I may have spent the past few days feeling like a short piece of overcooked spaghettini, but at least I've been able to read some subpar Victorian novels by major authors. Well, perhaps I'll make an exception for the first novel, Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, which I first read at the tender age of 19--too young to understand any of the novel's theological questions, let alone why that nasty Ritualist Mr. Pryer keeps ogling Ernest Pontifex. The last 1/3 of the novel is definitely subpar, since the adult Ernest spends too much time talking like, say, a Samuel Butler notebook entry, but there is nevertheless still considerable resonance in the novel's bitter attacks on religious hypocrisy, sexual "respectability," and domestic cruelty. I don't think the novel as a whole could be taught to undergraduates--it's too much of its time--but younger students might be interested in the sections on Ernest's childhood. Graduate students could get more out of the novel, especially if it were used as a kind of epigraph on "Victorian values"; I imagine it might be assigned alongside of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son.
I definitely can't make an exception for Thomas Hardy's The Hand of Ethelberta, which is a genuinely terrible novel. The most entertaining thing about the book was the editor's introduction: the poor man does his best to justify reprinting the novel as a "Penguin Classic," although he has to admit that nobody, including Hardy, has ever been under the impression that the book has anything to recommend it. While THoE is a Wessex novel, much of it aspires to being a London drawing-room comedy with occasional farcical elements. The title character is a butler's daughter who has managed to pass herself off as a gentlewoman in financial straits, the better to help support her parents and their somewhat excessive brood. As it happens, Ethelberta has Artistic Aspirations, which variously manifest themselves in poetry (by and large unquoted), sensationalist public story-telling, and ultimately an epic; in that sense, she is an attenuated cross between Sappho and Corinne. Ethelberta's frantic social manipulations, which include juggling four (!) different suitors at once, are vaguely reminiscent of Margaret Oliphant's Miss Marjoribanks. Unfortunately, Ethelberta does not share Miss Marjoribanks' gale-force quality of character, and the other characters are equally uninteresting--even when they're supposed to be actively unpleasant. (Creepy Lord Mountclere does show himself surprisingly intelligent near the end, although Ethelberta vanquishes him as well.) While I can just buy the editor's claim that Hardy is really sending up the conventions of silver-fork fiction and the comic form more generally, I somehow persist in thinking that there's a difference between successful parody and bad fiction. (But perhaps that's just me.)
Somewhat higher up the "major author doing poorly" scale lies Wilkie Collins' "I Say No", which is one of his shorter late novels. It's not one of the social problem books, which is a Good Thing--they're all largely unreadable--but it hardly reaches the heights of The Woman in White, The Moonstone or Armadale. What is the mystery surrounding the death of young Emily Brown's father, James? How could the disgraced teacher, Sara Jethro, possibly be involved? Does the grotesque Mrs. Rook have anything to do with the death? Or Emily's aunt and her eccentric maid? Is there any danger to be anticipated from the unloved and unloving Francine de Sor? And just who is the peripatetic preacher, Mr. Miles Mirabel (!). It's really a long short story, in the sense that the novel gets carried along by characters delaying in Emily's "best interest" rather than by any necessity in the plot itself, and the final revelation doesn't carry half the emotional weight it ought--especially given Emily's professed love for her father. As is so often the case, perky Emily isn't a particularly memorable heroine; the snappish and "shallow" Francine is, ironically enough, the more psychologically interesting case. "Inoffensive" might be the best adjective for the novel.