Recovering the Victorian Periodical
Heller, Lee E., Nineteenth-Century Prose
Patricia Anderson, The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture 1790-1860 (Oxford UP--Clarendon Press, 1991), 211 pp., $59.00 cloth.
Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund, The Victorian Serial (UP of Virginia, 1991), 448 pp., $42.50 cloth.
As Joanne Shattock and Michael Wolff have noted, "[T]he press, in all its manifestations, became during the Victorian period the context within which people lived and worked and thought, and from which they derived their (in most cases quite new) sense of the outside world" (xiv-xv). As literary study in the last decade has increasingly shifted away from ahistorical analyses of "great books" and towards the recovery of the larger literary atmosphere in which authors write and audiences read, scholars of Victorian literature must take into account the workings of this burgeoning press and the versions it offered--old and new--of the world in which it found its meanings. Two new scholarly works--Patricia Anderson's The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture 1790-1860, and Linda K. Hughes's and Michael Lund's The Victorian Serial--attempt to recover some of these materials and their significance for Victorian literary culture.
The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture takes as its thesis that the rapid growth of the publishing industry in mid-nineteenth century England "played a fundamental part in the first phase of a broad transformation: The unprecedented expansion of the cultural experience of working people" (1). This "expanded popular culture," the author argues, was increasingly pictorial; through its printed imagery we can observe the growth of its audience and its transformation into an incipient mass culture.
Anderson structures her study by offering a chronology of the proliferation of visual culture, which she divides into a transitional period (1790-1832) in which images were scarce for those in the working class; a period of emerging variety and plenitude (1832-1845); and a period of rapid growth and diversity (1845-1860). Her first chapter offers a survey of types of images available to working class viewers in the period before 1832, and concludes with a discussion of the divide between popular culture images and the high art of the wealthy--a divide that, Anderson asserts, was only temporarily breached before art retreated from the realm of popular culture.
Since printed imagery was most pervasive in cheap printed-word texts, and in particular in the growing number of periodicals, Anderson argues for an expanded popular culture by focusing on four popular illustrated weeklies: The Penny Magazine (1832-1845), the London Journal (18451906), Reynold's Miscellany (1846-1869), and Cassell's Illustrated Family Paper (1853-1932). Anderson begins with a content analysis of the Penny Magazine, in which editor Charles Knight's strategy was to popularize high culture in order to educate, and thereby civilize, his readers--thus his editorial emphasis on reproductions of high art. The Penny Magazine was quickly followed, as subsequent chapters show, by a number of periodicals that challenged, and ultimately replaced, Knight's weekly. This "second generation" of weeklies, Anderson argues, mostly offered images that were appealing and would help to sell the magazines.
Having described the contents--written and visual--of her three weeklies, Anderson attempts to demonstrate the composition of the periodical audience. As she rightly notes, it is extremely difficult to identify audiences for popular culture texts; Anderson relies throughout most of her book on the few available worker autobiographies (in particular John Burnett's collection, Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s). In this chapter she relies primarily on the signatures on letters from readers, to which the weeklies replied in their correspondence columns; although the letters themselves were not printed, their signatures--occasionally specifying class, gender, or occupation--might indicate the class status of the reading audience. (Anderson notes the limits and perils of this approach, since both letters and signatures might be fabrications on the part of the editors.) From this data she also offers evidence for her secondary argument about the emergence of mass culture: She sees the diversity of that audience as the defining term for a newly emerging "mass" culture that cuts across classes to constitute a "socially diverse cultural formation" (156).
The focus of this study--the printed image, in its diverse and proliferating forms--is an important avenue to understanding the role of print culture generally, and periodical literature more specifically, in people's lives: The forces that went into its production, the mechanisms by which that culture found its way into daily experience, the nature of visual images in shaping the perception both of texts and of social experience, and the ideologies disseminated to its audiences. Anderson's book is clearly most interested in this last point, in the ideas embodied by those images, and is most useful for students of popular print culture as a catalog of the images and of the general content of these four widely circulating weeklies.
