- The Victorian Short Story Forum: An Introduction
Much victorian short fiction has for a long time lain unrecovered by modern scholarship. This is in part due to the ephemeral nature of the periodical publishing in which it often appeared, but it is also a result of the critical bias of twentieth-century canon builders who deemed the short story an inferior form. For too long, the short story was considered either a form in which novelists experimented with ideas that they developed properly in longer narratives or a “popular” genre turned to by writers of “serious” fiction or poetry only when in need of fast pecuniary reward. The essays featured in this forum, however, argue for the short story as a distinctive aesthetic form, and one that has the capacity to reveal unexpected aspects of Victorian popular and literary culture. In some cases, the essays demonstrate how renewed attention to the short story brings to light work by forgotten writers whose reinstatement into the corpus of “Victorian literature” promises to enrich our understanding of the diversity of voices that it comprises. In other cases, they show how new and perhaps surprising perspectives can be achieved on well-known writers when we turn to their neglected short story output.
The Victorian Review forum seems a particularly apposite space for thinking about shortness. I wonder how many of the contributors to this issue’s forum, tasked with producing an academic essay in fifteen hundred words, felt something of the challenge that may have been experienced by Victorian short story authors, many of whom were accustomed to the expansiveness of the Victorian three-volume novel. The gambit of the short story, however— and, I take it, of the forum—is that brevity need not be a constraint but might actually be liberating, enabling, through the discipline of concision, different kinds of writing and effect to be created. Indeed, there is a long— albeit intermittent and somewhat marginalized—tradition of conceptualizing short fiction in this way. In the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe espoused this view in his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction, in which he argued for the “prose tale” as the form second only to the “rhymed poem” in its ability to display “high genius.”1 For Poe, the brevity of both poem and tale, which make them capable of being “read at one sitting,” puts “the soul of the reader . . . at the writer’s control,” enabling the delivery with undiluted force of the impression produced by the work in its “totality.” In the twentieth century, a number of writers reprised Poe’s interest in the power of concision, theorizing that the short story’s differences from the novel made it a form particularly well suited to the expression of heterodox values and viewpoints. Short fiction writer Frank O’Connor saw this difference as being “not so much formal . . . as ideological” (qtd. in Hanson 3), while Clare Hanson declared the short story a “form of the margins” (2) in which [End Page 163] “knowledge . . . at odds with the ‘story’ of dominant culture” could achieve expression (6). In the last decade or so, literary scholarship has increasingly turned its attention to articulating the distinctive narrative, aesthetic, and cultural properties that might allow short fiction to do this.
Each of the essays that follow contribute to this project by focusing upon a single short story. Of the several threads that connect the essays, one has precisely to do with the apparent hospitality of short fiction to heterodox values that is noted by O’Connor and Hanson. Several essays see this as being a function both of the formal qualities of the short story (its capacity to create intense impressions or to eschew narrative closure, for example) and of its distinctive place within the Victorian publishing context (Tatiana Kontou notes how the magazine story was generally less subject than was the novel to “editorial censorship” and to the requirement to generate income). Another thread concerns the way in which some short stories were published initially in a periodical and then republished in a collection, a sequence that enabled the same story to acquire different kinds of meaning according to...