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  • “Our Delectable Works”: Characterological Novelty in Penny “Plagiarisms” of Oliver Twist
  • Kristen Starkowski (bio)

In march of 1838, Charles Dickens—frustrated with penny publishers and angry that the English judge and politician Vice-Chancellor Knight-Bruce failed to prevent the dissemination of The Penny Pickwick—published a notice against the “dishonest dullards . . . [who] impose upon the unwary and credulous, by producing cheap and wretched imitations of our delectable works” (Nickleby 833). Three weeks later, publisher Edward Lloyd responded to Dickens’s announcement with his own, attacking those who are “ambitious to rob us of a share of that fame and patronage, which we . . . merit and receive” (qtd. in Patten 189). This public debate between Dickens and Lloyd, the result of a failed injunction at the Court of Chancery, highlights the controversy over the authenticity of penny fiction: on the one hand, writers like Dickens labelled penny renditions unoriginal and fraudulent; on the other, those involved in penny publishing considered their works just as original as those upon which they were based. Dickens waged several legal battles against penny publishers throughout his career, winning some and losing others. In the hearing mentioned above, Chapman and Hall lost to Lloyd and Thomas Peckett Prest, with the court ruling that The Penny Pickwick was sufficiently original, but Dickens won an 1844 case involving Lee and Haddock’s A Christmas Ghost Story. Through the analysis of two penny spinoffs of Oliver Twist that were published in the era before the first International Copyright Act (1844), both called Oliver Twiss (1838), I argue that these publishers’ attempts to generate a mass reading culture fuelled the creation of spinoffs that were ultimately quite different: they were tailored to appeal to a working-class readership, particularly through the extension, addition, and reversal of character position. More importantly, these adaptations expand our sense of the nineteenth-century working-class literary market and add to our critical vocabulary surrounding character and adaptation. This article’s literary and historical consideration of penny publishers’ contributions to nineteenth-century reading culture suggests that additional page space for minor characters in the spinoffs affords us larger glimpses of these characters’ worlds. In the end, these differences are enough to suggest that we begin moving away from the use of words such as “plagiarism” to describe such spinoffs.

This article pairs material from the Frank Pettingell Collection at Oxford University and the Barry Ono Collection at the British Library—example [End Page 271] titles include those mentioned above, but also The Pic-nic Papers, Mister Humfrie’s Clock, and The Adventures of Marmaduke Midge—with social network analysis to show that what began as an attempt to create a more affordable fictional universe also contributed to a particularly working-class aesthetic mode premised upon reuse: one element of this, which I call characterological extension, was the elevation of those who would be minor characters in the middle- class canon, such as servants and criminals, to more central—if not major—characters in the penny canon. Another feature was charactero-logical addition: the introduction of entirely new characters, figures without equivalents in Dickens’s novels. Finally, in some penny iterations, we see characterological reversal, the rendering of a major character into a minor one. As I demonstrate through comparative close readings of the narrative attention afforded to characters in Dickens’s Oliver Twist and in the iterations of Oliver Twiss that were published alongside the original, the ethnographic leanings of the working-class canon allow us to follow minor characters into small worlds that are then described at length. This glimpse is possible because penny authors—through the techniques of extension, addition, and reversal defined above—give their minor characters proportionately more page space than Dickens’s does.

The two versions of Oliver Twiss differ significantly in purpose and tone. The best-known one, written by Thomas Peckett Prest (pseudonym “Bos”) and published by Lloyd, was released in January 1838, ten months after Dickens published his first instalment of Oliver Twist in Bentley’s Magazine. A second, much shorter and even lesser-known iteration of Oliver Twiss survives at the British Library. Edited by “Poz” (pseudonym) and published by James Pattie, it runs to...