01 December 2008

Sports & Entertainment: Books & Reading in the 19th Century

By Sandra Schwab

Do you like to read novels? Of course you do, or you probably wouldn't have stumbled across the blog of a bunch of romance authors! Now imagine yourself living in the 1800s--what would your books look like then?

Generally speaking, 19th-century novels were often smaller than our books today, and until the 1830s, there was no standard publisher's binding. The covers consisted of grey cardboard, which buyers would remove so the books could be bound in their own library style. And this, of course, also tells you something about the readers and the price of books: novels were expensive. Very expensive in fact, and only the upper and upper-middle classes could afford to buy them on a regular basis. A novel was usually published in three volumes, as a so-called three-decker novel. By the 1820s, Sir Walter Scott's publisher had raised the price per volume to 10s 6d, which meant that the complete novel would cost 31s 6d. For the next few decades this remained the standard price. If you compare this to the average weekly wage of, say, a teacher (17s), it's clear that most people couldn't afford to buy first editions.

Instead, a lot of readers got their books from the so-called circulating libraries. For an annual fee, you could borrow one volume at a time; if you paid a higher fee, you could get more books. The most successful circulating library of the 19th century was Mudie's, founded in 1842. Thanks to their efficient organisation, they soon distributed books not only throughout Britain, but also throughout the whole British Empire. Imagine that!

If you fancied some lighter reading (or if you were a young lad enthralled by stories of knightly adventures, monsters, evil magicians, witches, seven-league boots and what not), you might have turned to the cheap street literature: to the broadside ballads and the chapbooks with their somewhat coarse woodcuts.

Luckily for Victorian readers, the cost of books and literature changed dramatically in the course of the 19th century, when Dickens and his publishers made the illustrated monthly popular for mainstream literature. For example, The Pickwick Papers were published in 19 installments from March 1836 to October 1837. Each monthly sold at 1s (except for the last, double, issue which cost 2s), and each issue was surrounded by pages of advertisements which provided an additional income for the publisher. The suspicion with which some people regarded these illustrated monthlies is expressed by Miss Jenkyns in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford: her neighbour, Captain Brown, is reading The Pickwick Papers in installments, and Miss Jenkyns is quite certain that the author, Mr Boz, can't possibly be a good writer. Indeed, she is rather annoyed when Captain Brown suggests that the opposite is true.

Gaskell's Cranford stories as well as her novel North and South were first published in a weekly magazine, namely in Dickens's Household Words, which ran from 1850 to 1859. Such installments in weekly magazines became another popular way to publish novels and to expand the literary market.

This serialisation of novels meant that the reading experience of nineteenth-century readers was quite different from our own: they often followed the fates of their favourite characters over several months, if not years, which resulted in a special intimacy with the story and the characters. (And, oh dear, the extended suspense!) But not only novels were published as serials: the Victorians read every genre in serial form, fiction and non-fiction alike.

No comments: