Jessica R. Valdez, Plotting the News in the Victorian Novel. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020, 209 pp. Hb £80.00. ISBN: 978-1-4744-7434-4, Ebook (epub) £19.99. ISBN: 978-1-4744-7436-5
Reviewed by Victoria Clarke
Recommended citation: Clarke, Victoria. 2022. Review of Jessica Valdez, Plotting the News in the Victorian Novel. Victorian Popular Fictions, 4.2 (Autumn): 146-148. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI: https://doi.org/10.46911/MVTW4905
Jessica R. Valdez’s accomplished study of key genres within the Victorian novel demonstrates the extent to which ‘news’ was not only experienced with immediacy, but with hindsight during the period. Her introduction opens with another opening, reporting the death of “Helen Talboys, aged 22” (1). Valdez reads the beginning of Lady Audley’s Secret (1863), noting that the characters, not only those of Braddon’s novel, but others both real and fictitious, rely on this news, from the established but ‘greasy’ pages of the Times, as fact, truth, gospel. The novel’s and newspaper’s narratives complement each other, the long form of the novel an expanded and complete version of many ‘news’ stories, each enlightening other characters, as well as the reader. Valdez’s central thesis argues that “nineteenth-century newspapers frequently relied on modalities and genres that were also common in novels, and thus their figuration within novels […] [is] a site of meta-fictional practice” (2). It is the transformation past the repeal of the taxes on knowledge and the death of the triple-decker novel that Valdez ‘plots,’ each chapter chronologically addressing a different modality. What is underpinned in the analysis is not just the way in which news, as a temporal and communicative phenomenon, shapes characters’ – and, indeed, readers’ – understandings of the present, but also the way multiple layers of news and fiction enable readers of the novels to critically reflect on their own relationship with community (whether based on class, gender, religion) and, in Benedict Anderson’s framework, nationhood, by critiquing the ways that characters interact with the news.
In Chapter 1, “Charles Dickens, the News, and the Novel as a Pattern,” Valdez notes that the central voice of Household Words (1850–9) addresses a community of “innumerable homes,” joining together the factions of specific readerships targeted by other periodicals in the 1840s and 1850s (29). Valdez specifically notes the editorial ‘we’ is instead used by Dickens as a character responsible for the narration of the stories contained within the journal’s pages, creating cohesion between the disparate contents of the page and mimicking the different readerships also being brought together, which contrasts with the earlier characterisation of the American press in Martin Chuzzlewit (1840–1). Our Mutual Friend (1864–5), published later, is ‘woven’ together from different threads making up an eventual complete product. What Valdez does best in her analysis of Dickens’s novelistic relationship with news is to compare the development of the sensational attempted murders in the novel with their real-life inspiration. Indeed, the strongest part of this chapter is the exploration of the relationship, first hinted at and finally made clear, between seriality, fiction, news and narrative agency in Dickens’s works.
In Chapter 2, Valdez argues that Anthony Trollope, by comparison, shows the newspaper as disrupting community, alienating the Pallister novels’ protagonists by presenting interrupted or even fraudulent Bildung of the characters, while the structure of these novels mimics the structure of news. In short, for Valdez, Trollope “problematises [journalistic characters;] claim[s] to speak on behalf of a readership, suggesting divergences in journalistic and novelistic visions of a national public” (60). By setting the series shortly after the events that inspired it, as Valdez notes, Trollope is engaging with old news as a site of memory, events which are “no longer journalism, but not quite history either,” the ‘news’ within the novel challenging memories of the same news in real life, which “forces readers to reflect on the assumptions that they bring to news and other narratives of the real […] adapt[ing] journalism’s ‘median past tense’” (62). While the effect is different, Trollope and Dickens both encourage readers to meditate on the way that they consume news, and narrative more broadly.
The shining star of Valdez’s monograph is her third chapter, which explores the relationship between sensational news and sensation fiction in unexpected and original ways. Valdez disputes the view that “the sensation novel and the newspaper […] functioned in tandem as symptoms of modernity” (94), arguing instead that the sensation novel as exemplified by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins “defines itself and its hybrid novelistic realism through the capacity to analyse the workings of news discourse” (95). The heightened ‘sensations’ of anxiety, violence, betrayal, and alienation are conveyed to the novels’ protagonists through their relationships with news and newspapers. Valdez points to second-hand anxiety over Aurora’s propriety in reading Bell’s Sporting Life, to Lydia and Midwinter/Armadale’s sense of otherness as old news events seem to dominate their fates, and intertwines these with discussion of journalistic accounts of imperial violence alongside which Aurora Floyd (1863) and Armadale (1864-6) were serialised (99). The melodrama of the news is used by characters to make sense of their own lives and direct their fate, demonstrating that “melodrama is truly real in this sense, both inherent to the newspaper, novelistic realism, and the making sense of everyday experience” (115).
The final chapter bookends the piece by referencing Dickens again, but this time through a fascinating study of Israel Zangwill, or ‘The Jewish Dickens.’ Valdez introduces us to a series published in The Jewish Standard in 1888 on “Jews in Fiction,” pondering an alternate reality in which Dickens, as placeholder for a prolific, well-loved, English novelist and editor, treated Jewish characters and Jewish people with nuance. According to her analysis, in this series, “the imaginary Dickens is both outside and inside; he must have access to the Jewish community but still remain the novelist synonymous with Britishness,” representing the Anglo-Jewish community with an Anglo-Jewish gaze (125). Valdez introduces us to Israel Zangwill, her nomination for a ‘Jewish Dickens,’ and the way that English newspapers and Yiddish oral storytelling diverge in his Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People (1892). Zangwill engages in dialogue about Anglo-Jewishness through references to George Eliot’s works, most notably Daniel Deronda, but also Middlemarch, including their “subplots about young male characters seeking to reform their [English or Jewish] communities by way of the newspaper” (134). In Zangwill’s Raphael’s case, “the labour involved in publishing a newspaper wears down [his] ethical and affective ties to his community,” achieving the opposite of his aims (138). By contrast, Esther’s engagement with Yiddish-language oral storytelling succeeds in strengthening her ties to her community, making her able to live and work outside the Jewish East End, and to return to the ghetto with a wider perspective because of her combined Englishness and Jewishness.
Valdez’s monograph offers a long-overdue challenge to the accepted relationship between the news and the novel in the mid-late Victorian period. If the serialisation of the novel is one of the genre’s defining features in this period, and indeed, within scholarship, Valdez sets a trend for a new wave of exploration not just of the dialogue between fictional and true events within the pages of periodicals, but also of the way that novelists and readers engaged with serial news within the pages of novels. The main challenge this monograph poses is in asking its readers to critically reflect on their own reading practices as scholars, just as Valdez’ novelists asked their contemporary audiences to do as readers.
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