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Victorian Fiction: Writers, Publishers, Readers.

John Sutherland. Macmillan. Hardback 35[pound]. Paperback 12.99[pounds]. 0-333-64422-0.

Victorian fiction -- Dickens, Thackeray, Bulwer Lytton, Charles Reade, Mrs. Gaskell, the Brontes, George Eliot, and the rest -- is inevitably an enormous and well-covered path, about which, at any rate in its generality, it is no longer very easy to achieve much originality or freshness. John Sutherland -- Professor of Modern English Literature at University College, London -- has justified his new book by engineering the different approach of studying the whole theme in terms of how the books were received by the Victorian public.

He wants us to see the vast harvest of the Victorian novelists, therefore, strictly against the distinctiveness of the social, biographical, and historical context. So, we may find in this very engaging and attractive volume fresh insights into how the Victorian novelists wrote -- the secrets of their themes and motivatons -- the publishing industry in those times -- John Blackwood, Chapman and Hall, and Frederick Macmillan -- and what the Victorian public expected and required from the novels that it read.

We may also learn to understand the unique setting for the Victorian novelist, which effectively gave him or her such standing and popularity: far exceeding anything for the novelist that is possible today in an era of television and the visual media. Diversity, of course, characterised the Victorian novelists: the `genius' of Dickens, the `moral sensibility' of George Eliot, the `satire' of Thackeray, and the `self-conscious art' of Henry James. The Education Act of 1870 gradually introduced a new reading public: avid for ideas, if rather trivial and impatient in the matter of assimilating them. Fiction steadily out-paced history, philosophy, and theology as the favourite reading, during the nineteenth century in England. Around 50,000 separate titles, of Victorian fiction, were eventually published: so that we need not to be too bemused by the `giants', from Dickens downwards. More ephemeral novelists came and went. They too belong to history, even if they have ceased to be very memorable.

All of Victorian life seems to have dabbled in the writing of fiction: servants, criminals, High-Court Judges, Bishops and Prime Ministers. There were more men than women, but the women were often noteworthy. The Victorian spinster author was the most prolific single category of writer: indicating, perhaps, the shortage then of other openings for intelligent or industrious women. Clearly, it must be necessary to alter the conventional view of Victorian fiction, as still revolving around a dozen or so of the major writers. Historically, at any rate, the Victorian Age in English literature meant far more than that, and it was far more eclectic.

Although this present book provides plentiful information about the stalwarts of the past -- such as Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Charles Reade, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Trollope, Mrs. Humphry Ward, and Henry James -- we should probably go to it more for its original remarks about the general background of the Victorian literary scene: writers, publishers, and readers. On that score alone, we have here a new book, which is exciting, trustworthy, and well-researched. I am sure that it will be well received by a wide and discerning public, because it is, after all, a work of meritorious scholarship, if that is somewhat concealed and lightly expressed.
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Author:Glasgow, Eric
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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