Philip Waller tells us that this mammoth work was “once much longer”. That is a staggering thought, given its present bulk. But amplification is part of the point, for Waller wants to dissect a literary culture which was burgeoning. The consequences of W. E. Forster’s Elementary Education Act in 1870 meant that the succeeding half-century represented a high-water mark for the popularity of reading. Cinema only announced itself as a major competitor towards the end of that period, and television had not arrived. Ambitious workers saw literacy as the key to social advancement, while the less serious turned to fiction as a source of imaginative escape. Books had never before been available in such profusion. Writers had won fame and prosperity before 1870 – Wordsworth, Scott, Dickens, Tennyson – but this thriving generation of authors turning out bestsellers for a mass readership was something new. Waller’s labours in producing Writers, Readers and Reputations remind us that most twenty-first-century readers, even academics who specialize in the period, scrape by on a pitifully selective knowledge of the boom he describes. We recognize the novels of Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, George Meredith, or Mary Ward, but are often slow to read them. The voluminous work of many of their contemporaries, familiar to all who cared about literature at the time, has entirely faded from view.
There are exceptions: Marie Corelli’s wilder eccentricities have conferred a sort of posthumous glamour on her name, and the afterglow of George Bernard Shaw’s energy lingers. But Florence L. Barclay, Nat Gould, Charles Garvice and Hall Caine, once widely admired, have vanished, alongside most of their swarming contemporaries – Stanley J. Weyman, Guy Thorne, W. J. Locke, Pearl Craigie, Elinor Glyn. These are the ghosts who crowd Waller’s closely packed pages, and they have much to teach us.
There will never be time for them all. Waller has worked on this book for twenty-five years, and no one could duplicate his prodigious reading. That should not prevent acknowledgement of our narrow grounds for judgement. Technical sophistication and aesthetic innovation (Henry James, Joseph Conrad) are the primary measures, followed, and sometimes overtaken, by ideological values. Changes in the role of women have transformed our society, and there is accordingly much interest in the New Woman fiction that gave a voice to the earlier stages of the revolution (Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner). Because Empire and its consequences have been significant, we are inclined to turn to the literature that applauds or questions the results of colonialism (Kipling, Rider Haggard). We are less engaged by work that seems culturally conventional. This may be a legitimate process, or an inevitable one, but it can tempt us to categorize too readily. It is easy to miss the fertile hinterland of books that were neither wholly conservative nor entirely radical, but provided their readers with ideas that enriched their lives, packaged in gripping and sometimes groundbreaking narratives. Though these stories were often exotic – for this is the great age of the adventure yarn – they could also be domestic, reflective, or romantic. Not all of them were new. One of Waller’s more intriguing revelations is that popular mid-Victorian fiction had a much more vigorous afterlife than is commonly supposed. Ellen Wood and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose output was by no means confined to the much-read East Lynne and Lady Audley’s Secret, persisted as a flamboyant literary presence, their brand of domestic sensationalism enthusiastically consumed by thousands of readers.
Dickens is a key figure here, his legacy enduring long after his death. Cheap editions of his work were everywhere. Waller reports that 4.24 million copies of Dickens’s novels were sold in the twelve years following his death in 1870, and the tide of his popularity did not begin to turn until long after the First World War. His best-loved books, with their mix of social protest, imaginative invention and emotional intensity – Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations – formed the taste of a generation. Neville Cardus, the great cricket writer and music critic, speaks for many:
“I discovered Charles Dickens and went crazy. I borrowed Copperfield from the Municipal Lending Library and the ordinary universe became unreal, hardly there. I read at meals; I read in the street; at night I would read under the lamps on my way to anywhere I happened to be going; I would read until I was frozen cold, then run like mad to the next lamp. I read in bed, surreptitiously, and against the rules, using a tallow candle. I read myself to an acute state of myopia . . . .”
