Mapping Minor Characters in the Penny Periodical Press

by Kristen Starkowski

Throughout the late 1830s and early 1840s, penny serialists like Edward Lloyd, George W.M. Reynolds, and Thomas Peckett Prest published works with titles adapted from Charles Dickens. The Pickwick Papers became The Penny Pickwick, Oliver Twist became Oliver Twiss, and Nicholas Nickleby became Nikelas Nickelbery. As a Center for Digital Humanities Graduate Fellow at Princeton University, I set out to examine just how similar these spinoffs were to Dickens’s originals.

After trips to the British Library and Bodleian Library, I realized that while these hack writers adapted Dickens’s characters and titles, they also took the stories in new directions, particularly in terms of character. But I needed a way to quantify my sense of character space in these spinoffs compared to Dickens’s originals, so I turned to the digital humanities and, specifically, to social network analysis.

I started out by examining Oliver Twist and two penny spinoffs of the novel, both called Oliver Twiss (one by “Poz” and the other by “Bos”). The two spinoffs were not equally successful in the working-class literary market, with Bos’s Twiss running seventy-nine weekly numbers and Poz’s running only four. The storylines are also incredibly different, even though both writers tailored their serials to a working-class readership.

Over the two terms of my fellowship, I collected data about the three texts in a spreadsheet. I divided the serials up by scene, and took note of which characters appeared in each scene, and whether they spoke, were part of the setting or background, or were merely mentioned by another character. I counted scenes based on the setting in which plots and sub-plots unfolded. When the narrative or action moved elsewhere, I started collecting data about that segment of the text under a new scene. In some scenes, specific characters appeared or were mentioned by other characters several times, and in these cases, I only counted the character once per scene. After gathering this data, I imported it into Cytoscape, an open source program that generates network visualizations.

Here is an image of the network I generated based on Bos’s Oliver Twiss.

Figure One: Network Graph of Oliver Twiss by the author.

In this network, major characters are shown in green, minor characters are shown in dark purple, and the scenes that connect characters are shown in light purple. A larger circle means that a character is connected to more scenes in the novel, relative to all of the other characters.

When read alongside the network of Poz’s Twiss, this visualization shows that minor characters in Dickens’s novels often became major characters in the penny spinoffs. For example, after examining the network above, we see that the equivalents to Mr. Brownlow’s (Mr. Beaumont’s) domestics emerge as relatively major figures when character space is determined by scene. Such characters include Mrs. Tidy, Mr. Beeswing, and Tom Trot. Oftentimes, characters who earn more page space in the spinoffs were flattened in the originals. More notably, the characters who emerge as more central in these visualizations were often servants or vagrants. When combined with close reading, then, this digital project helps to illuminate the extent to which penny publishers re-wrote Dickens’s minor characters in ways that would have resonated with their lower and working-class readership.

To read more about this project, see Kristen Starkowski, “‘Our Delectable Works’: Characterological Novelty in Penny ‘Plagiarisms’ of Oliver Twist.Victorian Review 45.2, pp. 271-292.

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