Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (4/4)


For Derrida, secrets make us tremble not in anticipation of what is to come, but rather because of what has come before:

We tremble in the strange repetition that ties an irrefutable past (a shock has been felt, some trauma has already affected us) to a future that cannot be anticipated; anticipated but unpredictable; apprehended, yet, and this is why there is a future, apprehended precisely as unforeseeable, unpredictable; approached as unapproachable.1

Every revelation is, then, a kind of disappointment as what is revealed falls short of that absolute mystery, the end we cannot foresee, that makes us tremble. For Derrida, this is the value of secrecy, allowing the mystery of the end to be buried anew in the otherwise apparent revelation of truth. If Brooks and Benjamin are right, the pleasure we take in narrative derives from a similar dynamic. Telling tales allows us to experience endings at second hand: not only have the events told, if real, already happened, but the ending, the reassuring limit that allows us to see the whole, belongs to someone else. Narrative, like the secrecy upon which it depends, is about glimpsing the end while concealing it anew. For Derrida the logic of secrecy is that a secret is, and I quote, ‘never better kept than in being exposed’. Secrets make us tremble because they make a show of revelation. Every secret told promises to reveal the truth; but each revelation only represses the contingency of the present. What secrets tell us is that the truth is provisional; that the true remains so only until somebody else tells.

1 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Gift of Death’, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, translated by David Wills (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 55.[back]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (3/4)

Telling Secrets

One of the paradoxes of reading, especially novel-reading, is that it creates an intimacy that is no intimacy at all. The mythical promise of reading – the unmediated touch of one mind upon another – is enabled by an object that is not the reader’s alone. Secrecy is essential for all kinds of narrative, its premise – that the narrator knows something you don’t, but will tell all – is designed to elicit and then sustain the desire to know. As Peter Brooks has noted, there is something fugitive – he calls it a ‘subterranean logic’ – about the way narratives are structured.1 As he points out, plot signals both the boundedness of a plan as well as a conspiracy of some kind. Plot, for Brooks the organizing logic of narrative, determines what gets revealed when and so is vital for generating narrative suspense. Walter Benjamin, in the ‘Storyteller’, writes that the, and I quote, ‘suspense which permeates the novel is very much like the draft which stimulates the flame in the fireplace and enlivens its play.’2 As this suspense is generated by anticipation and delay, its characterisation as air is appropriate, as is of course the way that it fuels the engine of narrative desire.

Narrative takes part in a particularly morbid gothic economy. The reader’s experience of narrative is as if it is in the present; yet the telling always locates the story at some point in the past. When we read, we live a resurrected past out of time, moving from the told towards the time of telling. For both Benjamin and Brooks, the engine of narrative desire consumes the finite lives of characters as it hurtles the reader towards the end. Narrative endings make wholes: with no more to come, the reader can stop, look back and make sense of beginning and middle. ‘The novel is significant, therefore’, writes Benjamin, ‘not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about’ (100). For Brooks, narrative desire is fuelled by, and I quote, ‘the anticipation of retrospection’ (22). Denied the possibility of understanding our own lives as narrative (while we still live we do not know what is to come), we consume the finite lives of others, instead. There may still be things undisclosed at the end, there may still be secrets kept by characters and narrators, but there is no more to tell.

This is one reason why the book, as object, is so significant. Endings are important as they demarcate units: a story must end before it can be retold. What the book does is align narrative form with material form: when the narrative ends, so does the book. Part of its appeal, both in the nineteenth century and today, I think, is precisely this alignment of narrative form and print technology. Unlike, say, a short story in a volume, or a serial novel in a periodical, one always knows how much more there is to go in a book. If narrative ‘demarcates, encloses, establishes limits, order’ to quote Brooks, then the book achieves this through its material form (4). While certainly not the only way in which narratives circulated in the period – nor, indeed, the most common – the book was privileged because of its putative wholeness. Binding serves as a material complement to narrative endings, joining the covers around content to produce an object that can circulate or, in a different version of narrative resurrection, be shelved, left, and read again. Both narrative and codex are technologies for structured revelation: secrecy, then, is curiously written through the form of the book.

