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  • Reading Dickens's Running Headers
  • Christian Lehmann

In the late spring and early summer of 1867, Charles Dickens and his publishers, Chapman and Hall, unleashed an "immense" publicity campaign for a new edition of the author's collected novels.1 Over a million prospectuses for this edition were published on at least three continents, often in large format, such as the one that appeared in The Athenaeum on 4 May 1867:

Messrs. CHAPMAN & HALL have the honour to announce AN ENTIRELY NEW EDITION OF THE WHOLE OF MR. DICKENS'S WORKS. It will be produced with especial care, and has been devised by Mr. Dickens and his Publishers, with the object of combining the four important points: Legibility, Durability, Beauty, and Cheapness.

Twenty years have elapsed since the first stereotype plates were cast for cheap editions of this series of books. It is considered that the time has come for reprinting them in a far more agreeable and remarkable form, and for offering them to the public in association with every available modern advantage. [End Page 111]


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In the new Edition now announced, each novel will be completed in a single volume. The page will be a flowing, open one, and a descriptive head-line will be attached by the Author to every right-hand page. Every volume will contain eight of the Original Illustrations, selected as the best. Every volume will be printed in clear type, on fine toned paper, by one or other of the first printing-houses in London, and will be strongly bound in red cloth. The price of The Pickwick Papers in this form (taking that book as an example), will be Three Shillings and Sixpence.

The Edition will bear a distinguishing facsimile Title:

THE CHARLES DICKENS EDITION

This title, appended to every volume, may suggest to the Author's countrymen, his present watchfulness over his own Edition, and his hopes that it may remain a favourite with them when he shall have left their service for ever. [End Page 112]

The volumes themselves were indeed beautiful: rich red covers with Dickens's signature emblazoned in gold.2 Several of them had new prefaces. (Who decided which illustrations were the best remains an open question.) The most remarkable new addition is the descriptive headline which the Author (capital "A") attaches as a final declaration of authority. Descriptive headlines, which are also called "running headers," "running titles," and "running-heads" are ostensibly self-explanatory, a few words at the top (head) of the right-hand page that describe what appears on the page below. As I will show, however, they occasionally go beyond this rather bland function and instead help focalize a character or tease out and emphasize a theme.

One cannot overstate the novelty of them. As Sylvère Monod observes, while he also denigrates the edition, they have no obvious precedent:

But in the main the Charles Dickens Edition of Dickens's novels is greatly inferior to the first edition and does not deserve any special respect; it is interesting mostly as one stage in the process of the deterioration of the text through reprint after reprint. What is of value as a novelty […] is […] in every case the running headlines. Not much is known about the frequency of descriptive headlines in the printing of Victorian fiction, or indeed of earlier or later English novels. What is apparent is that the need for them was by no means taken for granted in Dickens's days. No other contemporary edition of his novels has them. […] It is also clear that Dickens and his publishers felt that the Charles Dickens Edition must have some new and attractive feature. The coining and insertion of "descriptive headlines" was a relatively undemanding way of catering for that need.

(Monod 180)

At the most practical level, the headers contribute to the business function of renewing copyright in Britain.3 But this does not explain the new edition. After all, Dickens had previously found other ways of renewing copyright [End Page 113] that did not require him to re-read all of his previous novels. His letters reveal that not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2169-5377
Print ISSN
0742-5473
Pages
pp. 111-130
Launched on MUSE
2020-06-04
Open Access
No
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