Unknown publics : Victorian novelists and working-class readers, 1836-1870
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It is well known that readerships exploded during the Victorian era, as transformations of social structures, education, and print technology created a mass readership hungry for literature. Unknown Publics examines how Victorian novelists responded to the pressures these new mass readerships generated in the cultural sphere, a problem that seemed especially pressing in the moment between the First and Second Reform Acts. Using the work of public sphere theorists Jürgen Habermas and Michael Warner, my dissertation argues that the Victorian novel became a contested arena for the representation of that public. Beginning with the staggering success of Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836-7), Victorian novelists entered into an ongoing, dialogic debate about the novel’s relationship with the mass reader. As authors writing directly for working-class publishers sought to expand the novel tradition by incorporating non-representational elements of parody, fantasy, and folktale, mainstream middle-class authors consolidated the novel’s form by emphasizing realism. Unknown Publics traces the development of the novel in the Victorian era by examining key moments in this debate between 1836 and 1870. Beginning with the critical response to Pickwick Papers¸ I examine how both G. W. M. Reynolds’s Pickwick Abroad (1837-8) and Dickens’s own Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4) respond to the questions of working-class agency, urban identity, and literary form that Pickwick articulated. I next read William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839-40) alongside William Makepeace Thackeray’s Catherine (1839-40) in order to discuss how the production of realism is predicated on a fantasy of working-class depravity. In my final chapters, I examine how the discourse of sensationalism interacted with the realist novel. I read Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Rupert Godwin (1864) and The Doctor’s Wife (1864) to track how the divide between “realist” and “idealist” fiction was deployed for mass and middle-class readers. In my final chapter, I discuss Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) in terms of the reading practices encouraged for mass readers by the architects of the Second Reform Bill, revealing how Collins’s mystery story is predicated on the political project of reform. Reading the presence (or absence) of realism as a crucial feature of the Victorian novel, Unknown Publics calls for a new understanding of the cultural and social work of realism accomplishes, and of how it came to be.