New books were expensive in the period, but books themselves were commonplace. In fact, the high price of new books made them more public: the books that were read were mostly old texts in new (cheap) reprints, or those already been read by others, whether obtained second hand or through a library. Yet the book retained links with concealment. T.P. O’Connor, for instance, writing in 1889 about the new journalism in the New Review, remarked that, and and I quote, the ‘newspaper is not read in the secrecy and silence of the closet as is the book.’3 O’Connor stresses the opposition between public newspaper and private book for rhetorical effect; as Leah Price has recently made clear in How To Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain (2012), the book’s relationship with sociality or asociality is much more complex. Book culture is structured by the interplay between inside and outside, text and object, and that goes for readers too. Nonetheless, there is something about the combination of material and narrative form that fosters the middle-class model of the perfect reader, reading alone, transported out of his or her body, in intimate communion with the mind of the author.

Not all books have a linear narrative running through them and many use the form of the codex for other purposes. Below, for instance, is Townsend’s Manual of Dates (first edition 1862, this is the fourth). It is, and I quote, ‘a concise and trustworthy compendium of the principal events of Ancient and Modern times.’ There are over eleven thousand entries, arranged alphabetically, with a supplementary index at the back. This is not a book for reading, but for mining; this is not a narrative but a repository. Although a kind of resurrection remains possible, bringing long lost facts back to life, the perfect archive should store but not conceal; it should not, in other words, keep secrets. However, archives are at least doubly marked by intentionality: firstly, the contents of the archive is determined by a process of selection; secondly, in the information architecture itself – the organization of content, the indexing – that structures where items are located and how they’re found. Nobody would read Townsend’s Manual of Dates from cover to cover: the book still has an ending, a final page, but its content goes on.

Frontispiece for George H. Townsend, The Manual of Dates: A Dictionary of Reference to the Most Important Events in the History of Mankind to be Found in Authentic Records, ed. by William W. Croft, 4th ed. (1862; London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1874), p. iii

George H. Townsend, The Manual of Dates: A Dictionary of Reference to the Most Important Events in the History of Mankind to be Found in Authentic Records, ed. by William W. Croft, 4th ed. (1862; London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1874), iii

This difference in codex forms is nicely played out in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. When published weekly in All the Year Round over eight months in 1868, The Moonstone had a syncopated rhythm in which narrative breaks between periods, narratives and chapters were also broken by the pauses between parts. The book, published by Tinsley before the serial came to an end, elided the gaps between numbers while bringing the end into view. The novel is an exemplary analysis of narrative secrets: characters keep secrets from each other and the reader; the various narrators all pretend they don’t know what’s going to happen. In weaving its narratives together, Franklin Blake plots the narrative that both clears him of guilt and straightens him out. Although the frame narrative focusing on the moonstone troubles the sense of closure, the book ends with the identity of the thief revealed, the moonstone restored, and the marriage plot fulfilled. Yet when Blake travels to Yorkshire to tell Betteredge, loyal servant of the Verinder family, that Rosanna is pregnant, Betteredge already knows. Betteredge forestalls this final revelation by dipping into Robinson Crusoe. Here, Defoe’s novel is treated like Townsend’s Manual of Dates, an archive of useful fragments rather than a linear narrative. In an novel of secrets, this final one is no secret at all (of course Rosanna is pregnant, the marriage plot demands it); if narrative is about revealing secrets, genre is about setting out the framework within which such difference is managed. Nonetheless, Betteredge has substituted one regime of bookishness, the book as linear narrative, with another, the book as archive or collection. One regime of secrecy supplants another.

1Peter Brooks, ‘Reading for the Plot’, Reading for the Plot (1984; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 11-12. [back]
2Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov’, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (1970; London: Pimlico. 1999), p. 99. [back]
3T.P. O’Connor, ‘The New Journalism’, New Review, 1 (1889), p. 434. [back]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century (2/4)

On Secrets

Secrecy represents the pathological other to communication. If public life is based upon social intercourse, then secrecy is an impediment to the exchange of information. Yet public life is not solely about untrammelled communication, whether for liberal Victorians who understood themselves in terms of their difference from foreign despots, or over-sharing millennials on Facebook. Privacy has always been a necessary counterpart to publicity, all the more fiercely defended when new ways of connecting people seem to enable publicity to encroach too far. Neither publicity nor privacy exists in isolation and the borders between the two shift at particular periods. Equally, both are multilayered and experienced variously according to who one is. Yet, intertwined though they are, the relationship between publicity and privacy is not equal. As publicity means accountability, privacy, while recognized as necessary, is only permitted under sufferance. The private, a space to nurture the self, is always a contested space, carved out in the shadows of oppressive openness and incessant exchange. Privacy’s necessary concealments are justified by trust; however, whereas privacy is a legitimate secreting away, secrecy implies that this might be abused. The secret, then, offers an affront to publicity because it troubles the boundaries of acceptable privacy. The problem, of course, is how to distinguish between the discrete nondisclosures that safeguard privacy from surreptitious activity carried out in secret.

