Victorian values

Victorian Fiction

March 1, 1996

John Sutherland's book turns from his recent emphasis on biography to his long-standing interest in the "infrastructure" of Victorian literature, in particular the process by which novels were "composed, published, distributed, and consumed". Half of the chapters derive from journal articles, and the book's diversity of subjects and critical methods will appeal to book historians and to literary scholars seeking specialist material on how Victorian novelists wrote and published their works.

Sutherland has a healthy respect for the difficulties faced by writers, and he offers numerous examples of their inventiveness, tenacity, and adaptability when faced by unforeseen complications. An exhaustive essay on the narrative incoherencies in Henry Esmond and Pendennis, for example, argues that although Thackeray could be slapdash, especially when driven by serial deadlines, some "errors" were deliberate, part of "a structural, sustained, and subtle play with anachronism and anomaly which places Thackeray among the most experimentally advanced writers of fiction of his generation". Similar essays retrace the troubled but ultimately successful composition of novels by Collins and Trollope, and a chapter on Henry James and Mary Ward surveys the complex interchanges between a literary master and his young admirer, as the latter struggled to find her literary voice.

Other chapters explore the influence of different publishing formats on Victorian novels: the forms, styles and genres initiated in part by the neglected Edward Bulwer Lytton, for example, or the mixed history of the serial novel issued in illustrated parts. Sutherland also discusses social contexts, such as the relationship between the mid-Victorian vogue for detective fiction and changes in the legal treatment of the police, divorce, and trial evidence. The chapter, "Dickens, Reade, Hard Cash and maniac wives", examines the intricate circumstances behind the publication of Charles Reade's expose of private lunatic asylums in Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens. This is counterpointed with a study of the marriages of Thackeray, Dickens and Lytton, culminating in the revelation that by "the end of 1858, the three leading novelists of the age . . . (authors of such celebrations of domesticity as Our Mutual Friend, The Newcomes and My Novel) all had their wives put away".

Some readers of this book may wish for more reference to existing criticism; others will prefer more analysis of the finished novels. The underlying argument, however, seems to be that literary studies have had a surfeit of theoretical overviews and ever more sophisticated interpretations of reading texts drawn from the old and new canons. Book history as practised here integrates textual scholarship, publishing history, and many varieties of "theory" to study a few carefully-chosen works, with the eventual aim of broadening out to consider the huge number of Victorian novels and novelists left untouched by contemporary criticism. Only by assessing the latter, Sutherland argues in his final chapter, will we start to have more than the sketchiest understanding of the full kaleidoscope of Victorian literary culture, and the place within it of the novels we value most today.

Anthony Atkins is researching a history of the publishers Duckworth.

Victorian Fiction: Writers, Publishers, Readers

Author - John Sutherland
ISBN - 0 333 63286 9 and 64422 0
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £35.00 and £12.99
Pages - 191

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