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Wilkie Collins and the Serial Novel

by Kim on November 2, 2009 · 34 comments

classics1modWelcome to the first day of The Classics Circuit for author Wilkie Collins! Over the next month you’ll be seeing posts reviewing a number of Collins’ books and talking about his life. You can follow this link to see a full list of classics tour spots over the next month.

I somehow got the honor of writing the first post of the tour which is really exciting! Instead of reviewing a book, I’m going to write a little about Wilkie Collins and his contribution to literature through the serial novel. And, I’m going to talk about how you can experience a serial novel today for free! Read on for details.

The History of the Serial Novel

The serial novel got its start in the 19th century when writers would publish their stories in installments in popular magazines. At the time, books were extremely expensive, so only the wealthy had access. Publishing in magazines opened up literature to a much more general audience. This is also part of the reason novels published serially are so long — the more chapters an author wrote, the more he or she was paid, so there was incentive to write a lot.

Charles Dickens is the author credited with advancing the serial novel and publishing a number of authors. Not everyone wrote well in the style, which required that “each installment must advance the plot and offer excitement and suspense.” Not all authors could write in the style because the pace of weekly writing was too demanding. But authors like Wilkie Collins appreciated and even thrived with the challenge.

Wilkie Collins and the Serial Novel

wilkie collinsWilkie Collins was one author who helped popularize the serial novel. Over the course of his career, Collins wrote 25 novels, along with short stories, plays, and non-fiction works. Collins had many of his novels published serially, thanks in part to his friendship with author Charles Dickens, whom he met in 1851. The two authors got along well and had a productive relationship.

Collins first started publishing serially by co-writing couple series of short stories with Dickens and other popular authors of the time — A House to Let in 1858 and The Haunted House in 1859. The Woman in White was published in that magazine in 1859, the same edition of the magazine as A Tale of Two Cities. This was Collins’ major break into the industry, and after that novel he was a household name. He continued to contribute serial novels to that magazine and others into his career. His other most famous work, The Moonstone, was published in 1868.

During the time they were developing the serial novel, Dickens and Collins learned a some of lessons. For example, they learned that the suspense of the novel needs to build over time. In one of his novels, The Dead Secret, Collins gave up the mystery in the first installment, which left readers without much reason to come back. He didn’t make the same mistake with The Woman in White which was probably what made it so successful.

Experience the Serial Novel Today

the woman in whiteAlthough some recent authors have been publishing their work serially, the way I’ve been replicating the experience of a serial novel is through an e-mail/RSS service called DailyLit. At the site you can arrange to have an excerpt from a book e-mailed to you daily for a morning dose of good literature. For each book you can specify when to have it delivered, how often to have it delivered, and how long you’d like the excerpt to be.

About a month ago I started getting excerpts from The Woman in White. I figured reading a book that was originally published serially was a good way to start trying DailyLit. I’m on e-mail 40 of 286, so I’ll be finishing the book sometime next year :) We’ll see how trying to write that review will go!

So What’s Next?

I hope this e-mail sparked your excitement about Wilkie Collins and you’ll be looking for the rest of the stops on the tour for some books you can try reading. Or if you have the experience of reading a serial novel or using Daily Lit, let me know. Thanks for stopping by!

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

JoAnn November 2, 2009 at 5:34 am

How interesting that portions of The Woman in White and A Tale of Two Cities appeared in the same issue! I really enjoyed reading this overview of the serial novel, and look forward to following ‘the circuit’.

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 8:02 am

JoAnn: I was interested to learn that too — lit connections like that are always fun to find!

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Rebecca Reid November 2, 2009 at 6:20 am

That’s kind of funny that as they were learning to write serially they “gave up” the mystery in one book! Oh, that doesn’t work very well!

I’m interested to see how your reading of The Woman in White goes in another few months. I listened to the audio for it and by the later half I was so eager to know what happened I was going out of my way to do chores so I could listen to more! And that was only over the course of a month. It’s hard to be patient!!

Thanks so much for joining the Circuit! This is a perfect start to it!

P.S. I’m a little confused by the dates you give above: if No Name is the first one written serially in 1862, then how could Woman in White have been serial in 1859?

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 8:05 am

Rebecca: Yes, very funny! I guess when you’re learning a new form you’re bound to make some mistakes. I’m not sure how The Woman in White will go once the mystery gets going. Even now, each e-mail ends on a suspenseful note, so I always look forward to the next one.

Thanks for the catch on the dates, my mistake! No Name was published after The Woman in White, so it wasn’t his first serial novel. I believe The Dead Secret was first (the one where he gave up the mystery), although now I can’t find the list I grabbed that from to check.

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Jenny November 2, 2009 at 7:30 am

Excellent post! I love the idea of the Daily Lit, and I’m going to try it out. Not every day though – I’m going to maybe have them deliver an installment of whatever book I choose every, say, Sunday.

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 8:06 am

Jenny: You can set the different dates. I have mine come very weekday so I read it while I’m eating breakfast. That’s been working well for me, but a weekend would be nice too.

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Chris@bookarama November 2, 2009 at 7:30 am

What a great start to the circuit!

DailyLit is a good way to experience the serial novel. Whoever thought of it was a genius.

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 8:06 am

Chris: I think Daily Lit is pretty good. You can get a lot of more recent books there too, which is pretty cool.

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Amanda November 2, 2009 at 7:37 am

Thanks for starting the tour! Great information!

