- The Novelty of Newspapers: Victorian Fiction after the Invention of the News by Matthew Rubery
Amid the wealth of anecdotal evidence that Matthew Rubery has collected in his fascinating book The Novelty of Newspapers, the most evocative impression of nineteenth-century attitudes toward the newspaper is delivered by Edward Linley Sambourne, in an 1880 Punch cartoon. Sambourne’s illustration— which accompanies Francis Burnand’s “The Beadle! Or, the Latest Chronicle of Small-Beerjester,” a parody of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series—personifies the standard newspaper item known as the “leading article” as a devilish creature, complete with wings, fangs, a tail, and a grotesque skin of scales made [End Page 164] from printer’s letters. Both comical and unsettling, the illustration hints at the complex relationship between journalism and fiction in Victorian England, one that Rubery reconstructs in The Novelty of Newspapers. Arguing that “the shape taken by the Victorian novel must be understood alongside the simultaneous development of the news” (159), Rubery challenges the public perception of the novel as superior to journalism by tracing the stylistic as well as thematic influence of journalistic conventions on the period’s fiction. His meticulous research offers a convincing portrayal of the newspaper as a seminal cultural platform—contemporary, interactive, and versatile—that intrigued Victorian novelists as much as it earned their scorn. As such, his monograph fits into the scholarly tradition of exploring the “reciprocal relationship between the novel and the news” (17) during an era as easily characterized by the prominence of the former as by the explosive growth in the production of the latter.
Rubery’s analysis begins at the time of the tax reforms early in the Victorian period and concludes at century’s end, when the most popular national newspapers in England had reached a circulation of at least one million readers. Though he acknowledges that factors such as advances in printing technology and the impact of public education on general literacy rates contributed to the rise of journalism’s importance to middle-class society, Rubery persuasively argues that it was tax reform, which allowed publishers to set significantly lower prices, that allowed newspapers to evolve from an upper-class luxury to a ubiquitous cultural product. This argument is critical to his claim that newspaper conventions influenced literary trends, with novelists now unable to ignore the mainstream popularity and social relevance of journalism.
One of Rubery’s most insightful arguments is his proposition that newspapers were a medium not only of aesthetic innovation but also of sociological change. Women in particular, he proposes, used sections such as the “shipping intelligence” and “agony column” for social engagement. In chapter 1, he argues that novels such as Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852–53), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe (1853) turned to newspapers’ depictions of shipwrecks to provide their female characters an opportunity to express publically feelings of love that were otherwise configured as private or even unacceptable. According to Rubery, readers transferred these positive fictional depictions of women’s mass-media demonstrations of emotion onto the nonfictional materials in actual newspapers, and this extension further functioned as a catalyst for the cultural affirmation of females’ public display of personal feelings.
In chapter 2, Rubery extends his argument to the personal advertisements section of the newspaper. Linking these advertisements to the sensation novel, he proposes that reading communities formed around the expression of extreme emotion, which did not simply characterize the agony columns but made them wildly popular. Though curious readers were attracted to this raw emotional display, both the anonymity and unreliability of personal advertisements created a means by which women could potentially invent new identities [End Page 165] for themselves. Rubery cites Lady Audley as the pre-eminent example of this potential, but he does not turn as much attention to the agency that this same anonymity might have extended to men. However, he does demonstrate—noting, for example, Robert Audley’s sleuthing through the newspapers—the way in...