Reading Like a Victorian Q&A with the Dickens Project

May 01, 2019


We sat down with one of the creators of the website, Reading Like a Victorian, to hear more
about their project, which facilitates the study of Victorian serial novels in their “original serial
moments”. Reading Like a Victorian was created by Robyn Warhol, Arts and Humanities
Distinguished Professor of English at the Ohio State University, with the assistance of Colleen
Morrissey, a nineteenth-century specialist who received her Ph.D. at the Ohio State University.

Thank you for agreeing to talk with us. We’re excited to hear more about your project! How did the idea for Reading Like a Victorian come about?

Colleen: Robyn was teaching a Victorian novels graduate class back in 2015, and she wanted the students to read each of the novels serially and concurrently, as they would have been read by their original audience. For instance, an avid novel reader in 1864 would be reading the fifth installment of Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? and the first installment of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend at the same time, in May. Robyn’s grad students bought each of the assigned novels and were forced to bring an entire stack of them each time they came to class, not to mention the logistical annoyance of parsing out the individual serial installments when the novel editions don’t identify them. This logistical nightmare that arose out of the simple wish to study seriality in led Robyn to create a Wordpress website that organized these assigned novels synchronically, and that blossomed into the entire project of Reading Like a Victorian.

Tara: What was your initial stack? Why did you decide to start there?

Colleen: Robyn’s graduate class featured four major novels—Can You Forgive Her?, Our Mutual Friend, Wives and Daughters, and Armadale—published serially in the period of 1864-1866. The convergence of these major authors/works made it an ideal representative stack for the study of the Victorian serial novel and what Robyn calls the serial moments” in which they were released. This was a natural starting place when Robyn began building the first iteration of the website. 

Tara: I’m curious to hear more about the selection process. How do you choose which novels to archive on the site?

Colleen: We usually start with a single text that either we or another scholar are interested in studying, and then we build a stack around that text. Dickens Universe itself is often a prompt for building a stack! But we’ve also, for instance, had requests for stacks built around certain historical events like the Great Exhibition. After we identify that starting point, we begin with the canonical texts and then add some non-canonical or lesser-known texts, space allowing. The end goal, however, is to get as many texts as possible, spanning the nineteenth century. The texts featured on the site now are as numerous as is possible in the site’s current, limited form, but even “busy” stacks will grow in future versions of the project.

Tara: Yes, we are so grateful you were willing to create the Dickens Universe stacks for us. Thank you! I also like how you’ve incorporated essays and short stories into the stacks. What sorts of non-fiction literature do you include on the site? 

Colleen: We usually choose things that we think will be of most interest to scholars, so, for instance, Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua seemed like a significant text whose publication should be taken into account when studying Armadale, which was published in the same month. Ideally, in a future form, the site will be able to include information about as many texts as possible, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and drama alike.

Tara: We’re excited to see what’s to come. We’ve heard that you’re planning on giving the website a makeover. What do you have in store for the future of Reading Like a Victorian?

Colleen: We’re at a very exciting stage right now. We were just awarded a Battelle Engineering, Technology and Human Affairs (BETHA) Grant, and we have entered into collaboration with Ohio State’s College of Arts and Sciences Technology Services to totally revamp the website. Some of the most exciting changes will include a working search database, which will be coded not only for titles, author names, etc., but for narrative components like “cliffhanger ending,” “orphan heiress,” and so on. The site will also have an entirely new interface which will allow for much easier use and expansion. We will no longer have to cordon texts into “stacks,” but rather will be able to show the entire uninterrupted timeline of serial novel publication across the century. We are thrilled to be able to bring the project to its next phase.

Tara: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Colleen. We’re looking forward to seeing you at a future Dickens Universe!