For the Victorians, both publicity and privacy were venerated as cornerstones of national life. Publicity was celebrated as public square, the ideal market where strangers could meet on equal terms and do business; or, as Alexander Welsh, in particular, has argued, the light of public opinion, guide for both sovereign Parliament and, in the case of those whose stories found their way into the papers, the judge of private behaviour. With its roots in utilitarianism, publicity was not just heralded as a good thing, but as the basis for goodness itself. But publicity’s expansion, depersonalized and bureaucratized, undermined the basis of publicity by threatening the individual selves that, in liberal ideology, constituted the public. The private was the public’s necessary supplement, a space in which the self could develop that moral sense that was then mobilized by publicity. Private space, epitomized by the middle-class home, was celebrated as both hallmark of national character – the Englishman’s home and all that – and safeguard of a class-bound and gendered subjectivity that was generalized for all. Of course, access to privacy was limited to those with means; like the franchise, those without the resources to create private spaces of their own were considered unworthy of trust. It was no coincidence that the urban working classes were subject to surveillance by the regimes of law, public health, and Mrs Pardiggles. Without the means, the only way to assert the right to escape publicity was by tolerating it.

Secrecy was universally despised. In public life, secrecy was suspiciously foreign, the refuge of continental despots; in private life, it represented the failure of character, the inability to live as one should without promptings from others. As David Vincent has shown, this explains the outrage that followed the 1844 Post Office scandal, as well as the late development of the secret service.1 These high ideological stakes meant that the uncertain border where privacy edged over into secrecy was a point of particular obsession. The home, for instance, provided rich material for novelists, particularly the sensation novelists of the 1860s. It was also the source of the impossible standards expected of Victorian women, whose behaviour was expected to be exemplary in order to sustain the sanctity of the domestic and justify the right to dwell within it. Victorian middle-class masculinity, gentlemanliness itself, was predicated on discretion but this could conceal hidden ambitions, mask a secret life or a concealed past. Not only was the border between private and public contested and uncertain, then, but so too was that between the private and the secret. And the only way to ensure that privacy was not being abused was to subject it to publicity, to invade private space and root out its secrets.

Keeping secrets places one in the hinterland beyond privacy and so attracts suspicion. Private space, for the Victorians and for us, was understood as necessary to create independent citizens, able to account for themselves in public. However, it is secrecy that creates the individual, the set of differences that make us distinct from one another. Rather than understand secrecy as pathological, then, beyond the legitimate contest between privacy and publicity, perhaps we should understand it as their precondition. The private self privileged in the liberal tradition is, after all, already the result of repression, as the ego establishes itself against its unknown other. If privacy provides the means through which we become socialized as individuals, then the private self is already founded on a secret.

Rather than jeopardize society, secrecy is the barely repressed basis of social life. Not only is the liberal self carved out from the repressed unconscious, but telling secrets provides the means of forging intimacy. The knowledge that someone has a secret generates conflicting feelings: on the one hand, the secret awakens a desire to know; on the other, we want to know why we have not yet been told. Although circumstance vary, not knowing a secret places one at a disadvantage: we know that the truth is other than what it appears, but we depend upon someone else to find out what it is. Telling secrets is both a sacrifice of individuality, as the secret keeper gives up something that makes them different, and a way of creating bonds, as both secret keeper and the person to whom it is told now share something that nobody else knows. Telling secrets breaks down difference while, at the same time, reasserting it as a line is redrawn between those in the know and those that aren’t.

We cannot but keep secrets – to do so would eradicate difference and make us the same – but we build social bonds through partial disclosures, whether these are the whispered intimacies of courting lovers or the putative openness of democratic government. When secrets are shared it creates a connection that, in turn, excludes others. Intimacy is not built on knowing the other – how can it, when we barely know ourselves – but rather on what we choose to share.

1David Vincent, The Culture of Secrecy: Britain, 1832-1998 (Oxford University Press, 1998), chapters one, two and three. [back]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century (1/4)

[This is a paper I gave at BAVS in September 2015. I’m in the process of redrafting it for a chapter of my next book, provisionally entitled Whispers of Print. It’s in four parts.]

