[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the illuminated “A” for Vanity FairGeorge P. Landow.]

Illuminated initial A

 Advertising has long proven a tempting target for literary and cultural critics in Britain. For a full three hundred years now, in fact, it has been something of a rite of passage for the nation's critics to weigh in on the rampant commercialism of modern times and, more particularly, how advertising has come to invade every corner of both public and private life. As early as 1710, Joseph Addison devoted the entirety of Spectator no. 224 to advertising's proliferation, confessing that he himself had "a certain Weakness in my Temper" for touching personal ads, having "frequently been caught with Tears in my Eyes over a melancholy Advertisement." A half century later Samuel Johnson took a darker view of advertising's spread, grumbling in Idler no. 40 (1759), "Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic." In the Romantic age Leigh Hunt called for a ban on advertisements "by those abandoned hypocrites, whose greatest quackery is their denial of being quacks" ("Prospectus for The Examiner"), and the great Victorian Thomas Carlyle complained, "The Quack has become God.... To me thisl all-deafening blast of Puffery, of poor Falsehood grown necessitous,...sounds too surely like a Doom's-blast!" (Past and Present). By the twentieth century, critics as dissimilar as F.R. Leavis and Raymond Williams could agree that advertising was a particular scourge of their age. In 1933 Leavis urged school teachers to design units specifically geared toward counteracting advertising's deleterious effects on English "taste and sensibility" (Culture and Environment 1), and a generation later Williams lamented that advertising had become "the official art of modern capitalist society" ("Advertising: The Magic System" 184).

It is safe to say, then, that something of a semi-official party line has been adopted over the years by British writers and thinkers holding that advertising is inherently at odds with high culture. Flying in the face of this long-cherished belief, however, is a new wave of scholarship suggesting that, far from inherently antithetical, advertising and literature have actually been co-productive of one another in modern times. Such arguments have been especially influential in Victorian studies, where Jennifer Wicke's groundbreaking Advertising Fictions: Literature, Advertisement, and Social Reading (1988) has been followed by Thomas Richards's The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914 (1990), Lori Anne Loeb's Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women (1994), and now Sara Thornton's new book.

Thornton's study builds particularly upon Wicke's and Richards's work but adds a comparative dimension in considering the relationship between advertising and literature in both London and Paris during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Thornton's principal concern is how the "language of the walls" — a phrase she borrows from James Dawson Burns's 1855 pamphlet of that name — has fundamentally changed ways of seeing and thinking for modern city-dwellers. As she details in her particularly rich opening chapter, a range of mid-nineteenth-century innovations paved the way for the explosion of outdoor advertising. New paper-making and printing techniques made producing ornate handbills and posters cheaper and easier; the rise of railroads and road networks improved the flow of urbanites through congested cities; and the advent of gas lighting doubled the hours in the day when outdoor advertisements could be read.

With all of these favorable conditions in place, merchants and manufacturers of the mid-century began pasting over every available city surface. Thornton reprints an impressive range of sketches, paintings, and cartoons — the vast majority of them English — depicting a world where advertising knew no boundaries. Not only are city walls completely given over to a mess of ads, but so are umbrellas, coins, sandwich-boards, delivery vans, and even the occasional tombstone. As more than one satirist in Victorian London joked, anyone standing still long enough was destined to get pasted over with advertising posters. The eventual result of this, Thornton argues in what proves her most crucial insight, was that "in the mid-nineteenth century, text was no longer something which had to be sought out and paid for dearly; it now sought out the subject, moved into the line of his or her gaze, and asked to be read" (35). Drawing particularly upon Althusser's notions of interpellation, she goes on to describe how advertisements continually hail the modern pedestrian, often performing a "branding of the brand name upon the brain" (42). Constantly bombarded by such messages, the modern subject is forced to adopt new modes of seeing, entering into a psychological mode where the "only means of survival is to adapt to the ebb and flow of data" (21).

