Continual Reading: Modern Adaptations and Victorian Reading Practices
As new forms of digital texts and reading practices proliferate, literary critics strive, with increasing urgency, to better understand “the way we read now.” Acknowledging the importance of that task, this dissertation argues that there is a prior task before us: in order to fully appreciate the way we read now, we must first understand the way they—our precursors—read then. Building on the work of Nicholas Dames, Rachel Ablow, and other critics who recover forgotten reading practices, my project redefines novel-reading as an interactive and intertextual process that entwines novels with plays, commodities, periodicals, and novelty books.
As the above critics have argued, the Victorian period plays a distinctive role in this history. My project shows that Victorian readers pursued characters and plots beyond the page, seeking out sequels or expansions to prolong their immersion. Such “continual reading,” as I call it, grows from the fragmented narrative and material forms that conditioned readers to expect more of the novels and more from themselves. When readers responded to gaps in the Victorian novel by authoring their own continuations, they transformed reading into a process of consumption infused with production.
I argue that this Victorian reading practice influences our current reading practices in several ways. In our hypermediated culture of consumption, it is only a slight exaggeration to picture readers swiping the screen displaying Oliver Twist, while adjusting the volume to Lionel Bart’s Oliver! before tweeting their reading progress to Goodreads friends who called the novel a must-read for anyone writing fanfiction about Terry Pratchett’s Dodger. Such new technologies repeatedly prompt anxieties about the dangers of digital distractions. But my dissertation shows that the canonical Victorian novels that are now cited as the paragons of high literature—books that require what seem now like unattainable attention spans—initiated this popular practice of continual reading.
By isolating Victorian novels from their continuations, we misunderstand the nature of reading. To read meant—and still means—to watch, listen, imagine, create, converse, and play. Adaptation studies come closest to addressing the intertextuality and interactivity that I describe, but despite scholars’ disavowal of the “fidelity debate,” theories of adaptation retain associations with derivative processes of recycling, remediating, and retelling. “Continual Reading” celebrates readers’ original, imaginative additions to Victorian novels, while also illuminating the publishing practices and narrative forms that prompted such contributions.
Chapter One, “Continual Reading,” erects the conceptual and historical architecture of the dissertation; in particular it develops the central concept of continuation and locates it as a distinctly Victorian mode. Building on the work of Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, I argue that what appear as gaps in Victorian novels—as signs of cultural flaws or repressions to “symptomatic” readers—are in fact invitations to active, intertextual reading when viewed as part of a culture of continuation. In The Afterlife of Character David Brewer features eighteenth-century “character migrations”—what I would call continuations—that he claims fade away at the start of the nineteenth century. However, my research shows that Victorian figures also enjoyed a rich afterlife beyond the page. Picking up where Brewer left off, I argue that reviving characters is only one small part of the Victorian process of continual reading. By examining the production and reception of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and George Eliot’s Adam Bede, I suggest that a series of developments in book publishing, copyright law, narrative form, and theatre reform coalesced in the nineteenth century to elevate continual reading to prominence. The popularization of the circulating library and the rise of domestic melodrama prompted minor theatres to melodramatize contemporary novels, thus making adaptation an intrinsic part of reading.
Chapter Two, “Continuation and Serialization: Pickwick’s Other Papers,” focuses on the material features and publishing practices that shaped the novel into an object for serial consumption. Reconceiving such familiar categories as serialization, paratextual advertisement, plagiarism, adaption, and sequelization as means to continual reading, my argument extends theoretical discussions concerning adaptation. I use The Pickwick Papers—the seminal Victorian serialized novel—to argue that the serial’s reoccurring interruptions and divisions stimulate the desire for continuation. This desire can be fulfilled by the novel or by a host of external sources; the same motivation that causes us to pause in our readings and imagine different narrative possibilities drives us to consume external continuations. The chapter first focuses on continual reading within the serialized novel—the gaps between parts, chapters, and narrative frames—and then examines the continuations that exist outside of it—George Reynolds’s Pickwick Abroad, William T. Moncrieff’s Sam Weller, and Dickens’s own Master Humphrey’s Clock.
Chapter Three, “Formal Conventions of Continual Reading: The Continual Writing of Peter Pan,” establishes the significance of formal narrative conventions that position texts as incomplete representations of larger fictional worlds. The chapter argues that the unexplored locations and untold stories embedded in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan texts lead readers to believe in what the philosopher Kendall Walton calls the complete, “possible world” that exists beyond the texts. These narrative gaps, which recall Gerald Prince’s “unnarrated” moments and Roland Barthes’s “blanks,” encourage continual reading by prompting readers to bridge the gap between the text and the possible world it represents. Barrie models the process he hoped to engender in his readers by continually writing a series of Peter Pan texts: The Little White Bird (a realist novel), Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (a children’s illustrated gift book), Peter Pan or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up (a theatrical production), “The Blot on Peter Pan” (a short story), and “Hook at Eton” (a speech later published in The Times) are just a few of the works in Barrie’s Peter Pan canon. Each new work fills in gaps embedded in previous iterations of the story while generously creating new holes.
Chapter Four, “The Way Readers Read Now,” follows Victorian reading practices to their modern-day manifestations. I argue that our ongoing reliance on continual reading positions readers as potential authors and authors as prior readers. By integrating Victorian novels into popular categories of genre fiction, neo-Victorian continuations approach literary classics as constantly evolving texts. Jane Eyre, for instance, can now be found in the fantasy and horror sections of Barnes and Noble. Moreover, modern technologies have amplified our ability to reclaim Victorian fictions for our own use, and continuations paper Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, and fanfiction sites. These practices aren’t limited to our consumption of Victorian novels; they also shape our reading habits more broadly, influencing digital publishing platforms like Amazon’s “Kindle Direct Publishing.”