Dickens himself identified the error in the proof and sent a letter to the printer Mr Hicks. Mr Eckel claims the fact the mistake made it into the early copies of the collation is “almost unexplainable”, and it was quickly corrected and is rarely seen.

In 1909, a copy with this error sold at Anderson’s N.Y. for the princely sum of $141, while other firsts without the error traded in the same year for $37.

See the listing here: Lot 552: DICKENS: NICHOLAS NICKLEBY 1ST EDITION

Martin Chuzzlewit” was a story of English life and manners which commenced in January 1843. It was one of his least popular works in the serialised format, despite Dickens himself proclaiming to a friend it was one of his best works.

The sales were so poor, that following the publication of episode 7, the publishers Chapman and Hall tried to enforce a contractual clause that would reduce their instalment payments to Dickens from £250 to £50, which resulted in a nasty argument and Dickens didn’t work with Chapman and Hall for more than 10 years.

“Martin Chuzzlewit” is also notable since it’s the last of Dickens’s picaresque novels, where the hero is a loveable character from the lower classes who manages to use their wits to make their way through the world.

This first edition also has an error, one which can be found on the vignette title page in the illustration by Phiz. You might need a magnifying glass to see it clearly, but it is there… On the reward notice the text reads 100£, when of course it should be £100. Again, copies with this misprint are hard to find.

See the listing here: Lot 517: DICKENS FIRST ED MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT

While neither of these Charles Dickens first editions are the rarest, the finest, or even the most sought-after by collectors, they remain charming and culturally important and we hope they will bring enjoyment to their buyer. I certainly enjoyed holding them in my hands and having a sense of connection to an important author and a time that was so different to today.

And finally, for fans of Dickens, you may also be interested in the lots in the next auction: