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"[Brantlinger’s] writing is admirably lucid, his knowledge impressive and his thesis a welcome reminder of the class bias that so often accompanies denunciations of popular fiction." —Publishers Weekly
"Brantlinger is adept at discussing both the fiction itself and the social environment in which that fiction was produced and disseminated. He brings to his study a thorough knowledge of traditional and contemporary scholarship, which results in an important scholarly book on Victorian fiction and its production." —Choice
"Timely, scrupulously researched, thoroughly enlightening, and steadily readable.... A work of agenda-setting historical scholarship." —Garrett Stewart
Fear of mass literacy stalks the pages of Patrick Brantlinger’s latest book. Its central plot involves the many ways in which novels and novel reading were viewed—especially by novelists themselves—as both causes and symptoms of rotting minds and moral decay among nineteenth-century readers.
Indiana University Press
THE CASE OF THE POISONOUS BOOK
If it is true, that the present age is more corrupt than the preceding, the great multiplication of Novels probably contributes to its degeneracy. Fifty years ago there was scarcely a Novel in the kingdom.
— Vicessimus Knox, "On Novel Reading" (1779)
In Sheridan's The Rivals (1775), Mrs. Malaprop orders her niece "to illiterate" her lover from her memory. Lydia replies that "our memories are independent of our wills," which causes Sir Anthony Absolute to declare that Lydia's willfulness "comes of her reading" (Sheridan 49). He means, of course, Lydia's novel-reading, but her behavior provokes him to suggest that it would have been better if she had remained incapable of reading anything. Indeed, he would like "to illiterate" young women in general; he tells Mrs. Malaprop that "all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read. Had I a thousand daughters, by heaven! I'd as soon have them taught the black art as their alphabet!" (50).
Sir Anthony goes on to say that "a circulating library in a town," from which young women such as Lydia obtain novels, "is as an ever-green tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year! And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last" (50). Sheridan, no doubt, viewed Sir Anthony's opinions about novel-reading, circulating libraries, and female education as both silly and extreme. But, as John Tinnon Taylor long ago demonstrated, between about 1750 and the 1830s many people objected to novel-reading as an abuse of literacy likely to do moral damage to readers and, indeed, to the national culture. "Where the reading of novels prevails as a habit," opined no less an expert reader of novels than Coleridge, "it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind." Novel-reading, Coleridge continues, "is such an utter loss to the reader, that it is not so much to be called pass-time as kill-time":
It ... produces no improvement of the intellect, but fills the mind with a mawkish and morbid sensibility, which is directly hostile to the cultivation, invigoration, and enlargement of the nobler powers of the understanding. (Seven Lectures 3)
This negative opinion of novel-reading did not prevent Coleridge from reading novels and writing reviews and articles about them; nor does his intellect seem to have been adversely affected by exercising his literacy in this manner.
Objections to novels were often religious — the Society of Friends, for example, proscribed novel-reading — but this is not so with either Sheridan or Coleridge. Whether secular or religious, however, such objections continued to be expressed throughout the nineteenth century, though by the 1840s novels and novel-reading were growing respectable. With Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott, and through the emergence of new publishing and circulating-library practices and institutions such as Mudie's, the novel gained widespread cultural acceptance, though not exactly aesthetic legitimacy. Nevertheless, throughout the 1800s, both specific novels and particular subgenres — Gothic romances, penny dreadfuls, Newgate crime stories, sensation novels, Zolaesque naturalism, and so on — came under attack for rotting the minds of their readers, promoting vice, and subverting cultural standards. The often vehement opposition to novels and novel-reading, a widespread reaction to one of the earliest forms of modern, commodified mass culture, is familiar, well-charted territory. Less familiar is how that opposition affected novels — how, indeed, criticisms of novels and novel-reading were inscribed in novels themselves in many ironic, contradictory ways. As Terry Lovell puts it for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, "so universally were the novel and novel-reading condemned that novelists themselves joined in the chorus" (28). But the condemnation of novels by novelists characterizes the genre throughout its history. The inscription of anti-novel attitudes within novels is so common that it can be understood as a defining feature of the genre; accordingly, any fictional narrative which does not somehow criticize, parody, belittle, or otherwise deconstruct itself is probably not a novel.
From this perspective, novels are always anti-novels, the contre roman coming of age before the age of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett, and Kathy Acker. In The Dialogic Imagination, Mikhail Bakhtin contends that the novel is the one literary genre that by definition transgresses generic boundaries, even its own: the "ability of the novel to criticize itself is a remarkable feature of this ever-developing genre" (6). At least from Don Quixote forward, novels and novelists thrive on satirizing and parodying each other: Shamela, Northanger Abbey, Crotchet Castle, Pickwick Papers, Catherine, Erewhon, To the Light House — the list of parodic works into the twentieth century is long, and perhaps every interesting novel, at least, contains parodic features (cf. Shepperson, The Novel in Motley). For the outright opponents of novels, however, it hardly matters that many works of fiction parody other works and are often critical of novel-reading. The general threat posed by novels is a moral and social one: the spectre of distracted or deluded masses of readers, or, in other words, of mass literacy producing the opposite of enlightenment. But the opponents of novels must, like Coleridge, know something about them in order to condemn them. From this angle, they join the masses of at least potential novel-readers that confronted writers as, in Coleridge's words, "the misgrowth of our luxuriant activity ... a READING PUBLIC" (Lay Sermons 36). While novelists often express opinions common to anti-novel discourse — novel-reading is addictive or seductive, it is a frivolous waste of time, novels are mere commodities to be bought and consumed like any other perishable goods, and so forth — a major factor underlying the inscription of anti-novel attitudes within novels is the radical uncertainty all novelists share about how the reading public will interpret or misinterpret, use or abuse, the products of their imaginations. The focus of The Reading Lesson is consequently upon the ways anxiety about mass literacy and the huge, largely anonymous, ever-increasing readership for fiction affected a range of novels from the 1790s to the 1890s.
As a genre, the modern novel was born with an inferiority complex: it wasn't classical, it wasn't poetry, and it wasn't history. When Henry Fielding calls Joseph Andrews a "history" and a "comic epic in prose," his attempts to identify it with more legitimate forms of discourse suggest the generic instability of the novel at least in the 1740s. Moreover, even when they seem to be defending novels against the opposition, novelists sometimes do the reverse. In chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen takes time out from her story to defend the genre from its detractors:
... we [novelists] are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England ... are eulogised by a thousand pens, there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit and taste to recommend them. (58)
Although it is often taken at face value, Austen's defense of novels of course occurs in a story that satirizes novels and novel-reading. The irony is perhaps mitigated by the romance-novel distinction, which has allowed many readers to assume that, like Cervantes in Don Quixote, Austen is attacking romances, while defending her own more realistic novel. But Austen does not explicitly distinguish between romances and novels. In defending novels, she has partly in mind the works of Ann Radcliffe and the other Gothic romances that Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe have been reading. At most, she merely hints that novels by Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney, and other presumably more realistic writers are superior to those that Catherine and Isabella consume. Northanger Abbey both presents itself as a serious work of literature and participates in the general depreciation of novels and novel-reading. In doing so, it offers a striking instance of the way many novels published between 1700 and 1900 express ambivalence about — sometimes, outright contempt for — novels and novel-reading.
Similarly, half a century after Austen, in "Petition to the Novel-Writers," Wilkie Collins imagines belonging to a book club dominated by "dull people" whose insistence on "respectability" has led them to refuse to read novels. He abandons the book club, gets himself "a box-full of novels," loses "caste with our respectable friends in consequence," and founds the alternative "Disreputable Society" for reading fiction. But not only does he thereby, albeit ironically, surrender the field to the "respectable" people by apparently granting their premise that novels are "disreputable," he imagines himself immediately embroiled in a scandal:
If the dull people of our district were told to-morrow that my wife, daughters, and nieces had all eloped in different directions, leaving just one point of the compass open as a runaway outlet for me and the cook, I feel firmly persuaded that not one of them would be inclined to discredit the report.
