A Tale of Two Cities: The Publishing Context

Most readers today will encounter A Tale of Two Cities as a single, bound paperback book – perhaps replete with an introduction, footnotes, appendices and other useful information. Increasingly, new readers will first experience the novel in an electronic format, reading it on their computer screens or via e-book readers, such as the Kindle. Although the medium may change, the format – a single volume novel – remains the same. Victorian readers, however, encountered A Tale of Two Cities in an array of different formats, with the three-part novel chopped up and published in a weekly journal and monthly supplements before it was finally released in the single volume format so ubiquitous today. Each format was aimed at different groups of readers and sought to maximise the distribution of, and profit from, the novel. Multimedia publishing, as we might term it, was a practice nineteenth-century authors and publishers excelled at and many of the first readers would have followed the story in its weekly or monthly parts, just as we now follow television series. Indeed, it is useful to consider the very different experience of watching your favourite TV show week-by-week, as opposed to galloping through all of the episodes when gathered together on a DVD or as a download.

A Tale of Two Cities was initially published in 31 weekly parts, from 30 April to 26 November 1859, as the lead piece in Dickens’s new journal, All the Year Round. The journal was a miscellany, costing 2 pence per week, which featured serialised novels, short fiction, poetry, travel writing and various non-fiction pieces, written by a multitude of authors. To keep the price of the journal low, Dickens avoided a tax on newspapers by ensuring All the Year Round did not feature any news, although it did report some international events, such as the Italian War of Unification (1859). A Tale of Two Cities featured prominently on the front page of All the Year Round and inaugurated a popular tactic, used by Dickens and many other magazine editors of the 1860s, of drawing in readers and securing their loyalty with new, serialised works of fiction by famous, bestselling authors. Naturally, a new work of fiction by Dickens held enormous appeal for readers and must have contributed greatly to the successful launch and early life of All the Year Round. While Dickens’s previous journal, Household Words (1850–59), had featured the serialisation of only one of his novels in nine years – Hard Times in 1854 – All the Year Round would feature two Dickens novels – A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations (1860–61) – within its first two years. Like other successful Victorian journals, All the Year Round required a steady supply and turnover of new contributors who became ‘regulars’ for a time. The prioritisation of serialised fiction represented a marked change of emphasis for the new journal and there was also a discernible shift of character – the introduction of a lighter, jauntier tone – brought about by the recruitment of younger writers.

As well as weekly parts in the journal, A Tale of Two Cities was also innovatively sold in separate, monthly parts (commencing 31 May 1859 with 8 monthly parts in total – the final two parts were sold together as a bumper double issue), which cost 1 shilling each and featured two original steel-engraved illustrations by Dickens’s long-time illustrator Hablot Knight Browne (famously known as ‘Phiz’). The weekly numbers of All the Year Round were also collated, bound and sold in volume form with each volume covering six months (24–26 weekly magazines) and sold for 5 shillings and sixpence. Parts 1–26 of A Tale of Two Cities featured in volume 1 (30 April–22 October 1859), while parts 27–31 were in volume two (29 October 1859–7 April 1860). After it finished its week-by-week run in the journal, the novel was finally published in one volume format, priced 8 shillings and featuring the 16 original illustrations produced by ‘Phiz’ for the 8 monthly numbers.

Dickens also capitalised on his numerous connections with American publishers. During this period, there was no binding international copyright law, much to Dickens’s chagrin as his work was continually plagiarised, reworked, reprinted and profited from by overseas publishers who didn’t offer him a cut of their, sometimes quite substantial, profits. However, he began to see the financial and literary advantages of signing exclusive deals to offer his overseas readers authorised editions of his work. Dickens was a prize catch for American publishers and he worked on a series of profitable arrangements for US publication of material appearing in All the Year Round – in the New York Public Ledger and Harper’s Magazine (which has been pirating Household Words for years) – and, through a pioneering agreement with an entrepreneur called Thomas Coke Evans, for complete republication of the journal in America, only a day after its appearance in Britain.

