Rekindling the Reading Experience of the Victorian Age - Catherine Golden

I confess that part of the mystique of visiting the rare book room at Skidmore College lies in its location; even graduating seniors are as surprised of its existence as Mary Lennox is surprised, in The Secret Garden, when she discovers her cousin Colin in a forbidden wing of Misselthwaite Manor. Like Mary's visits to the forbidden wing, visits to the rare book room unlock a world: the world of Victorian literature and culture. Thus I regularly bring students in my nineteenth-century literature courses to the rare book room in the Lucy Scribner Library of Skidmore College. Together we examine works in the Hannah M. Adler Collection, which features illustrated nineteenth-century periodicals, part issues, books, and multivolume works by leading and popular writers.

Undergraduates reading nineteenth-century novels often marvel at the length of works by Dickens, Thackeray, and Eliot. Seeing long novels in their original installments, however, shows how these texts appeared to the Victorians who read them as multivolume works, as parts of works published independently, or as serials in the leading weekly and monthly journals of the day. Examining pivotal texts and periodicals—Eliot's Middlemarch (1871), Master Humphrey's Clock, and Bentley's Miscellany1— rekindles the reading experience of the Victorian age. A first edition of Middlemarch in eight slim volumes shows how reading a long novel, a challenge for many of my students, was in 1871 a far more manageable task than that of absorbing the fat paperbacks we assign today. A more dramatic point is made when we examine serial publication in the collected volumes of Bentley's Miscellany and in the unbound part issues of Master Humphrey's Clock, which have their original blue-green paper wrappers, an artifact of Victorian publishing. As Linda Hughes and Michael Lund point out in The Victorian Serial, it is well known that serialization brought forth some of the best literature of the age, but the experience of reading a novel over a period of two years (or longer), as the Victorians typically did, is foreign to our students, who are given approximately two weeks to read the same work. The installments of Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge in the part issues of Master Humphrey's Clock encourage students to ask themselves how reading lengthy novels one segment at a time, with breaks between reading periods, affected the ways Victorian audiences responded to and created meaning from these works as well as the ways in which Victorian authors and artists created fiction. Students today can thumb ahead to discover a mystery's conclusion; the serial reader could not. Learning the story's outcome thus was postponed, gratification delayed. Moreover, when students actually see from the publishing format that illustrated serial novels unfolded over months and years, they more readily understand how the illustrations provided continuity between installments and an aid to memory. Illustrations, a vital part of the reading experience even of sophisticated Victorians, were studied, as author-illustrator George Du Maurier has put it, "with passionate interest before reading the story, and after, and between" (350).

The monthly installments of Oliver Twist from February 1837 to April 1839 (omitting June 1837, October 1837, and September 1838) in Bentley's Miscellany dramatize the benefit of using primary materials to teach about illustrated Victorian fiction. Dickens's novels unfolded through and with pictures, though modern editions typically eliminate all or most of the original illustrations. The monthly numbers of Oliver Twist in Bentley's Miscellany show students all twenty-four illustrations, allowing them to understand why many Victorian readers considered the memorable characters in Twist more Cruikshank's than Dickens's. Cruikshank was known for his caricature art. In his illustrations, the body of Fagin, who lures Oliver into his den of crime, shrivels in emaciation, while the overweight forms of Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney, parish beadle and workhouse matron, call attention to the fact that, unlike thin Oliver and the backdrop of famished children, those who oversee the workhouse have no need to ask for more. Pictures integral to plot and character development, such as "Monks and the Jew," have been dropped from modern editions,2 and even the best reproductions available today do not capture the nuance of detail and shading so vital to illustrations like "Fagin in the Condemned Cell," where the stippled effect on the cell wall calls attention to Fagin's circular, glazed eyes and crazed manner. Seeing all twenty-four images reveals that the story of Oliver Twist is told through Cruikshank's pencil as well as Dickens's pen and adds credibility to Cruikshank's grand claims, in his book The Artist and the Author, for authorship in his collaborations with Dickens and William Harrison Ainsworth.3

The novels we typically read in my Victorian literature classes are all now part of the canon of British literature. However, viewing these texts in their originally published format in the rare book room demythologizes the aura of classic that now surrounds them. Oliver Twist, collected in volumes 1–5 of Bentley's Miscellany, demonstrates how a new serial was often started alongside a successful one nearing completion to entice established readers to keep purchasing the periodical. In volumes 1 and 2 (each volume contains six monthly numbers), the installments of the new serial Oliver Twist follow Songs of the Month, by Ainsworth, Samuel Lover, and other authors now forgotten but then more established than Dickens. The placement of Twist indicates the publisher's lack of certainty about the success of this new serial, even though Cruikshank was quite popular in the 1830s and Dickens, then better known as a journalist than as an author, still had enjoyed success with The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), which popularized serial fiction in the first place. Not surprisingly, Oliver Twist rises to the lead position in the table of contents of volumes 3 and 4 of Bentley's. But despite the enormous popularity of Twist, the final four installments drop to the sixteenth position in the table of contents for volume 5.4 Instead, Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard has first billing, which reveals the publisher's desire to excite his readership with the escapades of another Newgate novel.

Extending the boundaries of the classroom into the rare book room of a library is more than a field trip to view dusty artifacts. Seeing novels in the very publishing format the Victorians once saw them in makes Victorian cultural constructs accessible to students. The rare book room thus becomes a window into Victorian culture as well as into the best literature of the age.

Skidmore College


1. Master Humphrey's Clock was a weekly periodical written wholly by Dickens to carry installments of his full-length novels The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41) and Barnaby Rudge (1841). Bentley's Miscellany was a distinguished monthly periodical including important contributions by William Harrison Ainsworth and by Dickens, who was also the first editor of Bentley's.

2. Many paperback editions that retain illustrations do so only erratically. For example, following Dickens's own later selection of illustrations, the Oxford edition of Oliver Twist retains only eight of Cruikshank's original illustrations, which editor Kathleen Tillotson numbers as twenty-five to include an illustration Dickens rejected. "Fagin in the Condemned Cell" and "Oliver Asking for More" are retained; but other, less memorable illustrations, such as "Sikes and His Dog," are included rather than, for instance, "The Last Chance" or "Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney Taking Tea." Similarly, the Signet edition of Thackeray's Vanity Fair retains some of the inset capital designs and an occasional woodcut. Recently, there has been a trend to include illustrations in modern editions, and the complete illustrations of Vanity Fair, for example, are printed in the 1994 Norton Critical Edition as well as in the Oxford University Press edition of that novel. Furthermore, the Norton Critical Edition of David Copperfield also includes all of Phiz's illustrations. These are but a few examples of the revaluation of Victorian illustrations in recent paperback editions.

3. Cruikshank's career ended in controversy over his exaggerated claims that his illustrations had altered Dickens's original concept of Oliver Twist and had inspired Ainsworth's The Miser's Daughter and The Tower of London. His struggles over authority ended his collaboration with Dickens in 1841 and with Ainsworth in 1844.

4. Other factors may have influenced this decision. The final magazine installments of Twist appeared serially after the three-volume publication of Twist and after Dickens had resigned the editorship of Bentley's. Also, Ainsworth, the subsequent editor, may have been eager to showcase his own fiction, Jack Sheppard (1839).

Works Cited

Cruikshank, George. The Artist and the Author. London: George Bell, 1870.

Du Maurier, George. "The Illustrating of Books from the Serious Artist's Point of View." Magazine of Art. Aug.-Sept. 1890: 349+.

Hughes, Linda K. and Michael Lund. The Victorian Serial. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1991.

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