On the contrary, they would simply conclude that "this is what comes of novel-reading" (My Miscellanies 110). So Collins both insists that novel-reading is a pleasurable activity that he and other sensible people should engage in and agrees that it is disreputable — that scandal may very well be "what comes" of it.
Scandal hovered around the novel partly because it dealt with the private lives, including sexual behaviors and entanglements, of characters; partly because it seemed to many, novelists and critics alike, to represent the ultimate commercialization of literature; and partly because it was reading produced mainly for pleasure or amusement rather than self-improvement. For Collins as for his friend Dickens, if novel-reading was not clearly edifying, it could at least be defended as entertainment; in the words of Mr. Sleary in Hard Times, "People mutht be amuthed." But merely to say that novel-reading gives people pleasure was not an adequate defense against the evangelical and utilitarian moralists like Mr. Gradgrind, who opposed novel-reading altogether as frivolous, misleading, addictive, or seductive.
Like plays within plays, novel-reading within a given novel can reinforce the illusion that the main text is real, or just a shade removed from reality. In Don Quixote and Northanger Abbey, the novels within the main narratives are treated as both untrue and misleading, in contrast to the supposedly true stories in which they appear. But by suggesting the illusory nature of all novels, Don Quixote, Northanger Abbey, and similar fictions are self-indicting. The modern novel originates partly as epistemological contrast to the older romance form, and yet any claim that a particular work of fiction is truer or more realistic than previous works opens the way to similar claims by future stories in an endlessly relativizing process. According to Michael McKeon:
The empiricism of "true history" opposes the discredited idealism of romance, but it thereby generates a countervailing, extreme skepticism, which in turn discredits true history as a species of naive empiricism or "new romance." Once in motion ... the sequence of action and reaction becomes a cycle: the existence of each opposed stance becomes essential for the ongoing, negative definition of its antithesis. (88)
By denying its own basis in imagination or fantasy, fictive realism becomes, in a sense, self-cancelling or at least contradictory. An extreme version of the self-cancellation of the novel is Zola's claim that, with naturalism, "the imagination no longer has a function" (207).
Frequently also self-indicting is the familiar trope of "the book of the world" (Stewart 275-300). Reworked in various ironic ways by Victorian realists from Thackeray and Dickens down to George Moore and Thomas Hardy, the trope points to a novel's failure to be "the book of the world" it nonetheless mimes. Reality may prove to be a "Book of the Insolvent Fates" like those invoked in Dickens's final novel; nevertheless, the world-book equation discloses the insufficiency of all language to represent the nontextual, nonverbal real, and therefore also the failure of book-learning or literacy to read the great book of the world. In this regard, Joe Gargery's illiteracy in Great Expectations or Boffin's in Our Mutual Friend signals an honesty, generosity, and innocence standing outside the necessarily failed, fallen contaminations of language. Moreover, the examples of Joe and Boffin suggest that, at least for Dickens, illiteracy is not so problematic as certain uses or abuses of literacy: Pip's rejection of Joe and home, Silas Wegg's machinations as reader to Boffin, and schoolmaster Bradley Headstone's murderous jealousy.
Even more pointedly than the book-of-the-world trope, the rhetoric of toxicity undermines those novels that adopt it. In the context of the American and French revolutions, to some observers "the press" in general seemed both poisoned and poisonous. For anti-Jacobins such as Edmund Burke, the writings of the philosophes and Tom Paine were especially toxic, a major threat to the health of the body politic. In the supposedly antipoisonous, puritanical fiction of Mrs. Hannah More — the "Old Bishop in Petticoats," as William Cobbett called her (qtd. in Murphy 64) — the links among revolution, crime stories (always a staple of popular fiction), and the threat posed by mass literacy are especially vivid. More's general project, like that of other evangelical and utilitarian literary reformers, was to provide wholesome reading in place of the textual poisons she saw everywhere in her culture. Another evangelical writer, Jane West, gives a clear statement of the evangelical project in the introduction to her The Infidel Father: A Novel (1802):
The rage for novels does not decrease; and, though I by no means think them the best vehicles for "the words of sound doctrine," yet, while the enemies of our church and state continue to pour their poison into unwary ears through this channel, it behoves the friends of our establishments to convey an antidote by the same course; especially as those who are most likely to be infected by false principles, will not search for a refutation of them in profound and scientific compositions. (West ii)
Like West's anti-novel novel, More's "Cheap Repository Tracts" and her improving novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809), are also intended as "antidotes" to the "poison" of novels and other dangerous reading material. The spread of literacy was itself dangerous, although now that it was happening, More believed, it needed to be directed into safe channels. "Of all the foolish inventions, and new-fangled devices to ruin the country, that of teaching the poor to read is the very worst," says Farmer Hoskins to Mrs. Jones, who is raising money for a new Sunday school. The exchange takes place in one of More's exemplary evangelical tracts, "The Sunday School," published in 1797. Mrs. Jones responds: "I ... think that to teach good principles to the lower classes, is the most likely way to save the country. Now, in order to [do] this, we must teach them to read."
"Not with my consent, nor my money," said the farmer; "for I know it always does more harm than good." "So it may," said Mrs. Jones, "if you only teach them to read, and then turn them adrift, to find out books for themselves." (376)
More's story is exemplary because she meant it "to teach good principles" to readers of whatever class. Everything she wrote is exemplary in the same didactic way: against the flood of poisonous literature that she believed threatened Britain with moral and political ruin, she and her evangelical allies created an alternative, improving literature. The moral effects of mass literacy, and the moral qualities of reading matter, are therefore major themes and structural elements in all of her stories or "tracts."
But "The Sunday School" is exemplary in a second manner: insofar as it expresses anxiety about mass literacy, it unintentionally implicates itself — pronounces a guilty verdict upon itself, so to speak — in a way that characterizes many fictional narratives and, indeed, the entire genre of modern prose fiction. This is so partly because "The Sunday School" promotes mass literacy even as it represents such literacy as a threat to national security. Just as Plato in Phaedrus employs writing to express the dangers of writing, so Hannah More, Jane West, and many later authors produce texts that preach to the new mass reading public about the perils of mass literacy. An even clearer illustration of this contradictory pattern is provided by More's "The History of Mr. Fantom, the New-Fashioned Philosopher, and His Man William." The protagonist, a sell-taught, shallow, and vain "retail trader," fails victim to the wrong sort of reading:
About this time he got hold of a famous little book written by the NEW PHILOSOPHER [Tom Paine], whose pestilent doctrines have gone about seeking whom they may destroy: these doctrines found a ready entrance into Mr. Fantom's mind.... (3)
All of More's tracts were intended as "antidotes" to Tom Paine's "poison" in particular, but to other "infidel" and criminal writers as well. Having imbibed Paine's "pestilent" ideas, Mr. Fantom poisons the mind of his servant William. Learning from his master that there is no God and that "private vices are public benefits" (45), William robs the Fantom larder, absconding with its best spoons and bottles of wine. When Fantom and his friend Mr. Trueman catch up with him, William is already in jail not just for theft, but for murder: "Yes, sir," he tells Fantom, "you made me a drunkard, a thief, and a murderer."
