Boomster and the Quack

Stefan Collini

  • Writers, Readers and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870-1918 by Philip Waller
    Oxford, 1181 pp, £85.00, April 2006, ISBN 0 19 820677 1

In the early 20th century, literary pilgrims to Stratford-upon-Avon already knew a lot about the great writer they had come to honour. The author’s house in Church St has rather come down in the world since then and is now an outpost of Birmingham University, but in its heyday it was home to a writer with some claims to be the most widely read, in English and in translation, across the world. Visitors already knew so much because Marie Corelli not only boasted the longest entry in Who’s Who, but had enjoyed commercial success and international celebrity on a scale unprecedented in literary history.

Corelli occupied her Stratford home in a style commensurate with her sense of her artistic achievements. Her domestic regime was supported by a major-domo, two maids, a cook, a gardener, a houseman-cum-assistant gardener and eventually a chauffeur. As Philip Waller remarks in his extraordinary compendium of turn-of-the-century literary life in Britain, ‘Corelli’s sense of grandeur was the inverse of her sense of the absurd.’ He doesn’t stint his illustration of the point:

A daily ritual was her progress round Stratford in a miniature phaeton, like Cinderella, pulled by two Shetland ponies . . . complete with coachman perched on high behind . . . Best of all, she was regularly piloted down the Avon in her own gondola, named The Dream. This vehicle was specially imported from Venice complete with gondolier, until the Latin’s quarrelsome inebriation compelled his replacement by her costumed gardener.

This extravagant nonsense was possible because in the 1900s Corelli had an income of around £18,000 a year from sales of her novels alone (a figure not far short of a million pounds at today’s prices). Critical opinion then and now appears to be united in judging her books pretty much pure tosh; even the heroically laborious Waller remarks wearily of one of them that ‘it is a challenge to summarise this extraordinary tale’s crackpot complexity.’ In other words, the age of the bestseller had arrived.

If we jump forward a few years, to 2 September 1914, we encounter another tableau of literary life that is, in its way, no less striking than our Grub Street Cleopatra on her barge. As a junior member of the Cabinet with intellectual leanings, Charles Masterman had been charged with doing something that would produce effective propaganda for the Allied cause, especially in the neutral United States. He responded by convening in Whitehall a gathering of ‘eminent authors’, attended by William Archer, J.M. Barrie, Arnold Bennett, A.C. Benson, Hugh Benson, Laurence Binyon, Robert Bridges, Hall Caine, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Maurice Hewlett, Anthony Hope, W.J. Locke, E.V. Lucas, J.W. Mackail, John Masefield, A.E.W. Mason, Gilbert Murray, Henry Newbolt, Owen Seaman, G.M. Trevelyan, H.G. Wells and Israel Zangwill (Arthur Quiller-Couch and Rudyard Kipling sent messages of support). At first glance, this may seem to be the literary and intellectual establishment in its pomp. Reference works and biographies make it plain that these figures could collectively boast a remarkable level of official recognition (or at least would come to do so before their deaths). Taking such future honours into account, the group included several knights, two Nobel laureates, two poet laureates, three regius professors, two masters of Cambridge colleges, as well as holders of the Order of Merit and other honours.

Whether or not bringing together such a group of literary worthies seems the most obviously efficient way of producing usable official propaganda, it is the miscellaneousness of the gathering that now appears most striking. Not only did it embrace novelists, poets, essayists, critics, historians, scholars and all-purpose men of letters, it also spanned a wide range of literary levels, including representatives of the popular and middlebrow markets as well as the critically acclaimed, extending from the fastidious Hardy through several gradations to popular romancers such as Caine and Locke. (We are now more primed than their contemporaries to observe that they were all men; Corelli was one of several prominent female authors not present.) No doubt social contacts and bureaucratic indiscriminateness played some part in determining the make-up of the gathering, but it is hard to imagine a 21st-century British government responding to a crisis in the credibility of its foreign policy by summoning leading novelists and poets to Whitehall; it is even harder to believe that any such crew would include both A.S. Byatt and Jilly Cooper or place Jeffrey Archer alongside Geoffrey Hill.

