This is gonna be a rambler.
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?' (opening line of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
Alice will grow up, I predict, to be a great reader of Victorian novels, which generally had plenty of both. What a shame that novels have lost their illustrations. I am with the Victorians on that one.
Rohan Maitzen has written an amusing guide on How to Read a Victorian Novel. It has pictures and conversation and is useful, so Alice will be happy. Most of Rohan's how-to secretly applies to all literature, non-Victorian and less novel, but not all of it (e.g., “they will be aiming at reforming you as much as (or more than) they aim at reforming society,” an idea that is not uniquely Victorian but is disproportionately represented).
I want to extend one of Rohan’s precepts: “it will help to put aside modern(ist) assumptions about what novels should and shouldn’t do.” She is right, it will help, sometimes enormously. I have made runs at a number of literary traditions and periods, Classical and modern, European and otherwise. Early on, every time, everything was a mystery. I grasped what I could. As I read more, though, obscurities lightened and mysteries evaporated. Sometimes a repeated reference finally fit into its contextual slot, and other times the issue is one of vocabulary, when an archaic usage suddenly becomes clear, like the 17th and 18th century use of the word “aversion”:
LYDIA Madam, I must tell you plainly, that had I no preferment for any one else, the choice [of suitor] you have made would be my aversion. (Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Rivals, 1775).
We should bring this usage back. This play is on my mind since, oddly, it is appears in detail in the Willkie Collins novel I am reading. Back to my point.
The point is that the answer to any problem is: read more. The answer is not: throw the book aside as hopeless. Renaissance Italian epics, Elizabethan plays, and Siglo de Oro poetry were constructed on aesthetic principles that are not the same as those of the contemporary novel, of any contemporary novel, but they have their own logic and illogic that can be deduced and inferred by the basic act of reading, and re-reading, and reading more. Reading all of Shakespeare is a great idea; reading Shakespeare along with much of Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and John Webster (and Philip Sidney and John Donne and so on) is a better idea. The Shakespeare is better, and in some sense easier, after reading the Webster and Donne, and vice versa.
Victorian novels are an 800 page breeze compared to that stuff, but the idea is the same. I cannot emphasize how much reading Walter Scott and Lord Byron has affected my understanding of later Victorian novels, or the extent that Thomas Carlyle turns up in Dickens and Gaskell, or how Thackeray’s voice in Vanity Fair is absorbed by Charlotte Brontë and Anthony Trollope.
Well, I know I have not reached any surprising conclusion here – anyone who wanders by Wuthering Expectations understands the idea. Yet every example I mention was a surprise to me not so long ago. I could redo the argument with German or French or Russian fiction (Scott and Byron help with all of them). And I am just reading as an amateur – the professional specialists find even more, at the admittedly high cost of diminishing returns and increasing tedium. Fortunately for me they write down the best discoveries and share them. Put aside your assumptions, like Rohan suggests. Learn to use new assumptions.
Also, though, do not set aside your assumptions while reading a Victorian novel! I should save that idea for tomorrow.