February 7, 2012
On the death of Charles Dickens in 1870 the Times lamented, “The loss of such a man is an event which makes ordinary expressions of regret seem cold and conventional”. It was the prodigious popularity of his work that went furthest to explaining the effect his death had on book-reading Britain and beyond. To mark today's 200th anniversary of his birth, we have tried to discover which novel sold best during Dickens's life. The answer, below, comes with bigger caveats than most items on this blog. They do not include the sales of novels in instalments. The numbers date from 1846, by which time Pickwick Papers, Dickens’s first novel, was already ten years old. And owing to the vagaries of 19th-century record-keeping, the sales of different books were sometimes grouped together under a single heading, “cheap editions”, and so cannot be split into their constituent titles. For those last two reasons, the figures for Dickens’s earlier novels may be under-counted. But we believe these are the best numbers available. For 465 pages of detailed explanation, consult Robert Patten’s 1978 tome, Charles Dickens and his Publishers, from which we derived our figures.