How, if at all, are these two vignettes from the literary life of the period to be connected? Should we be wondering about the ways commercial changes in the world of publishing affected the standing of authors? Should we be thinking about the resilience of the older, capacious conception of ‘literature’ despite both the intellectual specialisation and the market segmentation of the closing decades of the 19th century? Should the mingling of canonical names with figures now largely unknown (Hugh Benson? J.W. Mackail? A.E.W. Mason?) surprise us? That Writers, Readers and Reputations does not even ask, still less answer, these or comparable questions is part of what makes it a puzzling production.

It is not easy to say what this book is about, other than by amplifying its subtitle. It is not held together by any argument that I can see; indeed, there is practically no analysis in it. In Waller’s own words, it ‘conjures up aspects of literary life in late 19th and early 20th-century England’. One sense of ‘conjure up’ is ‘cause to appear to the fancy’, and it may be that some such stirring of the historical imagination is Waller’s purpose, or would be were he to avow anything so vulgar as a purpose. Individual paragraphs of his book are engagingly written, but the relation between them, let alone between the chapters, is often maddeningly opaque. The book contains some deft portraiture, several good stories, a mass of quotations, a few statistics (well, numbers) and an abundance of miscellaneous information, some of it all but buried in the small type of long discursive footnotes. But there is scarcely a breath of argument, no hint as to which elements might be most significant, complete silence on whether some things may have been the cause of others. Although the book’s bibliography includes various items of secondary scholarship, there is no engagement with their claims, no sense of whether he is extending or revising historiographical orthodoxies. A couple of decades or so ago, after more than one Oxford-based historian had produced a work bulging with detailed description but almost devoid of efforts at analysis or explanation, it was joked that Oxford, having once been the home of lost causes, was now the home of lost causality. Philip Waller, a fellow of Merton for thirty years, confesses in his preface that he has been working on this book since the early 1980s – which may account for his having remained a fanatical devotee of such wilful historical agnosticism.

In his preface, Waller maintains that his topic, once eccentric, has become fashionable: ‘It is now enveloped as “Life Writing”, characteristically sonorous jargon that signifies a new academic specialism (aka a professional job creation scheme), though it risks simultaneously throttling public interest.’ Even leaving aside the sneer at fellow scholars, this seems ill-judged: ‘life writing’ is the label now often given to the study of various forms of biography and autobiography; it is not a term likely to be applied to Waller’s sprawling description of the trades of writing and selling books. And as though to emphasise his distance from the jargon-ridden joylessness imputed to academic writing, he adds: ‘This book is designed to entertain as well as inform.’ It does indeed do both those things, at least for those with stamina. Waller writes attractively, and by now he may well know more about out-of-the-way aspects of largely forgotten literary figures from this period than anyone else alive. But if his ambition is for this to succeed as a ‘trade’ book, then both he and his publisher seem to have approached the task in a very peculiar way. Nearly 1200 pages, many with a dense growth of footnotage covering the bottom third, and a price tag of £85 do not seem the most tempting bait with which to snare the elusive ‘non-specialist reader’.

There is clearly something deliberate, even self-indulgent, about the digressive miscellaneousness of the enterprise, something again in which the publisher appears to have colluded with the author. Take the appearances of one John Morgan Richards. On page 65 we are introduced to him as an ‘American, domiciled in England since 1867 and now owner of the Academy’. On page 92 we are told that ‘the Academy had been bought in 1896 by the American patent-medicine advertiser John Morgan Richards, father of Pearl Craigie (who wrote as John Oliver Hobbes).’ On page 124 we are reminded that John Morgan Richards was ‘the American advertiser who bought the Academy’, and on page 137 we are told that ‘the American owner of the literary periodical the Academy, John Morgan Richards, was well placed [to pronounce on something] . . . firstly, because he had made his fortune as an advertiser; secondly, because he was the father (and biographer) of a celebrity author, Pearl Craigie (John Oliver Hobbes).’ On page 331 we are informed: ‘The owner of the Academy from 1896 to 1905 was John Morgan Richards. An American domiciled in England since 1867, and father of the novelist Pearl Craigie (John Oliver Hobbes), Richards was a rich businessman whose specialty was advertising.’ On page 458 we hear: ‘The Academy was bought in 1896 by the American businessman John Morgan Richards. His daughter, the author John Oliver Hobbes . . .’, while again on page 677 we hear of ‘John Morgan Richards, the American advertising man who bought the Academy in 1896’. And so on. One or two such repetitions are understandable in any long book, but I itemise these instances (I could choose others) because they are symptomatic of the lack of meaningful sequence or informational hierarchy in the book; each chapter, even each vignette, is treated as so nearly autonomous and self-sufficient that it is easy to see why neither author nor copy editor would be on the lookout for such multiple reintroductions, especially of a minor character.

