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One might assume that ‘spoiler culture’ and ‘spoiler-phobia’ are a unique creation of the internet age: ‘a combination of mass audiences, rapid dissemination of information and popular entertainment being released in episodic formats’. However, James Green, a researcher based at the University of Exeter, has recently suggested that in fact, these are issues that originated with the media of the 19th century.

Although our Victorian ancestors did not call these ‘spoilers’ per se, they were well aware, as we are today, that the joys of watching or reading fiction may depend entirely on not knowing what’s to come. Citing the novel ‘The Woman in White’, written by the British 19th century author Wilkie Collins, Green suggests that it may well have been ‘the first spoiler’ in the world of English literature. The novel, which was published as a serial, is deemed to be ‘an exhilarating mixture of intrigue, madness and crime’, and was both ‘sensational’ in terms of its contents, as well as in its public reception.

Having been released in weekly instalments over the course of around ten months, it is thought that people queued outside the publisher’s offices for the novel’s next instalment, even placing bets on the “secret” of its antagonist. Meanwhile perfumes and dances were named after it and the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer at the time, William Gladstone, went as far as cancelling a theatre visit so that he could catch up with its newest developments.

Although the stakes may seem higher today – when billions of pounds are invested in certain entertainment franchises, and series can unfold over many years – it is comforting to know that ‘modern audiences are far from alone in thinking that the enjoyment of fiction can depend on not knowing everything in advance’.

Applicants for English Literature can consider how the unfolding of plots from fictitious literary pieces have evolved throughout time, reflecting on the similarities and differences between characteristic traits of novels dating from the Victorian era to present times.

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