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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Monday, July 23, 2007

The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel

Posted by Miriam Burstein on 07/23/07 at 11:11 PM

[Disclaimer: I both know the author and am thanked in the preface (as part of the Western New York Victorianists Group).]

Students have been known to run shrieking from the room at the very sight of Bleak House.  Even full-blown academics occasionally break into whimpers of agony when faced with Middlemarch.  While no Victorian novel ever attained the glorious excess of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa--which, in its most recent Penguin edition, is approximately the size of your average Norton anthology--it’s still the case that Victorian fiction is, for lack of a better way of putting it, very there.  But modern editions of Victorian novels are far less there than the nineteenth-century originals, which spill out into sometimes endless serials (anyone up for Varney the Vampire?), parts, volumes, and cheap editions.

Not surprisingly, there’s a well-established tradition in Victorian studies of analyzing Victorian fiction in relationship to contemporary publication and distribution practices.  Thus, critics like Carol A. Martin (George Eliot’s Serial Fiction) have linked narrative form to serial publishing, while N. N. Feltes (Modes of Production of Victorian Novels) and Lee Erickson (The Economy of Literary Form) pay more attention to such issues as the emergence of a mass market or the role of publishing in shaping notions of authorship.  Daniel Hack’s The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel, which at first glance falls seamlessly into this critical tradition, actually moves off in a different direction: Hack explores "the meaning and mutual relevance of the physicality of the written or printed word, the exchange of texts for money, the workings and slippages of signification, and the corporealities of character, writer, and reader" (7).  Victorian novels, that is, engage with different materials--ranging from bodies to paper--in such a way as to "define and bring into play their own material elements" (7).  What does it mean, exactly, to think of a book as an object? Does creating a book involve work, and if so, who is actually working--the novelist or the printer? What is the relationship between, say, Bleak House and any given edition of Bleak House?

I’d like to look at three different issues raised by this book, moving from the most specific to the most general.

1.  Type.  Like anyone who spends any length of time writing about Thackeray’s Henry Esmond, Hack discusses the three-volume edition’s antiquarian typeface (featuring, e.g., the long s).  For most modern readers--and, indeed, for any reader who picked up a later edition of the novel--the original typeface is notable primarily for its absence, which poses an obvious problem of interpretation: does the typeface actually have some significance, or is it purely cosmetic? Hack argues that the type and its subsequent disappearance opens up questions about the author’s "sovereignty" (20) over the text, questions which are as potentially ironic and open-ended as the novel itself (famously marked by all sorts of internal contradictions).  But I’d argue that in the nineteenth century, this early-modern typeface served another function that plays into Hack’s argument: it identifies a text that exists in a bizarre no-man’s land between print and writing.  Hannah Rathbone’s two Lady Willoughby novels are a case in point (here is the second volume); the books, published in Caslon type, were originally bound as diaries, they are laid out as diaries...but they are, of course, Victorian novels.  And yet, Rathbone took her time about announcing that they were novels, or even that there was an actual nineteenth-century author involved.  Are they "transcriptions"? "Facsimiles"? Texts caught in an unforeseen time warp? What? The historical dress, as it were, fails to clarify the book’s provenance--not least because it’s anachronistic to use Caslon for a text set in the seventeenth century.  This is even more the case with Anne Manning’s The Maiden & Married Life of Mary Powell, Afterwards Mistress Milton (this is a later edition) which is purportedly an unpublished (but, of course, published) diary.  In a sense, the typeface signifies that what we are reading has, in fact, been "written," even though it has really been printed

2.  Hail, poetry.  It’s no great surprise that anyone interested in literature and materiality would look at novels, especially since Victorian novels easily dominate histories of nineteenth-century publishing.  And, as I said before, Victorian novels are very there.  Yet there is an alternative history to be sketched out that emphasizes poetry’s longstanding engagement with materiality and authorship.  The horrors of materiality haunt late seventeenth and eighteenth-century poetry: poems are always being threatened by the prospect of turning into trunk liners or pie wrappers, not to mention less savory things.  In Dryden’s "Mac Flecknoe," the poem-as-object becomes fatally mixed up with the authors themselves, whose "scatter’d limbs" line the street.  Even more spectacularly, in Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad, we have the poem-as-object running wildly amok, as the footnotes swamp what is supposed to be the main text and the various "dunces" find themselves subjected to the worst (frequently scatalogical) indignities.  Pope’s own diminutive and crippled body itself became the target for contemporary squibs, in ways that promptly became bound up with the "body" of his work. 