All of this is a great shame, because Waller has a wonderful subject, a vast fund of information, and a stylish way with an anecdote. Perhaps the most useful thing a reviewer can do is to signal some of the riches this huge volume contains, and, risking the author’s disdain for such schematising, make a few suggestions about their possible significance. Insofar as the information can be marshalled into supporting any kind of narrative, it tells an everyday story of capitalism in which established patterns of production and distribution at first resist and then are displaced by new market conditions. In the 1870s and 1880s, new fiction publishing was still dominated by the three-volume novel priced at 31s 6d. Only a tiny fraction of the population could afford such an expenditure (it represented the entire weekly income of many working-class families), but sales to individuals were not the chief support of the system. That came from the bulk purchases of the circulating libraries, above all Mudie’s and to a lesser extent W.H. Smith’s, whose loan stock was tripled by the three-volume format. The high prices suited established authors, whose earnings on moderate sales were correspondingly substantial, and the reliability of the libraries’ purchases suited established publishers, who thereby risked less on each individual title. The system gave considerable power to the buyers for Mudie’s and Smith’s, who in turn feared offending or disappointing their largely conventional upper and middle-class clientele. As usual with such rigged markets, the whole system was invisibly underpinned by shared social assumptions and common values. It would take newcomers, whether among writers, publishers or readers, to buck the system, and it was the social changes of the closing decades of the century that gave such interlopers the necessary economic clout.

There was significant growth in the size of the reading public, especially once the effects of the acts making elementary education compulsory began to be felt in the 1890s and 1900s. Technological advances reduced the costs of production and distribution. A large international market became easier to access and more remunerative, especially following the US Copyright Act of 1891, which all but ended the ‘pirate’ American editions that had deprived British publishers and authors of income earlier in the century. The new profession of literary agent emerged to enable the most successful authors to take full advantage of these new opportunities. Cheaper one-volume reprints were taking an increasing market share. By the 1890s, the conditions were in place that enabled publishers to make a commercial success of heavily advertised new novels at lower prices with bigger print runs.

Waller does not explore the causes of the demise of the old ‘three-voller’, but as so often when accumulated change in the forces of production produces a change in the social relations of production, the end was sudden and complete. The symbolic moment came in 1894 when the newly established house of Heinemann published Hall Caine’s The Manxman in one volume at 6s: it was a runaway bestseller and the format became the industry standard almost overnight. In 1894, 184 new titles were published in the old format; in 1896 only 25 appeared, and in 1897 the number had shrunk to just four titles. Even more remarkably, the new price of 6s remained in place for new novels for the next fifty years.

For authors and publishers to make money out of this system, some new titles had to sell in much greater quantities than before (cheap reprints had been selling in large numbers since at least the 1880s). The financial disparity between authors who achieved only modest if steady sales and those who produced one of the season’s ‘hits’ was now even greater. But this market logic was to some extent constrained when it came to the booksellers. Normally, the existence of a large market for an identical high-volume commodity from a single producer leads to underselling, as the most powerful retail outlets use their financial muscle to undercut their smaller rivals. But the gentlemanly world of publishing closed ranks against this logic and introduced the Net Book Agreement, which bound booksellers to sell at the published price. This was introduced by Frederick Macmillan in 1890, and by 1899 had become the official code for the whole trade. Once again, a consensus of cultural values propped up the arrangement: books were not to be regarded as simply one commodity among others. This convention suited the interests of publishers and writers, who were guaranteed set returns per volume sold, and perhaps helped protect small booksellers, but clearly acted as a restraint on the marketing tactics of the larger outlets. It was for a long time accepted wisdom that it operated to the benefit of the bookbuyer, though in the more aggressively capitalist Britain of the last couple of decades of the 20th century this assumption was increasingly challenged, and the NBA was finally abolished in 1997.

