- The Novelty of Newspapers: Victorian Fiction After the Invention of the News
If a reader were to open the Times at the breakfast table on a fresh nineteenth-century morning, he or she would find its contents arranged in a particular order: shipping intelligence and personal advertisements in the front pages; leading articles, interviews, and foreign correspondence in the inner pages; followed by the back page announcements. Matthew Rubery has organized his informative and insightful book, The Novelty of Newspapers: Victorian Fiction After the Invention of the News, to follow this layout. Each chapter demonstrates how Victorian novels thematically and [End Page 452] formally adapted the narrative conventions of one of these sections of the daily paper. Rubery’s analysis diverges from those that concentrate on how novelists used sensational news stories as sources. Instead, he contends that formal elements of less-studied components of the newspapers became standard features of literary realism. Novelists of the period incorporated paratextual elements like headlines to give their fictions verisimilitude; organized plots according to the compact, coded messages in the agony column; modeled characters’ dialogue on interviews; and integrated scenes of characters reading the papers to mirror to novel readers the nation’s daily ritual of engaging the world beyond the breakfast table.
The front pages provided the greatest opportunity for readers to engage that world by interacting with one another. These pages created space for individuals to reinvent their identities, correspond with other readers, reconnect with lost loves or kin, exchange material goods, or find employment. Further, the shipping news, personal advertisements, and agony column provided readers with compact, suggestive narratives. Victorian novelists thematically elaborated on these concise stories, demonstrating that what the news concealed, novels could reveal. For instance, with its combination of impersonal statistics and tales of tragic loss, shipwreck journalism provided both detached narrative and a highly affective reading experience. This narrative ambivalence offered opportunity for formal innovation to authors as diverse as Charles Dickens, Charlotte Yonge, Charlotte Brontë, and Bram Stoker, as seen in Rubery’s survey of novels in which shipwreck notices figure in courtship plots. Likewise, personal advertisements—especially those written in code between covert lovers or criminal conspirators—could be read as “serial romances unfolding in the columns of the daily paper, as if an epistolary novel was being printed one passage at a time” (52). Rubery convincingly argues that sensation novels like M.E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Wilkie Collins’s Armadale hinged on plot devices borrowed from the front pages, including missing-person announcements, false obituaries, and governess advertisements.
Although he focuses on ways that the news was a constitutive element of novels, in the first part of the book Rubery also suggests that novels and news were, in some respects, mutually constitutive cultural forms. For example, the melodramatic plots of the agony column could have been influenced by sensation novels: an 1864 notice announcing that a young lady had escaped from a private lunatic asylum would have told a familiar story to fans of novels by Collins, Braddon, and Charles Reade. However, Rubery’s efforts to challenge the “assumed divide between the period’s literature and journalism,” more evidenced in the early chapters of the book, is subdued in later chapters that foreground the “Great Divide” between literature and the news and that focus on authors’ suspicious, satirical representations of journalists (4). In these chapters, analyses of novels by [End Page 453] Anthony Trollope, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad demonstrate a hostile competition between novels and newspapers.
Rubery provides a colorful history of this rivalry between journalism and literature while examining how the inner pages of the newspaper—unsigned articles, interviews, and foreign correspondence—influenced the development of fiction. “Contemptible reptiles,” “gutter-slanderers,” “radical scribblers,” and “gadflies” were only a few of the epithets that the Victorian literati hurled at news writers. The emergence of the journalist as a professional figure in the later nineteenth century, debates over editorialists’ anonymity and the public’s “right to privacy,” and the rise...