Serialization and the Novel in Mid-Victorian Magazines

 “I wish Mr Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage forever. I don’t see any reason why it should ever come to an end.” wrote Elizabeth Gaskell to George Smith, the publisher of the monthly Cornhill magazine in which it  was appearing.

Taken at face value this might seem to be a simple expression of enjoyment of Trollope’s novel but, as Catherine Delafield makes clear in her thought provoking analysis of Serialization and the Novel in Mid-Victorian Magazines, the comment provides insight into a far more complex publishing medium than we might think from our 21st century perspective.

In fact, so many fascinating ideas are packed into her book that I shall examine them in turn over a series of posts. (Which is exactly the kind of authorial intervention which Trollope, in his fiction, was so comfortable in offering his readers who would be aware of the serial nature of the publication of his novels and were happy to hear him speak to them in the middle of his story in his author-of-a-work-of-fiction voice.)

So let’s tackle head on the first misapprehension we might have at this distance in time. Don’t think of Framley Parsonage as a novel written by Trollope and divided into parts to be published.

In fact, don’t think of Framley Parsonage as a novel. Or as written by Anthony Trollope.

The first readers of Framley Parsonage were in fact readers of Cornhill magazine which featured the serial Framley Parsonage. And like every other piece of writing within the magazine, it was anonymous. Nowhere in any of the copies of Cornhill in which Framley Parsonage appeared is Trollope’s name appended to the serial.

So it appeared as written by a team of writers who collectively wrote the whole magazine that was the Cornhill magazine.

It was harmonious with and in keeping with the spirit and tone of the rest of the magazine. Of course, given it is a clear continuation of the Barsetshire series and includes characters from earlier novels in the series, there is never any doubt that it is in fact Trollope who is writing it. Indeed, that knowledge is a key selling point of the magazine. It features in these, its earliest issues, one of the era’s greatest novelists, writing at the height of his powers, when he could command the highest fees and was at the peak of popularity, which would last for at least another decade. There was no doubt that in spite of its anonymity on the printed page, this was the work of Trollope and was understood to be such by the readership.

Hence Mrs Gaskell’s comment makes absolute sense even though Trollope’s name is nowhere to be seen on the pages she is reading.

As Delafield shows, by referring to other serialisations in different magazines, there was a range of practices in this area. Dinah Craik wrote Mistress and Maid for the magazine Good Words and was always referred to as “the author of John Halifax, Gentleman” and never by her real name. This reference to prior works enabled Good Words, which was a quasi-religious magazine with a reverent tone and whose authors were, for the most part, clergymen or in some capacity related to the church, to ensure that the readers of this work of fiction would find it acceptable as Sunday reading material – when reading on a Sunday was thought by many to be better restricted to the scriptures and that reading fiction for leisure was to be avoided. This was because the earlier work in question, was known to be a suitable type of reading material which showed the correct attitudes and was not in any way improper.

Other magazines used the same approach for quite the opposite reason. Wilkie Collins sensational gothic novels were frequently serialised with the author known not by name but simply as “the Author of The Woman in White &c”. Thus readers knew in advance to expect shocking storylines and improper behaviour by the protagonists.

In the serialisation of The Moonstone in the magazine All The Year Round, the practice takes a step further with the parts of the novel attributed to the characters who function as the narrator of each of the sections. Thus we have Miss Clack, Gabriel Betteridge, Ezra Jennings and Franklin Blake (all characters who narrate sections of the story) credited in the magazine as “authors”. No doubt this added to the realism and immediacy of the text for the readership.

Equally important, was that the featured story should blend harmoniously with the rest of the magazine. Indeed, it was frequently the case that in addition to providing the featured serial, a novelist might also provide copy for the same issues that carried his or her story.  They might serve as critics, essayists commenting on topical matters (frequently on subjects related to the text of their serial at that point – especially in the more campaigning magazines such as those run by Dickens), or even provide poetry for inclusion alongside their featured narrative.

Thus the privileged status which we now accord to the author of a novel as a piece of literature is a construct which was very much not how the writers of these serialised stories would have been perceived by contemporary consumers of the periodicals and magazines in Mid-Victorian England.

I will provide further summaries of the arguments and observations which Delafield makes in future blogs. For those of you who want to read the complete book, it is published by Ashgate Publishing as part of the series The Nineteenth Century under the general editorship of Vincent Newey and Joanne Shattock of the University of Leicester. I recommend it for anyone who wants to be challenged about their preconceptions of how Novels are written by Authors.

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