Thursday, June 28, 2018

Introducing Major Barbara

Bernard Shaw had an annoying habit of writing prefaces to his plays that seem to have little to do with the plays themselves, but I've returned a number of times to his preface for Major Barbara. Though it can be infuriating at times, it always makes me think.

Shaw begins the preface by writing about an obscure novel by Charles Lever called A Day's Ride: A Life's Romance. He claims that Charles Dickens originally published the piece in Household Words, but that it "proved so strange to the public taste that Dickens pressed Lever to make short work of it."

Dickens actually published the piece in a successor journal, All the Year Round, and he did not exactly try to "make short work of it." You see, when Dickens began publishing All the Year Round on April 30, 1859, he featured on its first page the opening chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. From April to November, it was nothing but the best of times for All the Year Round as readers flocked to get the latest installment of the hit novel.

After Dickens finished A Tale of Two Cities, he needed something just as spectacular to keep up circulation. He found it in Wilkie Collins's novel The Woman in White, which is sometimes called the first English detective novel. Filled with suspense and melodramatic incident, The Woman in White continued to keep readers' attention. As Collins wrapped the piece up toward the end of August in 1860, a suitable replacement had to be found. Being as A Tale of Two Cities and The Woman in White were two of the most popular novels in Victorian Britain, that wasn't going to be easy.

The replacement was of course A Day's Ride. Dickens decided to run the beginning of Lever's novel as a secondary story appearing in the same issues of All the Year Round as the closing chapters of The Woman in White. Beginning in September, though, A Day's Ride ran on the front page as the magazine's leading story. That lasted until the end of November. By that point, it was clear that Lever's novel wasn't able to bring in readers like its two predecessors in the journal. What was Dickens to do?

His solution was to start writing a new novel of his own. On December 1, 1860, Dickens began publishing Great Expectations on the front page of All the Year Round. While he was clearly disappointed in A Day's Ride, he didn't let the novel just drop. Instead, he simply moved it to a secondary position, continuing to run it alongside Great Expectations, just no longer on the front page.

Ultimately, A Day's Ride probably received more readers due to Dickens's decision. And it wasn't Lever's fault that he couldn't keep up with Dickens and Collins. He simply had the misfortune of being published alongside some of the greatest novels of his day.

What? You thought this post would be about Major Barbara? I thought Shaw's preface to the play would be, too.