Tremble. What does one do when one trembles? What is it that makes you tremble?

A secret always makes you tremble. Not simply quiver or shiver, which also happens sometimes, but tremble.1

Why does a secret always make you tremble? For Derrida, secrets make us tremble because they remind us of former trauma. As the secret has not yet been revealed, we do not tremble because of its content – we don’t yet know what it is going to be – but rather because it reminds us of something. ‘We are afraid of the fear’, Derrida writes, ‘we anguish over the anguish, and we tremble’ (55). We know to fear the fear, to anguish over the anguish, because we have experienced such revelations before. The tremble, for Derrida, comes because of something that has already taken place: it is a sign of repetition, of violence breaking out once again. My argument in this series of posts is that what we fear about secrets is the power they have to rewrite the past. The revelation of what was previously concealed means that what I thought was true was actually false. Secrets, no matter how banal, make real life into fiction.

Once a secret is told the world is not the same. The revelation, if accepted, rewrites the past and marks it off as separate from the newly revealed present. Telling secrets, then, is a way of drawing a line between past and present and so moving on, each secret revealed getting closer to the truth. Yet this implies that it is possible to know everything; or, to put it another way, that everything is already there, concealed and waiting to be found out. Such a world is already written, plotted but concealed, with an ending yet to come. But the world is not narrated and absolute disclosure is impossible. Secrets might make us tremble because they make life into fiction, but they also make us tremble for what they tell us about the world. Every secret reveals what is really going on but, at the same time, cannot but remind us that this new world is itself subject to rewritings yet to come.

In the next post, I think a little about the cultural life of secrets. Whereas secrecy might appear to be something aberrant, I will argue that it performs a vital social function, creating bonds between some people and so differences between others. The third post turns to narrative. As structured revelation, narrative depends on secrecy, on letting the other know that you know something and, crucially, you are willing to tell. Narrative, according to Peter Brooks’s reading of Walter Benjamin, is a way of experiencing an ending, a moment in which one can look back and comprehend the story as a whole.2 The book, I will argue, is a privileged cultural object, both in the nineteenth century and today, because it maps narrative onto its material form. The everydayness of books means it is easy to overlook their role as both repositories of secrets and engines of structured revelation, but if narrative allows us to enjoy what Brooks calls the ‘anticipation of retrospection’ (22), then the book’s numbered pages make explicit when it is to come.

1 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Gift of Death’, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, translated by David Wills (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 54.[back]
2 Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot (1984; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 22.[back]

Debating the Book

[On Thursday 8 October I’m taking part in a public debate on the Future of the Book at the University of Leeds, part of the White Rose Consortium’s Debating the Book festival. My fellow debaters (debatees?) are the University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton, Stella Butler; Professor Brian Cummings (York); the CEO of Waterstones, James Daunt; the novelist, Linda Grant; Dr Bridgette Wessels (Sheffield), and we will be chaired by Melvyn Bragg. Further details about the debate are here and about the festival here. We’ve been asked to give short opening statements. Mine’s below.]

One of the remarkable things about the book is how readily ‘book’ now describes something without paper and ink. We had books before the invention of printing, so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that we now have digital books. There is lots to say about the differences between print and digital books: about the way the form of one has been incorporated into the other, for instance; or the way digital properties make us look again at print. But what interests me is what they have in common. When we’re no longer talking about paper and ink, what is a book?

For me, this is about wholes. The book describes something bounded, something complete, and this has a peculiar appeal in a digital world where everything is connected.

The book establishes wholeness in two different ways. Firstly, the page sets out edges, marking off where the text stops and the rest of the world begins. More importantly, the sequence of pages, one after the other, establishes temporal boundaries – a start and an end – as well as a sense of direction. It is this sequence of pages that makes a book a book. You just have to look at how wary ebooks have been to leave behind the linearity of the codex and embrace multi-dimensional hypertextuality. Although in practice not all books are read cover-to-cover, what we tend to think of as a book starts on page one and ends when there is no more to read.

This, I think, is important, as it means that the form of the book, whether paper and ink or bits and bytes, is well-suited to structuring narrative. Narrative, the telling of stories, is fundamental to the way in which we understand ourselves and the world we live in. I don’t mean that we make the world up, but that narratives are how we put things in order, establish chains of cause and effect, and, crucially know where to start and to end. Narratives break the chaos of the world into chunks that have some sort of integrity and can be retold again and again.

