A guest post from Emily Simmons
Currently I am both reading and not-reading Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady. Our Nineteenth-century reading group has undertaken an approximation of the serialized reading experience this summer with a sensation novel. The novel was originally serialized in weekly installments in The Graphic between September 1874 and March 1875. Since meeting every week was a bit unrealistic, we have broken the novel into two chunks. After reading a little more than the first half, and pausing at an original break between installments, we had a discussion last week. It was great to talk over projections for the ending, to find out who had looked ahead to the last chapter already (not me!), and to note certain threads of the narrative and Collins’s style that we want to trace through the rest of the novel (stay posted for more on complexion, and narrative voice).
Until this meeting my reading experience had not differed significantly from my usual practice: I had made my way straight through the first half of the novel in one or two weeks. In order to attempt an actual approximation of the serialized experience, though, I have since inserted a one-week break into my schedule. For six days I put something else on the nightstand and tried to forget that The Law and the Lady sat waiting, already fully published, on my bookshelf. This exercise has prompted me to consider how difficult it is to be ‘reading’ something that is only available in smaller chunks. When I say ‘reading,’ I think of the way one says ‘I’m currently reading Bleak House’ or ‘I just finished reading The Moonstone.’ At best, I was reading The Law and the Lady, but I’m not reading it today, or yesterday, or even tomorrow; I’m reading something else. All of this leads me to speculate on how readers actually operated in the heyday of serialized fiction. Presuming that a person were to consume novels only serially,* there would be gulfs between installments where she would have nothing to read, unless enough novels were on the go at one time to fill all of the gaps – and how many novels would that be? Between three and five, perhaps? Would an imagined reader, one who had at least a daily chunk of leisure time for the task, even want to be reading several novels simultaneously? I could imagine a reader working through a few serials (of different rhythms, even, one weekly and one monthly), plus a work in volumes, at any given time. In any case, it seems that to read only serially would almost always necessitate a displacement of what one is reading ‘right now.’
In The Victorian Serial Linda Hughes and Michael Lund discuss this mode of reading as “pervasive and agreeable” to contemporary readers, and we know of numerous anecdotes about highly anticipated serial publication that indicate the numbers of readers who were actively consuming texts in this format. Of course, this entire discussion maps easily onto current modes of television viewing, and weekly broadcasts versus the DVD format. Yet, for readers, would this mania for the serial constitute making a virtue of necessity?
Soon I resume The Law and the Lady, to discover how the interview between Valeria and Misserimus Dexter plays out. After finishing the novel the reading group will meet again, and I will conclude this post …
Emily Simmons is a doctoral candidate studying Victorian Literature at the University of Toronto.
Linda Hughes and Michael Lund. The Victorian Serial. Charlottesville: UP of Virgina, 1991.
* I am aware that the assumption that one would read ‘only serially’ is a large one, and it seems more likely that most middle-class readers would have had access to volume-bound books as well as ephemeral installments, not to mention all of the surrounding material in periodicals such as The Graphic.