Inevitably, given his complete domination of the early- Victorian literary world, it was Dickens who proved the most successful - and the most innovative - of this tribe of novelist-editors. Household Words, founded in 1850 and selling for twopence to a newly literate and print-hungry readership, was one of the great triumphs of mid-century journalism. With a peak circulation of 40,000 copies a week, it made a healthy pounds 2,000 a year in profits, divided between Dickens and the magazine's co-proprietors Bradbury & Evans.
At the same time, it played a crucial part in cementing the alliance between the novelist and a horde of middle-class readers. "Conducted by Charles Dickens" (the masthead legend) meant exactly that. Dickens calculated that he read 900 unsolicited manuscripts in the editorial chair, and a bibliographical sub-industry has grown up around the countless pieces on which he collaborated or otherwise improved to produce the true "Dickensy" flavour. As Michael Slater points out in his introduction to Gone Astray, many readers believed that Dickens wrote most of the magazine himself.
The third volume of this epic edition of Dickens's journalism brings together nearly all the pieces that he wrote for Household Words in the eight-and-a-half years of the magazine's existence. As ever (even the briefest glance at a biography of Dickens has this effect) one notes both the indefatigability - these, after all, were the years of Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit and much else - and the range of interests: politics (outrage at the conduct of the Crimean War); social reportage ("Betting-Shops", "A Nightly Scene in London"); pet projects such as the "Home for Homeless Women" established under the auspices of his friend Angela Burdett-Coutts (a pretty grim place, judging from the regulations); momentary bugbears (a sparkling causerie on "The Best Authority" notes that "at a dinner of 18 persons I have known 17 sit next to him").
It would be surprising if much of this material didn't fall into the category of what Kingsley Amis used to call "chips from the novelist's work-bench", yet the effect is rarely uniform and the movement is in both directions. "Unsettled Neighbourhood" invokes the spirit of Dombey and Son, written several years before, to examine the imprint of the railways on the area around King's Cross. The strictures on the Crimean War anticipate the attacks on governmental bungling and bureaucracy of Little Dorrit, while the warm, reminiscent vein of "Our School" is directly connected to the autobiographical sections of David Copperfield.
Leaving aside straightforward autobiography, Dickens's personal life seeps into these 65 essays like dye. Much of this is routine: even the greatest writers are conscious that one of the best ways to fill space is to write about yourself. "Our Watering Place" describes the Dickens family's French hideaway near Boulogne, while "Out of the Season" is a marvellously atmospheric account of three days spent at Dover in spring 1856 trying (and failing) to get on with Little Dorrit.
By the late 1850s, as the clouds gathered above his private life and he began the affair with Ellen Ternan that led to the break-up of his marriage, the roots of this urge to advertise himself seem much more complex. "The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices", a carefully disguised rehash of the trip that he took with Wilkie Collins to Cumbria in 1857 (and which included a meeting with Ellen) is full of gestures to some sort of intense but unexplained personal emotion.
It is a kind of code which Dickens knew that none of his readers would be able to decipher, but nonetheless satisfied his own faintly masochistic need for disclosure.
Both marriage and magazine ended within a year of each other. Dickens had intended that "Personal" - the extraordinary public proclamation of his "domestic troubles" - should appear simultaneously in Punch, also owned by Bradbury & Evans, but the editor Mark Lemon demurred and was backed up by his proprietors. Legal action followed, after which Dickens bought the title himself, closed it down, and re-opened for business as All The Year Round.
Without labouring the life/art connection, the tone of many later sections of Gone Astray seems intimately connected to this mounting crisis. A chronic relentlessness, a deep unease, characterised the smallest thing that he did: stranded in Dover, for instance, and unable to write, his solution was to take himself for a 20-mile walk. It spills over into his writing, which seems almost a form of nervous release - particularly when he gets onto one of his fixations, such as prison clergymen who claimed to detect repentance in convicted murderers.
The demands of weekly journalism were another aspect of the terrific, self-imposed pressure with which Dickens invested his life, but they were also a kind of safety valve; a letting-off of steam which would otherwise have been expended elsewhere, at God knows what personal cost.
Endlessly revealing of early Victorian society, choc-full of the moral outrage that one expects of the man and his age, Gone Astray also brings off a less predictable trick. It leaves the reader with the queer feeling that, along with the inept bureaucrats and the public scandals, Dickens is busy exposing the no less fascinating spectacle of himself.
D J Taylor's biography of Thackeray will be published by Chatto & Windus in 1999