William meets his end on the gallows, but not before writing, with Mr. Trueman's help, his "Last Words, Confession, and Dying Speech," which Trueman distributes to the crowd that shows up to watch the execution. William's "Dying Speech" is also reproduced in its entirety within More's story: "The crime for which I die is the natural consequence of the principles I learnt from my master ..." (63-66). Besides repeating the sharp distinction that More makes in most of her stories between wholesome and poisonous reading, the remarkable feature of "The History of Mr. Fantom" is its inclusion within itself, in a frame-story structure, of a type of reading that More and many other observers, whether evangelical or not, often treated as toxic: namely, the confessions of condemned criminals, as in The Newgate Calendar. William's last words are of course not defiant, but contrite; not intended as an incitement to public disorder, but doctored to remove any possibility of poisoning the minds of More's readers by wicked example. More (or rather, More through William) provides no details about the murder for which William is hanged, but only reiterates the role Mr. Fantom (and pestilent Tom Paine through Fantom) has played in inducing William to commit robbery and murder. In this manner, perhaps, she detoxifies the criminal text that she inscribes within her anticriminal text.
"The History of Mr. Fantom" both declaims against poisonous literature and includes within itself the very thing it declaims against: it is both cure and poison. This isn't accidental on More's part but is instead a key feature of the design of all her stories. "With the wisdom of the serpent," as one of her biographers puts it (Jones 141), More produced her tracts "in the guise of the genuine chapman's pennyworth" of chapbooks or street literature "and sent [them] out, like sheep in wolves' clothing, to be sold by hawkers in competition with their `old trash'" (Spinney 295). In other words, More sugared the pill of her didacticism (medicinal, she believed, not poisonous) with the conventions of the otherwise poisonous popular narratives that, along with Tom Paine's writings, she sought to combat. This is the principle of "inoculation," as Roland Barthes calls it in Mythologies, or of one version of the pharmakon, as Derrida finds it in Plato's Phaedrus: the poison that, in small doses, will hopefully serve as its own antidote.
From an antithetical ideological perspective, the same pattern appears in William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794), which is at once the criminal biography of Falkland, Caleb's master, and of its author-narrator, Caleb himself. The son of a peasant, Caleb acquires literacy and uses his reading and writing skills to become Falkland's secretary, from which vantage point he detects his master's deepest secrets. Caleb uses his literacy ultimately to indict, as well as indite, his master, bringing him to trial and punishment. Godwin implies, moreover, that the novel itself, as Caleb's story and written indictment, performs the final execution upon Falkland just as surely as the gallows would have done — an instance of fiction representing itself as lethal. The ideological contrast between Godwin's democratic, anarchist novel and More's evangelical, anti-Jacobin tract illustrates the extremes involved in the late-eighteenth-century conflict over the spread of literacy. Nevertheless, in both narratives, fictional form works to undo itself. Just as "Mr. Fantom" is both antidote and poison, so Caleb Williams is both an indictment (through Falkland) of aristocratic misgovernment and, insofar as it also can be read as criminal biography and acts, metaphorically at least, as lethal weapon, a self-indicting novel.
Within the history of the novel, moreover, the motif of poisonous or otherwise dangerous reading, a pattern that inevitably implicates any text in which it appears, runs straight through the nineteenth century and the now-canonical works of fiction that F. R. Leavis called the "Great Tradition." An especially striking example of the motif of poisonous reading in relation to mass literacy occurs in Dickens's Oliver Twist, where Fagin tries to poison Oliver's mind on the night before Bill Sikes takes him to burgle the Maylies' house. In this episode, Fagin's method of conversion entails forcing Oliver to read "a history of the lives and trials of great criminals" (shades of both "Mr. Fantom" and Caleb Williams). Of course Oliver is not converted to the paths of evil, but one of the surprises in Dickens's novel is that a workhouse orphan like Oliver can read, and another is that all of the thieves, including ogre-like Bill Sikes, can read, among other texts, the biographies of "great criminals."
Dickens protested mightily against the charge that readers of his novel might be led into lives of crime. As a primitive detective novel like Caleb Williams, however, Oliver Twist expresses the moral ambiguity of all crime stories (and all criminal reading) just as More's "Mr. Fantom" mimics the criminal literature it seeks to counteract. Even when moral or righteous in aim, representations of crime can always be accused of encouraging criminal behavior. No more than the romance/novel distinction prevents the recognition that all fiction is fiction (or in other words that the novel that one is reading, however realistic its form and style, is just as illusory as the silly romances the author contrasts to it), so in detective fiction there is no way to prevent the contamination of the (so to speak) law-abiding side of the story by the criminal side. In later, formulaic versions of detective fiction such as the Sherlock Holmes stories, the structure is always a double one, both poison and medicine, and therefore an exact analogue of Socrates' pharmakon. This is so because the story of detection in the law-abiding narrative present always consists of the reconstruction and retelling of the criminal past. Here again Caleb Williams is paradigmatic, in part because, for most of the narrative, its innocent detective-protagonist is treated like a criminal, and in part because Caleb declares that he has slain Falkland by writing the novel.
The novel that Caleb Williams pens doesn't poison Falkland — the metaphor Godwin has in mind is rather the dagger — but from the eighteenth century forward, it is as if many novelists agreed with the charge that, as one reviewer put it in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1805, novel-reading "poison[s] our leisure hours without improving them" ("Review" 1136). When novel-reading is depicted as something done by the characters within novels, moreover, it is often in poisonous terms. The Quixote pattern usually means that the ambiguity of the Socratic pharmakon, both medicine and poison, is treated as unambiguous. Realistic novels like Northanger Abbey often seem to say: "Beware, reader, of illusory, poisonous stories like Gothic romances," and in the same stroke declare themselves to be the truth-telling medicine that can cure the disease of romantic illusion. But, as with Austen's novel, not always, or at least not exactly. In Caleb Williams, both Caleb and his adversary have been influenced by their reading of romances; according to Caleb, Falkland has imbibed "the poison of chivalry" from his "earliest youth," and this "poison" has helped "hurry [him] into madness" (326). But to what extent has Caleb also been poisoned? Further, is it entirely clear that Godwin's novel is not just some new form of toxic illusion? Scott's Waverley, too, is a Quixote figure, while the "historical romance" in which he figures partakes to some indeterminable extent in the very sort of fantasy life that has absorbed and misled him. There are, of course, many Quixote figures in later fiction, including in their different ways Dickens's David Copperfield, Thackeray's Arthur Pendennis, Meredith's Richard Feverel, Wilde's Dorian Gray, Hardy's Jude Fawley, and Conrad's Lord Jim. After the publication of Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote in 1752, however, an increasing number of the Quixote figures in fiction are women: Radcliffe's Emily St. Aubert, Austen's Catherine Morland, Thackeray's Amelia Sedley, George Eliot's Maggie: Tulliver and Dorothea Brooke, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley, Trollope's Lizzie Eustace, and Hardy's Eustacia Vye, to name a few. Also, the old distinction between romances and novels seems gradually to blur and fade. Thus, in some nineteenth-century novels that adopt the Quixote pattern, there is a deliberate, ironic identification of the main story with the romantic, illusory stories that the characters read. A key example of the blurring of the distinction between novel and romance is Madame Bovary, in which the heroine's romantic illusions are fed by the intoxicating love stories she reads, while Flaubert makes no claim to be writing anything other than a quite similar story of illicit, adulterous love or lust. That his heroine kills herself by swallowing rat poison seems only fitting: one way that Flaubert marks his masterpiece of fictional realism as also poisonous.
"Bovaryism" means narcissistic egoism and eroticism, but also caveat lector: you become what you read, and what you are reading may not be good for your mental health. It was left to Oscar Wilde at the start of the 1890s, however, both to praise others' poisonous books and explicitly to write one of his own, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde recognized what was especially illogical and hypocritical about the moralizers like Hannah More in the mass literacy debate. The evangelizing or utilitarian do-gooders wanted the masses to read, but they wanted the masses to read only purified literature: some impossibly nontoxic stuff that would do no moral damage. They wanted the pharmakon of writing minus the pharmakon's ambiguity. In his essay/dialogue "The Decay of Lying," Wilde contended that life imitates fiction, rather than the other way around. The examples Wilde's character Vivian offers to illustrate this thesis come in part from controversies about working-class literacy and about the provision of wholesome, nontoxic reading matter to the masses that run straight back to Hannah More and the evangelical revival of the late 1700s. "Life imitates art far more than Art imitates Life," Vivian declares:
The most obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate apple-women, break into sweet-shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers.... The boy-burglar is simply the inevitable result of life's imitative instinct. He is Fact, occupied as Fact usually is, with trying to reproduce Fiction, and what we see in him is repeated on an extended scale throughout the whole of life. (56)
Here Wilde mocks the controversy that arose over the moral effects of reading supposedly poisonous Newgate novels like Jack Sheppard, plus the dozens of popular crime stories that were published throughout the century as "penny dreadfuls," "bloods," and "shilling shockers."
