Allen Riddell: Every Victorian Novel

Allen Riddell’s talk, “Every Victorian Novel: Dispatches from Data-Intensive Book History,” reviewed three recent contributions to the history of fiction publishing in the British Isles and Ireland during the 19th century.

The three papers share an investment in an inclusive history of the novel and of novel-writing as a profession. They depend on, to varying degrees, the availability of machine-readable bibliographies and of digital surrogates of volumes held by legal deposit libraries (e.g., Oxford’s Bodleian, British Library).

The first article, “Reassembling the English Novel, 1789—1919,” forthcoming in Cultural Analytics, estimates annual rates of novel publication for each year between 1789 and 1919. This period—which witnessed the publication of between 40,000 and 63,000 previously-unpublished novels—merits attention because it was during this period that institutions, organizational practices, and technologies associated with the contemporary text industry emerged.

The second article, “The Class of 1838: A Social History of the First Victorian Novelists,” revisits a research question introduced by Raymond Williams in The Long Revolution (1961) (Chapter 5, “The Social History of English Writers”). This article, published last year, examines the social origins of the 81 novelists who published a novel in 1838. Replicating Williams’s research is essential because Williams’s original study was, by his own admission, preliminary and depended on a small, non-probability sample of writers.

The talk concludes with an assessment of four major digital libraries’ coverage of published Victorian novels. (The digital libraries studied are the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, Google Books, and the British Library.) While evidence suggests that a majority of Victorian novels have been digitized, multivolume novels and novels by male authors are overrepresented relative to their share of the population of published novels. This third paper also provides an occasion to reflect on the past decade of data-intensive literary history, a research field whose prospects have been linked to mass digitization of research and national libraries.

Allen Riddell is Assistant Professor of Information Science in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University Bloomington. His research explores applications of modern statistical methods in literary history and text-based media studies. He is the co-author with Folgert Karsdorp and Mike Kestemont of Humanities Data Analysis (Princeton University Press, 2021) (open-access edition in 2022). Prior to coming to Indiana, Riddell was a Neukom Fellow at the Neukom Institute for Computational Sciences and the Leslie Center for the Humanities at Dartmouth College.