The Serial Imagination: Novel Form, Serial Format, and Victorian Reading Publics
A great many Victorian novels were originally written, published, distributed, and read in parts over time—that is to say, serially. Yet today we rarely read those novels in serial format. Nor do we consider that format in any way equivalent to what we mean by the form of the novels in question. Only rarely do we consider the material fact that the novel was not in the first instance—and perhaps even later—supposed to be understood as a “whole” product so much as a process of articulating parts that appeared over a year or more. With the exception of the Brontës, most of the Victorian novelists whom we now consider worth reading, teaching, and treating as the subject of literary criticism published many if not all their novels in serial form. In that this claim holds true for Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, and George Eliot, it follows that, at the very least, we should entertain the possibility that the serial form was indeed one and the same as that of the Victorian novel itself. Each of these novelists had a hand in developing the serial formats in which they published, as each sought his or her route to developing what can only be described as a world in pieces. Where Charles Dickens experienced his greatest successes in the serial publication of long novels of twenty parts that appeared independently over nineteen months, churning out weekly novels only when the finances of his own journals demanded that he do so, Wilkie Collins thrived in the weekly format. Setting out to bring the polite literary readership into the same company with the mass readership he called “the unknown public,” Collins favored sensational plots that relied on doubles, mistaken identities, and long-buried secret scandals that were both exposed and further entangled from week to week. My first chapter shows how Walter, a befuddled art teacher to daughters of the landed elite, gets entangled in a conspiracy that operates by dispersing, replacing, and falsifying the certificates guaranteeing identity and position in the world, and how then, in the second half of the novel, Walter serves as both detective and information worker, moving from installment to installment and removing each obstruction in the path of an open information system. Installment by installment, he shines the sunlight of public knowledge on the closed and intentionally deceptive control of information by aristocratic pretenders who have forged the documents allowing them to corrupt the rituals of country house society. Collins makes it possible for his readership to participate in reversing the flow of information as the novel uncovers and circulates this account of the consequences of disinformation among its readership. My second chapter shows how Trollope succeeded in opening up the world of the traditional country house by extending its membership exclusively to those that observed its protocols for speech and behavior. The network expands the preserve of taste beyond those of the hereditary elite to those who serve them professionally as well as to those who can amuse them. As hubmasters of the country house, however, representatives of the heredity elite not only consume the information emanating from the metropolis, dramatizing the readership’s vicariously information-dependent relation to the social world, the Pallisers are also there to entertain us. Trollope’s country house is the setting for a spectacle to provide polite entertainment for what has clearly become a metropolitan society. Trollope suggests, moreover, that the spectacle of what is becoming primary a cultural rather than a political component of society is nonetheless necessary to government. In this way, Trollope expanded the imagined community not just to those who could actually hope to attend Lady Glencora’s parties, but to those who could enjoy the spectacle of such a party as a form of entertainment, a fantasy of vicarious inclusion. Though distinct from either Dickens, Collins, or Trollope in how she construed the reader she hoped to reach, George Eliot was a formidable serial novelist in her own right, as my third chapter will demonstrate. Although her literary reputation does not make her the first author to come to mind when we think of Victorian serial novelists, she experimented with both the traditional three-volume novel and the monthly periodical publication that suited Trollope. By the time she set out to write Middlemarch, Eliot was committed to forging her own serial path. To succeed in the marketplace while achieving literary status, she developed a format for publishing a novel in eight half-volume parts at two-month intervals. Bringing together the discrete communities of discourse defining the country town, on the one hand, and the landed gentry, on the other, Eliot forges links between their respective discourses while allowing them to retain their distinctive modes of social interaction and political belief. Eliot takes on the task of changing the means of circulating information as well as its social character in the wake of the Second Reform Act (1867). By setting Middlemarch a generation earlier, in the years immediately leading up to the First Reform Act (1832), she transforms the intractable political conflict between town and gentry constituencies divided by cultural taste, political interest, and social practice into a negotiable merger of print culture. Eliot elaborates for us how townsfolk and landed gentry might come, however provisionally and uncomfortably, to coexist in a shared community, but the larger stakes of this model of sociality lie in the fact that it is theoretically scalable and transferrable: if shared print culture can bind rural town and country, then perhaps it can connect metropolis and countryside, or even metropole and periphery of empire. This model of a conditionally shared culture is open to a common reader who can consider it from any number of perspectives and locations. With access to a print culture that can disseminate information across divergent social communities and cultural spaces, a reader can imagine even different, distant peoples as civil interlocutors in a common knowable community. Each of the authors to whom I have devoted chapters developed quite different narrative techniques that rerouted the information exchanged within the traditional country house through the new commercial-industrial city by routes that forged links among the various segments of Victorian society. Dickens is, by contrast, an unapologetic city novelist; only his Hard Times neglects to reroute the information comprising its various storyspace through the metropolis of London into its storyworld. Rather than the odd man out among the great Victorian serial novelists, I will insist, Dickens’s novels reveal the other side of the same coin, namely, an urban world that operates as a noisy hive of disinformation, information that is concealed, misdirected, falsified, or misconstrued. My effort has been to show how three of his contemporaries, each of whom strikes us as singular if not eccentric in their exercise of the serial imagination, form an ensemble that, in concert with those perhaps less dependent or adroit in manipulating the serial format, can be held responsible for a major change in the novel during the 1860s and 1870s. This transformation generated the notion of “form” that earned them all, with the exception of George Eliot, the derisive label of baggy monsters. Together, the pioneers of the new serial form exploited the capacity of the weekly or monthly format to attract and hold the attention of a diverse readership with the oddity of divergent demographic groups and enthrall them with the architecture that enabled one sequentially to experience wildly different spaces for storing curious objects and the aberrant people who lived among them. Whether the electrifying touch of an unknown woman, an unfinished story overheard in the parlors of the elite, or the struggle it took to publish from a country house a newspaper that can circulate in the town and eventually the city, the serial form relies on “connectors,” plot devices that establish ties among social groups that lack the social and familial bonds that would otherwise make them a community. As for character, the most memorable characters of the novels that serve as my sample texts can themselves be called “connectors”: Count Fosco and Marian Halcombe face off as respectively good and bad conveyers of information in The Woman in White; Lady Glencora Palliser serves in the role of participant-observer who doubles as hostess and spectator to keep the Palliser series on track; and Will Ladislaw is fashioned as a conduit between archaic and emergent modes of producing and circulating print culture. Each novelist, I maintain, owes his or her enduring reputations in great part to developing signature iterations of the serial imagination.
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