In his criminal fantasy The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde describes the strange "yellow book" that Lord Henry sends to Dorian as "a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain" (98). Dorian is fascinated by this dangerously intoxicating and ultimately toxic volume. He buys multiple copies of it in multicolored bindings. He reads it over and over, and as a result his conscience gradually gives way to a narcissistic search for mere pleasure. "Dorian Gray," we are told, "had been poisoned by a book. There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful" (114-15). Dorian descends into a lift of crime and ultimately murder, with the poisonous "yellow book" as his inspiration. On trial in 1895, Wilde wits asked by the prosecutor to identify Dorian's "yellow book," and he responded that he had had in mind Joris-Karl Huysmans's 1884 novel A Rebours, about the decadent aristocrat Des Esseintes, who himself indulges in various forms of "poisonous" reading. Des Esseintes is especially fond of the "moral poison" (Huysmans's phrase) offered by the Marquis de Sade, Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Poe. These selected "flowers of evil" are obvious choices, but Des Esseintes also delights, in his morbid fashion, in reading the apparently innocuous novels of Charles Dickens.
While Huysmans's novel provided Wilde with a model for Dorian's "yellow book," a more interesting although more incriminating way to answer the prosecutor's question would have been to name The Picture of Dorian Gray itself. In both "yellow books," culture is identified with corruption, with loss of innocence, and ultimately with evil. Perhaps for similar reasons, George Eliot had earlier condemned that other "breviary" of the Decadent Movement, Walter Pater's The Renaissance, as a "poisonous book" (Eliot in Seiler, 92). In any event, in his 1889 essay on Thomas Wainewright, painter, critic, and master poisoner, Wilde explored the seeming paradox that a highly educated practitioner of one of the fine arts could also be a murderer, and reached a conclusion deliberately at odds with Arnold's in Culture and Anarchy: "There is no essential incongruity," Wilde declared, "between crime and culture" ("Pen, Pencil and Poison" 98). That statement can serve as a precise summary of the oxymoronic idea of the poisonous book, and more specifically as a summary of one of the main themes of Wilde's own self-consciously poisonous crime novel.
The British novel in general, between the 1790s and 1900, is pervaded by the question of the moral and political effects of mass literacy, of reading, and above all of reading novels. A central, defining theme of the novel (whether implicitly or explicitly, unconsciously or consciously) is always some variant of Wilde's thesis in "The Decay of Lying": if life imitates art, what are the consequences to you, hypocrite lecteur, of consuming novels — indeed, of consuming the novel you are reading right now? Almost always the answer, in novels from Caleb Williams to Jude the Obscure, is either ambivalent or unambiguously negative. This is just how Socrates treats the pharmakon of writing: at its best, it is simultaneously both wholesome and poisonous; at its worst, it is poisonous. Reader, beware.
Even if they don't declare their novels to be poisonous, novelists often wittingly or unwittingly echo the eighteenth-century critic who likened novels to "intellectual gingerbread" (qtd. in Taylor 46). Trollope declared that the public consumed novels "as men eat pastry after dinner, — not without some inward conviction that the taste is vain if not vicious" ("Novel Reading" 126). Likewise Thackeray called "delightful ... well-remembered" novels "sweet and delicious as the raspberry open-tarts of budding boyhood" ("On a Peal of Bells" 333). And in his study of Thackeray, Trollope says of his fellow novelist's early successes that he "had opened his oyster, — with his pen" (30). In the same essay, Trollope writes: "So it is with the novel" in general:
It is taken because of its jam and honey. But, unlike the honest simple jam and honey of the household cupboard, it is never unmixed with physic. There will be the dose within it, either curative or poisonous. (202)
Trollope would, perhaps, prefer the novel to be just "honest simple jam and honey"; even when "curative" instead of "poisonous," any moral that it conveys must, he implies, be somehow less than "honest."
In relation to aesthetic taste, even metaphors of healthy eating and drinking place novel-reading in the emergent category of mass consumption, rather than in that of high or elite culture. In his study of "the making" of the reading public or, better, publics between 1790 and 1832, Jon Klancher notes:
High-cultural production invites the language of "reception," the symbolic giving and receiving of texts between great writers and singular, sensitive reader's. Masscultural production yields up the harsher vocabulary of "consumption," supply and demand among innumerable writers and vast, faceless audiences. (13)
Klancher points out that "this analytic double standard" found its philosophical "defense" in Kant's Critique of Judgement, "where the `pure taste' of aesthetic judgment spirals away from the crude material `interests' of less exalted tastes" (13). No doubt Thackeray and Trollope felt more comfortable situating their novels in terms of eating and drinking instead of any more rarefied, intellectual, or aesthetic version of taste, but doing so made it difficult to think of the best prose fiction as on the same cultural level with great poetry or drama.
The apparent comfortableness of Thackeray and Trollope with their craft and careers arose partly from the growing respectability of novels and novel-reading. Novels were once justly reprobated, Trollope thinks, but Austen, Edgeworth, and Scott helped to sanitize them, and by the 1870s "novels ... have in great measure taken the place of sermons" ("Novel-Reading" 114). Trollope is not sure that this is a good thing, however; after all, novels deal mainly with love, and reading them "can hardly strengthen the intelligence" (113). Further, though he is "anxious ... to vindicate that public taste in literature which has created and nourished the novelist's work," Trollope is certain that by "the consent of all mankind who read, poetry takes the highest place in literature" (125). And he thinks that, in his own time, novels "feed the imagination too often in lieu of poetry" (114).
In terms of content, mainstream fiction certainly grew tamer — more respectable or, what amounts to the same thing, more bourgeois — from about 1800 to 1840. The change has less to do with new readers or the sheer increase of literacy than with, on the one hand, evangelical and utilitarian stress on reforming public morality and, on the other, the industrial and commercial restructuring of the "literary field," including printers, publishers, reviewers, booksellers, readers, and of course authors. Like other sorts of cultural transformation, changes within the literary field seem often to evoke anxieties that are displaced or misrecognized. Thus, from the 1790s into the 1820s, as Ina Ferris notes, "the trope of female reading" articulated "a whole cluster of literary anxieties about technology, the market, sexuality, the body — in short, about that which was defined as outside the literary sphere yet obscurely threatened to erupt from within" (36-37). New techniques for the mass production and distribution of literature, whether viewed as progress or the reverse, were often personified, attributed to readerly demand or the corrupt "taste" of the "reading public."
