To a greater extent than any short-form medium, serialized narratives create a real-life experience of inhabiting uncertain worlds whose storylines thwart our longings for knowledge and plenitude. That is partly because serial narratives tend to generate multiple plots that “divide the fictional world” and “disperse the reader's attention.”Footnote 1 In place of formal unity as it is typically conceived, multiplot narratives generalize by crossing discrete storyworlds to ramify particular thematic, stylistic, and spatial perceptions. Nonetheless, serialization also entails the capacity to choreograph “what bodies do in time and space,” producing shared aesthetic, affective, and intellectual engagements.Footnote 2 The Victorian practice of publishing new part issues on “Magazine Day,” for example, created “large communities of readers.”Footnote 3 As Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund have observed, “We need to see the serial taking place amidst many different texts, and many different voices.”Footnote 4
With decades of research into print cultures to build on, today's scholars increasingly study serialization from transtemporal, transnational, and transmedia perspectives. Their inspiration is partly that new TV “golden age” that HBO's The Sopranos (1999–2007) helped to usher in.Footnote 5 In the decade since, serial television has become a global phenomenon. As scholars take up seriality as a lens on past and present, comparisons between Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1852–53) and David Simon's The Wire (2002–08) have crossed from classrooms and conferences to watercoolers and The Atlantic Monthly.Footnote 6 We are reminded that the format of twenty monthly parts which came into being when Dickens persuaded Chapman and Hall to expand a series of sketches into what became The Pickwick Papers (1836–37), was not only a formidable profit-making machine. It was also a means of turning periodicals into vehicles for “quality fiction.”Footnote 7 Boz's publishers, succeeded by such aspirants to prestige as The Cornhill and Fortnightly Review, thus anticipated HBO in garnering acclaim for the wares of a platform long thought to purvey mass entertainments lacking cultural capital or artistic éclat.
That said, it is not Dickens, but Anthony Trollope who, according to the New Yorker, is the “trending” Victorian whose works most befit the way we live now.Footnote 8 Trollope's ascent in the heyday of serial television prompts us to consider the author's status as the English-speaking world's foremost progenitor of the nineteenth-century roman fleuve. Of course, the most famous “novel river” is Honoré de Balzac's La Comédie humaine, which, at more than ninety works, far exceeds the seven or eight seasons of the longest-running television serials. By contrast, Trollope's Barsetshire and Palliser sequences, each composed of six novels over twelve- or fifteen-year spans respectively, offer stronger parallels to The Sopranos’ six seasons in seven years, or The Wire’s five seasons in six years.
If Trollope stands out as the ideal nineteenth-century novelist for comparing then and now, it is worth noting that the author had not yet serialized any novel before he was invited to write for the Cornhill’s inaugural issue. Framley Parsonage (1860–61)—the work that elevated George Smith's new magazine into an industry leader and Trollope to a first-tier novelist—was the fourth Barsetshire chronicle, but it was only the first to be serialized. Perhaps as Smith and his editor, William Makepeace Thackeray, sought the right novel for their debut, they gravitated toward the only British writer at the time who was extending stories and characters across works as well as parts. What we know for certain is that Smith's request for “an English tale” with “a clerical flavour” called for another Barsetshire novel in spirit if not in letter.Footnote 9
To be sure, when Trollope first seized on the idea for The Warden (1855), he did not anticipate writing six novels set in the same imaginary county. Yet, by the time critics reviewed The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866–67), they found Josiah Crawley's narrative ordeal woven into such ongoing storylines as Mr. Harding's life after his wardenship, Mrs. Proudie's rule of her husband's diocese, Lily Dale's refusal to accept John Eames, and Archdeacon Grantly's ever-strenuous attempts to rein in the forces of modernity. Trollope's return to Barsetshire after a four-year hiatus, produced a warm meditation on series form. The Barchester novels, wrote The Literary Examiner, are both “the best set of ‘sequels’ in our literature” and a new phenomenon; whereas Homer's epics and Aeschylus's tragedies were “complete stories,” Trollope's “chain of novels” is “essentially a birth of our own time.”Footnote 10 The advantage of this mode of seriality, wrote The Athenaeum, is a “remarkable substance and vitality.”Footnote 11
If such comments tell against Henry James's still-influential critique of Trollope's supposed lack of formal interest,Footnote 12 they also open pathways for transtemporal and transmedia comparison. The “last news from the Cathedral-close … has now reached us” declared the British Quarterly Review, as though beckoning aficionados to join the discussion of a popular finale.Footnote 13 By populating the “homogeneous” and “empty” time-space of modernity with “endeared” scenes, situations, and characters,Footnote 14 such serials, in the words of the London Review “inspire … gentle melancholy” on their closing.Footnote 15 Long-form serials (even if we consume them rapidly) mark time's passage through purposeful pauses between chapters and installments while staging dialectical movement between parts and wholes. The sync between narrative time and the lived time of audiences which they accentuate, invites communities of conversation around shared temporal, affective, and aesthetic experience.
As the London Review put it, “If this really be … the last chronicle of Barset,” “we cannot but feel grieved … to say farewell.” “Barset has long been a real country”: the “voices of the people … known to our ears, and the pavements … familiar to our footsteps.”Footnote 16 For comparative nineteenth-centuryists working across the longue durée,Footnote 17 the study of seriality invites continued exploration of untapped archives and new ways of understanding familiar works in light of dialogues with our own fast-transforming material culture.