In 1841, readers in New York caused a near-riot when the final installment of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop reached American shores. They were desperate to learn the fate of Nell Trent: did she live or die? On September 29, 2013, millions of Americans – and people around the world – sat down in front of their TVs to watch the final episode of Breaking Bad, and to learn the fate of Walt, Jesse and the other characters. Who, in this story, would live or die? Separated by 170 years, these two stories gripped audiences so strongly that the need to know the outcome was almost an obsession.
In both cases, people met afterwards to discuss the ends of these serials. In the New York of 1841, they would have talked about Little Nell in taverns and coffee houses; in 2013, they gathered on Facebook and Twitter to debate the dénouement involving Walt and Jesse. The discussions inevitably examined what some readers and viewers hoped would happen, and what future might lay ahead for the remaining characters. Because both Nell and Walt met their ends in the final episodes of their respective serials. While Walt’s death was predictable, readers of The Old Curiosity Shop didn’t expect Dickens to kill off Little Nell.
One Episode After Another
Serials – periodic fiction, film and TV – have been a staple of publishing since the early 19th century, when printing technology enabled the mass production of cheap magazines. The watershed moment was Dickens’ 1836–37 serial The Pickwick Papers. Written under the name “Boz,” this serial was sold in individual pamphlets, one a month, each containing a few chapters (the final number was a “double issue” with six chapters). Dickens would publish eight other novels in this format, through his last, unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Other serials appeared in magazines, and this became the norm in the late 19th century, as part issues could no longer compete with publications that had a varied table of contents. These include The Strand, in England, which published Sherlock Holmes’ adventures; The Atlantic Monthly, which published many novels, including those of Henry James, in the United States; and La Revue de Paris, in France, which published Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. As Scribner’s Monthly pointed out in 1878, “Now it is the second or third rate novelist who cannot get publication in a magazine, and is obliged to publish in a volume, and it is in the magazine that the best novelist always appears first.”
Most of the classics of the 19th century that we read now were first published in serial form. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was published over some four years, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin over forty weeks. Authors such as Mark Twain, Honoré Balzac, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy and many others wrote serials. Even in the 20th century, novels by Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway were published as serials, and, Rolling Stone revived this tradition when it published Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities over 13 months in 1984–85, though Wolfe revised the work extensively for book publication.
Some serial novels lasted for short periods: Henry James’ The American was originally slated for nine installments in The Atlantic Monthly, but its popularity led editor William Dean Howells to ask James to extend it another three numbers. Others, such as Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo ran for 139 episodes. So many 19th century novels are doorstops because of serialization: authors were paid by installment, and a successful serial was valuable to both the author and publisher, so they would continue as long as possible.