If you were a Wilkie Collins fanatic during the 1860s and 1870s, there was literary merchandise on offer to satisfy your collector’s drive. If the fancy struck you, you could stride through the streets of London decked out in a Woman in White-themed bonnet, trailing the scent of Woman in White-themed perfume, and clutching the latest Woman in White-themed sheet music in both hands (Robinson 149, quoted in Lonoff 72). In India, you could read reprinted discussions of the novel or purchase a volume edition of your own (“English Press”). In Australia, you could read about the latest theatrical remake of the play over your breakfast newspaper (“The Theatrical World At Home”). Collins’s novel was a blockbuster: researcher Sue Lonoff notes that when the volume edition became available in 1860, “it went through seven editions in six months—1350 copies in the first week alone, a remarkable figure for that era—and has never since been out of print” (72). How it reached this level of popularity has a lot to do with a style of publication that reached new heights in the nineteenth century: the serial. Rather than releasing their books in volume form, many authors first released individual chapters of their novels episodically.
To understand why this form of storytelling was able to flourish, we can look back to the print culture history of the past and connect it to some of the changes that have occurred in the present. In many countries throughout the nineteenth century, the cost of printing and circulating text declined and the number of magazines and standalone publications increased. This bears a resemblance to our own digital age: with the arrival of the internet, it became much easier to create and circulate media. As a result, our publishing landscapes changed. Because the digital turn allowed competitors to try their hands at publication on the cheap and allowed readers to access texts for little to no money, the magazine and newspaper industry had to change radically. Due to these same technological shifts, casual bloggers could advance from relative obscurity into a writing career, and new forms of grabbing audience attention developed.
Nineteenth-century authors benefitted from a similar increase in the accessibility of publishing tools and the speed of communication. Thanks to improvements to railway systems, ocean transportation, and intracity travel, print could spread more fluidly within and beyond a country’s borders (Hayward 22, Turner 114). Likewise, the emergence of affordable subscription libraries and an increase in literacy rates fueled public demand for fiction (Turner 114-115, Griest 38). These changes catalyzed shifts in the structure and substance of popular novels. Episodic installments of serial tales appeared in newspapers, magazines, and standalone booklets, whetting the public’s appetite for more.
Looking back on the increase in the serial’s popularity in 1861, reviewer Eneas Sweetland Dallas noted that part-issue publication brought many novels a popularity they would not have enjoyed had they first been released in volume format. Dallas summarized:
The method of publishing an important work of fiction in monthly instalments was considered to be a hazardous experiment, which could not fail to set the mark upon the novel as a whole. Mr. Dickens led the way in making the experiment, and his enterprise was crowned with such success that most of the good novels now flood their way to the public in the form of a monthly dole. . . the monthly publication succeeds, and thousands of a novel are sold in minute doses, where only hundreds would have been disposed of in the lump. (“English Press” 4).
Collins echoed some of these sentiments when he described his serial’s reception in a letter to his mother. He joyfully recounted that one reader had found his story so gripping that it “was helping (by homeopathic doses of a chapter at a time) to keep an old lady out of her grave!” (Lonoff 74). Because the separate episodes had garnered so much buzz, he added that even at an early stage in its volume run, he had already made £1,400, had control over copyright to the text, and was able to sell volume editions “under the extravagant guinea and a half price” (Lonoff 74). In practical terms, this meant that Collins had more control over how his narrative circulated than many novelists enjoyed. “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” he added in his letter, “The critics may go to the devil” (Lonoff 74).
To be sure, serial publications weren’t invented by Victorians: the serial format had existed long before this period (Turner 115). What, then, made it possible for the serial to increase in popularity so quickly? By the mid-1800s, publishers were able to tap into a wider range of consumers, diversifying the range of audiences they targeted with their publications. They were thus able to cultivate reading audiences more effectively. Realizing that they could afford to print illustrated newspapers for cheap, publishers appealed to an audience of working-class readers by providing news and fiction alongside printed engravings that readers could cut out to decorate their homes (Anderson 45). Recognizing that many middle-class readers desired texts that could be read aloud in a family circle, publishers created monthly miscellanies that addressed those who perceived themselves to be too genteel for the penny papers (Wynne 1). Religious publications, Chartist publications, radical publications, upper-crust publications, and more emerged and flourished during this time. As a result, readers could often find serial narratives designed to capture the attention of those in their own social circles.
As someone publishing his novels in Charles Dickens’s periodical All The Year Round during the 1850s and 1860s, Wilkie Collins both benefitted from and contributed to a shift in audience demographics for serial fiction. Eneas Sweetland Dallas makes this connection overt in his 1861 article:
Hitherto the weekly issue of fiction has been connected with publications of the lowest class—small penny and half penny novels that found in the multitude some compensation for the degradation of their readers. The sale of these journals extended to hundreds of thousands, and so largely did this circulation depend on the weekly tale that on the conclusion of a good story [the journal] has been known to suffer a fall of 40,000 or 50,000. . . .
