by Holly Furneaux
The A Tale of Two Cities reading project and blog comes out of a partnership between Dickens Journals Online, and the Victorian Studies Centre at the University of Leicester. As part of the celebrations of Dickens’s bi-centenary we read the novel as it first appeared in weekly parts in Dickens’s journal All the Year Round, following the 1859 timing from April to November. We used the online edition of the journal newly available via Dickens Journals Online. The group shared responses and posted questions on our blog (which has now had over 16,000 views). Some bloggers were very familiar with the novel, while others were completely new to it, and all worked to a ‘no spoilers’ rule to try to re-create the 1859 experience as far as was possible. The project has generated new close readings of the novels, with discussions of, for example, Dickens’s use of rhythm and imagery, his characterization (debates about Miss M and Sydney Carton waged hottest), and genre. It has also been instructive about the effects of serialization, the 1859 context, and the relationship between the fiction and other content of All the Year Round.
Reading A Tale of Cities week by week – reflections from some of the regular bloggers
My experience of the blog sparked several revelations – a reappraisal of the book not only in its serial form, but in the context of the surrounding articles in All the Year Round; the realisation of precisely how long that weekly gap between instalments can be; or the opportunity that reading it in bite-sized chunks can allow for increased reflection and analysis of individual moments (never before have I had such an in-depth discussion on pier glass or riding coats). For all this though, the greatest revelation I found was the experience of reading a book in stages as a community – it was not a discussion of preconceived ideas formed by reading the whole book on our own, but rather a developing conversation as our own ideas shifted with each weekly instalment.
It is this peripheral, transcendental material that is lacking from our understanding of contemporary reactions to Dickens; that weekly or monthly conversation between friends as they anticipated the next calamity to befall Pickwick or Oliver, that would not only enhance their appreciation of the book but indeed become as much a part of the experience as the text itself, and you can begin to appreciate how it is that American readers crowded the ports waiting for news of Little Nell. To read Dickens a bit at a time is to let the book into the rhythm of your life, to see your own reactions influenced by events happening in between, whether that be a night at the cinema watching The Dark Knight Rises or the Olympic mania influencing the blogger’s use of symbolism and metaphor.
But what strikes me most is how regularly we would engage in distinctly unacademic chatter (for which I hold my fair share of responsibilty); thus analysis of theme, tone or language would just as often give way to heated debates of who we were rooting for and who was really starting to grate on our nerves, and while these moments were a departure from the more objective stance we ought to take, they were great fun,and in that sense, perhaps, more in the spirit of Dickens.
Reading the novel week by week highlighted the difference between appreciating the serial nature of the Victorian novel as a historical fact and really experiencing it for myself, and finally blew that whole Dickens-as-Eastenders chestnut right out of the water. Following conventional wisdom, I had assumed the serial nature of the venture would heighten anticipation and that the novel itself, Dickens being the serial supremo, would play upon that. I expected to be teased by the plot, but also that a number helpful reminders and hints would be dropped along the way. Not at all. There are no previously-ons here, few cliffhangers and frequently abrupt changes of place and time. Minor characters that have gone unseen for months suddenly reappear with little or no backwards glance to their previous appearance. One instalment you are in England, the next in France with a completely new set of characters, and so it goes on for some time (Lucy, as our no-spoilers policy revealed, doesn’t even emerge as ‘Lucy’ for quite some time). One might argue that this adds to the suspense but in practice it meant that the focus shifted from ‘what is going to happen next?’ or ‘even what is all this about?’ and ‘how do the strands connect?’ to the moment in hand. Dickens’s genius for the illuminating detail emerged full force through this method of reading, his gift for tableaux and character observation taking prime place. At times reading an instalment felt akin to reading a modern short story, as the narrative structured itself around specific significant moments and situations, the pleasure of which, for me at least, was mostly divorced from any sense of linear progression. My sense of the why and wherefore of the Victorian reader, and that amorphous creature’s appetites and expectations was thus quite dramatically shifted.
The blog was, surely, a very worthwhile experiment in reviving the kind of intense discussions that we know must have taken place in all kinds of social contexts, concerning Victorian novels as they were serialized. To borrow the sub-title of Patrick Leary’s fine 2010 study The Punch Brotherhood, the blog seemed to offer the potential of restoring to life the ‘table talk and print culture in mid-Victorian London’ that was lost as soon as it was uttered. As a contributor, I have two abiding recollections of the experience. The first is that I found it difficult to decide on a writing tone that sounded sufficiently spontaneous, and the very fact that I was conscious of the difficulty, made it impossible not to be artificial. Most of my recent writing experience is of academic composition, so I have to confess I affected a different style–an uncomfortable mixture of journalese and badinage I would say–to write ‘a piece,’ rather than communicating interactively with the other bloggers, and helping maintain a conversation. That might not wholly invalidate the points I had to make, but it complicates the notion of the blog as a whole being some kind of pellucid transcript of lost table talk.
