Writing History: Books

The other day I was reading a historical romance set in the Victorian era, and one of the characters was reading The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot. After I checked to make sure the book had actually been published by the time the book was set (because I do that sort of thing), it got me thinking about books in fiction. In historical romance, female characters do a lot of reading, presumably because most of them come from the upper classes and they don’t have much else to do.

In fact, however, portraying readers in Victorian fiction is historically accurate: a lot of people, in every class, did a lot of reading. According to the British Library, almost 60,000 works of fiction were published during the Victorian period. These included novels, “yellowbacks” , and “penny dreadfuls.” The British public, particularly women, were also voracious readers of magazines, 125,000 different titles of which were published during the 19th century. 

In the early days of the period, novels were either published in serial form in magazines–many of Dickens’ works first appeared this way–or in three volume sets. After that, the books were published in a single 6-shilling volume, then, sometimes, as a yellowback. Books could be obtained at bookshops, railway station book stalls, and circulating libraries.

Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility, 1870

Yellowbacks were precursors to today’s mass-market paperbacks, published in cheap bindings with a characteristic yellow cover, sold in railway station book stalls.  They included such beloved classics as Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Mrs. Gaskell’s Ruth, as well some rather less well-known works, such as Nora’s Love Test: A Novel and Matrimonial Shipwrecks, or, Mere Human Nature.  Emory University has digitized over 1,200 of these gems, which can be downloaded for free, thus ensuring that I will probably get nothing else done this weekend. There is an interesting blog featuring just about everything you’d ever want to know about yellowbacks at http://yellowbacks.wordpress.com/.

title page
Varney the Vampire,1847.

Penny dreadfuls were cheaply made works of serial fiction, intended for the working classes.  They were often violent and bloody, meant to titillate and hook the reader. Titles included such marvels as Varney the Vampire, or, The Feast of Blood. A Romance, which was published in 109 installments. The tale of Sweeney Todd started life as a penny dreadful entitled, oddly, The String of Pearls.

There is great blog post on penny dreadfuls at http://vichist.blogspot.com/2008/11/penny-dreadfuls.html, featuring a marvelous defense of the form by G.K. Chesterton, who declared that any “literature that represents our life as dangerous and startling is truer than any literature that represents it as dubious and languid. For life is a fight and is not a conversation.”