From the 1820s and 1830s forward, there was a new, marked division of publishing labor, reflecting the social-class hierarchy, with the expensive, "three-decker" novel going upscale and the simultaneous emergence of a "cheap literature" industry, catering mainly to the burgeoning working-class readership in the major urban centers, giving new cause for alarm to upper-class observers. The three-decker format, popularized by Scott, became standard for respectable fiction through the long reign of Mudie's. Not until 1894 would Mudie's, in collaboration with its chief rival, W. H. Smith Booksellers, cause publishers to turn away from the three-volume design to cheaper formats. In the 1830s and 1840s, both the radical press and the "penny fiction" directed toward working-class readers, much of it Gothic, criminally sensational, and salacious, gave rise to heated debate in the middle-class press and in Parliament. Nevertheless, respectable novels, clearly distinguished by price, format, and means of circulation from the more ephemeral and imitative or even plagiarized penny fiction, gained increasing legitimacy, and by the 1840s and 1850s, successful middle-class novelists were enjoying enormous popularity and profits. Starting with Pickwick Papers in the 1830s, Dickens emerged as the superstar of the Victorian novel-reading public. "By dying a rich man (unlike Scott) and leaving an estate of 93,000 [pounds sterling]," writes John Sutherland, "Dickens had helped make fiction writing as professionally respectable as the law, medicine or the civil service" (22-23). And, though second-fiddle to Dickens, by 1873 Anthony Trollope was able to say in his Autobiography that he had earned 70,000 [pounds sterling] through his novel-writing career, though he considered this a merely "comfortable" rather than "splendid" result (314).
The familiar, albeit double, assumption about Victorian novelists' relations with their readers claims both intimacy and mass-cultural success. This assumption has helped to explain the sense of respectable comfortableness expressed by Thackeray, Trollope, and Dickens, among others. The apparent intimacy between authors and readers stemmed partly from the practice of serial publication, partly from the moral "selectness" of Mudie's, partly from the pattern of reading aloud within family circles, and partly from the rhetoric of direct address adopted by novelists themselves — the rhetoric of "dear reader," "gentle reader," and "as the intelligent reader will observe." Of all the major Victorian novelists, the one who established the greatest rapport with his readers was undoubtedly Dickens. The instances in which Dickens altered his novels in the middle of their serial publication because of sales figures or, even more dramatically, because of fan mail or direct reader response are evidence that, at least for himself and several other successful novelists, the relations between reader and writer could be dialogical, almost conversationally familiar. As Sue Lonoff notes in her study of Wilkie Collins's readerly relations, "Dickens published his first book under the family nickname of Boz, and from the start of his career he identified his interests with those of his readers. Their tastes were his tastes, their problems his problems, and he came among them as an intimate" (5). However, according to George Ford in Dickens and His Readers, even "the extraordinary relationship between Dickens and his public was a more tempestuous affair than is always recognized" (42), a fact evident, for instance, in the embroilment of Oliver Twist in the controversy over so-called Newgate crime fiction. Though never on such intimate terms with his "dear readers" as Dickens, in his preface to Pendennis, Thackeray writes:
... in his constant communication with the reader the writer is forced into a frankness of expression, and to speak out his own mind and feelings as they urge him.... It is a sort of confidential talk between writer and reader. (33)
The assumption of intimacy between writer and reader conflicts with the very different thesis of increasing alienation caused by the capitalization and industrialization of publishing and the advent of mass literacy. The rhetoric of intimacy expresses nostalgia for face-to-face storytelling that print culture had long ago rendered unnecessary, though hardly extinct, as the practice of reading novels aloud in family or in public settings attests. As Klancher notes, the rise of the mass reading public and the romantic reaction to it were related to class conflict, which is in turn inscribed in the widening split between "high culture and mass culture, bourgeoisie and working class" characteristic of modernity (Klancher 13). One of the difficulties for the novel has been that, as a genre, it cannot easily or automatically be situated on one side or the other of the high versus mass culture division. Bestselling novels often seem both quintessentially bourgeois and mass cultural. Yet novelists often express various forms and degrees of alienation from readers, including criticizing novel-reading as an activity. The familiar image of the isolated romantic writer — Blake's "I am hid," Shelley's "unacknowledged legislator" — achieves a sort of ironic apotheosis at the end of the nineteenth century in the failed, suicidal novelists of Gissing's New Grub Street.
Dickens's apparent intimacy with his readers is one extreme on a spectrum, at the other end of which lies Gissing's belief in the unredeemable vulgarity of the mass reading public. The Dickens phenomenon may also be evidence that, while for two or three decades — 1836 into the 1860s — it was possible for novelist and reader to enter into a kind of intimacy, both before and after the Dickens era relations between writers and readers were not so (seemingly) harmonious. Whatever the case, the very rapport that Dickens and Thackeray established with their readers posed a problem for them, one which Thackeray worried more about than did the inimitable Boz. Throughout Thackeray's novels, novel-reading is treated with ironic suspicion, as the sort of activity that only foolish, self-indulgent, or otherwise not exactly praiseworthy characters engage in. As Kate Flint demonstrates, when Thackeray's rhetoric of direct address genders his reader female, it usually implies that some sort of misreading is likely to occur if he (the narrator) does not intervene with his sage advice. And in Pendennis, when Pen follows his friend Warrington's advice and takes up novel-writing as a career, he views it as merely a commercial activity, at odds with writing genuine literature or poetry.
That there are degrees of intimacy and distance between writers and readers is obvious. There is much correspondence between Victorian novelists and their friends and relations that verges on collaboration or even coauthorship. The best-known instance of such intimacy and collaboration is that between George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, but there are others. At the opposite extreme lies the anonymous, mass readership, who borrowed and purchased Dickens's or Thackeray's novels, but who otherwise did not communicate with the authors. And between these extremes were various mediating types of readers, some of them professional: the reviewers for journals and newspapers, the readers for publishers, the publishers themselves. Collins suggests a related but more general sort of mediation when he looks to the "intelligent readers of the civilized world" to influence the "outlying mass" of readers. The "intelligent readers," he says, are of "all nations and all ranks."
Whether they praise or ... blame, their opinions are equally worth having. They not only understand us [novelists], they help us. Many a good work of fiction has profited by their letters ... to the author.... In places of private assembly and ... of public amusement, their opinions flow, in ever-widening circles, over the outlying mass of average readers, and send them on their way to the work of art, when they might stray to the false pretence. ("Reminiscences" 192; my italics)
The last phrase registers Collins's anxiety about what "the outlying mass of average readers" might do, if not guided by the helpful "intelligent readers." This category is a sort of informal version of Coleridge's "clerisy," or of the educated minority necessary to educate or at least lead the majority. Collins expresses the same anxiety in his essay on the mass readership for penny fiction, "The Unknown Public." If not the novelist himself, then someone must act as a guide for the mass of anonymous, "average" readers, otherwise they will not recognize "art," but will instead be led astray by "the false pretence."
In his magisterial Dear Reader: The Conscripted Audience in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction, Garrett Stewart analyzes the evolution and significance of the rhetoric of direct address. But Stewart's rhetorical and phenomenological approach leads him to underestimate the social anxiety implicit in that rhetoric, which after all is not direct except in imagination. Because "the reader" addressed in nineteenth-century novels is so insistently singular — the isolated individual to whom the equally isolated narrator speaks in a simulacrum of face-to-face dialogue — it is easy to interpret the relationship between novelist and reader as one of intimacy rather than of varying degrees of alienation and distance. As Stewart notes, however, the singular "you" or "dear reader" involves the rhetorical reduction of the mass reading public to manageable size, providing the illusion, at least, of individual proximity and cooperation. The reduction of mass to individual, readers plural to reader singular, itself manifests anxiety about controlling reader response and perhaps also expresses more general concerns about the uses of literacy, leisure, and pleasure. "What Dickens in private correspondence called the `many-headed,'" writes Stewart, "represents the potential multifariousness of the public as mob. Yet it is an unruly body politic only manifested, as no one knew better than Dickens, under the singularized plurality of the invested second person." Stewart adds that "the novel gets written with and in you alone" (7), and so he concentrates on the individual reader.