My second recollection is entirely discrete from the blog, so perhaps irrelevant, but I’d like to mention it all the same. Throughout the 31 weeks of the re-serialization, I was supervising postgraduate research (now successfully concluded) into the reception of A Tale of Two Cities. Almost every week, I was becoming aware of new material–unnoticed reviews of the serial parts of the novel in the British, American, Australian press; evidence of well over a hundred translations into European languages; sales figures for the novel indicating it outsells almost every other Dickens title in North America; download statistics showing the novel as the most popular work in e-text format. A rhetorical question in the final report–which I paraphrase of course–sticks in my mind: ‘does this kind of evidence constitute a challenge to traditional high-end methods of generating critical positions’? Perhaps yes, was the anticipated answer. The parallel evidence of the reception afforded to the novel in serial form in 2012 by the ATOTC blog begs a similar question.
Reading and contributing to the TOTC blog over a seven month period made me understand for the first time the dynamics and the challenge of serial publication. Quite simply it taught me to read a Dickens novel differently. I had thought I grasped the significance of serialization by noting the divisions into monthly or weekly parts helpfully provided in modern paper back editions. I knew about the pressures, positive and negative, that the mode of production exerted on Dickens. But I had never read the individual parts discretely, in a regular, disciplined way. I was helped, with A Tale of Two Cities, by the fact that although I had read it several times I did not ‘know’ it in the way I do for example Oliver Twist or Great Expectations, or Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Dombey and Son, those perennials on undergraduate and postgraduate syllabuses.
So shaky was my memory of the novel that I didn’t have to feign unfamiliarity much of the time, apart from the beginning and the end. I WAS genuinely caught up in the shifts of authorial sympathy as we were alternately encouraged to admire the inhabitants of Sainte Antoine, and share their palpable sense of grievance, to deplore the grotesque excesses of Monseigneur and his fellow aristocrats, and then gradually to see the darker side of the revolution emerging, and to regret the doomed generation who awaited execution in La Force.
My readerly memory was also caught out by the demands of weekly reading, an experience I was relieved to learn that I shared with fellow bloggers. I was constantly having to leaf back through earlier instalments to be reminded of where I had first met Jerry Cruncher, how the physical similarities of Carton and Darney were first revealed, or whether we had been told that Miss Pross had a brother. We all gained respect for the mid-Victorian readers who did not own copies of back issues of All the Year Round, or who had had instalments read aloud to them. They obviously possessed far greater powers of retention than their modern counterparts.
The other aspect of the blog that I found most intriguing was trying to work out who my audience was. I knew I wasn’t writing an academic article, but was I writing for readers who knew Dickens’s novels well, for readers who were interested in this particular novel, for the ‘general reader’ whoever that might be, for those interested in the Victorian period, the Victorian novel, Dickens, novels, history, all of the above? Was the Dickens Bicentenary a factor in the growing number of readers we knew we were attracting? A couple of months into the process this no longer seemed a concern. The regular bloggers, who were numbered in double figures, began to enjoy the conversation, and to be appreciative of each other’s insights and contributions.
For me the project was a good opportunity to look at the conversations between the serialized novel and the other content of All the Year Round. I set out with the aspiration to read each weekly issue in full. Though I didn’t always manage to sustain this, I was especially interested by the comments that drew out shared concerns across the fiction and journalism, such as invasion fears, discussions of Civil War via the news reporting of the Second Italian War of Independence, and attention to corruptions in the British legal system. By attending to these broader cultural concerns of 1859 we were able to get an insight into the contemporary importance that Dickens’s first readers were able, and encouraged, to attach to this historical novel.
Discussions of rewritings of the novel in films, musicals and fan fiction also spoke to the particular experience of serial reading. In issue one I was surprised to meet Cousin Feenix of Dickens’s Dombey and Son in a piece of Dickens journalism, ‘A Poor Man and his Beer’. This figure, freed from the novel in which he first appeared and casually reintroduced to an audience clearly expected to recognize him, provides a nice embodiment of the way in which characters, particularly those appearing over a long space of time in serialized fiction, take on an imaginative life of their own. Throughout the project I became fascinated in Sydney Carton’s afterlives: at Batman’s grave, at the siege of Mafeking, for First World War troops, on Broadway. I was also pleased to learn of his prominence in slash fiction, and the imaginative investment of contemporary readers in his alternative queer future. These moments felt like points of continuity with those Victorian readers who held Dickens’s characters as personal friends.
A new blog project! This time we’ll follow Wilkie Collins’s No Name through the installments of All the Year Round from Friday 15 March 2013 (to coincide with the 1862 publication date) and we’ll read our final instalment on the week of 17 January 2014. We’ll follow this sensational tale of illegitimacy, deception, disguise and revenge through its regular short weekly instalments for 45 weeks. Participants can read the instalments in their magazine form via Dickens Journals Online and we’ll share our responses in an online reading group/blog. For more information please see our website, and to sign up to blog please email Holly Furneaux email@example.com All are welcome. We look forward to reading with you.