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A Preliminary Word

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Editorial i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Ethics; Morals; Moral Development; Moral Education; Philosophy; Values
Family Life; Families; Domestic Relations; Sibling Relations; Kinship; Home;
Literature; Writing; Authorship; Reading; Books; Poetry; Storytelling; Letter Writing
Newspapers; Periodicals; Journalism
Work; Work and Family; Occupations; Professions; Wages
Other Details
Printed : 30/3/1850
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume I
Magazine : No. 1
Office Book Notes
Views : 7543

In this editorial manifesto for his new journal Dickens is concerned to position it among the many already existing weekly publications that were aimed at a mass market. Outstandingly successful among these was Chambers's Journal, founded as Chambers's Edinburgh Journal in 1832, published at three half-pennies, with a circulation of over 50,000. It was intended to provide 'a meal of healthful, useful and agreeable mental instruction' for all classes and conditions of readers, and mingled informative articles with poetry and some fiction (see L. James, Fiction for the Working Man, [1974 edn.], pp. 16–17).

John Sutherland calls Chambers's 'the direct inspiration' for HW (The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction [1988], p. 113) and W. H. Wills, Dickens HW sub-editor, had worked on it 1842–5. For Dickens, however, Chambers's was 'a somewhat cast-iron and utilitarian publication (as congenial to me, generally, as the brown paper packages in which Ironmongers keep Nails)' (Pilgrim, Vol. IV, p. 110), and he here announces how different the editorial emphasis in his own journal will be.
       As Harry Stone has pointed out (Stone, [The Uncollected Writings of Charles Dickens: Household Words 1850–1859, 2 vols (London: Allen Lane, 1969)], Vol. I, p. 13), 'A Preliminary Word' expresses 'some of Dickens's most deeply held beliefs' which appear again and again in his writing, not least in the two novels that came next after the founding of HW. The idea of the 'Romance' to be found in 'all familiar things' is a major part of the inspiration for Bleak House (1853–4), as the preface to that novel states, and the need to 'cherish that light of Fancy which is inherent in the human breast' and the dire consequences of society's failing to do so is absolutely central to Hard Times (1854).
      If Dickens is concerned to distinguish HW from Chambers's, he is even more concerned to distance it from the publications of G. W. M. Reynolds, whose sensational feuilletons, The Mysteries of London (1846–8) and The Mysteries of the Court of London (1849–56), were published in weekly penny numbers and had a huge circulation. Reynolds started his penny weekly, Reynolds Miscellany, in 1846, writing its first serial Wagner: The Werewolf, and featuring in every issue an address 'to the industrial classes' in which (as in his Reynolds's Weekly Newspaper begun in 1850) he expounded his strong Chartist and republican views (he had emerged as an active Chartist leader in 1848). The extremity of his political views was abhorrent to Dickens, as was his sensationalist fiction. Hence the double denunciation of him as a 'bastard of the Mountain' ('the Mountain' was the name given to the Robespierre/Danton party, which sat high up in the 1790s French National Assembly; in 1848 the term was revived to denote the extreme republican party in France) and as a 'pander to the basest passions of the lowest natures'. In Household Narrative for April 1851 Reynolds was described (p. 73) as 'a person notorious for his attempts to degrade the working men of England by circulating among them books of a debasing tendency'. No doubt an extra wedge was given to Dickens's detestation of Reynolds by the fact that the latter had imprudently and profitably plagiarised Pickwick Papers in his Pickwick Abroad: or the Tour in France (1837–8), in which the Pickwickians are plunged into 'the sensualities of the Paris underworld' (James, op. cit., p. 61). 

Literary allusions

  • 'Slaves of the Lamp': alludes to the story of Aladdin and the wonderful lamp in The Arabian Nights
  • 'shapes "that give delight and hurt not"': from Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 3, Sc. 2; 
  • 'the old fairy story': the story in The Arabian Nights, called 'The Sister who envied their Younger Sister', in which those climbing a stone-strewn mountain in quest of a magical bird 'hear on all sides a confusion of voices...a thousand injurious abuses' meant to alarm and discourage them; any climber who stops to look behind him is at once turned into stone (The Arabian Nights, trans. E. W. Lane [1901], Vol. 6, pa. 277);
  • 'the stone have sermons in them...good in everything': Shakespeare, As Your Like It, Act 2, Sc. 1.  
Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume II: 'The Amusements of the People' and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews, 1834-51 (1996). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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