- 16 August 2012 by Jim Giles
Friday, August 17, 2012
Software reveals the most influential Victorian novelists
THINK of the great 19th-century novelists and names like Dickens, Hardy and the Brontës immediately spring to mind. In terms of influence on other writers, though, the biggest hitters of the era were behind what some call sigh-worthy romance novels and a boyhood adventure yarn.
That's according to a new method of analysing texts using a customised version of Google's PageRank algorithm. Fans of Pride and Prejudice (see picture) and Ivanhoe will be delighted: the system claims the era's most influential authors are Jane Austen and Walter Scott.
Pic - Rex Features
The finding is based on a study of digitised copies of over 3500 novels published in English between 1780 and 1900. To gauge influence within this set, Matthew Jockers, now at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, developed software that categorises novels according to the frequencies with which certain words appear, as well as how the words are grouped to form themes. The result is a series of "fingerprints", each made up of 600 data points, which characterise the novels.
To make sense of the result, Jockers assembled the novels into a network in which the strength of the links between two books is determined by the similarity of their fingerprints.
He completed the process by adapting PageRank ndash; the algorithm Google uses as the cornerstone of its strategy for identifying the importance of web pages. His modified algorithm singled out novels with the strongest and most numerous links to works that came after them, and it declared Austen and Scott top.
"The signals introduced by Austen and Scott position them at the beginning of a stylistic-thematic genealogy; they are, in this sense, the literary equivalent of Homo erectus or, if you prefer, Adam and Eve," Jockers wrote in a paper that was presented at the Digital Humanities conference in Hamburg, Germany, last month.
The result may surprise some readers, since Austen is often attacked in popular culture for her focus on romantic themes. But it makes a lot of sense to scholars of Victorian literature. "In some sense it is an eerie return to some of the histories of the novel written by Victorians themselves, which tended to single out Austen and Scott as progenitors," says Nicholas Dames, chair of the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York.
Read the full piece at The New Scientist