Digital Continuations of Victorian Classics

By Carrie Sickmann Han, Indiana University

Mrs. Stephen Fry Tweet

Charles Dickens’s novels might actually go on forever, not only as immortal works of literature, but as infinitely continuable fictions, thanks in part to tweets like the one above. It’s a familiar fact that the digital humanities supply us with new methodological tools and reading platforms, but these technologies also produce a seemingly inexhaustible, living archive of neo-Victorian fictions that reposition us as co-authors of beloved Victorian novels.

Twitter isn’t only “like” a Dickens novel; it also recirculates and reshapes Dickens novels. “Dickens You Say,”  for instance, chops the novels into daily 140-word sound bites to be retweeted by its many devoted followers (1,160 at last count—including JVC Online). Empowered as Dickens’s mouthpiece, we can transform short quotes like a description of Coketown—“The whole town seemed to be frying in oil”—into a complaint about the Midwest’s sweltering temperatures.[i] If we link to #HardTimes, Dickens’s words join a diffuse chorus of voices brooding about loneliness, financial troubles, or that moment when you sneeze with a mouthful of cereal. When read straight through, the amalgamation of Hard Times quotes interspersed with #HardTimes stories resembles mash-ups like Grave Expectations or Jane Slayre that have transported Victorian novels and characters into new genres and worlds. Detached from their novels, these Dickensian blurbs become the property of the reader and can be hashed, slashed, and mashed at will.

Tweeters can also use their 140 characters to possess and more fully develop a single character. Several Thomas Gradgrinds make Twitter appearances, as well as Miss Havishams, Artful Dodgers, and Ebenezer Scrooges. Some, like Jack Dawkins, immerse themselves in the Dickensian world (or a film/stage adaptation of it), collaborating with other Twitter presences like Nancy Sykes and Charley the Urchin to generate new dialogue and plots for canonical characters. Others adopt a character in name only and use it to reflect on their own personal problems. Nonetheless, by voicing their lives through a Dickensian avatar, they also reshape the character’s story. When the Artful Dodger is a “bored computer student,” it’s easy to imagine him “stealing your WiFi” instead of Fagin’s handkerchief.[ii]

These Dickensian tweets exemplify the diverse continuations of popular Victorian novels that saturate our current “convergence culture.” [iii] After reading a free copy of Jane Eyre on our iPhone, for instance, we can click on the “Influenced by This” category of book extras, which recommends fifteen different continuations, including Wide Sargasso Sea, The Eyre Affair, and The French Dancer’s Bastard. After reading one of these novels, we might post a review on Twitter, maybe tagging it with #JaneEyre. Inevitably, this feed will refer us to the new transmedia webseries “The Autobiography of Jane Eyre,” which uses Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, and Pinterest to update Jane Eyre for the modern reader. But this site doesn’t just adapt the novel, it also encourages readers to participate in its creation. By e-mailing Blanche Ingram, tweeting with Adele, and repinning images from Grace Poole’s Pinterest page, we become characters in the very story we’re in the process of reading and writing.

While social media sites produce new forms of fan fiction, traditional fan fiction—previously associated with small groups of overly enthusiastic amateurs—has become a burgeoning industry.  Sites like produce more continuations than one reader could consume in a lifetime: Jane Eyre, for instance, boasts over 300 titles, and Sherlock Holmes over 3,000. Increasingly, print publishers mine fanfiction for possible bestsellers: Fifty Shades of Grey and the Mortal Instruments began as fanfiction. Even Amazon has embraced the genre with their “Kindle Worlds” program. Although it hasn’t featured Victorian fictional worlds so far, the recent addition of Kurt Vonnegut suggests that more traditional “literary” sources might be forthcoming, and Amazon’s use of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist to market “Kindle Serials” reveals their awareness of the Victorian influences on our current reading culture.

The different digital media that I’ve discussed all share a commitment to an intertextual, interactive mode of reading. We’re no longer content with adaptations that straightforwardly recycle Victorian plots (if, in fact, we ever were). Nor do we want to leave the process of interpreting, altering, and remediating in the hands of an adapter. Digital technologies create reading communities that have graduated from the imaginary to the virtual, and in these virtual realms readers simultaneously create and consume a modernized Victorian text.

[i] Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp.86.

[ii] @AD786. “Artful Dodger.” Profile. “19 years old. Bored computer science student. Forever disappointing and embarrassing my parents.” Twitter. [Accessed September 14, 2013].

Petri, Alexandra. “Where Are They Now? Charles Dickens’s Characters.” The Washington Post. Feb 7, 2013. Web. [Accessed September 14, 2013].

[iii] Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. (New York: New York University Press, 2008), pp.2.

Carrie Sickmann Han is a Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate at Indiana University, where she researches the influences that Victorian reading practices continue to exert on our current intertextual reading culture.

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