Other fiction could provide this kind of intoxication – for the young J. M. Barrie, growing up in Scotland, penny-dreadful stories of pirates and robbers did the trick – but few worked the magic as frequently, or as powerfully, as Dickens. It is no surprise to learn that received critical opinion began to look on Dickens’s fiction with disdain years before his wider reputation waned, but his example remained potent. It is impossible to understand what Schreiner was attempting in her rebellious The Story of an African Farm without acknowledging the depth of her debt to Dickens.
Other cross-currents are equally unexpected. No one could claim that Florence Barclay, the daughter and wife of a clergyman, dedicated mother of eight children, and spectacularly successful novelist, was a prophet of feminism. Barclay was pious, hearty and homely. She was a late starter, and had reached her mid-forties before The Rosary (1909) made her a publishing prodigy. 150,000 copies were sold in the first nine months; 1 million by 1925. It is a book that few remember. Even Philip Waller, the champion of the unread, is a little condescending about it. Yet The Rosary has power. Its heroine, Jane, is one of the countless literary daughters of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre – an orphan, overlooked and plain, she finally gets her man after a series of misfortunes and misunderstandings. But Barclay’s version of the solitary Jane has none of her predecessor’s quietly barbed deference. This Jane is forceful and commanding, and speaks her mind. Nor does she share Jane Eyre’s elfin stature. She is sporty (a formidable golfer) and rather stout, and has no truck with the delicate conventions of femininity. A white wedding will not do for her: “I should look like a Christmas pantomime. And I never wear veils, even in motors; and white satin is a form of clothing I have always had the wisdom to avoid”. Though she is devoted to the care of others, and especially to the support of her husband (who, like Rochester, must be blinded before he can win his bride), she serves on her own terms. So did Jane Eyre, and The Rosary is another testament to the durability of Victorian writing. But the forthrightness of this quasi-masculine heroine makes her sustained popularity interesting. Hardly a revolutionary figure, she nevertheless provided her readers with alternative models for womanly success, suggesting that self-assertion and romantic fulfilment were not incompatible for twentieth-century women. It was a message that found an eager audience.
Many of the writers documented in Waller’s study provide a comparable blend of reassurance and challenge. Making a living as an entertainer did not rule out a sense of purpose, and a strongly pedagogic impulse is frequently found in literary hits of the period. Literacy laid the foundations for self-improvement, or even self-transformation, and books provided the tools. Education and amusement were bound together in ways that would now surprise us. Jerome K. Jerome recalls some of the odder forms of the “wave of intellectuality” that swept across the land in the 1880s. “A popular form of entertainment was the Spelling-Bee. The competitors sat in rows upon the platform, while the body of the hall would be filled with an excited audience, armed with dictionaries.” These newly proficient spellers were not always sure how to use their skill. The bewildering range of material on offer gave an advantage to authors who could communicate their own sense of confident moral direction. For some, this was predominantly a matter of educational aspiration in the broadest sense. Arnold Bennett expressed the matter with his usual trenchancy: “The aim of literary study is not to amuse the hours of leisure; it is to awake oneself, it is to be alive, to intensify one’s capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, and for comprehension. It is not to affect one hour, but twenty-four hours. It is to change utterly one’s relations with the world”. Not everyone could sustain that level of passion. But readers hungered for mental stimulation, and looked for advice as to where they might find it. Lists of recommended reading proliferated. They inherited another Victorian tradition, that of Sir John Lubbock’s celebrated hundred “best books” – including, as one commentator noted, “nearly all the books one didn’t want to read, or gave up if one tried”. Lubbock’s list, like many of its successors, was ponderous. In practice, readers diluted its rigour with less arduous material. Comic writing flourished. Jerome, a solicitor’s clerk trying to make his way as a writer, did not ask his readers to take him seriously. He remarked of his The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886) that “it wouldn’t elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatsoever. All I can suggest is, that when you get tired of reading ‘the hundred best books’, you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change”. This was refreshing. Even Jerome had a serious side, however, and was not afraid to interweave bouts of fervent pantheism with his characteristically provocative irreverence. His literary reputation could accommodate both.