The thing is, narratives can be tricky. Where does a story really start? And how do we know it’s finished? I don’t know how well you remember Alice in Wonderland, but there is a bit where the Red King, sitting in judgement over the Knave of Hearts, asks the White Rabbit to read a poem in evidence against him:

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked.
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

The book incarnates narrative. It gives it a body. Not only does it make clear beginnings and endings, you also always know much there is to go. And, because you turn the pages, you are the engine that drives the story on. Good books – in print or digital – move us. But we, crucially, also move through them.

Living with technology: the printing press

[As part of a new discovery module at the University of Leeds, I was asked to be filmed taking about the printing press as technology. I was going to extemporize (there’s so much to say, and they only wanted 3-4 minutes), but as I’ve never used an autocue before, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try it out. Here’s the script.]

It is hard to overstate the importance of the printing press. For about 500 years, printed material has shaped both the way we communicate, whether mediating between those living alongside us, or allowing us to read material from the past or bequeath our own to the future. In many ways, print’s very ubiquity has blinded us to its contours, to the way it shapes the material to which it gives shape. But now, in what’s sometimes called the late age of print, when electronic communication offers an alternative medium for reading and writing, we are beginning to see print and its legacy anew.

Print is a technology of copying. After some experimentation, its technical basis was more or less stable from 1500 until the introduction of steam in early nineteenth century. As with all technological shifts, older methods persisted alongside new ways of printing, but steam provided a new motive force that vastly increased the rate of reproduction. It was steam, along with innovations in paper-making, that created the conditions for a mass readership, where large groups of people were reading the same things at the same times. Even so, the everydayness of books was a fairly late development. The printed book has long been venerated, but it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that it became a common object found in most households. We have had books for a long time, but for much of this people’s encounter with print would have been in other forms: newspapers and chapbooks; posters and broadsides.

Print is a medium, a way of making text reproducible. As such, it intervenes between the hand that writes and the eye that reads. While we might usefully think of handwriting as a type of technology, too, print makes texts mechanical, the work of a machine. It is curious that few people even notice the shapes of letters or the format of printed texts, instead experiencing reading as a kind of contact with the mind of the author. On the one hand, print masks human agency, making all texts seem like species of the same; on the other, print, a collaboration between a human and a machine, sets text free.

As a technology of reproduction, it is easy to see printing as secondary. Authors do the important creative stuff; printers just turn it into reproducible form. But this is to underestimate the power of copying. For almost half a millennium, print has allowed people to get to know those they have never met; it has served as the basis of a public sphere; and it has archived the world’s knowledge. Now, as we come to terms with a new technology of copying, we are beginning to learn the extent to which we have depended on print, the ways in which this technology has set the conditions for textuality itself.

Conservative attitudes to old-established organs: Oliver Lodge and Philosophical Magazine

[I’ve recently had an article published in Notes and Records on Oliver Lodge and the Philosophical Magazine. It was co-written with the brilliant Imogen Clarke and is available ahead of print publication via the Notes and Records website here (£). I’ll put a link to the postprint version (OA) once the embargo has passed. The abstract is below]

In 1921 Oliver Lodge defended Philosophical Magazine against charges of mismanagement from the National Union of Scientific Workers. They alleged that its editors performed little editorial work, the bulk being done by the publishers, Taylor & Francis. Lodge reassured Nature’s readers that the journal did consult its editors, and suggested ‘a conservative attitude towards old-established organs is wise; and that it is possible to over-organise things into lifelessness.’ The paper explores Lodge’s response by considering the editorial arrangements at Philosophical Magazine. Founded in 1798, it remained remarkably unchanged and so appeared old-fashioned when compared with its closest rivals, Proceedings of the Royal Society and Proceedings of the Physical Society. We argue that for Lodge the management of Philosophical Magazine gave it the flexibility and independence required to sustain the kind of physics, also open to accusations of obsolescence, in which he believed.

Abstract: Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth Century

[this is my proposal for this year’s BAVS conference. I’m on a special Northern Nineteenth-Century Network panel ‘Victorian Secrets’. The conference website is here.]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century

The telling of secrets punctuates time. The revelation of whatever has been concealed creates a before and after, in which things are never quite the same. New information, should it be accepted as true, rewrites the ‘before’ as fiction and leaves the ‘after’ as truth. But such truths are only provisional and one never knows what other secrets there are to tell.