Acknowledging the difficulty of reconstructing the actual reading public in the early nineteenth century, Klancher points out that the "English Romantics were the first to become radically uncertain of their readers" (3). Though it may never have been as cohesive as Jurgen Habermas contends, the literate, protodemocratic "public sphere" of the eighteenth century gave way during the revolutionary crisis of the 1790s to clashing discourses and groups, including, Klancher argues, "four strategically crucial audiences: a newly self-conscious middle-class public, a nascent mass audience, a polemical radical readership, and the special institutional audience — what Coleridge called the clerisy — that assumed its first shape in this contentious time" (4). Klancher finds these categories inscribed mainly in the periodicals of the time in their rhetoric of "audience making" or readerly invocation. But what is the status of this rhetoric as evidence? While it indicates the audiences that various periodicals and writers thought they were addressing, it may not reveal much about actual readers. Thus, Klancher's treatment of the "mass audience" through the evidence of such journals as Charles Knight's Penny Magazine tames the threat of "the crowd" considerably, keeping it at a remove from the "polemical radical readership" with which it may have overlapped.
The various representations of "the crowd" in romantic writing, Klancher believes, both reflect and helped to shape the emergent mass reading public. But from 1780 through the 1840s, "the crowd" is almost always seen in negative terms; if it isn't "the mob" or "the swinish multitude" of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, then it is "the public" of Wordsworth's 1815 "Essay, Supplementary to the Preface." Wordsworth distinguishes between "the public" as a category of unwholesome sophistication and the wholesome, innocent "people." As earlier in the "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," where Wordsworth had declared his intention of writing about "common life" in the "language really used by men" (71), so in the 1815 essay he associates poetry with the voice of the people, "that Vox Populi which the Deity inspires" (214). The people, identified with nature and with orality or "voice," articulates or, perhaps, is the truth; the public, identified with city life and literacy or print culture, veers away from the truth (cf. Hudson 144-48). In the Waverley novels, Scott similarly valorizes the oral culture of the Highlands as more genuine than the literate culture of the Lowlands and of England, while also valorizing the Union of 1707, the progress of civilization, and the spread of the language of literacy and civilization, English, to the Highlands. But just as George Eliot would later view the progress of civilization paradoxically as entailing the decline of individual heroism and the chances for sainthood, so Scott views the spread of English, of literacy, and even the popularity of his own novels as evidence of the death of chivalry and the advent of a kind of universal mediocrity. That incarnation of modern ambivalence and compromise, Edward Waverley, a tepid Quixote who acquires his romantic tendencies partly from novel-reading, learns to relegate both romance and Highland culture to the past. Novel-reading might train the reader to think in more subtle and refined ways, but not to act in more heroic and perhaps more innocent ways.
Jonathan Rose has recently pointed out that there now exists a good deal of evidence for reconstructing the actual "common reader" at least in the nineteenth century. Richard Altick, Louis James, Martha Vicinus, David Vincent, and others have assembled and interpreted much of this evidence. Nevertheless, the gap between the sociology of the common reader and the rhetorical analysis of readerly conscription is one that both Klancher and Stewart would like to bridge, because no sociology of readers can fathom exactly how actual readers responded to texts. Neither, however, can a strictly rhetorical approach get at real readers reading: the two approaches must complement each other, and even then can only approximate readerly experience. As Rose neatly puts it, the actual reader is always "outside the text" (70). It is partly this obvious fact, with its correlative uncertainty about how actual readers would react to their novels, that leads novelists so insistently to try to conscript, interpellate, or guide their imaginary "dear readers" in the directions they wish them to go. Even when a given novel is hugely popular and widely reviewed, it is not possible to be sure that actual readers are understanding it in the ways the author intended. Indeed, popularity magnifies the indeterminacy, dispersing the bestselling novel into the mysterious, anonymous reaches of what Collins called the "unknown public." Thus, the difficulties of historical reconstruction themselves reflect one major source of anxiety for novelists — indeed, for all modern authors: the ultimate unknowability of the common reader, and especially in the aggregate — the mass readership that arose with capitalism, urbanization, industrialization, and the progress of education.
In "The Unknown Public" (1859), Collins records his discovery of a vast, anonymous readership for "penny fiction." The essay reads like one of Collins's "sensation novels": it is a mystery story, with Collins as literary detective, trying, through the evidence provided him by five "penny-novel journals," to fathom the nature and composition of the "monster audience of at least three millions" he purports to have detected (262; my italics). "An immense public has been discovered," he declares in good sensation novel fashion; "the next thing to be done is, in a literary sense, to teach that public how to read" (263). But of course the Unknown Public can already read: the mystery has precisely to do with mass literacy rather than illiteracy. Collins's discovery causes him to be both optimistic ("a great, unparalleled prospect awaits ... the coming generation of English novelists") and anxious about the unpredictability of reading and its effects — an anxiety, in short, about mass literacy: "what do we know of the enormous outlawed majority — of the lost literary tribes — of the prodigious, the overwhelming three millions? Absolutely nothing" (352). Collins's sampling of penny fiction is reassuring to him because the stories seem harmlessly formulaic and platitudinous. But their dullness leads him to infer, patronizingly, that the "Unknown Public is, in a literary sense, hardly beginning, as yet, to learn to read":
The members of it are evidently, in the mass, from no fault of theirs, still ignorant of almost everything which is generally known and understood among readers whom circumstances have placed, socially and intellectually, in the rank above them. (263)
That Collins finds nothing morally reprehensible about penny fiction distinguishes "The Unknown Public" from the many attacks on novels and the mass readership for them published between 1700 and 1900. Such attacks frequently single out specific subgenres of fiction as especially dangerous to the moral and mental health of readers. Ironically, the outcry in the 1860s against sensation novels was partly aimed at Collins, whose The Woman in White (1860) was and continues to be regarded as setting the pattern for the "sensation mania" (see chapter 7). In any event, as Collins poses it, the problem, if not exactly crime, involved in penny fiction calls for disciplining the "enormous outlawed majority" to appreciate and demand superior forms of fiction (252; my italics). In this way, too, Collins operates as literary policeman, after the Foucauldian paradigm that D. A. Miller applies to sensation fiction. Perhaps all novelists express a policeman's — or, at least, schoolteacher's — desire to control readerly response. But when does that desire cease to be mere wishful thinking and go into effect? Like the rhetorical analysis of readerly conscription, a Foucauldian approach to fiction tempts the critic to deduce effects from intentions. If one agrees with Miller that the novel was a primary instrument in the construction, gendering, and policing of bourgeois subjectivity, then it becomes difficult to explain why novels and novel-reading were so often viewed as dangerous, even subversive to bourgeois respectability and morality. The penny fictions read by the Unknown Public may have seemed harmless to Collins, but not to many of his contemporaries; and Collins's own presumably superior literary productions did not seem harmless to many of the first critics of sensation novels.
As the controversy over Newgate novels in the 1830s and early 1840s suggests, a novel like Oliver Twist already exhibits something of the "pathology" of reading and information that Alexander Welsh, in George Eliot and Blackmail, sees as becoming general in the 1860s. Welsh contends that the exponential increases in forms of knowledge and communications — book and journal publishing, rail transport, newspapers, the telegraph, the post office — produced pathological side-effects, at least, which show up symptomatically in novels as various as Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and George Eliot's Felix Holt (Welsh 33-59). But many commentators attributed pathological results to mass literacy long before the 1860s and 1870s. In England and the English (1833), for example, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, though a proponent of state-funded, universal education and thus of mass literacy, argues that diffusing knowledge inevitably dilutes it. Noting "the profusion of amusing, familiar, and superficial writings" in the early thirties, Bulwer-Lytton adds: "People complain of it, as if it were a proof of degeneracy in the knowledge of authors — it is a proof of the increased number of readers" (294). While the growth of the reading public is a sure sign of "the progress to perfection" (223), that growth nevertheless causes a decline in the general profundity and literary greatness of the culture of any nation in which it occurs. "Thus, if we look abroad, in France, where the reading public is less numerous than in England, a more elevated and refining tone is more fashionable in literature; and in America, where it is infinitely larger, the tone of literature is infinitely more superficial" (294). The nation fortunate enough to achieve mass literacy on its route to social perfection will simultaneously witness the decline and perhaps extinction of cultural excellence and creativity. In his chapter surveying "the state of education" in England, Bulwer-Lytton admonishes: "As you diffuse the stream, guard well the fountains"(165).
