The first instalment of Dombey and Son appeared in1846 and sold thirty thousand copies. It tells the story of a man so cold, proud and obsessed with money and status that he cannot love the people around him. As I read it I'm struck by the contemporaneity of the novel's themes: the pain caused by a dysfunctional family, the impact of societal change and economic insecurity. I like the way Dickens presents a view of society as a whole, rather than limiting himself to the drawing room. I like his minor characters too, from their unusual names - Major Bagstock, Miss Tox, Captain Cuttle - to their distinguishing features such as Carker's malevolent smile and 'Cleopatra' reclining on her couch.
Dombey and Son wouldn't be the first choice on my bookshelf. The size itself, a hefty 900 pages, would deter many modern readers. It originally appeared in a more manageable format: nineteen monthly instalments with illustrations by Boz. I like to imagine the excitement the latest instalment would have caused, rather like a modern-day audience might discuss a storyline in Eastenders or the latest Big Brother eviction. Each instalment cost a shilling and would be passed around many people. I imagine too, in a household with perhaps only one reader, the latest episode being read aloud to the rest of the family. Dickens knew how to engage his readers, creating memorable characters and ending each part on a cliffhanger.
My Open University friend Claire Jones has just published episode four of her novel Davy and Me on her blog.Set at the time of the Wandsworth riots, she delivers perfect bite-size pieces and leaves you wanting more. It's good to see that serialized novels are still alive and kicking. And you don't have to pay a shilling.