Its fair to say that with the release of the latest series of HBOs Game of Thrones and another instalment from Marvels Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame, the spoiler has never had so much power. Twitter and Facebook have become no-go areas for those yet to watch them, while various guides are offering help on how to live spoiler-free online.
In the real world, someones attempts to leak the conclusion to Endgame outside a Hong Kong cinema reportedly led to them being attacked.
Spoiler culture and spoiler-phobia seem like a unique creation of the internet age: a combination of mass audiences, rapid dissemination of information and popular entertainment being released in episodic formats. But these are, in fact, issues that originated with the media of the 19th century.
Our Victorian forebears wouldnt have called them spoilers, but they were often as conscious as we are that the joys of watching or reading fiction can depend on not knowing whats to come.
The Woman in White
The novelist Wilkie Collins had always been eclipsed by Charles Dickens, his friend and colleague, until The Woman in White began to be published as a serial from November 1859. The novel an exhilarating mixture of intrigue, madness and crime was not only sensational in terms of its contents, but also in its public reception.
People queued outside the publishers offices for the next instalment and placed bets on the secret of its antagonist. Meanwhile perfumes and dances were named after it and William Gladstone, then the UKs chancellor of the exchequer (as we know, he went on to serve four terms as prime minister) cancelled a theatre visit so he could catch up with the newest developments.
Having been released in weekly instalments for more than ten months, The Woman in White was eventually published in a collected, three-volume format in 1860. To the critics who would soon review the book, Collins cautioned against revealing its plot:
Nowadays, when were used to seeing studios and creators go to often extreme lengths to stop audiences and the media revealing details about their work, its difficult to appreciate just how curious Collinss request was how could a plot-heavy novel be discussed without giving away its contents?
Surprisingly, most critics accepted it. The Examiner, a weekly periodical, struggled not to divulge anything, but fully admitted that giving hints of [the] plot would impair its interest for readers yet to make its acquaintance. Meanwhile, even though another paper, the Saturday Review, disliked the novel, their reviewer thought it would be unfair to the story to reveal details. So the critic came to a compromise:
Its not quite what wed recognise today as a spoiler-free review, but this was new territory for the Victorian reviews and their readers.
The first spoiler?
Other authors followed the example Collins set. Mary Elizabeth Braddon had found huge success with her 1862 novel Lady Audleys Secret, which revolved around mistaken identities and past crimes. She knew that much of the power of her follow-up novel, Henry Dunbar, could be spoiled if reviewers gave away a secret that occurs in the final pages she therefore asked them not to describe the plot.
But critics gave a mixed response this time. Many questioned whether a novel that could be spoiled was worth reading and whether revealing details in this way really did have a negative effect on the reading experience. The Examiner asked how a novels plot is to be at the same time concealed and criticised?. In any case, they went on to say, readers could easily guess the secret of Henry Dunbar before it was disclosed what was the fuss?
The Times went even further: the pleasures of these novels dont depend on ignorance of their endings, the reviewer said, and readers were just as content to see how their plots unfolded.
Nevertheless, Collins and Braddon seem to have won out. An 1871 contributor to the Saturday Review confessed that although they found suspense unpleasant they were not the majority of novel-readers, for whom the anxiety to discover the end was a valued aspect of fiction. Fifteen years later, we find arguably the first mention of a spoiler in print. The Graphic, a weekly illustrated newspaper, began its evaluation of the (deliciously titled) novel Doable Cunning with the following remark:
Even if the stakes seem higher today when billions of dollars are invested in certain entertainment franchises, and series can unfold over many years it is comforting to find that modern audiences are far from alone in thinking that the enjoyment of fiction can depend on not knowing everything in advance.