Wednesday 3 August 2022

August Book Tuesday

 This month we have a collection of "best sellers" from the 19th Century.

This post from Sea of has a list to check out!


The Victorian Society of Alberta 

Here is the introduction (So as not to steal their thunder you'll have to visit the site to get the list 😁)

5 Mega Best Sellers from the 19th Century

I started putting together the figures for this post more than two years ago, when we were in the early stages of compiling our list of works that we wanted to look at on the project.  Back then, I sat down at my desk with the thought of looking into what I naively assumed at the time was a simple question: which 19th-century novels were the biggest bestsellers in their own time?

the essays of leigh hunt - writing
“When I glance up at Christian Grey, he’s watching us like a hawk, 
his eyes hooded and questioning… no.  
Thoughtful?  I know, speculative!”

It turns out this is NOT a simple question.

Many people have compiled lists of “the most popular 19th-century novels”, but these tend to include data from their entire lifespans – from their time of writing to the present day.  Generally these lists are more reflective of what we think of the novels now, after years of varying-quality reprints, screen adaptations, and ham-fisted literary allusions, rather than what was popular in its own time.

In order to find some info on what your average Scrooge really had on his nightstand, or what volume Lady Audley would keep in her reticule for a bit of light reading on the coach, I went looking for contemporary sales figures.  The main source of information that I found was contained in a series of articles by the scholar Richard Altick, which were compiled from his extensive research into author biographies over a lifetime of scholarship.  (References at the end!)  Making sense of these figures often involves comparing apples to oranges, though; if Alice In Wonderland sold 180,000 copies over its first 33 years of publication, does that it make it more or less of a bestseller than H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, which sold 1700 copies in its first ten days?*

A number of factors would have affected the sales of a novel in 19th century Britain.  Literacy rates varied greatly at different times, from as low as 50% (by some estimates) in 1800, to near 100% by the late 1890s.  So, J. M. Barrie’s Margaret Ogilvy would have had a far larger potential audience when it came out in 1896 (selling 40,000 copies “almost at once”) than Hannah Moore’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife, published in 1809 (“14,000 in eight months”).

As well as this, the introduction of cheap and penny editions, the appearance of novels in serial format in magazines, and the rise and fall of subscription libraries such as Mudie’s all meant that as time went on, fiction – in various forms – could be consumed by a wider cross-section of the public.  A person in Victorian England would not necessarily have had to own a book to enjoy it, or even been literate themselves; books could have been shared between friends or borrowed from a circulating library (or later on, a public one), and reading aloud to a group was still a common pastime.  Sales figures, then, aren’t an entirely reliable indicator of how popular a novel was in the 19th century.  In fact, early in the century, books were so difficult for anyone except the extremely rich (who could, and often did, buy them solely for decorative purposes) to afford, that most of the reading population relied entirely on libraries for their reading material.  As the poet Robert Southey stated in 1814, “they who buy books do not read them, and … they who read them do not buy them.”

All that being said, we can fairly safely say that these works were among the Dan Browns of their time, if not the Harry Potters.

Continued at the link above.

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