Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Mr Mudie and his Circulating Library

No serious collector of 19th century fiction can be unaware of the preponderance of novels originally published in three volumes. The so called 'three deckers', now relatively scarce and hence often prohibitively expensive, were once the staple reading of whole swathes of the newly emerging middle class. But they did not buy them; they were borrowed, a volume at a time from one of the circulating libraries and, more likely than not from one of those run by Charles Edward Mudie (1818-1890).
From the 1840's to the 1890's Mudie's Select Library determined the reading habits of two generations of readers. Such was Mudie's power that an author's career probably depended on his or hers work being selected by the library. Confident that Mudie would take the book, publishers could then print runs of the work in their thousands, with a very high percentage going straight to Mudie's library at a discount price. Subscribers to the library, at a cost of one guinea per year, could then borrow a volume at a time. This arrangement suited authors, publishers and readers.

In London, readers flocked to Mudie's massive emporium on New Oxford Street, where armies of employees would rapidly find the desired volumes selected from Mudie's list.

In the large provincial towns there were more branches of Mudie, who also supplied books to local independent circulating libraries, where the same arrangements applied.
It was possible to purchase three deckers from Mudie, but they were very expensive and only the wealthy would have been able to add them to their private collections. Typically, the work would appear in a cheap single volume edition a year or so after first publication in three volumes. The genius of Mudie's modus operandi was that essentially three subscribers would be reading one book at the same time; hence three times the profit. He could also negotiate massive discounts with the publishers given the quantities he ordered; he took 500 copies of the first edition of Darwin's 'Origin of Species' and 3,000 sets of the 3 volume 'Mill on the Floss' by George Eliot, though a typical order for an established writer would be 1,500 sets.
There were dissenting voices. Many argued that the straitjacket of three volumes led to over-long novels full of irrelevant sub-plots; conversely it was argued that the luxury of three volumes allowed generous margins and large font sizes essential for the elderly reader. Also Mudie, being a deeply religious man, appled selection criteria to his library that eliminated all books except those that could be 'safely read to the servants'. As the century neared its end the clamour for change was irrestistible; from authors, eager to try out new forms of shorter novel and frustrated by Mudie's arbitrary censorship, publishers keen to break Mudie's near monopoly and, perhaps most compellingly, from the new free public libraries springing up all over Britain.
In 1894, Mudie and his great contemporary competitor W H Smith agreed to end the three volume format and almost immediately, as a publishing form, it disappeared. From this time almost all novels first appeared in single volume editions; more rarely in two volumes. However, today, amongst the most desirable of nineteenth century books for the collector are the great three volume first editions of writers such as Thomas Hardy, J Sheridan Le Fanu and Anthony Trollope. Since these were borrowed in profusion, copies in fine condition are extremely scarce.

The High Barn Library has only one or two direct links back to Mudie. Volumes 1 and 2 (only) of a three volume set of Le Fanu's 'The Tenants of Malory' respectively bear on their front boards the distinctive yellow labels of Mudie's New Oxford Street Select Library and of Noyes's Circulating Library at Chippenham, supplied by Mudie.

The fate of Volume 3 is unknown. These date from 1867, when Mudie's power was at its height. However, there are two other complete three deckers on our shelves: Anthony Trollope's 'Ralph the Heir' (1871) and Mrs Ward's 'The History of David Grieve' dating from 1894 right at the end of Mudie's dominance.

The firm of Mudie continued into the 1930s but at a much reduced level, finally closing its doors shortly before the Second World War. However, W H Smith, who had established a monopoly on railway book stalls (rashly spurned by Mudie) in the mid nineteenth century, continue as a major book seller, but not, as originally, a lending library.
Subscription libraries had originated well before Mudie entered the scene, certainly by the early eighteenth century, but it was the sheer scale of Mudie's operations from the 1840s on that drove most competitors out of business. In the 1860s, for example, Mudie was increasing his stock at the rate of 170,000 volumes a year. It was estimated that Mudie's patrons comprised about half of the total number of families sufficiently educated to enjoy novel reading. Mudie's list did contain all types of reading matter - history, science, travel, theology, for example - but over no field did he exercise such absolute control as novel writing, and, from an artistic point of view, it can only be hoped that this level of control is not repeated in the future.
A wonderful history of Mudie's Circulating Library is contained in the study 'Mudie's Circulating Library & the Victorian Novel' by Guinevere L Girest (David & Charles, 1970). It makes fascinating reading and throws great light on many aspects of Victorian authors and their works. I am sure that, had Mudie demanded four voulmes per novel, we would now be enjoying Anthony Trollopes's 'The Four Clerks' rather than 'The Three Clerks', whose adventures so conveniently fall into three volumes.
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Friday, 26 October 2012

Edith Nesbit's Tales of Terror

In the excellent anthology 'The Supernatural Omnibus' edited by Montague Summers (which I acquired at an early age) are to be found two ghost stories under the name E Nesbit. These are 'Man Size in Marble' and 'John Charrington's Wedding'. In the former, the recumbent effigies of two knights rise from their tomb in a lonely church on All Saints' Eve and terrify to death the story's heroine Laura, who is found with the alabaster finger of one of the knights clutched in her hand. (Needless to say, the finger is subsequently found to be missing from the knight's effigy.) In the latter, John Charrington, determined to claim his bride on their wedding day, keeps his appointment even though he was killed in an accident some hours before the wedding. The strange nature of the groom at the wedding service is chillingly described; after the service the couple depart in their wedding carriage. The bride, of course, is subsequently found dead from shock and fright.

