Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation is a perfect reflection of what makes Charles Dickens the giant of literature that he is. By no means is Dombey and Son his greatest work, nor his least. It was his eleventh novel of twenty, which coincidentally is probably about where it falls in terms of enjoyment and critically. Despite being ‘middling’ in the pantheon of Dickens’s output, on its own Dombey and Son is a great novel that only Dickens could have produced. It has his trademark genius of characterization; consciousness, sympathy and compassion for the downtrodden, especially children; plots and subplots (sometime stretching credulity); and a realism blending social criticism with just enough comic elements to prevent things from becoming to dour. As stated in the Limited Editions Club (LEC) Monthly Letter (ML) that accompanied this work:
Dombey and Son is not the greatest of Dickens’s works, and it is not the least. Perhaps it can be said of it that it contains the essence of Dickens in nicest balance.
Like many of his works, Dombey and Son was serialized, written and published in parts. Dickens started the book while in Lausanne, Switzerland; continuing to work on it while staying in Paris; and concluding it while back in England. The ML explaining:
It appeared in monthly units, thirty-two pages of text and two steel engravings all in green paper wrappers, price one shilling…You had to wait one year and seven months to get the whole novel; the actual publishing period of Dombey and Son stretched from October, 1846, to April, 1848, both dates inclusive.
Dombey and Son was an interesting and in many ways unfortunate choice for the Limited Editions Club (LEC) to publish. It had been 20 years since they last published a work from Dickens (1937’s Great Expectations). Prior to Great Expectations, the LEC had published The Chimes (1931), The Pickwick Papers (1933), The Cricket on the Hearth (1933), and A Christmas Carol (1934). With works such as A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield to choose from, how they ended up with Dombey and Son is a mystery to me. In fact, the LEC went on to deepen the mystery, never publishing those greatest of works from Dickens, instead following up Dombey and Son with Hard Times (1966), Short Stories of Dickens (1971), and American Notes (1975). I suppose their thinking was everyone already had various editions of those novels, so instead choose works that most probably did not have.
In choosing one of Dickens’s more ‘middling’ works (again, I will restate I really enjoyed this work, and it has much going for it; I do not use middling in a derogatory fashion, just that it is middle of the road of Dickens’s works), the LEC packaged it in an appropriate fashion…i.e., in a middling fashion. It is a nice, competent LEC. Certainly not amongst their best, though not the worst either. The great twentieth century book designer, Joseph Blumenthal, designed the edition. Blumenthal had produced a very well thought of design for The Heritage Club‘s series of Dickens’s novels. He was asked to adapt his design for this edition for the LEC, of which the ML goes on to say is:
The finest ‘Dombey and Son’ that ever was — not only the most readable, but the best planned, the best to look at, the best to hold, the best to treasure — in a word, the best.
LEC ML’s are often over-exuberant in their praise of the works they describe, and such is the case here. Of course, it very well may be the finest Dombey and Son ever produced since I am not aware of anyone else doing a fine or private press edition of such! As it is, it is quite readable, nice to look at and to hold….
The best aspect of the book is the 62 pen and ink drawings and twelve paintings in full color by American artist and author Henry C. Pitz. Sticking to its exuberance the ML calls Pitz “the best illustrator of ‘Dombey and Son’ that ever was.” Phiz would likely have disagreed with that, but I will say I immensely enjoyed these illustrations, especially the color plates which convey nicely the atmosphere of the story. The color illustrations were reproduced by lithography in the studio of George C. Miller in New York. The reproduction is very well done, as you will get a hint of below in the sample pictures. Pitz was quite an intellect on the art of illustrating, having published a handful of well regarded books on the topic. In the ML, Pitz says:
I hate the artificial distinction between the fine arts than in illustration. I’ve won a lot moe honors in the fine arts than in illustration, but illustration has provided me with a lot more groceries. If I had to choose, it would be illustration, and not because of the groceries. I think illustration is an important art at its best, and since the critics have given little heed to it, I have used my spare time in writing about it.
Pitz also decorated the end papers with illustrations of twenty-two characters from the book, printed in red on gray paper, with the same illustrations being used on the slip-case.
For the text, Blumenthal choose 11 point Baskerville type, set by Peter Beilenson in Mount Vernon, New York. Baskerville type has in some ways become so ubiquitous that not much thought is given to it when running across it. So allow me to digress a minute concerning Baskerville, courtesy once more of the the LEC ML. Hugh Williamson, in his 1956 Methods of Book Design: The Practice of an Industrial Craft (Oxford University Press), tells us that:
John Baskerville of Birmingham formed his ideas of letter-design during his early career as a writing-master and engraver of inscriptions. Having made a fortune in japanning, he retired in middle age, set up a press of his own, and produced his first book in 1757. His letters were based on forms which had been current among professional calligraphers since before Caslon cut his first punch. The Aldine types were based on the caroline minuscule, a comparatively narrow and rapid handwriting, for which the pen was held diagonally to the lines of writing, giving the letters a diagonal stress. But the caroline letter had been preceded by a rounder and more formal hand, the uncial and semi-uncial, for which the pen was held pointing straight up the page. Now that handwriting was less used for sustained work, formality and display returned to penmanship, and brought with them the older method of handling the pen. In the ’round hand’ of the early eighteenth century the stress was vertical, but top-serifs were drawn obliquely, in imitation of printing letters. Type-faces which in the same way retain some characteristics of old face, particularly in the serifs, while using the ‘modern’ vertical stress, are known as ‘transitional.’
Curtis Colophon paper made by Curtis Paper Company of Newark, Delaware is used, and is nice enough. The work is split into two volumes, comfortably sized at 6 5/8″ by 9 3/4″, both bound in red English linen-finish buckram with bright leather gold stamped labels on the shelfback, by Russell-Rutter. Unfortunately, this buckram has been very prone to fading along the spines, so it can be quite difficult to find in fine condition. None-the-less, it is a handsome, if somewhat plain, binding. In short, this is a great, if middling, work of Dickens, published in a great, if middling, fashion by the LEC! I do certainly recommend having this edition, it is well worth owning and reading and can usually be found for a song (often under $50, certainly between $50-100) if you can tolerate a sunned spine.
About the Edition
- Designed by Joseph Blumenthal at the Spiral Press
- Introduction by John T. Winterich
- Illustrated by Henry C. Pitz with 62 pen and ink drawings and twelve paintings in full color
- Color illustrations reproduced by lithography in the studio of George C. Miller in New York
- End-papers decorated by Henry C. Pitz with illustrations of twenty-two characters from the book, printed in red on gray paper (same illustrations grace the slip-case)
- 11 point Baskerville type, set by Peter Beilenson in Mount Vernon, New York
- Curtis Colophon paper made by Curtis Paper Company of Newark, Delaware
- Bound in red English linen-finish buckram with bright leather gold stamped labels on the shelfback, by Russell-Rutter
- 6 5/8″ by 9 3/4″, Two volumes, 816 pages
Pictures of the Edition
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