Oliver Twist’s famous request for seconds on gruel at the workhouse is a fitting reminder of why Charles Dickens deserves to win the “Dueling Authors” bout between Dickens and Jane Austen The Classics Circuit is sponsoring from May 8 to 21. I feel like a traitor to the cause of genteel femininity in denying Austen this honor. Her novels have had such a powerful hold on me, inspiring me to strive for sensible virtue in the manner of heroines such as Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility). Austen is an exemplar of the common dictum to “write what you know,” but the scope of her world is narrower than that of Dickens.
The populist in me wants to honor Dickens's ability to reach a wide, multi-generational audience that included non-readers as well as readers. Because his novels were first published in serial form (in monthly installments or “numbers”), they were affordable and accessible. Whereas we imagine genteel ladies reading Austen to themselves on long, languid visits to some relative’s country home, we can imagine the only literate member of an extended family gathered around a fire in the only warm room of some humble abode reading the latest installment of Oliver Twist from the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany aloud at the end of a long workday. And I can imagine some child as hungry for a story as Oliver was for gruel saying, “Please, sir, I want some more.”
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz (home of The Dickens Project) two decades ago, I read Oliver Twist in a year-long seminar that aimed to approximate the experience of reading Dickens’s novels in their monthly numbers. The difference was that we only had to wait a week to read the next installment, while Victorian readers had to wait a month. We even had two older high school English teachers in the seminar, one of whom added to the atmosphere of coziness by knitting as we talked. (Of course, we also imagined she was knitting some record of our conversations, like a benign version of the sinister revolutionary Madame Defarge, from A Tale of Two Cities, who knitted the names of aristocrats slated for murder.) This seminar was a wonderful experience because of the sense of community that resulted from reading books at a prescribed pace and because of our collective excitement about what the next installment would bring.
Dickens ended each installment of one to three chapters at a critical juncture—for example, just as Oliver is being offered up by the workhouse board to anyone who would take him off their hands for a reward of five pounds or just as Oliver is on the verge of fainting after his appearance before a magistrate for the thievery charge that brings him a sincere defender and benefactor, Mr. Brownlow. Each installment leaves us wondering what will happen to Oliver next. His vulnerability endears him to us and makes him an archetypal orphan victim (see my previous post, “Six Great Books about Orphans”). His tendency to swoon at moments of stress (for example, in his final encounter with the criminal ringleader Fagin in jail the night before his execution) positions us as concerned bystanders who would break his fall or ply him with smelling salts if only we could.
What fascinates me most about Dickens’s publication in monthly numbers is the fact that he made things up as he went along rather than simply finishing a novel and then dividing it up into installments. This is so different from the experience of today’s novelists, who do not even consider submitting novels to agents until they are complete and as flawless as possible. Our sense of audience is far more abstract, even if we know who we want our readers to be. For writers with a tendency to procrastinate, the finality of a deadline and the knowledge that thousands of fans are waiting impatiently to know what happens next would be a tremendous motivation.
Since the days of monthly numbers are over—aside from exceptions such as Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, which Rolling Stone published in twenty-seven installments from 1984 to 1985—the closest we can get to that kind of experience is to join a writing group. Every two weeks or so, the members of Six Great Books gather around the fireside at Molly’s house, where we follow an informal workshop model to discuss each other’s submissions. Now, as we await our turn to read the final chapter of Donna’s novel, Provenance, we are eager to know exactly what will come of the wonderful characters she has created. Because we have lived with these characters for over two years, they seem like real people to us. Like Dickens’s readers fretting over Oliver, we are still hungry and we want some more.