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date: 13 November 2019

Abstract and Keywords

The best-known images of novel reading from the nineteenth century describe how novels corrupt readers’ morals and corrode their cognitive capacities. This essay finds an alternate, more positive account throughout Victorian commentaries in which novel reading appears as a participatory, cooperative activity that both encourages and depends on the reader’s freedom of thought. At the time, new publishing formats and new distribution venues (including serialization, public libraries, and railway bookstalls) brought unprecedented access to fiction for a wider than ever population of readers, as well as fostered a dynamic in which novels moved physically and psychically in and out of readers’ daily lives. Realist novelists, novel critics, and readers commonly expressed an attitude that one could, and should, freely traverse back and forth between the two worlds of fiction and real life. Novelists like Thomas Hardy and George Eliot invited readers to join in constructing, even to add mentally to their fictional worlds; the novel—whose growth owed much to Britain’s rapid industrialization—became a paradoxical space in which to cultivate imaginativeness and resist the mental effects of living within such a culture. Novels were said to be damaging, but they were also part of a distinctively English culture that valued reading as an expression of individuality and mental liberty.

Keywords: Reading, Books, Book History, Literacy, Imagination, Freedom of mind, Subjectivity, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy

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