Mr. Dickens has tried another experiment. The periodical which he conducts is addressed to a much higher class of readers than any which the penny journals would reach, and he has spread before them novel after novel specially adapted to their tastes. The first of these fictions which achieved a decided success was that of Mr. Wilkie Collins—The Woman in White. It was read with avidity by hosts of weekly readers, and the momentum which it acquired when published in fragments carried it through several large editions when published as a whole.
Whether The Woman in White really was the first weekly serial to be this successful is up for debate, but it certainly captured the popular imagination to a degree that awed (and sometimes disgusted) fellow writers.
This widening range of address changed how audiences related to novelists and to other readers through fiction. Reading novels in parts fueled conversations, wild predictions, and daydreams about what might happen next in the story. Seeing the role that these conversations played in popularizing their work, authors such as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon capitalized on the tension between serial installments. In turn, this changed the rhythm of the action in their stories. Scholar Robert Allen observes that releasing a novel in separate episodes prompted writers to compose their texts with an eye to piquing readers’ interest in the following installment (Allen 186). He notes that serial authors often built cliffhangers into the ends of installments to leave readers in suspense until the following week (186).
The social connections that serial novels fostered have captured the imagination of many print culture scholars in the present. Thanks to surviving letters, review articles, and authors’ reminiscences, we know that the serial played an important role in many Victorians’ daily lives. For many current scholars, studying readers’ responses to texts in these archival documents can be as exciting as reading the texts themselves. Studying these readers helps us understand more about authors’ decisions during the nineteenth century and audience interactions during the twenty-first. Even as we make hypotheses about these dynamics, it’s important for us to recognize that not all readers kept up with serials throughout their publication runs and that many serial novels were utter flops. Like all audiences, nineteenth-century readers were idiosyncratic. At their most popular, however, serials sparked a striking degree of audience enthusiasm. Commentators even reported that readers felt such painful suspense about a forthcoming issue of Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop that they took to their rowboats to meet the steamer carrying the latest installment (Hayward 17-18). In this and many other ways, the history of serial readers is the history of present-day fandom.
Audience Connections… and Corrections
One thing that scholars find so interesting about serial publication is that it opened up lines of communication between members of the reading public and authors during the time when the novel was still under construction. Serial publication meant that authors could—and often did—make changes to the story based on how the public was responding to the novel in progress (Hayward 17-18). While some authors completed their novels before they began to serialize them, many wrote as they went and so were able to assess which characters or scenes were making the strongest impression. In many cases, even those who had completed a full draft of their story before beginning to release its chapters had the ability to go back and change later sections before they were released. If, for instance, you were an author and overheard your neighbor complaining that one of your novel’s characters seemed like he might doublecross your heroine, you had a piece of important information. If the character was to emerge as the novel’s villain, things were all well and good. But if you were setting up that character to be that heroine’s love interest, it might be time to cast this character in a more positive light in your next installment.
Researchers such as Robert Allen, Linda Hughes, and Michael Lund have argued that novelists used rhetorical strategies to promote a feeling of personal investment in characters and events occurring in the story. Not all readers had the author’s ear, but many authors worked to foster a feeling of closeness and even agency over the narrative in all of their readers. This sense of connection was so important that serial culture scholar Jennifer Hayward even describes “the ability to (at least pretend to) respond to its audience while the narrative is still in the process of development” as a “defining quality of serial fiction” (23).
This holds true in The Woman in White: from the very start of the narrative, Wilkie Collins addresses the reader as someone whose opinion about the characters and events in the story matters. In the novel’s preamble, the narrator sets up the tale as a kind of corrective. The judicial system, we’re told, is not immune to the interference of wealthy people, and so the story of the Woman in White hasn’t gotten the hearing that it deserves. “As the Judge might once have heard it,” the narrator continues, “so the Reader shall hear it now. No circumstance of importance, from the beginning to the end of the disclosure, shall be related on hearsay evidence” (No. 1). Not only does this opening gambit hint at the power and injustice the protagonists are soon to encounter, but it also elevates each individual person in the audience to an important role. The book is directed not just at a broad public, but to you, the person reading this very page.
This address proved compelling, and documents from the time indicate that Collins had his fair share of letters from an eager readership. Indeed, in her book about Collins’s audience, Sue Lonoff reproduces a reply Collins sent back to an anxious acquaintance. It begins, “I beg to assure Miss Chambers, solemnly, that nobody about whom she is interested and about whom the undersigned can exercise benevolent control, shall come to any harm” (Lonoff 73).
In addition to fostering a feeling of connection, serial publication often fed into multiple rounds of public commentary. While positive magazine reviews during and after a novel’s serial run were an advantage, public feedback could sometimes sting. Collins had a mixed relationship with review culture: on the one hand, he insisted that he preferred the popular opinion to reviewers’ criticisms. Yet on the other, Lonoff tells us, “by the time of his death, he had filled three scrapbooks with “The Criticisms of the Press” (56).