The Launch of All the Year Round
On 28 May 1859, Dickens closed his previous, highly successful journal, Household Words, following the collapse of his 22-year marriage to Catherine Dickens (née Hogarth) and a related dispute with his long-time publishers Bradbury & Evans – Dickens felt they had taken Catherine’s ‘side’ during the split. On 7 June 1858, The Times featured an unprecedentedly personal statement from Dickens about his ‘domestic trouble’ in which he announces an ‘amicably composed’ separation from his wife and attempts to quash rumours about his illicit relationship with the 19-year-old actress Ellen Ternan, who is not named or directly alluded to in the piece. He describes gossip surrounding his marital woes as ‘misrepresentations, most grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel’. The statement, simply titled ‘Personal’, also appeared on the front page of Household Words on 12 June 1858 – marking an unprecedented, unique variation in the otherwise standardised layout of the magazine – and concludes with a vociferous denial from Dickens:

all the lately whispered rumours touching the trouble at which I have glanced, are abominably false. And that whosoever repeats one of them after this denial, will lie as wilfully and as foully as it is possible for any false witness to lie, before Heaven and earth.

Given that he was conducting a deeply personal, possibly sexual, and stringently clandestine relationship with Ternan – which continued until his death in 1870 – Dickens’s public statement was disingenuous at best. Tellingly, though, it was his powerful, unique and deeply affective relationship with the ‘great multitude who know me through my writings, and who do not know me otherwise’ that seems to have motivated Dickens’s extraordinary denial: he cannot ‘bear’, he confesses, ‘that one of them [his readers] should be left in doubt, or hazard of doubt’ of his probity. Much was at stake for Dickens, then – personally, professionally and financially – with the launch of the new journal and, during 1859, his role as magazine owner/editor/writer (Dickens used the evocative term ‘Conductor’) was at the forefront of all his professional activities.

Bradbury & Evans, the publishers of Household Words, wished to retain copyright of the successful journal, leading to a legal dispute with Dickens that rumbled on as he composed A Tale of Two Cities. Interestingly, the novel is greatly concerned with the bewildering and iniquitous operations of the law. There was a court hearing on 26 March and a public auction of the journal’s title on 16 May at which Dickens’s supporters, using a degree of subterfuge almost bordering on deception, successfully outbid the aggrieved publishers and prevented them from purchasing and continuing to market Household Words. Dickens was delighted at these successes, seeing them as a kind of justification for a series of wilful business actions taken principally for personal reasons against Frederick M. Evans, whom he believed not only to have sided with Catherine following the break-up of their marriage, but circulated slanderous rumours about the reasons behind it.

It is reasonable, then, to view the launch of All the Year Round in biographical terms as an unforeseen by-product of Dickens’s marital crisis: a swift, perhaps rash, business decision prompted by personal feeling. However, it can also be seen as a masterstroke from an experienced journalist and editor. The timing – although undoubtedly serendipitous – was actually crucial. Commencing in early 1859, All the Year Round had an advantage against, and direct instigated, a wide range of competitors, both monthly and weekly, that started to crowd the marketplace: Macmillan’s Magazine (November 1859), Cornhill Magazine (December 1859), Temple Bar (1860), St James’s Magazine (1860), Sixpenny Magazine (1861), Robin Goodfellow (1861) and Bow Bells (1862). All, whatever their frequency, price, illustrated or not, prioritised serial fiction over journalism and All the Year Round, opening as it did with heavily advertised and hugely popular serials by Dickens and Wilkie Collins, had the advantage of appearing to set the trend rather than follow it.

Household Words did not cease publication until 28 May, so for a month Dickens was conducting two high-circulation weeklies in tandem, and the fact that the sales of the former held up – with gross sales of over £2,300 for the last eight issues (nos. 472–79) of Household Words equating to a weekly circulation of just under 35,000 – even as those of All the Year Round soared into (and remained at) six figures, suggest he could have continued to do so for some time further had he so wished. However, writing A Tale of Two Cities kept Dickens heavily occupied until the first week of October, and, during one of the nineteenth century’s warmest summers on record, the heat, and illness (possibly a sexually transmitted infection), led to his ‘doing no more than hold my ground’ with the writing schedule, just keeping ‘my old month’s advance’ ahead of publication. Nevertheless, Dickens also had in hand a range of ambitious plans for extending All the Year Round‘s readership, as well as a contract to write a long short story (‘Hunted Down’) for an American newspaper during April and preparations for a second provincial reading tour, taking in 14 engagements in the Midlands and South East in less than three weeks (8–27 October).

