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Reading a newspaper from the middle of the nineteenth century can be a disorienting experience, even for a scholar of Victorian literature. Instead of headlines and long articles, the front page may consist of announcements, advertisements, and perhaps the shipping news. And what is inside may be equally hard to parse: “leading articles” in which summaries of recent news slide rapidly into partisan editorializing, formulaic personal interviews, and columns of miscellaneous foreign correspondence. Matthew Rubery’s The Novelty of Newspapers helps dispel the strangeness of nineteenth-century newspapers by offering a real sense of how readers eagerly made sense of newspapers in the nineteenth-century, and how novelists responded to the newspapers “both as a means of formal innovation and as a countertext against which to define their own fictional discourse” (12). Reading the history of journalism against Victorian fiction, Rubery demonstrates the points of contact and arenas of dialogue between the two during the era when the newspaper developed many of its modern features and when reading the paper became a daily habit for more and more readers.
The etymological doublet of news and novels hints at the plentiful, perhaps even elemental, connections between these twinned institutions of print culture. Cleverly but helpfully, Rubery organizes his argument roughly according to the arrangement of Victorian newspaper, from front to back. By demonstrating the fascination that Victorian readers could find in the shipping intelligence or in the “agony columns” (which consisted not of advice but of personal advertisements, many of which hinted at domestic problems or romantic intrigue), his early chapters on novels and the Victorian newspaper’s front page help tame that forbidding, cluttered space. Indeed, although Rubery does not suggest the connection, in his account the front page’s mosaic of brief news items and micro-texts by divergent voices starts to resemble a social medium like Twitter. The compression and multiplicity of these items enhanced the complex fusion of privacy and publicity on these pages. But engaged readers could follow what amounted to threads and updates, filling terse or apparently impersonal statements with emotion and meaning.
As Rubery richly shows, with many brief examples drawn from a variety of fiction, novelists also took full advantage of the opportunity to elaborate the kinds of hints provided by the front page into stories. Yet in these opening chapters, Rubery’s study seems a bit more comfortable with the news than with the novels. Charlotte Yonge’s Heir of Redclyffe (1853), for example, “shows how effective news of a disaster at sea could be in reconciling two wrongfully separated lovers” (35)—as if Yonge’s novel were a factual testament and not a work of the imagination. Rubery’s tendency to slip into the past tense for describing novels and their plots may also be a symptom of the slippage between fact and fiction in this part of his study. Nevertheless, Rubery conveys an exciting sense of the many connections between fiction and journalism. For instance, when it comes to the sensation novel, The Novelty of Newspapers is particularly effective at suggesting how an entire genre might crystallize around a project of exposing the kind of crimes and pathologies that were hinted at by the agony columns but seldom represented in the newspapers’ more respectable regions.
In these first chapters, a dizzying multiplicity of literary reference points evokes the multifarious connections between novels and such brief news items, even while replicating the somewhat miscellaneous organization of the front pages themselves. As the readers of Victorian newspapers’ front pages must have found, such a scheme can be exhilarating, but it can also be a challenge for a reader. When Rubery’s study moves forward not only in the pages of the Victorian newspaper but also chronologically (more or less), chapters become more tightly focused, first on particular novelists—Anthony Trollope, Henry James, Joseph Conrad—and then on particular works, as well. Perhaps Rubery has found, as I have, that fiction from the final third of the century is significantly more likely to engage with the century’s growing media multiplicity in an explicit and sustained way; even in itself, this change surely represents an important development in literary history and print culture. The extensive engagement with journalism in the Palliser novels and elsewhere in Trollope’s fiction may not be news in itself. But as Rubery moves to consider the newspaper’s “inner pages,” a chapter on Trollope focuses its readings around the rise of the “leading article”—the anonymous, daily opinion pieces that came to epitomize the discursive power of the papers.
The Novelty of Newspapers continues to sharpen—or narrow—its focus in its last chapters. A chapter on James reads The Reverberator (1888) and the tale “The Papers” (1903) against the personal interview, that controversial and quintessentially modern journalistic form. It’s a familiar paradox to note that James viewed modern newspapers as a dangerous threat to privacy yet often organized his fiction around analogous violations of privacy. But Rubery significantly modifies this view, noting that in James’s fiction, journalists or interviews themselves present less of a threat than does the desire to be interviewed, the longing to have one’s own privacy breached for the sake of publicity—or perhaps even in order to feel assured that one’s privacy has been found worth breaching. In light of the wish to be interviewed, newspapers could appear as “not so much an invasion of privacy as its compensation, offering isolated individuals the chance to read about the private lives of other people and, for the chosen ones, to read about themselves” (139).
A final chapter about Conrad and the foreign correspondence builds on this attention to the interview, treating the Marlow in Heart of Darkness (1898-99) as something of a would-be interviewer of man who (as Rubery reminds us) is himself a journalist. Rubery’s compelling analysis teases out the complex relationships between Marlow’s journey to Kurtz and Henry Stanley’s journalistic quest to find David Livingstone. And his surprising and powerful reading of Kurtz—as a dying journalist who comes to personify Conradian skepticism about modern journalism’s hollow, disembodied voices—provides a real intellectual climax to the journey through The Novelty of Newspapers.
The Novelty of Newspapers amply succeeds in its “aim . . . to dismantle. . . conceptions of the novel and the newspaper as inhabiting separate spheres” (168). Indeed, for me, reading Rubery’s well-researched and suggestive study raised further questions about the reciprocal novelization of newspapers (via “human interest” stories, for instance) and also about the larger relationships between journalism and novelistic realism, as two expressions of print culture’s claim to convey the facts (journalism) or the truths (realism) of things that a large, anonymous readership does not experience directly. In any case, Rubery’s work will be an important reference point for our continuing attempts to understand the distinctiveness and the internal dynamics of modern print culture. The task has perhaps become all the more viable—it has certainly become more urgent—as we leave that culture behind.
Richard Menke, Associate Professor of English at the University of Georgia, is the author of Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems (Stanford, 2008). His current projects include essays on the form of the book and the mechanics of meaning, as well as on media and mass culture in the late nineteenth century.