Companion to Victorian Popular Fiction (2018), ed. by Kevin A. Morrison
Kevin A. Morrison’s Companion to Victorian Popular Fiction, published in 2018 by McFarland (McFarlandBooks.com), offers a wide-angle look at the state of popular fiction in the mid to late nineteenth century. Though having a similar aim as The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900 (1989) and the Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland (2009), Morrison’s Companion, while thorough, is presented in a more compact format. That is, while the Wellesley Index and Dictionary are useful for researchers looking for specific information, Companion, with its fascinating 300-odd entries, invites browsing. As Morrison explains in his preface, he has compiled “an introduction to representative fictional works written for the mass-publishing market and read by large segments of the British public. It also includes biographical sketches of principally noncanonical writers and their publishers, the topics that concerned them, and the popular genres they helped to establish, shape, or refine” (1).
As is clear from Morrison’s preface and the entries themselves, this was a period in which texts – and reading – proliferated, especially given technological, legal, and educational advancements that made print media cheaper and expanded the reading public. While this work is, of course, about the texts and authors, Companion also reveals important social insights. As Elizabeth Steere’s entry for “Class” explains, the mid-to-late nineteenth century saw a “newly literate class” that “craved fiction, often in serial form,” like that found in The Halfpenny Journal, “which billed itself as ‘A Magazine for All Who Can Read’” (49). In fact, according to Companion’s index, “class/es” is the keyword discussed more than any other item in the index, with 124 references. The fact that “serials/serialization/series” is the second most discussed topic, with 106 references, is no coincidence; more and more people were consuming literature, and serialization became the choice method of delivery. Companion, then, reveals the myriad topics and issues that this new reading class cared about.
Literary and cultural figures like New Women and vampires, for example, figure prominently in the entries, as do genres like detective, sensation and gothic fiction. Germane to popular fiction in the later decades of the nineteenth century, it is, of course, not surprising to find such subjects discussed frequently, but the many useful cross-references included and the emphasis on noncanonical texts and authors provide refreshing insights. Readers might find interest in Alison Moulds’s entry on Mona MacLean, Medical Student, an 1892 novel by Margaret Todd (herself a medical student), which intersects such themes as the New Woman, working women, and women as medical professionals. Readers can also learn about Edward Lloyd’s popular Penny Sunday Times and the People’s Police Gazette, which blurred the lines between fiction and reality through its publication of “police reports, coverage of specific criminal cases, wood-cut images, poems, songs, theater, general reference articles, and even puzzles,” according to Mary L. Shannon (188). This serial played to (and no doubt helped cement) public fascination with “low,” sensational subjects, which can reveal important insights into Victorian culture to twenty-first-century scholars.
There are a number of subjects that emerge from reading Companion that are, perhaps, less expected. Jack the Ripper, anti-Semitism, vivisection, and animals are cross-referenced repeatedly throughout the text. While all these subjects are interesting on their own (Oriah Amit, David Glover, Kaja Franck, and Monica Flegel, respectively, have crafted wonderful entries on these subjects), what is just as fascinating is the way in which, collectively, these entries illuminate the wide range of interests and anxieties of the British reading public. Fears of invasion, the “other,” and science, felt by many Britons, were both cultivated by and taken advantage of by writers of popular fiction, who capitalized on these fears to sell their wares, often stoking misinformation and public anxiety while doing so.
Another strength of this collection is the insight it gives into lesser-studied or long-forgotten authors, making Companion a treasure trove for scholars seeking information on noncanonical writers. For example, Joan Passey’s entry on Sabine Baring-Gould, an “English priest, translator, antiquarian, novelist, folklorist, architect, archaeologist, hagiographer, and prolific scholar,” details his “eclectic” contributions to gothic, melodrama, and romance genres, among others (21). Long-forgotten novels like Ginx’s Baby by Edward Jenkins are also highlighted, as are themes that may surprise twenty-first-century readers, such as the entry on cricket in nineteenth-century popular literature.
While Companion does not explicitly focus on women writers, their prominence as both producers and consumers of popular literature is another clear undercurrent of the collection. One can find an extensive list of novels written by Marie Corelli, for instance, who, though now well-nigh forgotten, was the author of “the first modern English bestselling novels” and who, thanks in large part to the cheap price of her single-volume novels, was read across “all social strata from the low scullery maid to Queen Victoria herself,” according to Julia Kuehn’s entry (57). Or, one might read Tamara S. Wagner’s excellent entry on “Motherhood,” which elucidates the changing understandings of the “medical, legal, emotional, and aesthetic conceptualization of motherhood,” especially as relates to their representation in novels (162). Women were an increasingly powerful demographic throughout the nineteenth century, and Companion underscores the ways in which popular fiction represented the experience of womanhood in the nineteenth century.
The Companion to Victorian Popular Fiction is a fascinating and user-friendly guide to the fiction that was voraciously consumed by later Victorians; it is a volume that no doubt is valuable to scholars with wide interests, given the wide scope of topics, journals, texts, and writers covered by top scholars in the field. In addition to advanced scholars, perhaps looking for information on neglected authors or on specific trends in popular fiction, Companion is also a useful classroom resource for graduate and undergraduate students alike, especially given the conclusions that can be drawn about life in late-Victorian Britain from the trends that emerge across the text.