Thursday, 21 April 2016

Journal Lists: Reading Literature in Serial Form

January 1891 issue of All the Year Round
When I teach the likes of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins to my undergraduates, I always encourage them to think about the way in which these texts were originally published: not as weighty tomes, but in serial form. Readers of periodicals such as Master Humphrey’s ClockBentley’s MiscellanyHousehold Words, and All The Year Round would follow stories in instalments over several months, and delighted in writing to the authors to outline their hopes (and fears) for forthcoming episodes.  

Given this publishing history, it’s rather odd that we now read these texts in single-volume form, paying little, if any, attention to the original breaks in the narrative. The same is true when we approach the numerous letters and diaries – both real and fictional – produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; we consume huge chunks at once without a second thought for their chronology in terms of composition or publication.

If, like me, you’ve always fancied having a go at reading one of these texts in the instalments in which it was first produced or published, you’ll be delighted to hear about a recent project called Journal Lists. Set up by Hazel Wilkinson and Will Bowers, this website allows you to receive instalments of a variety of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works straight to your inbox – and all free of charge.

Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips
In January and February this year, I really enjoyed receiving Byron’s Ravenna Journal day by day, and I can confirm that it really makes a difference to read a text in this way. By consuming a text at a slower pace, the reader has time to dwell on individual entries and consider details that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. I don’t think that I’d have noticed how miserable Byron was about the weather in early January had I not been confronted with his lamentations each and every morning. On 4 January, Byron complained ‘weather bad – bad as England – worse’, while the next day he notes that it’s ‘dripping and dense’. 6 January sees ‘Mist – thaw – slop – rain’, followed on 7 January by ‘rain – mist – snow – drizzle’: you get the picture! Had I read through these entries quickly, I’m not sure that I would have picked up on the length of time for which this bad weather endured, but having to read Byron’s observations daily I found myself getting nearly as fed up with the damp, gloomy conditions as he was!

I’m currently subscribed to John Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar, which pings into my inbox on the first of each month, and to William Cobbett’s Rural Rides. Daily issues of The Spectator and instalments of Dickens’s Hard Times are currently going strong. I’m very much looking forward to Mary and Percy Shelley’s Geneva letters, which start on 17 May – I’ve already signed up for this one!

To explore the other texts available for subscription and to find out more about this brilliant project, visit the Journal Lists website. 

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