“What do you think of Bleak House?”: Dickens’s Serial Novels and Victorian Literary Fandom

Susan Jane Ballinger

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Liberal Arts, College of Arts and Sciences, University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Abstract

The objective of this thesis was to explore the many ways in which original readers experienced Victorian serial novels. Because the novels were published in parts over an extended period of time, often more than a year, readers experienced events in the novels in what they perceived as real time. This produced in readers an emotional connection not only between the events and characters of the novels, but between the readers and authors. The intensity of readers’ involvement in these novels is illustrated by the letters they wrote to the authors asking for clues, offering suggestions and criticism, and pleading for a preferred outcome for their favorite characters. It is my contention that this relationship resulted in the beginning of literary fandom. The era of the Victorian serial novel was the first era of the “Celebrity Author.” Letters, diary entries and critical essays of the era were utilized during the course of this study. Letters and diary entries from authors as well as readers were used to illustrate how both authors, most notably Charles Dickens, courted their readers and how those readers, as fans, responded. This thesis concludes that the symbiotic relationship between the authors and readers of Victorian serial novels created a new, responsive and malleable literary form of popular episodic fiction that remains popular and vital to this day in the forms of television, book and movie series.