Such a workload left little time for summer holidays – of the kind he had taken up to 1856 in France or on the English south coast – but, also, the dynamics of his household had been radically altered by the separation from Catherine. Labouring under a heavy cold, Dickens did snatch four days at Broadstairs, Kent, travelling not with his family, but with Charles Collins, younger brother of Wilkie, who was holidaying there. He spoke of a ‘private reason’ for staying close to London through the long hot summer of 1859, which was undoubtedly the presence of Ellen Ternan and her sister Maria there, where they were living unchaperoned at Dickens’s expense. Certainly, Dickens asked for revised proofs of A Tale of Two Cities (the instalments for 9 and 16 July 1859 – All the Year Round, nos. 11 and 12) to be sent to Ellen there, where she would have read for the first time Charles Darnay’s impassioned declaration of love for Lucy Manette, in terms that are hard not to apply to the sender. Indeed, the preternaturally beautiful, patient and virtuous Lucy Manette has been interpreted as a thinly-veiled and highly idealised depiction of Ellen Ternan herself. Also, A Tale of Two Cities is a novel of doubles – the idle, debauched Sydney Carton is the dark double of the hard-working, domesticated Charles Darney, for example – and explosive, hidden secrets, which may reflect Dickens’s own double life during this time as he publicly maintained his reputation as an upstanding family man while conducting a secret affair.

Yet Dickens’s professional and artistic commitment to the secure establishment of All the Year Round‘s future cannot be in doubt. The first six months of All the Year Round‘s publication were crucial in developing a new, more literary profile for its contents, and setting new benchmarks for sales and distribution. After an impressively comprehensive and eye-catching national advertising campaign, and with the combination of a weekly and a monthly serial novel from the pen of its celebrated ‘Conductor’, All the Year Round achieved, and maintained a degree of popularity that, as Dickens put it: ‘has left the circulation of old Household Words at a remote distance’. The new journal was in such robust financial health that, by the middle of June, Dickens had recovered his initial investment and made £500 profit. Six months into the life of the new journal (31 October), the profit-share of Dickens and W. H. Wills (the sub-editor for both Household Words and All the Year Round) totalled over £626, equivalent to over £42,000 today. Taking the start-up costs into account, the ‘real’ profit figure for All the Year Round‘s first semester could be said to stand at over £1,500 – compared with just under £1,100 for the final six months of Household Words. This hardly left the earlier publication ‘at a remote distance’ in terms of profit – high demand for the new journal substantially increased production costs – but it marked the start of a significant upward trend.

A Tale of Two Cities in All the Year Round
Instalments of A Tale of Two Cities feature as the leading article in all twenty-six weekly numbers of the first volume of All the Year Round, a sequence running from the famous, ironically Manichean opening (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’) to midway through the third and final Book (III, Chapter 9, ‘The Game Made’). Dickens had not written a novel in weekly parts or attempted historical fiction since serialising Barnaby Rudge (1841), his account of the 1780 Gordon Riots, in his earlier, unsuccessful journal Master Humphrey’s Clock. Whereas the challenge in 1841 had been to write enough material, now it was to condense – distilling a three-part novel into ‘Teaspoons’ as Thomas Carlyle called the instalments – resulting in 31 bite-size episodes of a mere 8–11 columns of text each. ‘The small portions drive me frantic’, he complained to his close friend and literary adviser John Forster. Arguably, Sidney Carton, as professional legal ‘condenser’, represents Dickens’s own power of ‘boiling down’ material, while the condensed, plot-driven Tale can be seen as indicative of Dickens’s intellectual engagement with his material and his deep, socio-political understanding of the French Revolution.

