Bitesize Boz: Reading Dickens in instalments online

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Bitesize Boz: Reading Dickens in instalments online

Pete Orford

Following the opening post by Samina Ansari, Dr Pete Orford (@DrPeteOrford on Twitter) of the University of Buckingham starts off our series of guest posts – ‘BMI lockdown life’ –guest-edited by Viola Wiegand and Michaela Mahlberg of the University of Birmingham’s CLiC Fiction blog. Pete is the  Course Director for the MA by Research in Charles Dickens Studies and currently runs the Hard Times 2020 Readalong – more about this below!

A common refrain of those who don’t read Dickens, when asked why they don’t read Dickens, is that his books are so looooong. Like many Victorian novelists, many of Dickens’ novels are heavy doorstoppers, and reading them exercises your arms as much as your brains. But, also like many Victorian novelists, Dickens wrote and published each novel as a series of weekly or monthly instalments. Consider that for a moment. What we think of as a book is more closely related to a DVD boxset, so the idea of reading Nicholas Nickleby from start to finish is no less daunting than catching up with all eight series of Game of Thrones in one fell swoop.

Copyright Smabs Sputzer, https://www.flickr.com/photos/10413717@N08/2671884407

The serial reading experience

To truly understand Dickens, as well as his appeal to Victorian readers, we need to experience his novels in instalments. This has the immediate impact of making the story more manageable, with just a few pages to read each week or month. Simultaneously, it prolongs the experience of reading. Each book becomes a companion and a commentary on your day-to-day life as you read it over the course of several months. The longer Dickens novels such as Bleak House or Martin Chuzzlewit were published over the duration of 19 months, which is a significant portion of time. Dickens talks in his preface to the 1867 reissue of David Copperfield of regret which came with completing the story:

It would concern the reader little, perhaps, to know, how sorrowfully the pen is laid down at the close of a two-years’ imaginative task; or how an Author feels as if he were dismissing some portions of himself into the shadowy world, when a crowd of the creatures of his brain are going from him for ever

I would argue, that despite Dickens’ false modesty of little concern from his reader, in reality his audience probably shared that same sorrow at the close of the tale. That emotion, which we’ve all experienced at the end of a good book, is emphasised and increased by the length of time the story has lasted for.

But the importance of serial reading is not merely in breaking it into smaller bites, or reading it over a longer time. The key element that really explains Dickens’ popularity is the pauses in between instalments. With nothing to do but wait for the next part to come out next week – or even next month – Dickens’ readers had time to share and discuss the story. Those who had not read the story from the beginning might be lent a copy of the early parts and urged to catch up; the shortness of each instalment also encouraged reading aloud to family and friends so that the story was not limited to the literate.

So in a modern day readalong of Dickens, it is vital that discussion is encouraged between parts. When we do this, each novel becomes a communal experience, with readers adding their own thoughts and discussions between each part and allowing the characters to become larger than the text, as the plot evolves beyond a linear one dictated by an author, to a multidimensional realm of infinite choices explored by reader responses and theories.

#HardTimes2020

Trying to recreate this in the modern world is tricky, but the internet helps in bringing together as large and diverse a group as you can to experience a novel together. This year, I am running a readalong of Hard Times, originally published in weekly instalments from 1 April to 12 August 1854. Participants are asked to read each instalment on the corresponding date of when it was first published, using scans of the original publication available on Dickens Journals Online. Then, most importantly, they share their view on a blogpost, where they can ask questions about parts they don’t understand, but also just share their opinion on which bits they liked, which characters they are cheering for, and what they think might happen next.

This is not my first rodeo, having previously been involved with readalongs of A Tale of Two Cities, Our Mutual Friend, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Great Expectations and Wilkie Collins’ No Name. But no matter how many times you run a reading project, each time offers something new: the tone and energy are dictated by the group who are involved, not to mention the context of when they are reading it. The joy lies in the unexpectedness of where discussion might lead. At time of writing we are four weeks in to the Hard Times readalong, and understandably Covid-19 has impacted on how people respond to the story. The novel famously opens with Mr Gradgrind’s desire for facts: “Now what I want is facts.” Usually this is a dismal opening criticising the speaker’s disregard for imagination and fancy; but many readers in the era of fake news and Twitter rumours found themselves in agreement with Gradgrind!

Just as the times dictate how we read, so too does the group. We have a number of people who are reading the novel for the first time; some of them with little knowledge of Dickens’ works, so it’s fascinating to see how the book compares with their expectations. Other participants have more background in Dickens and so are sharing their knowledge of the original publication, or utilising the CLiC web app to help with discussion of key phrases and their significance. In week one we all pondered on ‘loophole’ which featured in a chapter title. One of the participants actually checked Dickens’s use of the word with the CLiC web app:

“loophole (according to CLiC Dickens) is a pretty rare word for our author. It appears in Barnabry Rudge and Oliver Twist, but after Hard Times in Great Expectations, which is also the only time he uses it in a blatant metaphorical manner”. [comment by Christian Lehmann (@BuffyAntiqua) on the Hard Times Readalong Blog]

But the consistent message so far, from new and experienced readers, is that they are enjoying it. Moments that don’t work provide just as much discussion as the moments that do; characters that we don’t like warrant as much as our attention as those we do. When you’re reading serially, together, the experience becomes bigger than the book, and every reader becomes a collaborator with Dickens in the telling – and retelling – of the tale.

Recommended sites for Victorian readalongs:

The Hard Times readalong is currently live, and you can join in at https://hardtimesreadalong.wordpress.com/

The following are older readalong groups which are still available to view if you want to run your own readalong in tandem, along with useful resources of Dickens’ novels online.

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