I love Victorian novels. In my humble opinion, they are the most important literary innovation of the 19th century. I have my favorites of course: Middlemarch (1871-72); Vanity Fair (1847-1848); The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890); Wuthering Heights (1847); and The Warden (1855) to name a few. What frustrates me in a classroom setting is the way that we are forced to disseminate these works with 20th century technologies: the edition. Now, some editions are fantastic. Broadview Press and Valancourt books are two of my favorites (I’ll post links to their websites soon). My particular issue is how a full novel is placed into a single book when most of these works were not initially distributed in this fashion. Dickens and Thackeray were serialized over the course of a year or a year and a half. Eliot’s novels were released as ‘three-deckers’ or what we would think of today as a trilogy. With Middlemarch, Eliot’s partner George Henry Lewes suggested to Blackwell’s that the novel follow the same distribution methods as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1869) and be released in eight parts in monthly issues. I’ve always wanted to teach a Victorian novel in this way – assigning parts fo the work over the course of the term for a single novel.
Now there are online resources that can allow lecturers to at least share these distribution methods in a classroom. The link provided is a connection to the University of Victoria’s digital collection where they have made a handful of Victorian serials available as pdf files. Our Mutual Friend, The Virginians, and a few others are included. I’m sure there are more resources like this available online. With a generation of students who’d rather read blogs and files online, there is an opportunity to share reading methods of the past that cannot be mimicked in a critical edition.
Face it, most editions (I listed two very good exceptions to this rule above) crack at the spine when opened. They are usually poorly manufactured and have a short life span. While digital texts run the risk of becoming ephemeral as well (will we still be able to read these online editions with technologies used 10 years from now? Since I can’t read my old floppy disks anymore, I doubt it), there is a chance that such a reading experiment could attract students who would not bother reading Middlemarch or David Copperfield in paper form. The 20th century technology of the critical edition is not the novel in its original form – I think we forget that. Instead, lets use the digital as a means of understanding reading cultures of the Victorian age a little better.