Fifth Monthly Part: ‘Full half a year had come and gone’

When we first commenced A Tale of Two Cities Week-by-Week, my first real experience in serial reading, I had various set opinions in my mind about how serialisation works. I expected the novel to tease, to set up regular cliff-hangers and build anticipation, for the sections to open and close at significant points and for there to be a steady series of reminders of plot points and character details. It quickly became evident that this was not to be the case and that the appeal of serialisation resided elsewhere, perhaps in the focus that it gave to the moment and that Dickens’s success as a serial novelist could be argued as being bound up in the detail and art with which any given moment was drawn rather than his plotting. The experience of reading No Name confirmed this. A novel that I had immensely enjoyed when I “binged” on it seemed (to me) surprisingly dull and empty read serially. It lacked the depth of portraiture of A Tale of Two Cities that made up for the snail’s pace of the plot (and for all Collins’s reputation as the master plotter, No Name seemed to go very slow indeed read this way). I imagine The Woman in White with its richness of atmosphere would have been quite a different experience, but for me No Name is a book best enjoyed in single volume form.

But reading Drood serially has once again revised my attitude to serial reading. On the one hand, Part V is published in the full knowledge that there will never be a resolution to the plot, so the purpose of reading is not to find out what happens next. Moreover, it continues on at quite a leisurely pace. There are significant plot developments but more time is spent on relationships and humorous stabs at already established characters. On the other hand, knowing that there is no resolution to the mystery, seems to heighten the importance of plot as I read. Over each new development, I wonder what it implies. Can we see Dickens setting up an ending even this early on? Everything becomes a clue.

Was this how it felt the first time round? What did reading it mean to Victorian readers? In a culture as obsessed with death as theirs was, where it wasn’t uncommon to have family photographs taken with the deceased, perhaps serialisation beyond death provided a reassuring sense of continuity. As Ben pointed out last month, the novel rather eerily sets up the idea of life after death, and the porous nature of categories such as life and death. The novel at least allows a six month period for its characters to adjust to the disappearance of its hero, however —its readers are sent tumbling into the deep end. Dickens often commented on the special relationship he felt that he had to his audience—was it then like a kind of literary wake, reliving memories of the lost loved one in Dickens’s pillorying of rhetoric of both Honeythunder and Sapsea, the Christian goodness of Crisparkle, the comedy hairstyling of Grewgarious and the loving, manly friendship of Crisparkle and Neville? (I struggled bravely, in a manner that Crisparkle I’m sure would have approved of, against simply dedicating this post once again to him in all his pugilistic, Philanthropist-slaying glory, but I can’t help a few mentions of a true Dickensian gem).

In periodical studies, there is much talk of the manner in which serialisation promotes a feeling of timelessness and continuity but also of the possibility and fluidity of change, stirring readers up and reassuring them in equal measure. Reading Part V, I can’t help but wonder whether this continuation was reassuring or disconcerting – particularly as at is this stage presumably few of the readers knew exactly how little was left to come and quite how much would be left unresolved.

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One Response to Fifth Monthly Part: ‘Full half a year had come and gone’

  1. Pete Orford says:

    Thanks Hazel, some very interesting points. I love part five for two reasons – the fantastic scene by the sundial, which is best read aloud with audible gasps of shock and disbelief (he DIDN’T etc etc), and of course the introduction of Datchery, mainly because it feels like a breath of fresh air to have this eccentric, Dickensian character stumble in to the cloistering (pun intended) atmosphere of the straight-laced people in town.

    Reading your thoughts on serialisation, it occurred to me how our impression of structure is impacted by the lack of a final six parts. Both Datchery and Tartar seem to be entering the story rather late in the day (only one more part to go, after all), whereas in reality we are still early in the story. In fact, given that it’s a twelve-part novel, we could separate it into three acts of four parts each, and thus we are now only beginning the second act. This makes more sense; the first act ends with Drood’s disappearance as the shock conclusion; the second act opens six months later with a change of scene and new characters introduced. Who knows what Dickens would have brought in as the twist for the end of part eight before entering into the final act?

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