What were the consequences for ‘literary life’ of these accumulated changes? Can we say anything about the types of writer who flourished or what the consequences of such success were for their standing and public role? Waller does not ask such questions, but he provides a mass of useful detail for anyone willing to chance their arm at providing answers.

A few star authors had, of course, enjoyed dizzying commercial success earlier in the century, none more so than Dickens. Indeed, he remained a top seller even posthumously, selling an estimated 4.24 million copies in the 12 years after his death in 1870. Tennyson, the comparable grandee in poetry, naturally made much more modest sums for most of his long writing life, though by its final stages he was earning £10,000 a year from his writings in all forms. But these two were recognised as being in a class of their own. In 1892 Walter Besant, the founder of the Society of Authors, calculated that there were approximately a hundred novelists in Britain living by their writing, and only half of them ever earned £1000 or more in a year. A little-known writer might only make £50 to £100 from a novel.

The first part of this period saw some notable commercial successes among writers who also attained a certain literary standing. For example, in the late 1880s, following the publication of Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson earned £5000 a year for a few years. But he was easily surpassed by Rider Haggard, ‘perhaps the country’s best-paid writer between 1887 and 1894, when his earnings exceeded £10,000 annually’. His income started to fall away thereafter, but later reissues continued to do well: ‘She (1887) had sold half a million copies in its first penny edition in 1903.’ And of course book publication was not the only source of income for the writer: three-quarters of all periodical literature in the late 19th century was fiction, and serialisation could be highly lucrative. Arthur Conan Doyle was another of the big names of the 1890s, and the serialisation of his Sherlock Holmes stories ‘yielded him four times the income that they produced in book form’. The potential for high foreign earnings also increased markedly after the US Copyright Act: in 1892, Mrs Humphry Ward was one of the first beneficiaries, Macmillan paying the then record sum of £7000 for American rights to David Grieve in the (disappointed) hope of repeating the phenomenal success of her previous hit, Robert Elsmere.

After the ending of the three-voller in 1894, and still more with the expansion of the market in the 1900s, the possibilities for large earnings from fiction increased markedly. The currency of the term ‘bestseller’, an American import, dates from the early 1890s. Some of the most informative chapters in Writers, Readers and Reputations are devoted to those figures to whom this new, vulgar label could properly be applied. Four stand out. The first was Charles Garvice, whose popular romances sold almost a million copies a year worldwide in the late Edwardian period (or, as the Times obituary put it in 1920, in characteristically superior tones, he had ‘a larger circulation than any other purveyor of fiction’ – a phrase which kept him in his place among the milliners and grocers). Hall Caine, one of the participants in Masterman’s 1914 gathering and a writer with greater literary pretensions, claimed in 1908 to have earned more than any writer in history had ever done. He was the author of both candidates for the accolade of first million-selling novel in Britain: the ODNB gives the prize to The Christian (1897), while John Sutherland, in his Companion to Victorian Fiction, bestows the title on The Eternal City (1901).

For sheer quantity of production, however, few could touch Nat Gould, who wrote some 130 novels, all set in the world of horse-racing. It has been estimated that by 1927 he had sold 24 million copies, which put him ahead of any of his prewar rivals, partly because he retained his popularity into the interwar years better than they did (helped by the fact that 22 of his novels weren’t published until after his death in 1919, the publishers having prudently stockpiled to keep the brand going). But for sustained high earnings combined with international celebrity, Corelli took the palm: according to Sutherland, the publication of The Sorrows of Satan in 1895 established her ‘as the bestselling novelist of the English-speaking world’.

Writers who enjoyed the critical esteem of a cultivated readership never approached these earnings, certainly not across a period of years. Perhaps the figure who came nearest was Arnold Bennett, partly because of his simultaneous success as a novelist, playwright and journalist, and partly because he employed the services of J.B. Pinker, one of the leading literary agents of the day. By 1913 he was earning £17,000 a year from all sources. ‘He now bought a Queen Anne house in Essex, and a yacht – “just to show these rich chaps that a writer can make money too”.’ Among writers who have since become canonical, Kipling may have been the most popular, having sold more than a million copies of his works in various genres by 1910. It would be difficult to say whether Corelli or Kipling was the greatest literary celebrity of the age internationally, but it was a meaningful comparison in a way it would not be between, say, Danielle Steele and Seamus Heaney.