Secrets make the concealed past present. In a kind of gothic move, things that should have been left behind are resurrected, demanding attention. Such returns are the staples of countless literary plots in the period; they also underpin the many scandals that filled the pages of newspapers. Whereas literary plots can exploit the moments leading up to revelation, as tension increases, newspaper scandals break suddenly, creating a moment that calls for something to be done.

In my paper I sketch out some of the links between secrecy and temporality in the nineteenth century. In its first sections, it explores the ways in which secrecy depends upon time, focusing particularly on the way that telling secrets reorders past and present. I then go on to look more closely at such revelations in literary and nonliterary narratives. The paper concludes by looking closely at the way that telling secrets creates a moment in which past and present appear provisional. My argument will be that while secrets rewrite the past, they do so at the cost of the present.

Abstract: Telling Tales about Secret Remedies: the Case of Chlorodyne

[This is the abstract of a paper I gave at Working with Nineteenth-Century Medical and Health Periodicals, St Anne’s, Oxford, 30 May 2015. The conference website is here and the tweets have been storified here. I’m planning on posting my paper here soon]

Telling Tales about Secret Remedies: the Case of Chlorodyne

In February 1892 two undercover police officers entered John Thistlewood Davenport’s pharmacy and bought a dozen bottles of chlorodyne. Two months later, Davenport was prosecuted at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court for selling poison. Davenport claimed that chlorodyne was exempted from the Pharmacy Act as, for the purposes of the Act, proprietary medicines were considered patent medicines. The Magistrate, however, disagreed, insisting that a patent medicine must be patented and fined Davenport a symbolic five pounds and five guineas costs.

The prosecution was arranged by Ernest Hart, editor of the British Medical Journal, and was the culmination of a long campaign to close the loophole under which controlled substances, particularly opium, were freely sold despite the strictures of the Pharmacy Act. Patent medicines, which declared their constitution in the process of gaining legal protection as intellectual property, had been exempted when the Act was passed. Proprietary medicines, however, kept their ingredients secret thus avoiding the disclosure demanded under patent law. For Hart and his colleagues, it was this secrecy that made proprietary medicines so dangerous.

This paper tells the tale of chlorodyne. A vital part of the economy that supported the vibrant market for periodicals, advertisements for proprietary medicines like chlorodyne were the public face of secretive entities. By prosecuting its manufacturers, Hart and the BMJ asserted their right to tell chlorodyne’s secret, subjecting it to legal control.

‘In Chancery’. Again

I wrote a post as part of the Dickens Our Mutual Friend Reading Project underway at Birkbeck. They’re reading Our Mutual Friend in its monthly parts to mark the 150 years since it was published. I’m really interested in these kinds of projects, as I spend a lot of time arguing that seriality matters. It is very hard to describe things like the significance of waiting or repetition that underpin the experience of serial reading. The difference is experiential and it’s only really by joining projects like this that we get a flavour of what this way of encountering texts was like. I’ve tried similar things in class before: on a course at Birmingham called ‘Victoria’s Secrets’ we read The Moonstone in parts; I also taught She in weekly parts on a survey course called ‘Writing and the World’, also at Birmingham. Both novels were serialised in weekly parts, which made them good candidates for this kind of task, but because of the length of the semester we still had to squeeze them in. It would be very difficult to do something similar with a work published in twenty monthly parts like Our Mutual Friend.

Below I’ve reproduced my opening paragraph, but you can read the whole post on the project site.

February 1865’s number brings an end to both Book Two and the first volume of Our Mutual Friend. It is one of those curious points in a serial where the monographical is made present in virtual form. The words ‘the end of the second book and the end of the first volume’ make clear where we are: even though we are reading in parts, we cannot escape the sense that we have reached a point in a whole. This serial mode of reading is a process in which we fill out an empty form, the parts read accumulating behind us as the end gets closer. We know that there is a wholeness here, that the novel will reach a conclusion eventually, that there will be a moment when there is no more to come, when we can close the book and look back. In Part Ten this virtual wholeness is made strikingly present in the volume titlepage and contents that appear in the wrapper. Not only are we reminded where we are in the novel, we are also enjoined to enact this putative wholeness by turning parts into a book. Or rather, half a book.