Michael Slater, one of Dickens’ more recent biographers, calls Barnaby Rudge Dickens’ “first non-improvised full-length narrative” (162). I’ve been trying to figure out why he makes that claim, perhaps this is the first novel for which Dickens clearly mapped out the story’s progression ahead of time. He certainly had a lot of time to figure out what was going to happen. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, it took two years for him to go from writing the first chapters to actually writing and publishing the entire book. But there was even more to the novel’s development. Dickens had been kicking around the plot that we will eventually see since 1836 (it wasn’t published until 1841). One of the problems was that there were several incarnations of the novel planned for different publishers. Originally it was going to appear as a monthly serial, then it was switched to appearing in three volumes, then it went back to monthly. Finally, Dickens published it in his own paper in weekly installments. I imagine that changing up the manner and frequency of the book’s publication so many times must have made the planning and writing challenging. Contrary to popular belief, Dickens was not paid by the word as a novelist. He was contracted to write novels that would appear in a specified number of installments. There were general length requirements, but Dickens rarely had to pad his writing to meet those. If anything, he more often had to cut down what he had written so it would fit into the available space.
If you’re writing a novel serially, there are specific issues to consider about your readership. Most important is the necessity of keeping your readers interested from installment to installment. That means something exciting has to happen in each installment, but there always have to be unanswered questions that will keep the readers coming back for more. Now, as we know, Dickens (and Collins) wasn’t always successful with this formula. There have definitely been weeks when we were all bored and felt like nothing of consequence had happened. Okay, no one’s perfect. But, overall, Dickens is considered to have been a master at the art of serial publication. Now imagine that you’ve been planning out a new novel that will be published in monthly installments. Your readers will probably get 5 or 6 chapters at a time, so you organize the development of stories and characters within that time frame. Then you change your mind and decide to publish the novel in 3 volumes of approximately 27 chapters each. Suddenly the whole layout of the novel can and should change. You may be able to develop plotlines more leisurely, but you need to make sure that an important climactic event occurs at the end of the volume where it might not have fallen in monthly installments. THEN you change your mind again, and decide to publish the story in weekly installments! This, in my opinion, is a very foolish choice, because now you have to produce your writing faster and you have less time to convince your readers to stick it out with you for almost a year. If, after 2 or 3 weeks, they aren’t excited about the story you’re telling, they may give up without having spent all that much money. If they had bought monthly installments or the volumes, they would probably have been more committed to sticking with the story – both for financial reasons and because they would, hopefully, be more involved. But, our friend Charles Dickens was not always one to do what was most practical or logical.
This week’s reading was definitely one of those where I desperately wanted to cheat and read further. Why on earth would Mrs. Rudge want to protect the stranger? Especially if (as many of us suspect) he had something to do with her husband’s murder? I hope you all understood the connection Dickens drew between Barnaby’s mental impairment and his father’s murder. It was commonly believed that traumatic events in a pregnant woman’s life could cause her child to be born with disabilities. The mother’s terror or extreme melancholy were thought to affect a child who would have, otherwise, been born perfectly normal. So, Barnaby is the way he is because of what happened to his father. It’s kind of like the sins of the father being visited on the son, except in this case it’s the sins against the father (unless, of course, Barnaby’s mother is protecting the stranger because he was her lover . . . ).
Hope you’ve all gotten your copies of Romola; we’ll be starting that in two weeks!
Next week’s reading: Chapters the Sixth and Seventh