Strange that such harrowing stories came from the pen of Edith Nesbit, much better known as an author of childrens' books, including the much filmed and televised 'The Railway Children'.

I was reminded of these stories on a recent short trip to Romney Marsh, that strange part of Kent where sea and land merge across lonely shingle beaches and isolated churches cling to islands of pasture land slightly elevated above the surrounding flats.

It was at one such church, St Mary in the Marsh, that Edith Nesbit forced her way into our holiday, for here she is buried; there is an inscription to her in the church and outside, over her grave, a wooden memorial fashioned by her husband.

She lived the latter part of her life in nearby St Mary's Bay.

But it is in nearby Brenzett church where lie the knights who inspired her most famous ghost story.

In this church two John Fagges (father and son) lie side by side, dying in 1639 and 1646 respectively.

The little finger of the right hand of the front figure has been clearly repaired and it was this feature that Edith Nesbit captured in her story where the terrified Laura breaks off the knight's finger in her struggle. Brenzett is the setting for the story and Edith Nesbit captures something of the atmosphere of remote Romney Marsh churches. Laura's housekeeper in the story is called Mrs Dorman. When we first visited Brenzett the church was locked. We returned a couple of days later to find it opened for cleaning/flower arranging. This was being carried out by a Mrs Dorman, who was pleased to tell us that she shared a name with the housekeeper of the story. Or maybe she was just another of Edith Nesbit's ghosts sent to allow us to disturb the slumbers of the sleeping knights, who, at first sight were safely lying on their marble bed. But I would not wish to return on All Saints' Eve.

Edith Nesbit was not a prolific writer of ghost stories. Hugh Lamb edited a slim volume, published by Methuen in 1983, containing seven stories.

Perhaps the most impressive of the other stories is 'The Violet Car', in which a car takes supernatural revenge on a man who had earlier caused it to be driven off the edge of a cliff.

By a strange coincidence BBC Radio are broadcasting a series of Edith Nesbit's ghost stories in the week beginning October 29th, spanning All Saints' Eve. Let's hope the recumbent knights are not listening.

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Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Casual Wait - Further Musings from the Daughter of a Mad Book Collector

Despite all the indifferent to bad reviews, I still want to read JK Rowling’s "The Casual Vacancy". However, with no desire to start reading the 500 page tome straightaway, today I reserved a copy at Cambridge Central Library. Now, according to their online catalogue the book isn’t actually on the shelf yet but is ‘on order’. The system is clever enough to allow me to reserve it for when it does arrive – though to my horror, I discovered that I am in a queue with 102 people ahead of me. Considering that you’re allowed to have the book at home for 3 weeks this means that – assuming people borrow it for the maximum period – it will be at least 6 years before I can check it out. Of course, taking into account the book’s not inconsiderable length, plenty of people will need longer than 3 weeks to read it and will be more than happy to incur the modest daily fine the library charges. In other words it might take up to a decade before I start reading it! Now the library might decide to order more copies considering the demand is so high – though I note that there are still 126 holds on "Fifty Shades of Grey" so they haven’t quite kept ahead of trends in adult fiction (or perhaps, just aren’t willing to succumb to it).

Now there is another option for getting a copy of "The Casual Vacancy" without going down the Amazon or Waterstone’s route. I just might find it in one of the many charity shops that line Cambridge’s Mill Road before it gets to the library, and if so, I’m unlikely to pay more than £1 for it. (In fact you can buy a whole set of Harry Potters for not much more than that in the RSPCA shop.) A recent scan of books in Salvation Army and Arthur Rank Hospice indicates that it takes around 4 years for books to make it into one of the 3 for £1 book boxes. For example, I picked up a copy of Heather O’Neill’s "Lullabies for Little Criminals" (publ. 2008) the other day, and recent publications by John Grisham, Jeffrey Archer, and Jodi Picoult are never hard to find. "One Day" was first published in 2009 and you can easily spot its distinctive orange cover in nearly every charity shop, but according to the library catalogue, there are reservations on every copy in the Cambridgeshire area (except in fact for St Neot’s, where the large-print format is available). So, will "The Casual Vacancy" arrive in the charity shop or the library first? We’ll have to wait and see …

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