In 1847 Henry Mayhew (1812–1887) and his brother Augustus (1826–1875) brought to the
publisher David Bogue an idea for a comic series, to be published in shilling monthly parts. It would purport to be written by the much-harassed mistress of a middle-class household and deal with the problems of recruiting and managing domestic servants, already a favourite subject of the comic weekly magazine Punch (founded in 1841). Bogue accepted their proposal and commissioned George Cruikshank, the outstanding English political and social caricaturist of the first half of the nineteenth century, to supply two etchings for each part, together with a wrapper design and title-page vignette.
Although the resulting work has not survived the nineteenth century, initially it was a great hit, reputedly selling more copies than the monthly parts of Pickwick Papers had done. Cruikshank’s brilliantly comic plates helped greatly in this respect. While part publication was a common mode of publishing in the Victorian era and helped readers to spread the costs of their purchase, it was expected that readers would ultimately have the parts bound, and a title page was typically issued with the final issue of parts for the purpose. Thus unbound parts in institutional libraries are relatively rare. We chose to feature the parts for The Greatest Plague in Life rather than those for Dickens’s more enduring Nicholas Nickleby or Little Dorrit, also in the Sterling Library, for their greater rarity: ours is currently the only set of original parts for the Mayhew work recorded on COPAC. For Senate House another endearing feature of the Mayhew is its local flavour: when the story begins, the narrator is in a boarding house in Guildford Street, Russell Square – bereft of her own establishment, she complains, because of a pack of lazy, ungrateful, good-for-nothing servants.