The Periodical Market and Victorian Short Fiction

 

Without fail, histories of the British short story point out how the periodical market shaped the genre.1See, for example, Wendell V. Harris, British Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century: A Literary and Bibliographic Guide, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979: 22; Tim Killick, British Short Fiction in the Early Nineteenth Century: The Rise of the Tale, Ashgate, 2008: 22-31; Barbara Korte, The Short Story in Britain: A Historical Sketch and Anthology, Francke, 2003: x; Brander Matthews, The Philosophy of the Short-Story, New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1901: 56; and Harold Orel, The Victorian Short Story: The Development and Triumph of a Literary Genre, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1986: 4-8. By and large, nineteenth century short fiction was published in magazines. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that nearly all the short fiction in the nineteenth century was first written for the periodical market. Even if an author were successful enough to publish a collection of short fiction, he or she typically would gather stories that had been published earlier in periodicals (often updating and editing them). This is true of mid-century authors as well as late-century writers, including such notable examples as George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life, several volumes of tales by Anthony Trollope, and Rudyard Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills.

Authors whose names have remained prominent in literary history, however, did not write most of the short fiction contained in periodicals. Many periodicals, especially early in the century, published work anonymously, so we have no record of authorship. Other authors published under pseudonyms. Still others left behind very few documentary traces, so their biographical information is minimal at best. We rarely include work by these authors in our study of a genre, yet their contributions constitute the majority of the short fiction published during the Victorian period, so excluding it from study skews our understanding of the genre.

Examining short fiction as it is represented in periodicals, then, gives us the largest range of texts to examine, in the venue for which they were first written. All of the examples included in this digital archive are culled from periodicals, including stories published anonymously or whose authors are relatively unknown, as well as stories by authors who have long been included in the literary canon.

There is no shortage of periodicals to examine: The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals, 1880-1900 lists 50,000 periodical publications during the century, many of which contain fiction. As Tim Killick argues:

The early-nineteenth-century periodical market was robust, competitive, aggressive, and highly political.  Its fast pace necessitated a steep learning-curve and had the effect of forcing those writers exposed to it to become increasingly professional, and to examine more carefully the intentions of their fiction and the relationship between reader and writers.  New techniques were learnt for writing short fiction.  Instead of compressed novels and stories that read like extracts from romances, short fiction began to pursue its own narrative strategies: folktale tropes, painstaking realist techniques, and powerful yet brief descriptive skills were all part of the melting pot of short fiction in the early-nineteenth-century periodical press.2Killick, 31

The Victorian period, if anything, saw an intensification of this brisk and professionalizing market. Several periodicals stand out as particularly influential and innovative in their inclusion of fiction. Among them are Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1817-1980), which cultivated gothic-style short fiction, its signature “Tales of Terror.” The London Magazine (1820-29) solicited contributions from many of the most notable authors of its day, as did Bentley’s Miscellany (1837-68) a decade later. Charles Dickens was Bentley’s first editor, and he later founded two journals of his own, first Household Words (1850-59), followed by All the Year Round (1859-95). Dickens’ journals were published for a general readership, taking advantage of the rapidly-expanding literacy of the British population. Established in the same year as All the Year Round, Macmillan’s Magazine (1859-1907) was notable for the novels, poetry, and short fiction it published. The Cornhill Magazine (1860-1975) made an even greater specialty of fiction, particularly serialized novels. Later in the century, journals such as The Yellow Book (1894-97) published short fiction of the aesthetic movement, and The Strand (1891-1950) introduced Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.3For a history of nineteenth century literary periodicals, see Walter Graham’s classic English Literary Periodicals, New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1930. For a discussion of literary periodicals with specific reference to short fiction, see Orel, 4-10.

Scores of other periodicals followed suit by incorporating short fiction into their publications, to the extent that it became a matter of course for magazines to offer fictional narratives alongside non-fiction essays, reports of proceedings, political commentary, recipes, sheet music, social news, and a plethora of other material. Often a piece of short fiction would be published in its entirety in an issue. Other times, the story would be divided into two, three, or four “installments” published in subsequent issues.

Short narratives were not the only type of fiction published in periodicals. Many novels were first published in serial form over several issues of a magazine. When Brander Matthews, an American scholar and critic, first argued for an understanding of the “short-story” genre in an essay published in London’s Saturday Review in 1884, he claimed that “in the British magazine the serial Novel is the one thing of consequence, and all else is termed ‘padding.’”4Matthews, 56 Certainly it is true that literary reputations typically were based on novels rather than short fiction, and that novels generated much more income. However, it’s also true that short fiction accompanied these serialized novels in most literary periodicals, and that novelists also tended to write short fiction. In fact, many authors and editors differentiated between novels and short fiction by referring to them both in periodical terms—a story might be told in six chapters spread over three monthly issues (short fiction), or in fifty chapters spread over ten weekly issues (a novel). The difference between them was not, necessarily, seen in terms of genre, but in terms of the practical functioning of a periodical.

Periodical terminology, then, became a way of understanding fiction of differing lengths and genres. Take, for example, Dickens’ perspective as an editor. As Deborah Thomas notes, “Dickens explicitly restricted the maximum number of installments of a desirable short story to four.”5Deborah Thomas, Dickens and the Short Story, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982: 160, fn 14. Though Dickens published longer fiction in twenty installments or more (such as his novel, Hard Times, published in Household Words in twenty weekly installments during 1854), he saw four installments as a practical length for a piece of short fiction in his specific periodical market: “experience shows me that a story in four portions is best suited to the peculiar requirements of such a journal.”6Thomas, 160, fn 14, quoting a letter. Dickens’ “Hunted Down” was published “in two portions.” Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Lizzie Leigh,” the lead story in the first issue of Dickens’ Household Words, was divided into four chapters and published in three installments, the first containing two chapters. In short, both authors and editors were constantly aware of the demands of the periodical format and often understood their writing in terms of its requirements.

Significant Terms

Selected Examples

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. See, for example, Wendell V. Harris, British Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century: A Literary and Bibliographic Guide, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979: 22; Tim Killick, British Short Fiction in the Early Nineteenth Century: The Rise of the Tale, Ashgate, 2008: 22-31; Barbara Korte, The Short Story in Britain: A Historical Sketch and Anthology, Francke, 2003: x; Brander Matthews, The Philosophy of the Short-Story, New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1901: 56; and Harold Orel, The Victorian Short Story: The Development and Triumph of a Literary Genre, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1986: 4-8.
2. Killick, 31
3. For a history of nineteenth century literary periodicals, see Walter Graham’s classic English Literary Periodicals, New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1930. For a discussion of literary periodicals with specific reference to short fiction, see Orel, 4-10.
4. Matthews, 56
5. Deborah Thomas, Dickens and the Short Story, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982: 160, fn 14.
6. Thomas, 160, fn 14, quoting a letter.