The pleasures of reading

A few possibly helpful and instructive links on how people accessed reading matter in the early nineteenth century:

Circulating libraries ‘played a major role in creating the modern popular culture of reading, in part by making books affordable via the subscription model to a wider spectrum of the public, but more importantly by increasing the number of books any single reader could afford to read. Between the 1740s and 1840s circulating libraries also contributed significantly to the production of books, with proprietors of the largest libraries consistently ranking among the most prolific publishers of their day, especially when it came to novels’. Particularly splendid ones could be found in London and they were also among the recreational pleasures at spaws and seaside resorts.

As the nineteenth century drew on, commercial circulating libraries not only disseminated literature, they gatekept it: Mudie’s Select Library was careful to ensure that all the books it lent were suitable for members of Victorian middle-class family, controlling the ‘subject, scope, and morality of the novel for fifty years’, and also influencing the actual format of the novel: the ‘three decker’. The three-volume novel was the most dominant form in the mid-Victorian era and the vast majority were written by women.

In 1850, the Government introduced a Public Libraries Act, enabling boroughs to raise a rate to found public libraries (in the hopes that providing reading matter would keep the working classes out of pubs). Many localities already had libraries available to the less well-remunerated members of the populace by way of Mechanics Institutes.

At a different level, WH Smith realised the potential of the new mode of transport, the railway, for reading, and set up his first bookstall selling papers and cheap reprints in 1848.

At a still lower level, there was a flourishing trade in serial literature produced in ‘penny parts’, ‘penny bloods’, later known as ‘penny dreadfuls’, including such classics of the genre as Varney the Vampire; or the Feast of Blood, and The String of Pearls, which introduced Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

And even further down, Holywell Street was the centre of a flourishing trade in in smutty pornographic publications.

While the Gothic novel had passed the peak of its vogue, its properties continued to linger on as enduring tropes.

A largely forgotten but popular genre of the early nineteenth century was the ‘silver-fork’ novel of society life.

The Newgate novel employed sensational tropes but had a certain degree of literary respectability.

By the volumes of Clorinda Cathcart’s Circle set some 20-odd years after the Memoirs we are in the heyday of the Victorian novel: Dickens, Thackeray, the Bronte sisters, Mrs Gaskell were all beginning to publish their well-known works.

Thursday 18th August 2022

L.A. Hall, FRHistS