Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Because much primary material concerning newspaper fiction in the Victorian period did not survive, because no archival survey is ever complete, and because definitions of genre are not universal, Graham Law has rigorously, precisely, and consistently qualified every assertion he makes in this book. And yetSerializing Fiction in the Victorian Press has irreversibly recast the shape of literary history in the nineteenth century.

This book corrects the traditional history of the novel in the nineteenth century, which has been organized by volume publication. As Law points out, that critical choice has misrepresented the reading of fiction in that time: “It now seems likely that, for almost the whole of the Victorian period, a significant majority of ‘original’ novels published as books had appeared previously in monthly or weekly instalments, as independent numbers, in magazines, or in the pages of the newspapers that are our particular interest here” (13). Especially unrecognized and unmeasured have been the serial novels placed in provincial newspapers by emerging syndicates: “Indeed, it seems likely that virtually every community in Britain would have been served by some form of newspaper consistently featuring fiction material before the end of the century” (181). For the interest of this journal, we should note that “Mary Braddon and Wilkie Collins were the two Victorian novelists of name who sold their work to syndicates of provincial newspapers earliest and most consistently” (170).

Law defines his subject precisely: “Above all this book is concerned with the nature and role of the provincial fiction syndicates, and the reasons for their rise and demise” (34). And his thesis fits this subject within established scholarship: “the syndication of serial fiction in newspapers represents an important but overlooked transitional phrase between the ‘Gentlemanly Publishing’ of the mid-century, with its cloth-covered volumes and literary monthlies, and the mass-market magazines and paperbacks of the turn of the century” (34). Because Collins is a central figure in this “overlooked transitional phrase,” we are encouraged by Law’s book to rethink his contribution to the history of the Victorian novel.

Law begins his sweeping study by sketching a more pervasive use of serialization in the eighteenth century than is often acknowledged and then moves to installment publication in the Victorian period, which he divides into three overlapping periods: early (1830s to 1850s), middle (1850s to 1870s), and late (1870s to 1890s) (14). The impetus for the trend of publishing fiction in periodicals is the elimination of ‘Taxes on Knowledge,’ with one of the largest effects coming “in the provincial press, where there was an explosion of new newspapers” (31). Law presents the data of serialization in more than a dozen detailed tables (thirty pages of which appear in the appendix), acknowledging that “in the end this book remains more closely attached to the tradition of empirical study of the development of the publishing industry, the reading public, and popular fiction by such scholars such as Graham Pollard, Richard Altick and Louis James” (xiv) than to more theoretical studies (i.e., Norman Feltes’s Modes of Production of Victorian Novels). There are also ten pages of illustrations showing authors and sample pages of newspapers with fiction.

The central figure in Law’s study is W.F. Tillotson, who with John Maxwell in 1873 “created the first syndicate of British provincial newspapers systematically covering most of the country for new work by an author with a reputation already established in the metropolitan book market” (43). The Fiction Bureau set a “trend which would lead to an entirely new phase in the periodical publication of Victorian fiction” (43). Collins was perhaps “the biggest catch” in the 1870s for the Bolton firm, one of “a new group of established metropolitan authors who had no formal connection with John Maxwell, and who were a cut above the general run of his protégés” (77). Such organizations as the Fiction Bureau provided new outlets for authors. Law traces the dynamic local contexts in which novels appeared (rivalry between theSheffield Independent and the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, for instance) in order to understand national trends. He concludes, for instance, that “newspapers, both generically and individually, must be seen to create as much as to discover their readership” (126). Drawing evidence from surges in sales and from reader correspondence, Law concludes that serialization in provincial newspapers meant reaching many more readers than volume publication, “over half a million sales in Britain alone” (131). Though not all might read the fiction, it would be “rash for us not to assume that the large circulation figures for the weeklies run by Tillotsons and W.C. Leng and Co. themselves, and for those of many of their clients, indicated a large and enthusiastic following for much of the fiction they were offering” (136-7). Among other aspects of increasing trade in fiction taken up by Law are: the influence of Scottish developments on the English provincial newspaper market (especially the career of writer David Pae), the importance of new juvenile and female markets, and the expansion of colonial outlets.

While it is often assumed editors and publishers of installment works forced writers to abandon artistic standards, Law contends that “the most consistent pressures exerted on the later Victorian novelist by the mode of initial publication in newspapers were generic” (200), that is, adapting to the traditions of sensation, mystery, or adventure fiction, not to the demands of editors or publishers. Even the famous case of Thomas Hardy’s Tess, reconsidered here by Law, suggests that, if “provincial syndicators, and the journals they served, were less likely to tamper with texts to avoid giving offense to prudish readers, they seem at the same time to have been far more likely to do so by adding a veneer of sensationalism, by deleting material perceived as tedious, or simply by making pragmatic changes according to pressures of space” (195). The role of gender in publishing is not dramatically altered by Law’s research. For instance, in “the weekly news-miscellanies becoming common by the 1870s, there is a growing recognition of females readers, but often as belonging [in] a separate sphere, meriting specific women’s pages and features” (141).

Later in the century, competition to syndicates led to expansion abroad: Tillotsons “seems to have established regular business relations with eight American newspapers by late 1885” (73), as well as ties to Australian, Canadian, and European newspapers. The competition faced by syndicates, which was in some ways healthy for the industry, included: authors working out their own arrangements with newspapers; rival syndicates like Cassell, Leaders, and the National Press Agency; American syndicates offering American writers in England (and British writers in America); literary agents like A. P. Watt, who, for instance, arranged for newspaper syndication of Collins’ Heart and Science in 1882 and “I Say No” the following year, both simultaneously with appearances in metropolitan monthly magazines.

Wilkie Collins broke ground in the complexity of contracts he developed with syndicates, taking on such matters as simultaneous release, regional limitations, and colonial syndication (167-8). In fact, his attention to such detail can be considered a phase in the development of the literary agent, who negotiated such rights for authors. Law admits that Collins turned to syndication for money; yet he “was also attracted by the idea of escaping the Grundyism of the London editors, library proprietors, and reviewers, and directly addressing a new mass reading public measured in hundreds rather than tens of thousands” (171). Still, Collins viewed people like Tillotson as beneath him in class and education. “The tensions visible in the intercourse between Collins or his representative and the popular newspaper syndicators and proprietors are symptoms not only of the growing divide between romantic and professional views of authorship, and between ‘gentlemanly’ and ‘commercial’ modes of fiction production, but also of Collins’s confusion as to which side of the divide he was on” (176).

Law does not ignore the limitations of the provincial newspaper format or the syndication process; but he sees the demise of these entities in the late 1880s as also involving loss: “While the provincial syndicates had permitted a range of narrative modes and themes, the shift of the balance of power back to the metropolitan press encouraged a considerable narrowing and hardening of the dominant modes of serial fiction” (214). Rather than “narrowing” or “hardening” current scholarship, Law’s book opens up for new scrutiny an important transitional period in the history of the novel and provides a wealth of new information about authors reaching audiences with serial fiction in the Victorian Age.