Victorian Literature Serialization
Susan Bernstein, Julia Chavez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0122


When Charles Dickens published Pickwick Papers in multiple installments consisting of just a few chapters and released incrementally over a period of twenty months (from April 1836 to November 1837), the dominant publishing format for the Victorian era—serialization—came into its own. This watershed moment inaugurated a paradigm shift that changed the literary landscape. Writing by numbers extended the temporal experience of reading novels, poems, and essays. Spreading the cost of literature over a longer period of time also made it more affordable to the growing masses of new readers. This development has been of great interest for those charting the history of the book as it develops through the 19th century. Serialization is not just of historical significance, however. Scholars of narrative studies have been keenly interested in serialization as well because it changes the contours of what can be considered a text in the first place. As many scholars theorizing serialization have explained, this publication structure creates an intertextual environment. Recognition of the networks in which a particular serial novel, for instance, exists has the potential to reveal, in turn, subtle but important intersections among economic, scientific, literary, and even imperial facets of Victorian culture.

General Overviews

A growing body of scholarship is dedicated to theorizing the ways in which the serial form embodies notable shifts in the cultural landscape of Victorian England. This research connects the serial form to a variety of historical and social contexts. At the vanguard of scholarship on the Victorian serial, Bell 1993 provides an overview of the economics of serial publishing, which Law 2000 extends through a focus on provincial newspapers. Also interested in shifts in the literary marketplace, Parfait 2002 examines the power relations among writers, readers, and editors that arise from the serial as collaborative form. Okker and West 2011 similarly discusses the social aspects of serial reading. Bell 1993 sees serialization “no longer as a mere consequence of market and technological forces, but, perhaps more crucially, as itself an articulation of the values of the age” (p. 125). Rather than using serialization solely as a tool to interpret specific literary texts, many of the sources in this section address and analyze the concept of serialization from an interdisciplinary perspective, often tied to the history of the book and Victorian studies. For example, Brake 2001 lays out a theoretical framework for studying serialization that can be applied not only to fiction, but also to history, science, art, music, and theology. Turner 2005 examines the social experience of serialization in relation to various serial rhythms and the “duration” of periodicity (p. 131). Hughes and Lund 1991b connects the serial form to fundamental values of Victorian culture, and Hughes and Lund 1991a explains the demise of the serial in terms of a general shift in dominant scientific paradigms at the end of the 19th century. These sources are particularly useful as tools to expand our understanding of 19th-century publishing practices and the intersection of print culture and daily life.

  • Bell, Bill. “Fiction in the Marketplace: Towards a Study of the Victorian Serial.” In Serials and Their Readers, 1620–1914. Edited by Robin Myers and Michael Harris, 125–144. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 1993.

    Marxist analysis of serial publication in relation to the economic, technological, and social developments of the 19th century. Provides a lucid overview of the publishing landscape that gave rise to the serial. It begins with a discussion of marketplace constraints, including the commitment to narrative realism. It concludes with an analysis of Oliver Twist in Bentley’s Magazine.

  • Brake, Laurel. Print in Transition, 1850–1910: Studies in Media and Book History. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

    Groundbreaking book on 19th-century media history. Includes a section on the serialization of books. Brake first lays out a theoretical framework for studying serialization and then applies it through case studies. The principles outlined are not limited to fiction; instead, they can be applied to fields such as history, science, art, music, and theology.

  • Hughes, Linda K., and Michael Lund. “Linear Stories and Circular Visions: The Decline of the Victorian Serial.” In Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. Edited by Katherine N. Hayles, 167–194. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991a.

    This chapter connects the demise of the serial at the end of the 19th century to a shift in dominant scientific paradigms. Hughes and Lund claim that shifting notions of order undergird the new dominance of physics over biology and full-volume publishing over serialization.

  • Hughes, Linda K., and Michael Lund. The Victorian Serial. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1991b.

    One of the foundational texts on serialization in the Victorian period. Looking at serial fiction through such varied lenses as home, history, empire, and science, Hughes and Lund argue via example that the serial form is deeply connected to the fundamental values of Victorian culture.

  • Law, Graham. Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2000.

    Overview of the Victorian serial market connects it back to an 18th-century predecessor. In sketching the parameters of the serial market, Law focuses on provincial newspapers and fiction serials by such authors as Collins, Braddon, and Walter Besant. Tables of data include information on serials in the provincial newspapers in Great Britain as well as in Ireland and Australia.

  • Okker, Patricia, and Nancy West. “Serialization.” In Encyclopedia of the Novel. Vol. 2. Edited by Peter Logan, 730–738. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

    Gives a concise, yet substantial, historical overview of serialization from its earliest beginnings through its heyday in the 19th century into its most recent manifestations in current magazines. The authors point out that the rise of serialization was an international phenomenon. Also discusses the social aspects of serial reading, contrasting the collaborative effects of serialization with the solitary reading of bound novels.

  • Parfait, Claire. “The Nineteenth-Century Serial as a Collective Enterprise.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 112.1 (April 2002): 127–152.

    Investigates the serial as a collaborative form that unites writer, reader, and editor. Parfait uses the examples of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris to explore the “interplay of power” (p. 128) among writers, readers, and editors.

  • Turner, Mark W. “Telling of My Weekly Doings”: The Material Culture of the Victorian Novel.” In A Concise Companion to the Victorian Novel. Edited by Francis O’Gorman, 113–133. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470757574

    Provides a broad overview of the cultural implications of serialization as a dominant publication format throughout the 19th century. Turner emphasizes the relationship between seriality and notions of time through discussions of the various types of serial rhythm, the treatment of time in novels by Trollope and Gaskell, and the notion of “duration” built into periodicals such as the Cornhill Magazine (p. 131).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.