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date: 23 February 2019

Abstract and Keywords

Dickens’s early imaginative work, the sketches of 1833–40, first published in newspapers and magazines, attracted much attention and, months before Pickwick became famous, launched his career. Collected in two series as Sketches by Boz in 1836, accompanied with illustrations by George Cruikshank, they attracted massive and wildly enthusiastic reception. They were followed by two further series, Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Sketches of Young Couples, illustrated by Hablot Browne; neither of these latter volumes was publicly acknowledged as Dickens’s work during his lifetime. But although he was himself initially proud of his early sketches, he quickly became dissatisfied, revising them heavily on at least five separate occasions over nearly two decades, and from as early as 1839 publishing them with prefaces which dismissed them as crude juvenilia. Since then, with few notable exceptions, the critical consensus, when it has noticed the sketches at all, has been to disparage them as apprentice work. The present chapter proposes that this legacy is inappropriate for several reasons. It ignores Dickens’s own initial estimate and that of his first readers. It ignores the single most important evidence available of Dickens’s development as a writer, documented in exhaustive, meticulous detail in the revisions he effected. It overlooks a rich resource for understanding the very texture of life in London in the 1830s, and above all it disregards the intrinsic literary worth, described by Forster as ‘the first sprightly runnings of his genius’.

Keywords: sketches, reception, revision, development, topicality, reputation, Reform

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