Reading Charles Dickens has never been a solitary pleasure. Our critical tendency to think in terms of Dickens’s relationship with the Victorian reading public, or readers in aggregate, stems in part from Dickens’s own tendency in his prefaces to address readers in the plural: the “many thousands of people” whose numbers grew with each serialized novel (“A Preliminary Word,” Household Words 1 , 1). Sarah Winter’s inventive study takes apart a phenomenon we have come to take for granted, tracing precisely the ways in which an individual’s experience of reading a Dickens novel becomes an experience of collective imagination. This seemingly narrow reception study, which foregrounds Dickens’s choice to publish in parts, in fact offers a significant media history of serialization. According to Winter, Dickens used the “new medium of modern mass culture” to refashion leisurely novel reading into a democratic and charitable activity and, in turn, helped to create our larger cultural sense of reading literature as a progressive social act (25). We might, in other words, see Dickens’s use of serials to start a democratic revolution as an earlier version of how online social media is being used now.
How sociable an activity was novel reading in the Victorian mind? Others addressing this question recently have demonstrated the ways in which reading offered an alternative to oppressive face-to-face interaction or an increasingly bureaucratic culture. For Dickens, reading a novel meant participating in society as it should be. Winter brings together Dickens’s engagements with areas that have so far been examined separately—reading culture, nineteenth-century psychological theories, and working-class politics—in order to propose that Dickens envisioned serial reading as a means of effecting social reform. For Dickens, sharing an interest in an ongoing serial narrative and actively “taking part in a reading audience” could nurture collectivity rather than the self-cultivation Victorians often associated with reading literature (8). Serial reading, by “gathering readers into a new constituency with democratic, participatory potentials” (6), could “foster social justice outside the bounds of political and religious organizations” (5).
If Dickensian novel reading as a utopian alternative to political institutions sounds familiar, Winter traces the source of this collectivity in intellectually surprising ways. She finds that, according to the Humean associationist theory of memory that prevailed across disciplines in the mid-nineteenth century, reading serially mirrors how the mind works by reinforcing the pleasurable accumulation, recall, and reconstitution of past impressions. Serial reading creates memories that feel personal but are actually cultural. So it is unexpectedly through Dickens’s memorability, in the associationist sense—through his characters whose “own associative qualities facilitated their memorability” (113)—that Dickens makes his ethical agenda the reader’s own and brings about what Victorians noted as “a common ethical response to reading his novels, particularly his Christmas books, as an impetus to charitable sentiments and actions” (135). [End Page 317]
Unwinding this intricate argument takes patience, but the payoff in the middle chapters is the ingenious analysis of specific reading practices that Dickens’s serial novels elicit. Reading novels that are often sidelined—The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) and Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) get around sixty pages each—Winter brilliantly expands our understanding of the cognitive process of novel reading. She sees Dickens teaching his readers practices that he adapted from other genres, including evangelical religious tracts, epitaphs, and Victorian pedagogy. The Old Curiosity Shop, with its “more forceful program to sway the reader than was commonly associated with literature,” reworks narrative strategies that religious tracts had been using for a century to convert the poor (145). Dickens replaces evangelical piety with a secular didacticism that emphasizes the social injustice (rather than the pious example) of Little Nell’s death. In Winter’s agile analysis, Dickens instructs simply by stimulating the reader’s investment in and speculation about the narrative; in good associationist fashion, the reader’s experience of “an ethical form of curiosity, expressed as inquisitive concern for others involving intellectual encouragement and care...