Hack spends considerable time on the economic problem of productive vs. non-productive labor as it applies to authors--who, Hack argues, are doing their best to "establish their credentials as productive laborers" (65).  While Hack suggests that authors are trying not to be "beggars," one could add that they are also trying to avoid being prostitutes.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s great dramatic monologue "Jenny" dramatizes precisely this problem: the speaker, who has somehow wound up with a prostitute (however might that have happened...?), spends a good chunk of the poem attempting to define what Jenny does as not-work.  The speaker’s opening lines, "Lazy laughing languid Jenny,/Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea," immediately strip Jenny’s life of any associations with labor; not only does the language suggest that Jenny is distinctly adverse to work, but more importantly it suggests that what Jenny does is a pleasure.  But, as the oft-repeated conjunction "and" indicates, Jenny also plays the game of equivalencies, rendering "a kiss" of equal value to "a guinea."  The entire poem plays on this agony of exchanges, some ascribed to Jenny by the speaker, others explicitly associated with the speaker himself, and still others not recognized at all.  In particular, the speaker understandably wishes to differentiate his room, "so full of books," from Jenny’s room; in his room, there is "cherished work" to be done (albeit work complicated and temporarily stymied by the labor associated with books), whereas in Jenny’s room...well, one can guess what goes on in Jenny’s room.  And yet, the speaker repeatedly equates Jenny herself with a nearly unreadable book: "You know not what a book you seem,/Half-read by lightning in a dream!" Apparently, all rooms have potentially troubling books in them.  Worse still, our speaker is patently not working--suffering from writer’s block, perhaps--which puts him in a rather awkward position vis-a-vis the supposedly non-working Jenny.  In fact, Jenny really isn’t working either--she falls asleep instead of going through with the transaction*--which suggests a further uncomfortable link between herself and the speaker.  All of the speaker’s attempts to define what Jenny does as not-work fall apart; even the physical contrast between Jenny and the manual laborer, "Whose ill-clad grace and toil-worn look/Proclaim the strength that keeps her weak/And other nights than yours bespeak," eventually collapses under the weight of Jenny’s likely future, "wealth and health slipped past."  How does one maintain a difference when so many things prove equivalent? For the speaker, the thing most consciously at stake is the nature of womanhood itself, but we might also wonder about the nature of authorship while we’re at it. 

3.  Is there an intention in this class? Hack takes particular interest in the advertisements which often accompanied the novels: what prevents the novel from turning into just another commodity for sale?

As discussed earlier, print technology makes possible a sharp distinction between abstract text and material instantiation, a distinction codified in the concept of copyright and thus crucial to the growth of the literary marketplace.  A text’s transcendence of physical materiality is therefore less a metaphysical operation than a technological, economic, and legal one [...] Even, then, as Daniel Deronda’s distinguishing of itself from its material instantiation distances the novel from the advertisements it is bound with  and the commercial sphere they openly inhabit, this abstraction of the text conforms to the logic of the market itself.  Eliot’s novel is detachable from the advertisements with which it was printed because of, not despite, its nature as property, because of and not despite the commercial activity that also brings them together.  (175)

Why is Daniel Deronda doing the "distinguishing," as opposed to George Eliot? It’s an interesting and, I think, deliberate shift in agency.  We could ask, for example, to what extent Eliot engaged in this struggle between text and advertisement--or, rather, to what extent Eliot was engaged by this struggle.  Hack’s reading of Thackeray raises the point that authors may not "rule" their novels’ final appearances; in granting agency to Daniel Deronda, not to Eliot, Hack suggests that here we have an interaction between text and paratext that lies well beyond the reach of Eliot’s considerable grasp.  Does participating in the "literary marketplace," which subordinates "material instantiation" (that book in front of you) to "abstract text" (Daniel Deronda "itself"), require this loss of control--and, along with it, of intentionality?

