While there are exceptions to the rule, I think I’ve decided that a typical Victorian novel consists of 100 pages of boring, followed by 500 pages of sedately interesting, before reaching a final 100 pages of completely riveting.
While the exact number of pages in each stage may vary, the same rough proportions can be seen in Crime and Punishment, almost anything by Dickens, all Trollope’s Palliser novels and all the later (and larger) Barchester Chronicles. Mary Barton and Wives and Daughters by Gaskell also fit the bill. There are also minor variations (Tolstoy likes to add 150 pages of anti-climax after the riveting bit).
I can see how the serialisation of novels made an 80-chapter, 700-page novel seem like a financially good idea for authors and publishers. But in our current era of binge-viewing TV shows and 10-minute attentions spans, you’ve got to admire a Victorian audience who would plug through approximately 10-15 regular installments of boring based on trust that it would get better in about three months time!
Fortunately for us, a more patient era permitted Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope and others, time to introduce vast casts of rich and complex characters and situations that would enable them to keep their audience engaged for another 600 pages, as well as a hundred and fifty years. They’ve also provided us with plenty of character-building (in two senses!), 100-page introductions with which to combat our constantly shortening attention spans.
They also have other uses. While at College I found 100/500/100 novels great in the lead up to exam time. I would often still want to read something enjoyable just before bed but couldn’t afford to get sucked in or read more than one chapter. A chunky Victorian novel will keep you mildly interested through three weeks of term time, a week of StuVac and a couple of weeks of exams and then thoughtfully provide some riveting, celebratory reading at the beginning of your holiday!
So if you’re looking to find yourself a slow-starting novel for a busy season of life, look no further than the 100/500/100 tag…