This was the period in which commercial literary culture began to gather momentum. The first professional literary agents emerged; publishers, and authors, started to use the resources of mass advertising to promote their merchandise. Once they were famous, authors could endorse other products. Bennett was among those willing to declare that he had “Brain, Body, and Nerves Revitalized” by Sanatogen. Inflated fortunes were built on work that found a market; as a result, sought-after authors could demand ever larger rewards. Robert Louis Stevenson earned £465 in 1883, when Treasure Island was published in book form. Four years later, after the appearance of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped, he was bringing in more than £4,000 a year. For some successful authors, the impact of the published word was not enough, nor the wealth that it could bring. Stardom could be wearing, then as now, if it meant nothing more than affluence and the loss of privacy. They looked for the power to intervene in public life. A title might help, and Waller reports some shameless angling for honours among literary luminaries. Only Tennyson made it into the House of Lords (“my sisters say I shall have to pay more for my wine”), but there were knighthoods and baronetcies aplenty (Gilbert Parker, Conan Doyle, W. S. Gilbert, Arthur Pinero, Arthur Quiller-Couch, Haggard, Barrie, Henry Newbolt, William Watson, Anthony Hope, Caine). Walter Raleigh became the first literary academic to be knighted. Some refused such elevations (W. B. Yeats, Wells, John Galsworthy, Bennett, Thomas Hardy), but most did not. It seemed a proper reflection of the growing ascendancy of the book. Public bodies, bent on enhancing the dignity of writing as a profession, began to emerge. The Society of Authors was founded in 1884. There was talk of establishing a lofty British Academy of Letters, scuppered by quarrels over its proposed membership. The Royal Society of Literature, venerable and sleepy, tried to galvanize itself by establishing an Academic Committee, in the hope of emulating the judicial authority of the Académie française. Literary figures became prominent in crusades of many kinds, progressive, reactionary, or simply odd. Some gave open lectures or harangued the press; others relied on their fiction to promote their favoured campaigns. These exhortatory novels could generate a righteous anger that long outlived its cause. Generations of young readers have burned with indignation over the cruelties of the bearing rein, one of the targets of Anna Sewell’s enormously popular Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions: The autobiography of a horse (1877), decades after the practice had vanished from the land. By 1934, Black Beauty had sold 20 million copies. It is still selling.
The richness of Waller’s study is beyond question. This is an extraordinary mine of fact, detail, quotation, anecdote and reminiscence. Every reader, no matter how familiar with the literature of the period, will learn from the range of its excavations. Yet the book is also a missed opportunity. It is overwhelmed by material, so preoccupied by the accumulation of evidence that any sense of intellectual momentum is lost. In this, too, Waller is caught up in the character of his own project. The writers for whom he has most affection are those who shrank from pufferies, and made few claims for their accomplishments. The modesty of Nat Gould, whose vivid novels of the racing world commanded a huge and loyal readership, is of the kind that appeals to Waller. The son of a Manchester tea merchant, the egalitarian Gould saw himself as a simple storyteller. He had no agent, and refused to manipulate the market. He was not interested in style, or politics: “I seldom read a book when I find out the writer has an axe to grind. I want a story, not a pot pourri of egotistical opinions, expressed with a disregard for the feelings of others”. The implication of Waller’s survey is that we would build a fuller understanding of our literary past if we paid more careful attention to such writers and their readers. But it is scarcely more than the mildest suggestion. Like Gould, Philip Waller is disinclined for strenuous argument, and this massive collection of particularities will not quite serve as a substitute. What it does instead is to provide glimpses of different interpretations of literary value, worth retrieving, and worth considering. The militant suffragette Beatrice Harraden, another neglected novelist, worked as a librarian in a military hospital in 1916. She had reason to remember Nat Gould:
We had to invest in any amount of Nat Gould’s sporting stories. In fact, a certain type of man would read nothing but Nat Gould. However ill he was, however suffering and broken, the name of Nat Gould would always bring a smile to his face. Often and often I’ve heard the whispered words: “A Nat Gould – ready for when I’m better.