Who could predict, moreover, what the actual impact of even the most serious, most moral work of fiction might be on the ever-increasing millions of readers who, by the 1850s, had made novels the most popular form of secular reading that has ever existed? An author might try to guide or control the interpretation and effect of a work of fiction through authorial commentary, in a preface, or in the summing-up of the final chapter. But from Henry Fielding to Henry James, the practice of authorial commentary perhaps does little more than register the nervousness of authors about how their stories may be misinterpreted by readers whom they have no way of knowing, much less controlling. According to Walter J. Ong, "Nervousness regarding the role of the reader registers everywhere in the `dear reader' regularly invoked in fiction well through the nineteenth century" (17). That nervousness has less to do with the individual reader than with readers, plural — that is, with the anonymous, phantasmal, ever-growing reading public.
Militant opposition to novels and novel-reading waned during the nineteenth century, but some of the older, moralizing antipathy to fiction continued, as in John Ruskin's diatribe against most modern novels in Fiction, Fair and Foul and in Matthew Arnold's "Copyright," both published in 1880. With a few exceptions for nove ls by Scott, Dickens, and one or two other authors, Ruskin condemns the fiction of his age — "tales of the prison-house" — as the diseased expression of "the thwarted habits of body and mind, which are the punishment of reckless crowding in cities ..." (276). Arnold more temperately complains about "the system of lending-libraries," which keeps the cost of new books at an "exorbitant" level. This "system" both multiplies and protects "bad literature," while "keeping good books dear." The high-quality "three-shilling book is our great want ... [not] a cheap literature, hideous and ignoble of aspect, like the tawdry novels which flare in the book-shelves of our railway-stations, and which seem designed, as so much else that is produced for the use of our middle-class seems designed, for people with a low standard of life" ("Copyright" 327-328). Rather than to novels in general, Arnold is referring only to the "tawdry" subspecies that, from the late 1840s, had come to be known as "railway fiction" — the cheap "yellowbacks" sold at W. H. Smith bookstalls. Nevertheless, the greatest literary critic of his generation has almost nothing good to say about novels anywhere in his criticism. Arnold treats novels as a subliterary, commercial form of amusement, in contrast to serious literature — poetry, drama, history. In taking this deflationary view of fiction, however, Arnold echoes many novelists, including Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, and Hardy. As an educator and inspector of schools, Arnold was a major promoter of mass literacy. Yet, like Bulwer-Lytton, he looked upon that goal with some trepidation, and he hoped for a better result than universal novel-reading.
The fiction question — that is, the questionable nature of novels and novel-reading — arises everywhere in nineteenth-century discourse about education and the uses and abuses of literacy. Thus, in the debates about establishing and operating public libraries, it echoes from the hearings conducted by the Ewart Committee in 1849 to Thomas Greenwood's Public Libraries: A History of the Movement.... (1891). During the 1849 parliamentary discussion, "the fear" was expressed that public libraries "would be filled with novels and the worst description of literature." But, said Henry Labouchere, this fear was groundless, because the respectable members of the town councils who would establish and manage the libraries would ensure that only serious books were acquired (Greenwood 63). Fiction, nevertheless, became a staple in the collections of many public libraries, and proved to be the most popular form of reading they offered.
As late as the 1890s, Greenwood shows, novels remained controversial. "The great fiction question is ... the chief stumbling block in the minds of many" who might otherwise approve of public libraries. But the libraries continued to be opposed "on the ground of being the storehouses or vast reservoirs of fiction, and a class of fiction which is not at all times as wholesome as could be desired" (Greenwood 32-33). Greenwood himself supports the inclusion of "wholesome" fiction in the collections of public libraries, arguing that a taste for reading such novels will lead to better, more serious kinds of reading: "The testimony of very many librarians is that the tendency in the taste of readers is upwards rather than downwards, and that people who begin by being inveterate novel-readers usually drift into reading more profitable and instructive books" (Greenwood 33). Besides, he adds, the very best fiction can itself be "profitable and instructive" (33).
Greenwood wishes to defend all forms of literacy and reading — all are beneficial, and hence libraries in general are beneficial:
[public] libraries are centres of light, and not only feed, but create a taste for reading, and, unquestionably, whatever does this is a benefit to the whole community, and aids materially in the repressing and taming of the rougher and baser parts of human nature. (35)
Against those who continued, as late as the 1890s, to oppose the inclusion of fiction in public libraries, Greenwood argues: "There are too many institutions of the strictly `improving' kind, which inculcate a sort of priggish propriety, and leave no room for the healthy development of the universal desire for entertainment." Public libraries should provide their users "with newspapers, novels and other light reading." Yet to this affirmation, Greenwood appends the caveat that "the light readers ought not to stand in the way of the solid ones.... A man or woman who is merely skipping through a novel should give way for the reader who wants to read some works of solid literature" (36).
Though disagreeing with their stance, Greenwood also cites a number of arguments from the opponents of public libraries, who object that they encourage "loafing" and have a "demoralizing effect" on the public. In 1849, the Ewart Committee heard much testimony that libraries would reduce crime and wean working-class readers from pubs and alcohol. But in the 1890s, the opponents of tax-supported libraries sometimes turned the equation around. One self-proclaimed "Victim of Free Libraries" describes "a young man at Brighton, who could not be got to work. He was usually to be found at the Public Library, perusing light literature, and he asserts that the library ruined him. `I mentioned this to a gentleman at the library (a visitor), and he said he had long seen it, and that no greater curse existed than these libraries, and he had rather see a young man hanging about a public-house than spending his time in these places'" (Greenwood 82).
Greenwood quotes another critic of libraries, who connects his objections specifically to novels and novel-reading (presumably, this is what the first critic means by "light literature"). According to the second person,
whenever I have entered any of our Public Libraries, I have found, as a rule, every chair occupied — and by whom? In nine cases out of ten by loafing office boys or clerks, who were using their masters' time for devouring all the most trivial literary trash they could get. It is often stated that it is better to read trashy novels than not to read at all. One might just as well argue that it is better to eat poison than not to eat at all.... Light literature is, and has been, quite enough of a curse in our country without having our loafers and idlers deluged with it in the form of Public Libraries. Many are the crimes brought about by the disordered imagination of a reader of sensational, and often immoral, rubbish, whilst many a home is neglected and uncared for owing to the all-absorbed novel-reading wife. (Quoted in Greenwood 82)
Greenwood's examples demonstrate that, though it was on the wane, opposition to novels and novel-reading continued to be voiced through the end of the nineteenth century. Today consensually acclaimed great novels are canonized — that is, both memorialized as important in literary histories and regularly taught in literature classes — as major examples of high culture. Like some other forms of originally popular culture — Shakespeare's plays, for instance — the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, even (perhaps) Wilkie Collins — are now accorded an uncontroversial reverence, except when viewed by demystifying critics as instruments of discursive or ideological surveillance, normalization, and subject-formation. Perhaps, however, neither those canonizers who treat great novels with almost the same reverence they accord to, say, Shakespeare, nor the demystifying critics who treat them as versions either of Foucault's panopticism or of Althusser's Ideological State Apparatuses, are as close to the mark as those earlier critics and moralizers — frequently including novelists themselves — who worried about the destabilizing, perhaps demoralizing, tendencies of fiction.