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 8:06 am

Amanda: Thanks!

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softdrink November 2, 2009 at 10:21 am

I was reading The Woman in White via Daily Lit, but then I signed up for the tour and had to go buy an actual book. I’m surprised by how fast of a read it is, despite it’s length.

Thanks for the intro to Collins…it was the perfect way to start the tour!

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 12:30 pm

softdrink: I can imagine the book would be fast — the action seems pretty constant so far, and I’m still just in the first section. And thanks, I’m glad it was a good tour start :)

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Stefanie November 2, 2009 at 11:52 am

Great way to start the tour! Collins sure had quite the beard!

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Stefanie: I feel like lots of men around this time had pretty epic beards. His is impressively bushy and scraggly at the same time though.

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Trisha November 2, 2009 at 11:56 am

What a wonderfully written and informative post!

I’m not sure I could read a novel in serial form. I’m more of a binge reader, finishing a book in a day or two.

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Trisha: I wish I could read a book in just a couple of days — I can never seem to find enough time to just binge like that. This is working well for me because I can read it during breakfast, but I think if the action picks up like people have suggested I’ll have to get the actual book eventually.

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JaneGS November 2, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Thanks for the good overview of Wilkie Collins–I read Woman in White years ago and am about half done with The Moonstone, and I read The Haunted House earlier this year. Love those Victorians!

I also really liked your review of serial novels. As a big Gaskell fan, I know the stress that writing that way caused her. Glad to hear the Collins didn’t suffer from the same level of stress that she did.

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 6:52 pm

JaneGS: The Victorians are something else. I tend to read them with some amusement because they can be so absurd. But pretty good storytellers, so it’s fun.

One source I read mentioned Gaskell specifically as someone who didn’t like the serial novel. I can see why it would be a hard genre to write in, depending on what type of story you’re trying to do. Collins’ work seems to lend itself to a serial form because so much of the story is driven by plot.

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Valerie November 2, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Interesting intro to Wilkie Collins. I have to admit I had somehow never heard of him until noticing his name kept cropping up around the book blogosphere. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at his writing (am reading two books for the Classics Circuit tour).

I tried reading “Nicholas Nickelby” by Dickens via DailyLit, but gave up after a while, but it had twice as many installments! I still really like DailyLit, though, and recommend that everyone check it out for its wide variety of offerings.

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Valerie: I hadn’t heard of him before either. I saw a few reviews of The Woman in White and I got intrigued. I’m enjoying the book via DailyLit so far which is good. I can’t imagine doing one that’s longer than this though — I’m worried I’d forget what happened!

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Jodie November 2, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Fantastic start to the tour Kim, so looking forwrad to seeing what other come up with. I almost want you to be having the most authentic Woman in White expereince possible, since you’re reading it serially. Maybe you should go out and get yourself a Victorian costume for the weekends ;)

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Jodie: I am looking forward to it as well; there are a lot of reviews scheduled, so I’m glad I could do something else (since I obviously wouldn’t have a book finished in time). It’s a pretty authentic experience, although I don’t have to stand in line or pay for my weekly installment (yay!). A serial novel sounded like a fun way to try DailyLit for the first time — I can’t wait to finish and try something else :)

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Karenlibrarian November 2, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Great introduction to Wilkie Collins! I just finished The Woman in White and I’m really looking forward to more of his works. And thanks for the tip about Daily Lit. I’d heard of Mousehold Words but never tried it, since I’m not big on reading online. But I’ll definitely look into it.

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 6:56 pm

Karenlibrarian: I haven’t heard of Mousehold Words, what’s that? I’m not huge on reading online for extended periods of time, but the DailyLit excerpts are so short that it doesn’t bother me. I can usually finish them while I’m eating my bowl of Cheerios in the morning.

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Suey November 2, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Great start to the tour! Lucky you! :) Can’t wait for my turn. But I guess I should get reading it…..

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Kim November 2, 2009 at 6:56 pm

Suey: Thanks! It was exciting to be the first person! Good luck with your book selection :)

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Laura's Reviews November 2, 2009 at 7:40 pm

What a very interesting post! Great overview of Wilkie Collins and the serialized novel!

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mee November 3, 2009 at 5:56 pm

I signed up for The Woman in White Dailylit, but I also have the book. So I kinda go back and forth between the two, depends on where I am. (I read dailylit at the office, stealing a few minutes here and there :)

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Kim November 5, 2009 at 6:30 pm

mee: I thought about getting the book, but the idea of switching between them annoys me (I’m easily confused and would probably get lost!). If the plot gets exciting enough I’ll probably switch to the book so I can finish it sooner though :)

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Marie August 28, 2010 at 9:17 pm

I just found your blog today and have gone back to the archives to get caught up! You have a great blog here and I am hoping that when my book blog gets up and running, it will be as good as yours :)

Getting back on topic, I LOVE Wilkie Collins. I had never heard of him until I took a Victorian Lit class in college. The theme of the class was sensation fiction and two of the 8 books we read were by Collins: No Name and The Woman in White. Both books are awesome and I cannot recommend them enough!

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Kim August 30, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Marie: Welcome to the blog – it’s so exciting to get comments from new readers! Make sure to leave your URL or send an e-mail when you get you blog going.

I actually hadn’t heard of Wilkie Collins until some book bloggers were reviewing the stories, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far.

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