*--I cannot but suspect a sly joke in Rossetti’s use of couplets (many of them slant rhymes), given the pointed failure of the characters to, well, couple. 

[X-posted from The Little Professor.]


Interesting post, Miriam. I’m curious about those advertisements that accompanied novels. How common was this practice? What was being advertised? And who paid for the advertisements?

I’ve got a tertiary interest in the economics of cultural industries which started years ago when I read an article about the movie biz in the NYTimes Magazine. The article said that most movies failed to cover their costs of production and marketing. (This was before the days when movies went on to perpetual life in video-tapes and, now, DVDs.) That’s how these industries are, most titles are economic flops.

Paid advertisement would be one way to subsidize the printing and distribution of a book that probably won’t generate enough sales revenue to pay for itself. Do we know anything about the internal accounting of the firms that produced these books? Were these firms printers or publishers (with editors and so forth)?

By Bill Benzon on 07/24/07 at 02:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Novels published in parts frequently had advertisements (for things other than books) bound in or printed inside the covers.  There are a number of relatively recent studies of Victorian publishing and the economics thereof, one of which has been conveniently republished online.

By Miriam on 07/24/07 at 09:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Miriam.

By Bill Benzon on 07/24/07 at 11:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A fascinating post, Miriam, and a lot to respond to.  My initial response, motivated by my constitutional cussedness, is to wonder about the non-material aspect of what you’re discussing ... the ways Victorian novels weren’t ‘there’: the illiterate fans of Dickens who gathered to hear the monthly installment read aloud, say, or the stage adaptations of eg Old Curiosity Shop that were put on before the final installments were published or even written ... adaptations of spectral writing that didn’t even exist.  And, although I know there were crazes about (eg) Pamela and Young Werther and so on, it’s not until the 19th-century that literary characters achieve that Bilbo Baggins or Harry Potter thing of penetarting culture so thoroughly that everybody’s aware of them whether they’ve read them or not ... Oliver Twist, say, or Little Nell.  You know those portraits of Dickens in his writer’s chair with all his characters curling in a ghostly parade around his head?  That sort of thing ... a hauntology of Victorian literature.

I seem to be talking only about Dickens.  Do you think it’s true that Dickens so overshadows our sense of serial publication as to be, actually, a distorting presence?  John Sutherland somewhere desribes the monthly serial as an Odysseus’ bow that only Dickens could reliably string.  Much more fiction, in terms of titles, was accessed through public libraries than through monthly serialisation.

By Adam Roberts on 07/24/07 at 02:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sounds like a fascinating study.

“Does participating in the “literary marketplace,” which subordinates “material instantiation” (that book in front of you) to “abstract text” (Daniel Deronda “itself"), require this loss of control--and, along with it, of intentionality?”

This is from a later moment in the publishing industry, but Joseph Conrad regarded serial publication as somehow off-the-record. Like James, he published serially out of economic necessity - you start getting paid before you finish writing the novel - and he would sometimes revise extensively for the volume, which was the version for posterity. So to some extent I guess he conforms to the Eliot pattern - the eventual book-form redeems the vulgar commerce of serial publication, and there is implicitly an authoritative text apart from its “instantiation”. On the other hand, he was indifferent to any supposed “loss of control” involved in serial publication; it just didn’t count. But then, you would need to nuance this with the status of different journals - you don’t have to stoop to appear in Blackwood’s, indeed it does your reputation good, but it was best not to bring up TP’s Weekly when dining at the Conrads’.

But I’m not really clear on how it is the Victorian literary marketplace, in particular, that separates books from ideal texts. Haven’t authors and readers of printed works always understood that accidents happen on the way to the printer’s, that a more authoritative text might one day appear?

By on 07/25/07 at 05:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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