[Disclaimer: I both know the author and am thanked in the preface (as part of the Western New York Victorianists Group).]
Students have been known to run shrieking from the room at the very sight of Bleak House. Even full-blown academics occasionally break into whimpers of agony when faced with Middlemarch. While no Victorian novel ever attained the glorious excess of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa--which, in its most recent Penguin edition, is approximately the size of your average Norton anthology--it's still the case that Victorian fiction is, for lack of a better way of putting it, very there. But modern editions of Victorian novels are far less there than the nineteenth-century originals, which spill out into sometimes endless serials (anyone up for Varney the Vampire?), parts, volumes, and cheap editions.
Not surprisingly, there's a well-established tradition in Victorian studies of analyzing Victorian fiction in relationship to contemporary publication and distribution practices. Thus, critics like Carol A. Martin (George Eliot's Serial Fiction) have linked narrative form to serial publishing, while N. N. Feltes (Modes of Production of Victorian Novels) and Lee Erickson (The Economy of Literary Form) pay more attention to such issues as the emergence of a mass market or the role of publishing in shaping notions of authorship. Daniel Hack's The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel, which at first glance falls seamlessly into this critical tradition, actually moves off in a different direction: Hack explores "the meaning and mutual relevance of the physicality of the written or printed word, the exchange of texts for money, the workings and slippages of signification, and the corporealities of character, writer, and reader" (7). Victorian novels, that is, engage with different materials--ranging from bodies to paper--in such a way as to "define and bring into play their own material elements" (7). What does it mean, exactly, to think of a book as an object? Does creating a book involve work, and if so, who is actually working--the novelist or the printer? What is the relationship between, say, Bleak House and any given edition of Bleak House?
I'd like to look at three different issues raised by this book, moving from the most specific to the most general.
1. Type. Like anyone who spends any length of time writing about Thackeray's Henry Esmond, Hack discusses the three-volume edition's antiquarian typeface (featuring, e.g., the long s). For most modern readers--and, indeed, for any reader who picked up a later edition of the novel--the original typeface is notable primarily for its absence, which poses an obvious problem of interpretation: does the typeface actually have some significance, or is it purely cosmetic? Hack argues that the type and its subsequent disappearance opens up questions about the author's "sovereignty" (20) over the text, questions which are as potentially ironic and open-ended as the novel itself (famously marked by all sorts of internal contradictions). But I'd argue that in the nineteenth century, this early-modern typeface served another function that plays into Hack's argument: it identifies a text that exists in a bizarre no-man's land between print and writing. Hannah Rathbone's two Lady Willoughby novels are a case in point (here is the second volume); the books, published in Caslon type, were originally bound as diaries, they are laid out as diaries...but they are, of course, Victorian novels. And yet, Rathbone took her time about announcing that they were novels, or even that there was an actual nineteenth-century author involved. Are they "transcriptions"? "Facsimiles"? Texts caught in an unforeseen time warp? What? The historical dress, as it were, fails to clarify the book's provenance--not least because it's anachronistic to use Caslon for a text set in the seventeenth century. This is even more the case with Anne Manning's The Maiden & Married Life of Mary Powell, Afterwards Mistress Milton (this is a later edition) which is purportedly an unpublished (but, of course, published) diary. In a sense, the typeface signifies that what we are reading has, in fact, been "written," even though it has really been printed.
2. Hail, poetry. It's no great surprise that anyone interested in literature and materiality would look at novels, especially since Victorian novels easily dominate histories of nineteenth-century publishing. And, as I said before, Victorian novels are very there. Yet there is an alternative history to be sketched out that emphasizes poetry's longstanding engagement with materiality and authorship. The horrors of materiality haunt late seventeenth and eighteenth-century poetry: poems are always being threatened by the prospect of turning into trunk liners or pie wrappers, not to mention less savory things. In Dryden's "Mac Flecknoe," the poem-as-object becomes fatally mixed up with the authors themselves, whose "scatter'd limbs" line the street. Even more spectacularly, in Alexander Pope's The Dunciad, we have the poem-as-object running wildly amok, as the footnotes swamp what is supposed to be the main text and the various "dunces" find themselves subjected to the worst (frequently scatalogical) indignities. Pope's own diminutive and crippled body itself became the target for contemporary squibs, in ways that promptly became bound up with the "body" of his work.