To Collins’s credit, he did sometimes give readers and reviewers their due when they prompted a change to later versions of the novel, as was the case when a reviewer in The Times pointed out some errors in The Woman in White‘s chronology (Lonoff 73). When the novel was published in volume form in 1860, Collins used his Preface as an opportunity to address his serial readers personally. He writes:
By frankly acknowledging the recognition that I have obtained thus far, I provide for myself an opportunity of thanking many correspondents, (to whom I am personally unknown) for the hearty encouragement I received from them while my work was in progress. Now, while the visionary men and women, among whom I have been living so long, are all leaving me, I remember very gratefully that ‘Marian’ and ‘Laura’ made such warm friends in many quarters, that I was preemptorily cautioned at a serious crisis in the story, to be careful how I treated them—that Mr. Fairlie found sympathetic fellow-sufferers, who remonstrated with me for not making Christian allowance for the state of his nerves—that Sir Percival’s ‘secret’ became sufficiently exasperating, in course of time, to be made the subject of bets (all of which I hereby declare to be ‘off’). (vi-vii)
So saying, he welcomed his returning readers back into the new edition of the text—now complete.
Or so he thought. What Collins may not have anticipated was the way that his appeals to the popular imagination would continue to reshape The Woman in White long after the serial edition had ceased its run. It’s these twists and turns that we will explore in the following section, “Many Women in White: A Novel Evolves.”
Read on for the next installment.
Allen, Robert. “Perpetually Beginning until the End of the Fair: The Paratextual Poetics of Serialised Novels.” Neohelicon 37.1 (June 2010): 181–189. doi: 10.1007/s11059-010-0061-x.
Dallas, Eneas Sweetland. Anonymous review of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, The Times, London, 17 October 1861, p. 6. Partially reprinted in The Early and Mid-Victorian Novel, edited by David Skilton, Routledge, 2016, pp. 30-33. OCN: 993636080.
—. “English Press: In Weekly Numbers, Great Expectations.” The Times of India, Mumbai, India, 2 December 1861, p. 4. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Times of India, http://search.proquest.com/docview/234692832. [Paywalled.]
Hayward, Jennifer. Consuming Pleasures: Active Audience and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera. University Press of Kentucky, 1997. OCN: 818184744.
Huard, L., illustrator. “Lady Dick’s Sudden Commotion.” A Pearl Among Women: A Sketch for Christmas, by Henry Leslie. Illustrated London News, vol. 39, 21 December 1821, p. 646. Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/illustratedlondov39lond/page/n633. [Public Domain.]
Hughes, Linda K, and Michael Lund. The Victorian Serial, University Press of Virginia, 1991.
Lonoff, Sue. Wilkie Collins and His Victorian Readers: A Study in the Rhetoric of Authorship, AMS Press, 1982. OCN: 474948252.
Patten, Robert L. “Publishing in Parts.” Palgrave Advances In Charles Dickens Studies. Eds. Bowen, John, and Robert L Patten. Basingstoke [England]: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 11-47. OCN: 60856220.
Portrait of Wilkie Collins. Cundall, Downes & Co, c. 1859-1870. Digital Public Library of America, ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/5425mh490.
Robinson, Kenneth. Wilkie Collins: A Biography, Davis-Poynter, 1974.
“The Theatrical World At Home.” Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle, Melbourne, Victoria, 26 January 1861, p. 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article201373466.
Turner, Mark. “Telling of My Weekly Doings:” The Material Culture of the Victorian Novel.” In A Concise Companion to the Victorian Novel, edited by Francis O’Gorman, Blackwell, 2005. pp. 113–133.
- You even had multiple options to choose from depending on your preferred style of dance, among them "The Woman in White Waltz" and "The Fosco Galop." ↵
- The title of this overview, "Reading in Parts," is a hat tip to Robert L. Patten's "Publishing in Parts," an excellent overview of Charles Dickens's role in serial publishing history over the course of his career. ↵
- This was before the bulk of critics had responded to his text in the first place. In saying that the critics could go to the devil, Collins wasn't responding to specific criticism, but rather rejoicing that he didn't have to depend on critics' regard for his novel to sell. ↵
- Eneas Sweetland Dallas reflects on this dynamic too. He writes: "Periodical publication compelled them to a different course. They could not afford, like Sheherazade, to let the devourers of their tales go to sleep at the end of a chapter. As modern stories are intended not to set people to sleep, but to keep them awake, instead of the narrative breaking down into a soporific dulness, it was necessary that it should give rise at the close into startling incident. Hence a disposition to wind up every month with a melodramatic surprise that awakens curiosity in the succeeding number." ↵
- In this case—as we'll see in the following extract—Collins was slightly more willing to grant readers this due than reviewers! ↵