Given the widespread cultural anxiety aroused by novels and novel-reading, no easy case can be made for the novel as merely an ideological or discursive tool for the forging and policing of bourgeois subjectivity. A key problem for critics of all persuasions — the opponents of novels and novel-reading, the modern canonizers of supposedly great novels, the Marxist and Foucauldian demystifiers — was and remains pleasure, le plaisir de texte: what attitude should one adopt toward a form of reading that was and is also a main form of entertainment for the literate masses? The novel, especially the domestic fiction that Nancy Armstrong identifies with Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and other turn-of-the-century women writers, often has much in common with the conduct manuals that Armstrong also surveys. The novel often is, both thematically and structurally, a site on which bourgeois subjectivity and respectability are constructed and valorized. But not always, and not exactly; while one can reasonably make such claims about, say, Evelina, one cannot make them about The Monk. Moreover, even with a safely domestic and domesticating novel like Evelina, there is something in excess that resists the straightforward interpellation of the bourgeois subject. That excess stems partly from the novel's status as fiction rather than reality and partly from pleasure — that is, from the entertainment value of reading about imaginary lives.
As all those critics and opponents of the form who have considered the novel seductive have understood, the pleasure of fiction is at least partly erotic. Though the possible abuses of literacy seemed to be numerous, ranging from the "mechanic" teachings of the philosophes abhorred by Edmund Burke and Hannah More to mere time-wasting, novels often figured in debates about women's education and were readily seen, as in The Rivals, to promote sexual promiscuity. Certainly between 1760 and 1830, as Lovell points out, "the moral attack on the novel focused on women as readers" and also as writers (9-10). Most of the objections to novels and novel-reading during that period, "when the literary credentials of the novel were at their lowest point" (Lovell 8), have little or nothing to do with explicit politics and a lot to do with frivolous entertainment on the one hand, and with gender and sexuality on the other. The allegedly mindless publications of the Minerva Press, which partly occasioned Jane Austen's satire on Gothic romances in Northanger Abbey, were one major focus of alarm (see Blakey). That novel-reading could be sexy or could "enflame the passions" may have been the discovery of Renaissance writers and critics of so-called romances, but it was certainly also familiar to Samuel Richardson, John Cleland, and Charlotte Lennox in the eighteenth century — a possibility that the Marquis de Sade would pursue to its extremes.
But sex, though a powerful ingredient in many of the moral critiques of novels and novel-reading, is only one source of anxiety and opposition. With great regularity, novel-reading is represented, both by its critics and by novelists, as a form of leisure activity done instead of something else — a something that is almost always, as the 1890s opponents of libraries suggest, categorizable as mental improvement and therefore as a sort of work, albeit cultural or spiritual work. For Arnold and many others, the long struggle for public education and universal literacy seemed nugatory if the main reading of the masses consisted of novels.
By the 1880s, morever, other pathologies of novel-writing and reading seemed to have emerged, even for — perhaps, especially for — novelists. Besides expressing his own alienation from the vulgar, senti-literate masses, Gissing was also morbidly worried about what he saw as the overproduction of books and reading matter. It is as if Gissing and many other writers of his generation were witnessing the tragic fulfillment of Bulwer-Lytton's prediction about the downside of mass literacy, a cultural entropy caused by overcultivation, or in other words a case of too much of a good thing — reading — subverting itself. In the 1880s, Alfred Austin and others worried about the "disease" or "vice" of too much reading. Their concern was not just novel-reading, but reading in general which, as Kelly Mays shows, could even be seen as a threat to national and racial "integrity" (Mays 175). According to Austin, "Reading ... has become a downright vice, — a vulgar, detrimental habit, like dram-drinking ... a softening, demoralising, relaxing practice, which, if persisted in, will end by enfeebling the minds of men and women, making flabby the fibre of their bodies, and undermining the vigour of nations" (qtd. in Mays 170).
In considering the so-called cheap literature movement of the late 1820s and early 1830s, Bulwer-Lytton, despite his optimism about progress through universal education, had come close to Gissing's bleak vision of a society inundated with books, the suicide of literacy and culture:
The rage for cheap publications is not limited to Penny Periodicals; family libraries of all sorts have been instituted, with the captivating profession of teaching all things useful.... Excellent inventions, which, after showing us the illimitable ingenuity of compilation, have at length fallen the prey of their own numbers, and buried themselves amongst the corpses of the native quartos which they so successfully invaded. (292)
Here is a Gothic scenario to match anything in Gissing or, for that matter, Alfred Austin: if the morally safe albeit "superficial" volumes produced for "family libraries" threaten the cultural violence suggested by Bulwer-Lytton's metaphors, what about the great diversity of books that, by Gissing's time, the spread of education and the industrialization of printing had spawned? Books both safe and unsafe?
The advance of literacy to near universality by 1900 was often cited as indisputable evidence of social progress. But mass literacy continued to seem threatening to many observers, as in debates about what Arnold in 1887 labeled the "new journalism" and condemned as "feather brained" ("Up to Easter" 347). A new age of mass journalism had certainly arrived by 1896, when on May 4 the first issue of Alfred Harmsworth's Daily Mail sold 397,215 copies. During the Boer War, its circulation sometimes exceeded a million copies. With that war as context, in The Psychology of Jingoism (1901), J. A. Hobson declared that "a biased, enslaved, and poisoned press has been the chief engine for manufacturing" the "war spirit" (11). Similarly, G. M. Trevelyan was only echoing Arnold, Hobson, and other critics of mass journalism when, with the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China in mind, he declared that the "yellow peril" was not nearly so dangerous to Western civilization as the "white peril" made up of "uniform modern man," the masses of the "great cities" who were also the readers of papers like the Daily Mail. According to Trevelyan:
Journals, magazines, and the continued spawn of bad novels, constitute our national culture, for it is on these that the vast majority of all classes employ their power of reading. How does it concern our culture that Shakespeare, Milton, Ruskin, in times gone by wrote in our language, if for all the countless weary ages to come the hordes that we breed and send out to swamp the world shall browse with ever-increasing appetite on the thin swollen stuff that commerce has now learnt to supply for England's spiritual and mental food? (1049-1050)
Trevelyan deplored the "uprooting of taste and reason by the printing press" (1050) and saw the "white peril" as a new barbarian onslaught on civilization, only this time the invasion was coming from within and the barbarians could read.
If the mass consumption of newsprint was threatening to Hobson, Trevelyan, and other late-Victorian cultural critics, so was the mass consumption of novels, even to novelists. Though a moderately successful novelist himself, Gissing's cultural pessimism is based partly upon the paradox that Bulwer-Lytton stresses: the more any good thing is widely shared or disseminated, the more degraded and perhaps degrading it becomes. Popularity equals vulgarity, and mass culture equals barbarism. The period that witnessed the achievement of near-universal literacy was also the age of "crowd psychology," with its diagnoses of the mindless vandalism of the masses, and of the literary and artistic "decadence," with its modish echoes of the decline and fall of Rome.
Bulwer-Lytton's and Gissing's nightmare of books cannibalizing books suggests that in some sense all books may be unsafe. And, even if that thought is nonsensical, who could be sure that readers, especially those whom Arnold characterized as the "raw, unkindled masses," would not misinterpret even the safest books and put them to culture-subverting uses? The school of thought that viewed all novels as unsafe, moreover, has lasted well into our own century, though nowadays much of its censorious attention is focused upon film and television. One even hears that illiteracy is on the rise because of the mind-rotting effects of the visual mass media. But that is another, later, albeit related, story. The one I am concerned with here has as its central plot the many ways in which, from the 1790s to the 1890s, novels and novel-reading were viewed, especially by novelists themselves, as both causes and symptoms of the rotting of minds and the decay of culture and society.
1. Introduction: The Case of the Poisonous Book
2. Gothic Toxins: The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, and Caleb Williams
3. The Reading Monster
4. How Oliver Twist Learned to Read, and What He Found
5. Poor Jack, Poor Jane: Representing the Working Class and Women in Early and Mid-Victorian Novels
6. Cashing in on the Real in Thackeray and Trollope
7. Novel Sensations of the 1860s
8. The Educations of Edward Hyde and Edwin Reardon
9. Overbooked versus Bookless Futures in Late-Victorian Fiction
Indiana University Press