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"Victorian Bestsellers": Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

"Victorian Bestsellers" Morgan Library & Museum, New York. January 26-May 6, 2007

"Bestseller" is a relatively recent coinage. It doesn't even appear in the first edition of the OED. The Supplement's first citation is from 1911, given an American origin, and pejorative: "His book had passed into the abhorred class of best sellers." I think the OED is late by at least twenty years, but this is clearly a case where life cried out for a new word.

The wonderful new exhibit at the Morgan Library officially covers the period from 1837-1901, Victoria's reign, but it sneaks in some forerunners, like the Gothic novelists Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis. Their effect can be judged by Gillray's print "Tales of Wonder!," in which even the drawing-room ornaments are agog at the thrilling horrors read aloud into the wee hours of the morning to the female audience. Thus the birth of the trashy bestseller. As Oscar Wilde said of their racy descendant Rhoda Broughton, such authors posess "that one touch of vulgarity that makes the whole world kin." There's a lot of money to be had if you can appeal to the appetite of the whole world, and the first thing that greets you when you enter the shot, is a contract signed--and cannily amended--by Charles Dickens.

By 1837, all the preconditions for bestsellerdom were in place: cheap paper strong enough for rotary steam presses, competing publishing houses, a sizable literate public, and a bit of extra time. The reader as consumer was born. And as a wall text notes and the Gillray illustrates, there were "more consumers than purchasers." Publishers tried to give you good value for money, cramming text in double-columns of tiny print. Illustrations were an important break for all readers. The Morgan show includes typically exuberant examples by Dickens's illustrators Phiz and Cruikshank, the more genteel Millais for Trollope, and the sophisticated winks with which Thackeray himself illustrated Vanity Fair. The artwork could be aesthetically appealing even for cheaper productions and the lower orders. Yellowbacks--price two shillings--were designed specifically as railway reading: the proto-paperback. On display are both draft yellow-back covers and a portfolio of finished products by Arthur Crowquill. If you think his name is too apt, congratulations. Crowquill, a pseudonym shared by two brothers, but mostly associated with one of them, Alfred Henry Forrester, drew comic pictures for Punch, and also designed book jackets. The filigreed detail is meant to be savored: Alexis Soyer's Shilling Cookery for the People (perhaps based on his cooking for the troops in the Crimea), Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, and The Roving Englshman (Crowquill corrected this mistake by the final proof; the Morgan, alas, seems to have misspelled his real surname). Precisely because Yellowbacks and Shilling Shockers were so popular and affordable, these cheaply made books were read to death. The Morgan has an absolutely pristine copy of a Penny Dreadful--one of the most famous, The Blue Dwarf: A Tale of Love, Mystery, and Crime--whose gorgeously garish colors blaze forth like an illuminated manuscript page from the gray print.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that the lower classes only read low fiction. Elizabeth Gaskell, who set Mary Barton (1848) in Manchester where her husband was a Unitarian minister, describes handloom weavers reading books like Newton's Principia, "snatched at in work hours, but revelled over in meal times" Workingmen and -women might not be able to afford three-volume novels or subscriptions to Mudie's, a Netflix-like lending library, but they were ingenious in satisfying their appetites for books. One anonymous workingman who wrote his memoirs in 1845 described workers clubbing their money together to pay another man to read out loud to them while they worked. Factories, police stations, many shops, and even pubs and coffee-houses lent out books for a small fee. Churches and chapels often had libraries, although St. Martin-in-the-Fields was presumably not alone in banning fiction after parishioners stayed home on Sundays to read Scott. The show includes a range of bestselling nonfiction, from Macaulay, Mrs. Beeton, and Samuel Smiles's Self-Help.

The money to be made from books led to a huge market in pirated editions, especially in America. For example, in 1890, the American Humane Education Society in Boston reprinted and distributed--for free--Black Beauty, which according to their own cover had already sold 90,000 copies in England. They underestimated: within itsfirst year of publication, it had sold 100,000 copies. Anna Sewell had died three months after its publication in 1878, having sold the copyright for 20 [pounds sterling].

One factor in Black Beauty's success was its premise, given in the subtitle: The Autobiography of a Horse, Translated from the Original Equine. Another was length: short. In 1894, the major circulating libraries changed the way they packaged and marketed books. The following year, Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism lamented the tendency of the younger generation to speak slightingly of the three-volume novel. But it was soon as dead as the dodo. The Morgan has some superb examples of them looking appropriately extinct behind a glass case. The victory of the one-volume novel gave birth to the phenomenon of the bestseller as we know it. Marie Corelli's Sorrows of Satan (1895) can make a good argument for being the first bestseller; the Morgan, somewhat misleadingly, leaves us with George du Maurier's 1894- triple-decker Trilby, but it's still a good read, an argument that's harder to make for Corelli.
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Title Annotation:Exhibition notes
Author:Mullen, Alexandra
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Apr 1, 2007
Words:901
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