The greatest problem with Anderson's book is that it ultimately lacks a rigorous framework for the analysis of the catalog of images it provides. The Printed Image is curiously uninformed about visual images and how they work in ways distinct from other forms of representation: Although Anderson mentions Barthes, Benjamin, and other theorists of the image, she does not incorporate any conceptualization of either the cognitive or the social workings of visual images and how they are shaped by context and use. Anderson's descriptions of the contents of written and of visual texts intermingles them without distinction between how such texts might work both in relation, and differently, to create meanings. One is particularly struck by the failure to distinguish between the ways that the printed image works when used as an illustration for a story or for a news item, as an image in an advertisement, or as interior decoration: Surely the uses of an image and its juxtaposition alongside a text distinguished by a specific generic identity and function are significant factors in the meaning it generates.
This innocence about form extends to print culture more generally: Although Anderson mentions literacy, she offers no theoretical or historical discussion of how reading constitutes and mediates experience. Such an absence seems surprising, especially given her familiarity (apparent in her introductory discussion) with E.P. Thompson, Richard Altick, and Raymond Williams as models for the study of working class audiences and the cultural significance of reading. And although Anderson refers to cultural practitioners and theorists such as Stuart Hall, Tony Bennett, and Antonio Gramsci, her understanding of the relationship between the production and consumption of texts does not include a discussion of the forces surrounding the produced text and its consumers. Rather, she presents the naive notion that because working class audiences freely purchased these periodicals, they were not "repressed" by the ideology contained in their imagery but "consented to the values embodied in these publications" by buying them (6). This lack of sophistication about the relationship between consumption and ideology is perhaps not out of keeping with a book that does not engage the issue of advertising in its discussion of printed images.
Finally, Anderson attempts to examine the relationship between high and low culture by offering an historical reading of the retreat of "high art" from the domain of popular and mass culture imagery. Unfortunately, her only proof that it was ever there is Knight's use of reproductions of such images in the Penny Magazine, and she herself notes that his editorial commentary is personal rather than institutional. Also, Anderson says that art retreats, but then goes on to note that it is widely evident in advertising images. What then are we to make of her assertion that it disappears from popular culture?
The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture is not really about visual images, despite its title, since it spends as much time on written texts as on visual ones, and offers no way of discussing the role and function of visual images separately from written texts; nor is it really about the transformation of popular culture, unless we accept the notion that increasing variety constitutes a transformation of either audience or subject matter. (The fuzziness in Anderson's use of the term "culture"--sometimes to indicate her audience, sometimes to indicate the texts--indicates the lack of a clearly developed sense of what culture is, and what forces go into its making.) Anderson is at her most interesting when she asserts that the shift from "popular" to "mass" culture is one that reflects a difference in the composition of the audience, and therefore in the class relationships within the larger culture: Such a view suggests provocative questions about the consequences of a shared body of texts transecting class lines, and about the role of print in making those connections and therefore making (and unmaking) social structure and authority. However, the implications of a community united by the common consumption of a shared body of knowledge are not raised until the final chapter, and then only to note that working people at last have, in these materials, a "common cultural experience." What that common experience is, beyond being diverse, we are not told.
The approach that Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund take to nineteenth-century periodicals is dramatically different. In The Victorian Serial they argue that "the serial embodied a vision, a perspective on stories about life, intrinsic to Victorian culture" (1). Their study is of the dynamics of serial reading as a subject little examined, but essential in a culture in which this form of publication was pervasive. They attempt to demonstrate the different meanings such a context generated by examining sixteen works of poetry and fiction first published in serial form.
Hughes and Lund's introduction raises provocative questions about the relationship between the serial form and the different meanings generated--out of both the writer's decisions and the reader's perceptions--by a text published in installments. What is the specific experience of reading a text over time, in segments, and alongside other texts? How is interpretation different when it is provisional and happens "in the middle" of a gradually unfolding narrative? Hughes and Lund note the ways that serialization creates a community of shared experience, as the various members of that community read the text at the same historical moment and at the same pace. They observe as well the different relationship that serialization implies between audience and author, as the former experience the text more intimately and immediately, while conversely the author is influenced by audience reaction even as the text is being composed. Their attempt to recover audience response via periodical reviews of serial installments (the problematics of which I will discuss below) shows that the meaning of these texts was very much a function of the context of their publication.
