Exploring the way Victorians bought, borrowed and read their books, and the impact of the popular literature of the period.
By Dr. Kate Flint
Provost Professor of Art History and English
Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
University of Southern California
Victorians were great readers of the novel, and the number of novels available for them to read increased enormously during Victoria’s reign. The activity of reading benefited hugely from wider schooling and increased literacy rates, from the cheapening costs of publication, from improved distribution that resulted from better transportation, and, towards the end of the century, from the arrival of gas and electric lighting in homes, which meant that reading after dark no longer had to take place by candlelight or oil lamp. Although much fiction was, increasingly, targeted at specific markets, some works strongly appealed across class, age, and gender. G H Lewes noted of Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836–37) that
even the common people, both in town and country, are equally intense in their admiration. Frequently, have we seen the butcher-boy, with his tray on his shoulder, reading with the greatest avidity the last “Pickwick”; the footman (whose fopperies are so inimitably laid bare), the maidservant, the chimney sweep, all classes, in fact, read “Boz”.
Novels were available in many different forms, and through many outlets. They might be made available in monthly parts, with advertisements at either end: many of Dickens’s novels were first published in this form, as was George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–72). This made them very portable, and easily shared. Like novels that were published in weekly or monthly segments in magazines and periodicals, their writers frequently ended each episode on a cliff-hanger, making the reader curious about what happened next, and anxious to buy the next instalment. Some readers even corresponded with authors about what they hoped would, or wouldn’t, transpire (Dickens changed the original gloomy end for Walter Gay, in Dombey and Son (1848) to a happy one because of reader response). Readers’ private letters often show them speculating to friends about how a story will play out.
Other novels were published from the first in volume form. Until the early 1890s, the most frequent pattern was for them to be published in three volumes. Since the new novel usually cost 31s 6d (in 1880, say, roughly a startling £138 in today’s money – more than the average weekly industrial wage, at that time), these were almost always borrowed from circulating libraries. Some of these were locally owned businesses, but the best known was Mudie’s Circulating Library (founded 1842), which sent boxes of books all over the country to its subscribers. Other borrowing facilities were found at railway station bookstalls, which also sold reading matter for consuming on journeys. Agnes Repplier noted in 1893 how
The clerks and artisans, shopgirls, dressmakers, and milliners, who pour into London every morning by the early trains, have, each and every one, a choice specimen of penny fiction with which to beguile the short journey, and perhaps the few spare minutes of a busy day. The workingman who slouches up and down the platform, waiting for the moment of departure, is absorbed in some crumpled bit of pink-covered romance. The girl who lounges opposite to us in the carriage, and who would be a very pretty girl in any other conceivable hat, sucks mysterious sticky lozenges, and reads a story called “Mariage à la Mode, or Getting into Society”.
The increasing number of public libraries often, though not invariably, carried fiction.
Readers did not have to wait long before they could feasibly buy a new novel themselves. Six months after the original publication, many were reissued as a single volume costing 3s 6d; then a little later, in a ‘railway’ or ‘yellow-back’ edition, and, if the work proved very popular, in 6d or 1s form. Works that were out of copyright were always cheap to purchase – hence, in part, the familiarity of many working class readers with Defoe and Fielding. These working class readers were also the prime – though not the sole – consumers of romance novelettes and long-running, episodic series featuring criminal activity and daring, improbable adventures. By the end of the century, when the system of publishing ‘three decker’ novels broke down, fictional lengths became more variable, and this went hand in hand with the growth in genre fiction like adventure tales – often set in the Empire – detective fiction, and ghost stories.
The Power to Educate
Fiction was widely believed to have the capacity to influence its readers. As George Eliot wrote in an early letter, men and women are ‘imitative beings. We cannot, at least those who ever read to any purpose at all … help being modified by the ideas that pass through our minds’. In part, this belief harked back to the 18th century, when reading contemporary novels was often criticized as a time-wasting pastime, without the cultural seriousness carried by reading classical literature, history, or some forms of poetry. The reply to this – one that carried into the Victorian period – was to assert its power to educate. This education might be of a broad, informative kind: reading novels can bring us into contact with historical periods or far-away places – or places that the reader might never have visited in their own country, like slum tenements in industrial cities. Because the reader’s attention and imagination is bound up in a plot, and in the fate of characters (will they live? will they marry? will they be caught?) fiction is frequently a compelling way of conveying not just information, but possible responses towards one’s new knowledge, such as agitating for social reform. Fiction, it was also thought, might guide one’s sympathies for those with whom one would otherwise have little in common, thus developing one’s moral strengths. If this, as voiced by George Eliot, for example, was a widely applicable and essentially democratic hope, the didactic potential of fiction to strengthen specifically Christian doctrine and beliefs was found in popular fiction aimed at both children and adults, by such authors as Hesba Stretton and Charlotte Yonge. All of these characteristics combine in mid-Victorian England’s most widely read novel, the anti-slavery Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by the American Harriet Beecher Stowe.
A Bad Influence?
If fiction could influence for the good, it was also thought that it could influence for the bad. Cultural commentators were particularly anxious about the effects of reading fiction on women. It was argued that their physiology made them especially vulnerable to excitement and to over-identification; that they would become dissatisfied with the limitations of their lives (of course, others considered this to be a good thing); that they would waste time on exciting novels when they could be more usefully occupied around the house. The working classes, too, were thought to be easily corrupted by ‘trashy’ fiction, either because they would be led by it to dream above their status, or, in the case of young men, that they might wish to emulate a criminal lifestyle.
Many of these anxieties hinged on whether or not readers could distinguish between the escapism afforded by fiction, and the realities of their own lives. In the late 19th century novelists themselves, however – and Thomas Hardy, George Gissing, and George Moore were especially important here – started to push back against critics who tried to tell them what they should provide for their readers. They assumed that readers did not need protecting against controversial and painful subjects, especially sexual ones; they acknowledged reading fiction is often about wish-fulfilment, and deliberately refused to provide happy endings. In other words, they respected fiction’s power, and they trusted their readers to be as thoughtful and responsive as very many frequently proved to be.
- [G. H. Lewes], “Review of Books”, National Magazine and Monthly CriticI (1837), p.445.
- See Kate Flint, “The Victorian novel and its readers”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, ed. by Deirdre David (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 13-35 (p.21).
- Agnes Repplier, “English Railway Fiction”, Points of View (Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin, 1893), p.209.
- Mary Ann Evans to Maria Lewis, 16 March 1839, in The George Eliot Letters, ed. by Gordon Haight, 9 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954-78), i, p.23.
Originally published by the British Library, 05.15.2014, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.