Although contemporary reviews of A Tale of Two Cities during its serialisation were fairly muted, and occasionally harsh, its reception by the popular press was enthusiastic. The Liverpool Daily News reprinted the first two chapters on 28 April (the day after the first number of All the Year Round had gone on sale in London), while Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper reprinted the whole of the third chapter on 1 May 1859. As back-page advertisements in All the Year Round show, Chapman & Hall, Dickens’s new publishers, had agreed to what he called the ‘rather original and bold idea’ of releasing the novel in monthly parts (costing 1 shilling each) as it went along, each of which carried two steel engravings by ‘Phiz’ and came wrapped in an illustrated green cover. This would give All the Year Round, Dickens thought, ‘always the interest and precedence of a fresh weekly portion during the month’, while also giving him as a writer ‘my old standing with my old public, and the advantage (very necessary in this story) of having numbers of people who read it in portions no smaller than a monthly part’. Sales in this form, though initially promising, were eventually disappointing, averaging a little over 7,000 per part (five to ten times less than the usual sales of a Dickens novel in monthly parts), but Dickens later allowed that ‘the very great sale’ of All the Year Round from its office on Wellington Street, just off the Strand, ‘of course, forestalled the market to a considerable extent’. Sales of back numbers of the weekly All the Year Round in June 1859, for example, were put at 35,000.

Domestic Politics and A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale of Two Cities is a fast-paced historical novel set against the backdrop of revolution and social and political upheaval and violence. Interestingly, the novel was itself composed against just such a background, with acute tensions between Britain and France in 1858–59 and a short but bloody war in 1859 between France and Austria over the independence and unification of Northern Italy. In Britain, the fall of Lord Derby’s Conservative ministry in June 1859, and the subsequent formation of a Liberal administration under Lord Palmerston, was the major event in British domestic politics during the composition of A Tale of Two Cities. This domestic political upheaval, however, found its origins in foreign policy; specifically, Britain’s reaction to the French determination to support the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (and, de facto, the Italian nationalist movement) in forcibly ejecting Austria from northern Italy, which it had occupied and governed since 1814. The question of how precisely to phrase the British Government’s desire for neutrality in the fast-approaching war led to a Vote of No Confidence in the Derby administration on 7 June. The Risorgimento, the Italian movement for liberation and unification, was hugely popular in Britain; an estimated 500,000 people met Garibaldi, the Italian freedom fighter, when he arrived in London in April 1864. Dickens was enthusiastically supportive of the movement, although, like many Britons, he was suspicious of the territorial ambitions, militarism, and pro-Papal tendencies of France under Emperor Napoleon III. The opening paragraph of the satirical article ‘Appalling Disclosure for the Lord Chamberlain‘ (p. 261) responds directly to the situation and reflects Dickens’s own opinions: Palmerston, whom Dickens loathed, is exhorted to ‘learn the necessity of treating the House of Commons […] with some little respect and civility’, while the Foreign Secretary Lord Russell, whom Dickens knew and admired and to whom he dedicated the single volume edition of A Tale of Two Cities, is asked to steer the nation ‘through the shoals, quicksands, and whirlpools of existing continental complications – no more spirited or honest man than he, could try to do it’.

The demands for Italian liberation reached a long-expected climax during the Second Italian War of Independence. Napoleon III’s France, hoping to receive Nice and Savoy as restitution, joined forces with the Italian Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and war broke out against Austria on 29 April 1859, the day before All the Year Round‘s first number. Dickens, a passionate supporter of the revolutionary cause, had been planning to offer vocal support with his new journal since early March, and had written to exiled Italians nationalists, effectively placing All the Year Round at their disposal:

I have that sympathy with them and respect for them which would […] render it unspeakably gratifying to me to be the means of its diffusion. […] If […] a narrative of their Ten years trial could be written, I would take any conceivable pains to have it rendered into English, and presented […] to a very large and comprehensive audience.

Although the offer was not formally taken up, its retrospective intentions were superseded by the outbreak of war and over the next few months the journal instead offered conspicuous support through a series of political commentaries and vivid, detailed war reports. Early issues – planned before the actual commencement of the fighting – prepared the ground with atmospheric geographical accounts of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (‘The Island of Sardinia‘, p. 141 and ‘Piedmont‘, p. 269), while others articles depicted Italy as struggling under the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church and Austria as the epitome of imperial and Roman Catholic tyranny (‘Austria‘, p. 173).

