Matthew Rubery. The Novelty of Newspapers: Victorian Fiction after the Invention of the News. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. viii + 233 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-536926-7.
Reviewed by Jonathan Rose (Drew University)
Published on H-Albion (January, 2010)
Commissioned by Thomas Hajkowski (Misericordia University)
Reporting Facts, Reporting Fiction
How was Victorian fiction shaped by Victorian journalism? Thomas Boyle uncovered some sensational influences in Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead (1989), and now Matthew Rubery carries forward that line of investigation. In some cases, Rubery examines the same stories that Boyle analyzed, notably Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), but his work does not lack for originality. In fact, The Novelty of Newspapers suggests that this is a very rich field wide open to further exploration by historians as well as literary scholars. (Rubery is a lecturer in Victorian literature at the University of Leeds.)
Take the shipping news. Though one might assume that these columns of departures, arrivals, and wrecks were “an exclusively male interest of sailors, merchants, and investors, this section of the newspaper was read with equal fervor by domestic women separated by the sea from loved ones” (p. 15). Now consider how many Victorian plots hinged on reading news reports of shipwrecks: Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redcliffe (1853), and Wilkie Collins’s Armadale (1866). Dickens realized that “death-shock” could be conveyed more powerfully by focusing on the reactions of newspaper readers rather than the disaster itself.
Nineteenth-century newspapers commonly devoted their front pages to advertisements rather than news, because the former were often more gripping. In the second column, or “agony column,” the lovelorn cried out to those who had wronged or abandoned them, in notices that were all the more heart-pounding for their brevity. In a few telegraphic sentences, they compressed all the anguish contained in a three-volume novel: “HOW CRUEL. Why have you dragged me by fair words to further misery?” Or, for something still more deliciously enigmatic, “THE ONE-WINGED DOVE must DIE unless the CRANE RETURNS to be a shield against her enemies” (pp. 16, 53).
For “sensation novelists” like Braddon, classified ads could be richly suggestive. As a girl she had seen the hugely popular play Maria Marten and the Red Barn, which was based on an actual murder: after disposing of his lover, the perpetrator successfully advertised for a wife in the Sunday Times. Once the crime was publicized, several newspapers refused to run matrimonial advertisements, while the Times nervously assured its readers that it turned down hundreds of dubious ads. It is precisely on such ads that the plot of Lady Audley’s Secret twists and turns. The crowning irony was that, after the publication of Lady Audley, newspaper announcements of Braddon’s marriage to John Maxwell provoked an outraged relative to publish (in the same papers) notices that Maxwell was already married to another woman. The world learned from advertisements that Braddon was (like Lady Audley) a bigamist. Thus, life and art imitated each other in an endless (and often vicious) circle.
With a detective’s keen eye, Rubery again and again spots these intriguing connections between journalism and fiction. He hears the echoes of leading articles in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels. He notes that newspaper interviews (a late Victorian invention) figure largely and frequently in Henry James’s fiction, though James rarely allowed himself to be interviewed. And he points out that Conrad learned all about unreliable narrators from reading the papers. Kurtz, after all, is a journalist.
Given all the sharp insights that this brief monograph offers, it is no criticism of Rubery to suggest that much more could be written about this subject. Two British prime ministers had working experience as both journalists and novelists--Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill--but Rubery mentions the former only glancingly and the second not at all. He merely touches on Conan Doyle, though without newspapers--as both a source of information and a site for planting advertisements--Sherlock Holmes simply could not have done his job. Rubery focuses mainly on the influence of journalism on novels, but we could still use a study of the influence of novels on British journalism, comparable to Karen Roggenkamp’s Narrating the News: New Journalism and Literary Genre in Late Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers and Fiction (2005).
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Jonathan Rose. Review of Rubery, Matthew, The Novelty of Newspapers: Victorian Fiction after the Invention of the News.
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