‘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.