Articles such as ‘Battle Array‘ (p. 84) and poems such as ‘To Come‘ (p. 83) and the bitter ‘Te Deum!‘ (p. 323) register the human impact of the war, which is simultaneously brought into focus through graphic, factual accounts, such as T. A. Trollope’s ‘Revolution at Florence Exactly Described‘ (p. 221) and ‘The Sack of Perugia‘ (p. 421), Walter Thornbury’s ‘Viva L’Italia!‘ (p. 253) and Henry Spicer’s ‘The Track of War‘ (p. 293) and ‘The Last of the War‘ (p. 343). Dickens had a wide circle of Italian friends and correspondents – no London editor, arguably, enjoyed a wider – and the journal was correspondingly self-assured that its war reportage was factually superior to that of the mainstream press. T. A. Trollope’s article ‘Revolution at Florence, Exactly Described‘ (p. 221), which describes how the people of Florence rose up and deposed their leader, Leopold II, stresses the accuracy of its testimony, in contrast with the ‘[m]uch erroneous’ statements ‘put forth in the English newspapers’.

Although All the Year Round supported Italian liberation, it demonstrated a sceptical, if not categorically negative or oppositional, attitude to armed conflict. Articles about the ‘great [British] war establishment’ at the Woolwich Arsenal (Charles Collins, ‘Our Eye-Witness at Woolwich‘, p. 365), the army training camp at Aldershot (John Hollingshead, ‘Aldershott Town and Camp‘, p. 401), and Britain’s navy (James Hannay, ‘Ships and Crews‘, ‘Portsmouth‘ and ‘Aboard the Training Ship‘, pp. 389, 517, 557) evince a broadly liberal idea of military intervention as a grim necessity, susceptible of enlightened improvement. However, the tone of All the Year Round alters dramatically when the subject of military heroism arises: in the as-yet unattributed ‘How the Victoria Cross was Won‘ (p. 350) the journal disconcertingly revels in brutal wartime exploits and exhibits an unthinking jingoism that reinforces racial stereotypes of the English and French.  A similarly off-putting imperialist bellicosity and jingoistic racism underlies ‘An Empire Saved‘ (p. 109), which praises Sir John Lawrence, Governor of the Punjab for suppressing the 1857 Indian ‘Mutiny’ and emphasises the importance of good governance and liberal administration to imperialist expansion and rule. 

Written by Ben Winyard and John Drew.

Further Reading
Letters of Charles Dickens, Pilgrim Edition, ed. by Madeline House and others, 12 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965–2002), vols. VIII and IX.
• John Drew, Dickens the Journalist (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
• Linda K. Hughes & Michael Lund, The Victorian Serial (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991).
• Andrew Sanders, Companion to A Tale of Two Cities (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988).
• Michael Slater, Charles Dickens (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009).
• Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens [1990] (London: Penguin, 1991).

For an extensive overview of volumes one and two of All the Year Round, as well as full bibliographical information, please view the full introductions (forthcoming) on the DJO website (www.djo.org.uk).

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About Ben Winyard

Ben Winyard is the Digital Publications Officer at Birkbeck, University of London. He completed his PhD at Birkbeck, where he also worked as an intern on '19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century' (www.19.bbk.ac.uk). More recently, he worked as a postdoctoral researcher and senior editor on the Dickens Journals Online project (www.djo.org.uk).

5 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities: The Publishing Context

  1. Hi, I have just bought a ‘Home Edition’ with no date inside, so I am assuming it is very early. It has engraved pictures. Do you know anything about this edition and it’s worth?

    • Hi Kea,

      I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the Home Edition. The most famous and profitable editions during Dickens’s lifetime were the Cheap Edition, the Library Edition and the Charles Dickens Edition. There was a Household Edition published after Dickens’s death and there have been many, many different editions published since 1870. I have had a look in ‘The Dickens Index’ (ed. by Nicola Bardbury, Michael Slater and Nina Burgis) and ‘The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens’ (ed. by Paul Schlicke), which both list various editions, but the Home Edition is not listed in either

      Might I recommend looking on a relaible second-hand book website, such as Abe Books, or it may be worth contacting Jarndyce Books on Great Russell Street (London) as they are famous for selling rare and valuable editions of Dickens’s works.

      Good luck!

    • That is a very beautiful cover! As you say, it’s surprising that it’s not worth more money. There were so many editions after 1870 – many coming directly from Dickens’s publishers – that it must be difficult to compose a comprehensive record of them all. Still, I’m surprised there’s nothing about this Edition in the books I consulted; perhaps another book may have some further information.

      Thanks so much for sharing this with us! It’s fascinating to compare the rather stark, utilitarian design of the original novel parts in the weekly journal with this lavish and very fetching single-volume edition, which was obviously intended for a solidly middle-class audience.

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