How do we read a novel?—this is the question which lies behind a new collection of essays on the Victorian novel written by members of the English Board of Studies at the University of Kent. It is a question which leads into a consideration of what happens to our critical judgements in the process of reading, as we turn the pages over and begin to build the detail into form. The Victorian novel provides a particularly rich source for this kind of interest. We are made to think about what it is like to read a long novel, a novel which is illustrated, a novel published in a serial form. And through the distinctive voice and the prodigious story-telling that characterize nineteenth-century fiction, we are made more than usually aware of the effects of melodrama and suspense, of death as an abiding presence. These general issues run throughout the book, sometimes they are explicitly considered, as in the opening chapter on melodrama, more often they are looked at in the context of particular novels. The novels chosen are taken from the range of Victorian fiction—David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Portrait of a Lady, News from Nowhere, and Wilkie Collins's little known novel of suspense, Armadale.
At selected points in the book there occur a series of brief interchapters. The purpose of these is to make explicit a number of questions which were continually being raised in the discussion that went into the making of the book. Why does melodrama play such an important part in the novels of the period, and what do we understand by the term? What kind of reader do we have in mind? What do we mean by 'the end' of Victorian fiction?
The book was the product of sustained collaboration among a group of people, all working in one place, who were keen both to have a fresh look at Victorian novels and to join in the more general contemporary debate about fiction. The great achievements in novel criticism in recent decades have been due very largely to ways we have found of talking about particular texts in terms of language, theme and structure. Building up on that, we have become increasingly interested in the kind of response the text seeks to elicit from the reader and the way the reader responds. The critical question has shifted from what do we read, to how do we read and the present book seeks to provide some answers.