Novelists found treasure in agony columns, shipping news

Matthew Rubery

If Charles Dickens were alive and writing today, he might well find story material on Craigslist, just as he and fellow Victorian novelists drew from a contemporary version of this treasure trove—the agony column on the front page of the daily newspaper.

“The second column of the front page came to be known in the late nineteenth century as the ‘agony column’ for its emphasis on personal distress, ranging from pathetic tales of runaway husbands to plaintive cries for attention from lonely hearts,” said Matthew Rubery, a Research Fellow and lecturer in the School of English at the University of Leeds.
Such heartfelt pleas captured the attention of British “sensation novelists” of the 1860s, who were quick to capitalize on the criminal possibilities of the most interactive section of the newspaper. Their stories were loaded with an improbable number of phony marriage announcements, misreported obituaries, and unanswered missing persons inquiries.

The agony column is one of several aspects of Victorian journalism that Rubery will consider in his book, The Novelty of Newspapers: Victorian Fiction After the Invention of the News, to be published by Oxford University Press. Other narrative conventions include the shipping news, the leading article, the personal interview, and foreign correspondence.
“The book proposes that the invention of the news in thenineteenth century profoundly influenced literary narrative in ways that have yet to be recognized. The English novel during the era of the commercial press, 1836 to 1900, drew upon news as a rival form of realistic representation and as an authoritative form of public knowledge.”

Newspapers had existed since the seventeenth century but with contents unlikely to be considered news by modern readers. The shift to a commercial press aimed at providing impersonal information was triggered by the repeal of a tax—known as the “tax on knowledge”—charged on each copy of a publication. The effect had been to limit circulation to those with money. The tax was repealed gradually, beginning in 1836.

“News at this time acquired its status as ‘cheap, value-free information’ designed to reach the broadest possible audience. Victorians were consequently among the first to live within a mass media environment at a time when reading the newspaper was first becoming a part of daily life.”

The agony column, in particular, lent itself to fictional mining. “The misuse of advertisements in these novels taps into the at once exciting and disturbing implications of anonymity in modern life, brought within everyone’s reach by the daily press. This chapter of the book reveals that audiences were not only reading about other people’s lives in the newspaper—they were using the newspaper to change their own.”

The fictional borrowing from newspapers is also very clear in the case of shipwrecks, the most frequently reported disaster in the Victorian press.

“While the shipping intelligence has been regarded as an exclusively male interest of sailors, merchants, and investors, this section of the newspaper was read with equal fervor by domestic women separated by the sea from loved ones. As this section of the book will show, Dickens’ Bleak House, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula vividly illustrate a new approach to understanding catastrophe in Victorian fiction.”

During the nineteenth century, use of the anonymous editorial “We” to convey the authority of the publication as distinct from the individual journalist gained increasing influence. Certain novelists, notably Anthony Trollope in the Palliser series, criticized this means of influencing public opinion as giving disreputable journalists too much power.

The highly popular personal interview also was viewed by some as pernicious. In writing about its invasive nature, Rubery cites Henry James’s lament against the era’s “mania for publicity.”

“No longer was the interview limited in meaning to a conversation between two people. Instead, after the 1860s, the interview acquired its familiar modern meaning as a conversation directed toward an ‘overhearing audience.’”
The book, said Rubery, “challenges the assumed divide between the period’s literature and journalism, with all its implications for the production of an idea of culture, and of hierarchies of reading, by demonstrating that the news was integral to the novel’s development—what I call ‘the novelty of newspapers.’”