Research on serial publications generally focuses on investigating the effects of a single novel and typically considers issues for that novel of the serial form: from the breaks in print from week to week, to the length and depth of a particular week’s issue, to readers’ actions of reading serially. Yet another aspect of seriality— considering the effects of seriality across the span of an author’s oeuvre—is a different pleasure in itself. The pleasure of reading serially is to discover how successive installments of a theme or plot line (or the interruption of such themes) work across novels.
Reading male-authored serial novels about working-class life and culture, David Stewart shows how “fear, titillation, anger, disgust . . . all served readers who were increasingly denied such feelings by rationalized urban life.”1 Both the “buzz [and] . . . embarrassment” of stories are linked with crime and morality.2 In male-authored novels, it seems, violence is recreation. Female-authored novels reveal much more about the dangers to women in the United States and their own sort of violence that women perpetuate. For instance, E.D.E.N. Southworth (1819–99) is preoccupied with the theme of how patriarchal and other forms of social violence drive women morally insane. For Ann Stephens (1810–86), various types of incarceration and servitude, such as within the NYC Tombs (where many of her noble characters go after mistaken indictments) or Bellevue and Blackwell’s Island, are places where women suffer, undermine each other, and find redemption. Stephens’s remarkable career—from the 1830s to the 1870s—is connected by various repetitions.3 Interwoven plots and social problems—convict nurses and drunkard women, imprisonment of witnesses and children, and serially adopted daughters—characterize her attempt to address women’s political dislocation. The “noble woman,” a stock character who addresses the serial lives Stephens’s women were forced to live as they were compelled to move from one family to another, is a prominent type. She typifies grace in the face of humiliation, charity despite oppression, sacrifice over ambition.
Stephens’s serial fiction reveals her career-long theme of how social adversity contributes to women’s density of connection. Stephens’s plots almost always highlight the costs of violence for women. [End Page 28] In Mabel’s Mistake (1868), Stephens writes about these societal dangers in the voice of servant Ben Benson: “I can’t go into the city with a sartinty that a bowie knife won’t be buried in my side, before I get home. In short, marm, I don’t believe in calling countries quiet where murders and amusements go hand in hand. America was a peaceable country once, but it ain’t that thing no longer” (144).4 Her plots are driven by a strange mixture of cultural and social challenges—urban violence and male death or disappearance—that result in women having to rely on each other to survive.
It’s not that all women are worthy. Stephens’s plots insistently stake evil/independent women against powerful noble heroines. For instance, in The Gold Brick (1866) (one of the most compelling Stephens plots I have read), Katharine Allen (secretly married to a bigamist) is imprisoned for seven years for the murder of her child and incarcerated underground in a mine prison, where she finds God and begins an angelic service to other prisoners—one of whom is her bigamist husband (who has married the supposed widow Mrs. Mason). The prison then becomes a place of reform for Katharine and Thrasher. Mrs. Mason herself changes from an “audacious” independent woman to a maniac once her husband returns and confronts her. She is the evil independent woman set against Katharine Allen, whose eventual nobility brings together prisoners, family members, and her mother and mother-in-law in a new community. The establishing of this new community is part of the pleasure payoff for readers, insofar as Stephens shows how her female characters must find their way in unstable family relations (revealing family itself as a serial formation) that emerge out of broken economies, institutions, and promises.
Along similar lines, reading Stephens serially reveals the episodic...