For purposes of research Tory Historian has been re-reading a remarkable if somewhat eccentric history of early detective and sensational literature by R. F. Stewart, ....And Always a Detective. (Or as Martin Edwards described it "a quirky and meandering survey of early detective fiction, that is as enjoyable to dip into randomly as it is to read from cover to cover".)

There are many interesting things in the book but Tory Historian was particularly taken by some of the figures Mr Stewart gives of book sales in the 1860s, particularly of what was then called with increasing displeasure by critics "sensational literature".
And Mr Wilkie Collins could and did gloat over his receipts. Referring to his income from No Name (1862), he wrote to his mother: '... the amount reaches Four thousand, six hundred. Not so bad for story-telling!' While George Eliot wept: 'I sicken with despondency [she wrote in 1866 to her publisher, Blackwood] ... that the most carefully written books lie .... deep undermost in a heap of trash .... my 6/- editions are never on the railway bookstalls .... They are not so attractive to the majority as "The Trail of the Serpent".' Crocodile tears these, really; in 1863 Romola had brought her a near-record £7,000 with reversion of copyright.

But George Eliot was right about the popularity of the author of The Trail of the Serpent (1861) - none other than Miss Braddon, who certainly seems to have deserved her title of 'Queen of the Circulating Libraries'. The Westminster Review was only just guilty of exaggeration in saying that her 'novels must appear in a second edition the very day after [their] first publication and .... a third follow the second before the week is well out.'

Keeping strictly to facts, however, the story of crowds queuing for the Strand with the next Sherlock Holmes story is well-known; less well remembered is the fact that their fathers had done the same for the next episode of The Moonstone, and when published in book form, having already been serialized, the first impression of 1,000 copies of The Woman in White sold in one day.

George Eliot could perhaps draw some consolation from the admission of an American pirate-publisher that he had sold 126,000 copies of the latter book and paid Collins not a penny.
Whether George Eliot was really that mean-minded and short-sighted, history does not relate.

Nevertheless, the figures are impressive when we consider the value of sterling at the time and the fact that the reading public of these books and magazines was limited not by illiteracy (that has been much exaggerated if not invented by advocates of state education) but by the fact that many people could not afford them. They bought and read penny dreadfuls, whose sales vastly exceeded those listed above.


  1. dfordoom Says:
  2. And a book that sold 4,600 copies would have had a vastly greater readership than that considering the immense popularity of the circulating libraries. No-one really seems to know just how numerous the book-reading as distinct from book-buying public was.

  3. The usual way of counting now is two for one but for the days of the circulating libraries and of books being read in family and other circles that may be an underestimate.

  4. dfordoom Says:
  5. Two for one sounds absurdly low for the mid-19th century. I'd be inclined to suspect ten for one, or even higher.

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