The scale of bestsellerdom increased sharply after the end of the First World war. The Sheikh, by the hitherto little-known Mrs E.M. Hull, appeared in 1919 and soon sold more than a million copies (the film version gave Valentino one of his best remembered roles). This novel, Waller remarks, tapped into the large market for literature about the unsatisfied romantic longings of women, married and unmarried (Hull was married to a pig-farmer in Derbyshire). The contrasting fates of ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ literature became even more marked: ‘For every reader of Henry James and D.H. Lawrence,’ the publisher Michael Joseph observed in 1925, ‘there are a hundred readers of Nat Gould and Ethel M. Dell.’ And if we look further forward into the interwar period, the peaks of the popular market become higher still, especially as represented by the thrillers of Edgar Wallace: ‘By 1928 it was reckoned that, excepting the Bible, a quarter of all books published and bought in England was a Wallace.’

Two further points about the supremacy of fiction in the period emerge from Waller’s book. First, textbooks and religious works aside, sales of works of non-fiction rarely reached the heights of the true bestsellers, though they were often steady earners over a longer period. Occasionally, a book such as John Morley’s Life of Gladstone (three volumes, 1903) enjoyed frequent reprintings, as the shelves of second-hand bookshops still testify, but probably the greatest hit in this category came just after the end of Waller’s period: H.G. Wells’s The Outline of History (1920) ‘amassed sales of three million and earned Wells more than all his other works combined’. Second, print was not yet challenged by any other medium, at least not until film took off as a commercial prospect in the last decade of the period. Waller includes some particularly interesting detail about the impact of early cinema, and how it could benefit those popular authors whose work was adapted (or who, more rarely, contributed original screenplays).

The question of the effect of these developments on the standing and public role of writers is complicated. The tensions between commercial and cultural ‘value’ are an implicit theme throughout this long book. This was obviously not new, but the changes I have outlined gave it a sharper edge and made writers, in particular, more self-conscious about their status. One index of a greater sensitivity to this tension was the recurrence of projects to establish some kind of literary ‘academy’, usually accompanied by allusions to the standing of the Académie Française. At the heart of these sometimes comically misconceived proposals lay a desire for an officially sanctioned source of authority in literary matters (and sometimes linguistic matters, too: the role of ‘the Immortals’ in France in regulating changes in the language was wistfully referred to on several occasions).

In 1892, Walter Besant canvassed opinion on the idea of the Society of Authors (founded in 1884 to ‘protect the rights and further the interests of authors’) coming to occupy a similar relation to writers as the Inns of Court did to barristers. In 1897 the Academy (by then a less austere periodical than its High Victorian incarnation) took the idea further by drawing up a list of 40 founding members for such an academy (the magic number in the Académie Française). The journal may then have clouded the notion of a source of authority beyond the market by inviting readers to suggest further names. Waller does not provide much detail here, but if we look more closely, the lists drawn up by the Academy and its readers tell us something about the inclusiveness of the conception of ‘literature’ at stake, since many of those named had made their mark in fields of scholarship, such as history, philosophy and philology, far removed from the narrower sense of ‘literature’ that was coming to be established as the dominant one in the course of the second half of the 19th century.

In 1902-03 the question was again raised in the Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, in terms that betrayed the underlying concern: ‘The lower forces of literary productiveness are amply organised. The higher are without representation. There is no council at the head of literature to control or keep order, or by example to discountenance the indecencies of advertisement.’ Again, responses were mixed, so the Society of Authors took the highly academic step of setting up a committee to explore the question, led by scholarly heavies such as James Bryce and J.G. Frazer, but nothing much came of it. In 1910 the Royal Society of Literature invited the Society of Authors to collaborate in selecting another Famous Forty: this fraternal initiative was rebuffed, so the RSL went ahead alone, and under the guidance of Edmund Gosse (whose presence was itself a sign that institutional standing and social respectability were likely to play a large part) proposed 30 names. I wonder whether any modern reader, asked to nominate the 30 leading British authors alive in 1910, would include such names as S.H. Butcher, W.J. Courthope, Austin Dobson, Maurice Hewlett, Alfred Lyall, J.W. Mackail, E.H. Pember and A.W. Verrall, several of whom were impeccably well-connected scholars of classical or modern literature rather than what have come to be known as ‘creative writers’. That the list was all male was not simply because such lists nearly always were: there was also the problem that most of those who had drawn it up simply could not bear the thought of the overbearing ‘Ma Hump’ (Mrs Humphry Ward) as a founding member but could see no plausible way to prefer any other woman writer to her.

