- The Serial Reader and the Corporate Text: Hard Times and North and South
Research on the serialization of Victorian novels generally focuses on individual works as independent aesthetic units, or perhaps on the relationships between different texts by the same author. My experience teaching Victorian novels in a serial format has led me to take the next step—examining relationships between serial works by different authors. Linda Hughes and Michael Lund posit that Victorian readers saw individual volumes of periodicals containing serialized fiction as having a “corporate authorship” (The Victorian Serial 9). I would go further, and say that serial fiction blurs the boundaries between texts as well as those between authors, resulting in a reading experience that weaves together multiple novels into larger composite beings. When I taught four Victorian novels side by side one recent semester, requiring students to read all four novels simultaneously in parts, this weaving together is exactly what happened. The students delighted in finding correspondences between the works, and we often slipped into the habit of talking about the readings as if they had all been part of one enormous text with a corporate author. The novels on my syllabus were not published simultaneously, and the connections we made were artificial. But the experience has led me to reconsider what relationships and correspondences might have existed in the minds of Victorian readers as they consumed novels in serialized parts.
Although neither of the two novels was read in my recent seminar, the case of Hard Times (1854) and North and South (1855) provides the best entry into a larger reconsideration of serial connections. The relationship between these novels is already well known to scholars—introductions and footnotes in various editions of each work frequently refer a reader to the other novel, for example—but the nature of that relationship has been disputed, and attention to the conditions of serial reading can give the debate a new direction. North and South began its serial run in Household Words in August of 1854, only a few weeks after Hard Times concluded. Each novel invents a fictional industrial town and explores labour unrest in cloth mills; the relationships between the characters occur in parallel formations. Gaskell’s novel inversely mirrors Dickens’s in tone, imagery, and plot. Because Hard Times was published first and Dickens was Gaskell’s editor, each of them read parts of the other’s novel while composing, and their direct responses to each other can be traced in the texts. [End Page 182]
Gaskell’s dissatisfaction with the compression of material necessary for Household Words has been extensively documented, as have Dickens’s direct attempts to control her writing: in Cranford (1853), he insisted on deleting his own name, and in North and South, he suggested revised plotting that would maximize suspense at the end of each serial number (Gérin 153; Stevenson 71–75). Eileen Gillooly and Hilary Schor have interpreted Gaskell’s resistance to Dickens’s editorial suggestions as a form of feminist rebellion; Gillooly calls it a “battle of authorship” (906), while Schor sees both Cranford and North and South as attempts to create a more feminine form of writing to counter the masculinist structures of, respectively, Pickwick Papers (113) and the condition-of-England novel (136). For Schor, Gaskell’s well-known letters lamenting Dickens’s insistence on shortened numbers show that she felt herself to be a “slave to production” (Schor 142), and by extension, perhaps, a slave to Dickens. Indeed, the letters have generally been read as depicting a Gaskell who lost her battle with Dickens, the critics differing only on whether they believe Gaskell was more sinned against or sinning.1 By contrast, Hughes and Lund read North and South as a premier example of serialized fiction providing a sort of bisexual textual pleasure transcending any concept of authorship as a battle, balancing the rising tension and climactic release in each number with the delayed gratification and elongated periods of anticipation between numbers. They argue that Gaskell’s modifications to Dickens’s serial format allowed North and South to be the text that “ha[d] it all,” “integrat[ing] male and female structures...