Hack spends considerable time on the economic problem of productive vs. non-productive labor as it applies to authors--who, Hack argues, are doing their best to "establish their credentials as productive laborers" (65). While Hack suggests that authors are trying not to be "beggars," one could add that they are also trying to avoid being prostitutes. Dante Gabriel Rossetti's great dramatic monologue "Jenny" dramatizes precisely this problem: the speaker, who has somehow wound up with a prostitute (however might that have happened...?), spends a good chunk of the poem attempting to define what Jenny does as not-work. The speaker's opening lines, "Lazy laughing languid Jenny,/Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea," immediately strip Jenny's life of any associations with labor; not only does the language suggest that Jenny is distinctly adverse to work, but more importantly it suggests that what Jenny does is a pleasure. But, as the oft-repeated conjunction "and" indicates, Jenny also plays the game of equivalencies, rendering "a kiss" of equal value to "a guinea." The entire poem plays on this agony of exchanges, some ascribed to Jenny by the speaker, others explicitly associated with the speaker himself, and still others not recognized at all. In particular, the speaker understandably wishes to differentiate his room, "so full of books," from Jenny's room; in his room, there is "cherished work" to be done (albeit work complicated and temporarily stymied by the labor associated with books), whereas in Jenny's room...well, one can guess what goes on in Jenny's room. And yet, the speaker repeatedly equates Jenny herself with a nearly unreadable book: "You know not what a book you seem,/Half-read by lightning in a dream!" Apparently, all rooms have potentially troubling books in them. Worse still, our speaker is patently not working--suffering from writer's block, perhaps--which puts him in a rather awkward position vis-a-vis the supposedly non-working Jenny. In fact, Jenny really isn't working either--she falls asleep instead of going through with the transaction*--which suggests a further uncomfortable link between herself and the speaker. All of the speaker's attempts to define what Jenny does as not-work fall apart; even the physical contrast between Jenny and the manual laborer, "Whose ill-clad grace and toil-worn look/Proclaim the strength that keeps her weak/And other nights than yours bespeak," eventually collapses under the weight of Jenny's likely future, "wealth and health slipped past." How does one maintain a difference when so many things prove equivalent? For the speaker, the thing most consciously at stake is the nature of womanhood itself, but we might also wonder about the nature of authorship while we're at it.
3. Is there an intention in this class? Hack takes particular interest in the advertisements which often accompanied the novels: what prevents the novel from turning into just another commodity for sale?
As discussed earlier, print technology makes possible a sharp distinction between abstract text and material instantiation, a distinction codified in the concept of copyright and thus crucial to the growth of the literary marketplace. A text's transcendence of physical materiality is therefore less a metaphysical operation than a technological, economic, and legal one [...] Even, then, as Daniel Deronda's distinguishing of itself from its material instantiation distances the novel from the advertisements it is bound with and the commercial sphere they openly inhabit, this abstraction of the text conforms to the logic of the market itself. Eliot's novel is detachable from the advertisements with which it was printed because of, not despite, its nature as property, because of and not despite the commercial activity that also brings them together. (175)
Why is Daniel Deronda doing the "distinguishing," as opposed to George Eliot? It's an interesting and, I think, deliberate shift in agency. We could ask, for example, to what extent Eliot engaged in this struggle between text and advertisement--or, rather, to what extent Eliot was engaged by this struggle. Hack's reading of Thackeray raises the point that authors may not "rule" their novels' final appearances; in granting agency to Daniel Deronda, not to Eliot, Hack suggests that here we have an interaction between text and paratext that lies well beyond the reach of Eliot's considerable grasp. Does participating in the "literary marketplace," which subordinates "material instantiation" (that book in front of you) to "abstract text" (Daniel Deronda "itself"), require this loss of control--and, along with it, of intentionality?
*--I cannot but suspect a sly joke in Rossetti's use of couplets (many of them slant rhymes), given the pointed failure of the characters to, well, couple.