The 1910 venture did struggle into a kind of being; a few peevish meetings were held and invitations extended to new recruits from the ranks of the eminent literati. Among those who resisted, H.G. Wells gave the most spirited response: ‘This world of ours, I mean the world of creative and representative work we do, is I am convinced best anarchic. Better the wild rush of Boomster and the Quack than the cold politeness of the established thing.’ The Academic Committee of the RSL mouldered on into the interwar years, but it was only ever an irrelevance. The ‘higher forces’ of literature had to get by as best they could in the irreverent company of Boomster and the Quack.

Most writers wanted both sales and standing: much of the activity recorded in this huge book expressed the desire to obtain critical acclaim, social prestige and cultural authority while at the same time collecting large royalties. The pull of what Wells called ‘the established thing’ was very strong: writers clambered over each other to join the right clubs and get invited to the right aristocratic salons. Exploiting one’s literary potential could not be allowed to imperil one’s status as a gentleman. The absurd trappings of gentility so maladroitly adopted by Marie Corelli encouraged dismissals of her not just as a mediocre romancer but as irredeemably nouveau riche, too. By contrast, many of those most exercised about the status of Literature and the need to safeguard it shared a world that was epitomised by the Westminster Gazette’s fortnightly competition, which ran for the two decades up to 1915 and involved turning a piece of English poetry into Latin or Greek verse. The editor, J.A. Spender, ‘was a former Balliol classicist; the competition was set by a Brasenose tutor, H.F. Fox; and it was most frequently won by the warden of All Souls, F.W. Pember.’

One of the things that is striking about Masterman’s 1914 gathering is how many of those present had pretty much fulfilled their heady aspiration and managed to conjoin substantial sales with accepted status (even if the snobbish A.C. Benson, in recording the occasion in his diary, did disparage Bennett for ‘looking every inch a cad’). Later critics, schooled by Modernism to value difficulty and the address to a minority audience, might scorn the likes of Sir James Barrie or Sir Henry Newbolt, but at the time such figures were both popular and respected, a combination that became harder to sustain as the 20th century wore on and as ‘highbrow/lowbrow’, ‘popular/ elite’, ‘serious/commercial’, and similar dichotomies became more entrenched.

No doubt some readers will find in Waller’s book ample confirmation of their unshakable prejudice that things were better in the past (I wonder whether Waller himself might not be of this party), while others will no less confidently conclude that it bears out the wisdom of plus ça change. Certainly, an account of the book’s main themes can be given which may seem uncannily familiar: publishers concentrating their efforts more and more on a few bestsellers; small bookshops being driven out of business; celebrity and personality replacing critical assessment; the increasing power of the popular media; the rise of the visual over the verbal; the stifling of literary pleasure by academic orthodoxies; reviews becoming little more than puffing and back-scratching; the excesses of advertising and so on. Was the situation very similar to what it is now? Two vignettes lend themselves to divergent readings.

In 1885, the firm of Macmillan placed a letter in the press: ‘We are requested by Lord Tennyson to inform his correspondents through the Times that he is wholly unable to answer the innumerable letters which he daily receives, nor can he undertake to return or criticise the manuscripts sent to him.’ We seem closer here to the Court Circular than to the modern fanzine, though Macmillan may have had mixed motives since the company managed to slip in a little indirect advertising by suggesting that the problem had got much worse ‘since the publication of his new volume of poems’. Commercial practices and establishment rituals were entwined in a different way in the second vignette. ‘In 1906 the Daily Mail had advertised the serialisation of William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 by a march of sandwich-men along Oxford Street wearing Prussian soldiers’ uniforms and helmets. This led to questions in the House and a denunciation by the home secretary, who called the escapade “foolish and offensive”.’ That really does conjure up a world we have lost: just imagine, a home secretary daring to criticise the Daily Mail.