The Cheap Edition of Charles Dickens’s second novel, Oliver Twist, was published in 1850, 13 years after its first appearance as a serial in Bentley’s Miscellany. In the Preface to this new edition he took the opportunity to reply to the magistrate Sir Peter Laurie, who had recently dismissed Jacob’s Island, the desolate, decaying neighbourhood where Sikes fell to his death, as a figment of Dickens’s imagination. ‘I was as well convinced then, as I am now,’ Dickens writes, ‘that nothing can be done for the elevation of the poor in England, until their dwelling places are made decent and wholesome’.
What is the Cheap Edition?
The Cheap Edition is the first collected edition of Dickens’s novels, published in three series between 1847 and 1867. It was an enterprising venture, carefully devised by Dickens – who was an astute businessman – to appeal to the less affluent. Although the scheme of publication was later modified, the first series was published in weekly numbers at 1½d. [1.25 pence], monthly parts at 7d. [approx. 6 pence] and bound volumes at prices ranging from 2 to 5 shillings [20 to 50 pence]. The original illustrations were not reproduced, but each novel contained a specially commissioned frontispiece and a new Preface.
What does the new Preface tell us about Dickens as an author?
Many readers were startled by the sombre tone of Oliver Twist after the light-hearted comedy of Pickwick Papers. As he grew older Dickens increasingly saw himself as a serious writer with a mission to speak for the poor and powerless. ‘Pray do not ... suppose that I ever write merely to amuse, or without an object,’ he told one of his critics in 1852.