Primarily, however, Hughes and Lund see the significance of serial publication as a function of how it reflected Victorian world views of time, as they describe Victorian culture's sense of time and history as developmental, uniformitarian, and gradualist. The serial form contains these meanings within it, they imply, with the result that those meanings were invariably part of the experience of reading a serial. What is more, those meanings were attached to, and had an analogous expression in, the dominant themes of home, history, empire, and doubt. Hughes and Lund focus on how the serial publication of a variety of texts by Browning, Conrad, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Tennyson, Trollope, and several others helped to shape both the author's strategies in incorporating one or more of those themes, and the reader's experience of those themes through the act of reading in installments.
Subsequent chapters of The Victorian Serial are organized around these four themes, offering close readings of several texts in terms of a single theme (sometimes with reference to another) in each chapter. Thus, for example, Chapter Two explores "how domestic virtues within Victorian ideology are particularly apparent in the recovered record of Victorian serial readers but also how serial reading could extend, augment, and influence the perception of domestic themes" (18). In this reading of texts by Patmore, Dickens, and Thackeray, the serial form reinforces (or is reinforced by--the causality is unclear) Victorian notions of childhood development as linear: Thus the linear plot of the serial novel reflects this belief and reinforces its domestic themes, while the "stages of life" implied in Victorian domestic ideology are reflected in the structure of the domestic plot. The substantial bulk of the book is dedicated to a variety of examples of this approach.
What Hughes and Lund are arguing in essence is that serial readers interpreted texts differently from those who read the text as a single, whole volume--a provocative assertion that might be more successfully made if they had compared intepretations from serial as well as from single volume readers. Nevertheless, The Victorian Serial asks us to think about how time operated in the initial reading of those serialized narratives, especially in the breaks between installments. We are also asked to rethink the significance of the sense of an ending (pace Kermode), as the experience of serial reading emphasizes the "long middles" of these texts. This approach also asks us to imagine how reading would be shaped by reviews and responses available between installments, as well as how interpretation is determined by all the interruptions and intrusions that might accompany serial reading.
It is surprising, then, to have to describe The Victorian Serial as fundamentally ahistorical and theoretically uninformed in its approach to its subject. Indeed, Hughes and Lund seem to lack a framework for discussing the complex forces that went into the historical experience of Victorian periodical literature. Although they acknowledge reader response theory, textual studies, and new historicism in a footnote, the implications of such approaches do not enter into their discussions, except for some brief borrowing from Iser's phenomenology of reading. What Hughes and Lund do instead is a kind of new criticism/old historicism, in which general historical characterizations of the period are assumed to operate in the minds of all readers, and to be reflected thematically in literary texts. An analysis of Victorian serial literature would seem to call for a more historically specific discussion of the circumstances of publishing--of the role of technology, literacy, and the marketplace in explaining what got written, published, purchased, and read, and by whom. Although they acknowledge in their Introduction that other forces might shape the interpretation of a text--publication, distribution, context--their individual interpretations take into account only the author's intentions in writing, and the response of readers (generally imagined rather than documented) to those intentions.
As Anderson demonstrates in The Printed Image, the recovery of nineteenth-century audiences is no easy task; however, Hughes and Lund use only published periodical reviews of their texts, letting them stand as exemplary of all kinds of reading, with the result that they make no distinction between public and private, individual and institutional responses to texts. This method also confines them mostly to speculative reinterpretations ("would" and "might" are commonly used terms in describing imagined Victorian readings), since a limited number of such reviews were available. What we get from such a sampling is a generalized and uniform vision of how Victorian readers read, with the consequence that the interpretive significance of the readers' identity falls out of the frame--although the inclusion of such factors as gender might have helped to explain how, for example, a woman reader experienced the thematics of serial consumption of a domestic novel. In fact, the authors do not seem terribly interested in their historically real readers, given their underuse of much wonderful nineteenth-century commentary about serials: They quote, but don't work with, what the readers were saying about the experience of reading serially, except to prove whatever theme they are attributing to the text.