As Thornton goes on to argue in Chapters 2 and 3, this interpellated subject of modernity is on full display in the works of Dickens and Balzac. In the case of the former, Thornton is most interested in the Dickens Advertiser, the intricately designed monthly numbers of Dickens's novels where the fictional text is immersed in a sea of advertisements. In some cases, such as the first number of Our Mutual Friend, the Advertiser edition devotes more than twice as many pages to advertisements as to the novel itself. Whereas Thornton's introductory chapter treats the new modes of seeing that emerged in an ad-saturated cityscape, her chapter on the Dickens Advertisers probes the "complexity of perpetual skills demanded of the reader" when the primary text is regularly interrupted by commercial paratexts. The new mode of reading that emerges, she suggests, amounts to a sort of literary "grazing" or "loitering," a forced attention-deficit disorder where the "oriented and organized linear reading associated with the novel" (65-67) is radically disrupted. Having made this core point about the Advertisers, Thornton devotes the latter half of her Dickens chapter to close readings of the Advertiser editions of Edwin Drood and Bleak House. Here she shows, among other things, how the Edwin Drood Advertiser skillfully replicates the technologically accelerated pace of modern life and how the satirical advertisements that the tailoring firm of Moses and Son produced to accompany Bleak House dramatically undercut the novel's socio-political themes.

With Chapter 3, Thornton turns from Dickens's London to Balzac's Paris. Whereas London had a long pre-nineteenth-century tradition of outdoor commercial advertising, most Parisian street advertising up through this time had been explicitly political in nature. During the 1830s, however, when Balzac was just starting out as a writer, a transformation was underway in France in which "the interface between politics (in its broadest sense of the organization of the polis) and commerce was consolidated to bring about, through advertising, the metamorphosis of the citizen into citizen-consumer" (121). At the same time, Parisian newspapers were becoming increasingly dependent on advertising revenue, which necessitated attracting loyal readers through original and timely content. In the literary field, this led to the rise of the feuilleton, or the serial novel printed in daily installments, the mode in which Balzac first came to prominence. Consequently, the new advertising system can be said to have dramatically shaped the work of Balzac and his generation. As Thornton argues, "The impetus given to literature in the press by advertising meant that by the 1840s advertising was part of literature's life blood" (131). That this is clearly the case with Balzac is evidenced in Thornton's detailed readings of Caesar Birotteau and Lost Illusions. Both novels, she suggests, not only chronicle the rise of modern advertising in France but also contemplate the value of traditional literary forms in a text-saturated age.

As demonstrated by readings such as these, Thornton has a real gift for detailed, nuanced textual analyses. She also shows an impressive ability to draw upon a variety of critical and social theorists, ranging from Freud and Benjamin to Agamben and Butler, to add conceptual depth without diverting the argument in tangential or otherwise unproductive directions. While at times her individual chapters can feel a bit sprawling — the entire book is divided into only three chapters (not counting a rather brisk three-page introduction and a similarly rushed two-page conclusion) — she never drifts too far afield from her central concerns about the new subjectivity brought about by advances in mid-century advertising.

If anything, in fact, one wishes this study weren't quite so tightly focused on just two writers and four decades (1830-1870). In a book whose titular scope encompasses "the nineteenth-century novel," one would hope to find at least passing mention of how the new commercialism factors prominently in the work of authors ranging from Edgeworth to Trollope in Britain and Stael to Zola in France. Yet nowhere are these or a host of other relevant writers mentioned. Thornton also neglects to consider the large body of recent scholarship on pre-Victorian British advertising. In doing so, she joins a long line of Victorianists who have rather blithely moved forward under the assumption that, as Thomas Richards memorably argued, advertising prior to the Great Exhibition was in a "primitive state," having "a few old tricks, a fixed repertoire at least several hundred years old, and nothing more" (The Commodity Culture 6). A much different story, of course, is told in such seminal studies of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century advertising as Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J.H. Plumb's The Birth of a Consumer Society (1982), Colin Campbell's The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (1987), Marcus Wood's Radical Satire and Print Culture 1790-1822 (1994), and John Strachan's Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period (2007). Unfortunately, none of these studies on the rise of modern advertising and its wide-ranging impact on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature receives so much as a mention in Thornton's book, not even in her bibliography.

In a book that is so thorough in other respects, completely overlooking studies such as these is a rather remarkable omission - especially since this book is published in Palgrave's "Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture" series, which explicitly aims to track "the historical continuities between 'Romantic' and 'Victorian,'" thereby helping "scholarship reassess the meaning of these terms during a century marked by diverse cultural, literary, and political movements." In sum, then, however genuinely impressive Thornton's study may be in mapping the new urban subjectivity in an age of rampant advertising and tracing its manifestations in Dickens and Balzac, she leaves a range of unanswered questions about the historical origins of these phenomena and about their distinctiveness. Did they suddenly appear in just the published work of these two novelists, we might ask, or do they reflect larger trends in the literary histories of pre-twentieth-century Britain and France?


Sara Thornton. The “Advertising, Subjectivity and the nineteenth-century novel: Dickens, Blazac, and the Language of the Walls. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. xi + 214 pp.

Last modified 22 June 2014