It is also surprising, given their care to imagine the ways that serial consumption would affect the experience of reading, that Hughes and Lund become increasingly sloppy in their use of the term "serial." They don't distinguish between regular monthly serials published in periodicals; freestanding texts such as Browning's Ring and the Book, published in separate parts (although they quote Browning's objections to being "sandwiched between Politics and Deer-Stalking" , they do not discuss the significance of such positioning); texts that accumulate in revisions by addition, such as Tennyson's Idylls of the King;, and multiple parts of a series, as in the case of Trollope's Palliser novels. More than this, they offer a simplistic description of the cognitive operations of serial reading, in which it is always gradualist, uniform in its regularity, and developmental. This conception fails to take into account the discontinuous nature of serial reading, and the experience of such things as cliffhangers, abrupt breaks, and missed installments.
How then are we to recover Victorian periodicals in all the complexity of meaning embedded in the socioeconomic circumstances in which they existed? One possible theoretical and methodological structure is offered by the History of the Book, which, as Cathy Davidson describes it, "departs from text-based models of literary criticism--whether New Critical or deconstructionist--to consider a constellation of problems surrounding the production of books as well as the production of meaning by those who read them" (3). Its starting point is implied in G. Thomas Tanselle's observation that "[w]hat a text says is forever linked to the mundane realities underlying the physical product that gives the text a material embodimen" (qtd. in Davidson 1). That is, the meanings that we recover for Victorian periodicals must emerge out of the physical, economic, and social circumstances that determined their production and consumption: The technologies that shaped the size of a periodical's print run and the distribution systems that determined who bought it, where and when, and for how much; the monetary relationships between authors and publishers that helped to shape what got written, and where and when it saw print; the social construction of literacy, influencing not just who read and what they read, but how they understood the act of reading generally, the act of reading periodical literature more specifically, and the act of reading a given periodical (or type) in particular.
Several exemplary instances of this approach exist, from Richard Altick (The English Common Reader), Richard Hoggart (The Uses of Literacy), E.P. Thompson (The Making of the English Working Class), and Raymond Williams (The Long Revolution) in their studies of English audiences and their different uses of literacy, to the more recent, methodologically complex work of Robert Darnton in The Widening Circle: Essays in the Circulation of Literature in Eighteenth Century Europe (1976) and The Great Cat Massacre (1984), and Natalie Zemon Davis in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975) and Fiction in the Archives (1987). Recent work of this kind in English literary study includes Margaret Spufford's Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and Its Readership in Seventeenth Century England (1982); J. Paul Hunter's Before Novels (1990); Annabel M. Patterson's Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (1984); and Isabel Rivers' Books and Their Readers in Eighteenth Century England (1982). The best study of this sort for pre-nineteenth century British periodicals is Kathryn Shevelow's Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical (1989). Shevelow, as she describes her project, "delineate[s] the process of simultaneous enfranchisement and restriction that marked women's visible entrance into print culture by tracing the early stages of the development of the popular periodical, as it emerged in the late seventeenth century" (2).
The nineteenth century is a particularly fruitful area for the study of the relationship between material culture and the meaning of printed texts, as scholars explore the significance of rapid changes in literacy, print technology, and economic life. For American literature, there is the work of Cathy N. Davidson in Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel In America (1987); Michael Denning's Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (1987); and Ronald J. Zboray's newly published, ambitious study, A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic. Development and the American Reading Public (1993). For British Victorian print culture, we have R.C. Terry's Victorian Popular Fiction 1860-1880; Jon Klancher's The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832 (1987); Louis James's Print and the People, 1819-1851 (1978); and the work of various scholars collected in The Victorian Periodical Press: Samplings and Soundings (1982). From such studies as these we can hope to recover a more comprehensive, historically informed understanding of how Victorian periodicals participated in making meaning for the various participants in an expanding print culture.
Davidson, Cathy N. "Introduction: Toward a History of Books and Readers." In Reading in America, ed. Cathy N. Davidson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 1-26.
Shattock, Joanne and Michael Wolff. "Introduction." The Victorian Periodical Press: Samplings and Soundings, ed. Joanne Shattock and Michael Wolff. Leicester: Leicester UP, 1982. xiii-xix.
Shevelow, Kathryn. Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical London and New York: Routledge, 1989.…
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Publication information: Article title: Recovering the Victorian Periodical. Contributors: Heller, Lee E. - Author. Journal title: Nineteenth-Century Prose. Volume: 20. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 1993. Page number: 42+. © 2001 Nineteenth-Century Prose. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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