Embarking on the subject of Victorian popular fiction is like that favourite Victorian occupation of mapping the source of the Nile: the dark continent beckons, but the explorer soon begins to feel like Captain Speke without a compass, for ever following tempting channels that wind up in swamps, for ever in danger of being lost in vast, unmapped regions, and not sure what he will find when he gets there. Two large, menacing rocks loom out of the water immediately. Who were the readers? What were they reading? To attempt to negotiate these obstacles will be the business of this chapter, before my exploration plunges deeper into the jungle of commercial publishing, criticism, and three examples of mid-Victorian popularities — Margaret Oliphant, Rhoda Broughton and James Payn.


Book Trade Love Story Reading Mania Popular Fiction Adventure Story 
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  1. 3.
    Alfred Austin, ‘The Novels of Miss Broughton’, Temple Bar, XLI (May 1874) 197.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Altick, The English Common Reader, p. 83. By 1877, one contributor to Good Words found it impossible to define ‘middle class’ — XVIII (July 1877) 357. J. A. Banks notes at least seven levels above the lowest class; see 1859: Entering an Age of Crisis, ed. P. Appleman, William Madden, Michael Wolff (Bloomington, Ind., 1959) p. 213.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    James Payn, Some Private Views (London, 1881).Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, ed. William Aldis Wright (London, 1894) II, 159;Google Scholar
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    Memorials of Two Sisters, ed. Margaret Shaen (London, 1908) p. 296.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
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  9. 11.
    John Sutherland, Victorian Novelists and Publishers (London, 1976) p. 24. See alsoGoogle Scholar
  10. Guinevere Griest, Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel (Bloomington, Ind., 1970). Cawthorn and Hutt’s British Library in Cockspur Street had nothing like Mudie’s trade, but its fiction stock corroborates my findings. The most popular minor novelists listed in an 1881 catalogue are: Mrs Oliphant (45 titles), Trollope (43), James Grant (38), G. P. R. James (36), W. H. Ainsworth (33), Mrs Henry Wood (29). Not far behind come Charlotte Yonge, Annie Thomas, F. W. Robinson, Anne Manning, Whyte Melville and Florence Marryat. There were many other circulating libraries in the country, like Bradford Circulating Library and Literary Society, founded in 1774, which survived until March 1981. Part of its stock, virtually unchanged for fifty years, gives a clear indication of the most popular three-deckers available to its subscribers: M. E. Braddon (23 titles), Mrs Oliphant (36), G. P. R. James (29) and James Payn(10).Google Scholar
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    Mrs Arthur Kennard, There’s Rue for You, 2 vols (London, 1880).Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    George Moore, Literature at Nurse; or Circulating Morals (London, 1885).Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Vineta Colby, Yesterday’s Woman: Domestic Realism in the English Novel (Princeton, NJ, 1974) p. 4. For a contemporary classifying of novels see Masson, British Novelists and their Styles, pp. 214–28.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography (London, 1883) ch. 12.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    Mrs Oliphant, Phoebe Junior, A Last Chronicle of Carlingford (London, 1876) III, 7.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
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    The reissue of G. M. Young’s Portrait of an Age (London, 1962) drew attention to the historian’s contention that 1860 was the date of that rift in English intelligence when learning began to fragment into specialism and the gap began to appear between literary culture and light entertainment.Google Scholar
  20. 24.
    Alphonse Esquiros, The English at Home (London, 1861) p. 347.Google Scholar
  21. 25.
    The phrase used by Ernest Baker to describe the phenomenon is ‘muscular blackguardism’, in antithesis to the ‘muscular Christianity’ of Charles Kingsley and others; see Baker, The History of the English Novel (London, 1924–39) VIII, ch.5. A similar celebration of male heartiness is to be seen in the school, university and sporting novels. The code of athleticism was severely criticised byGoogle Scholar
  22. Wilkie Collins in Man and Wife (1870). A gentle variant of the muscular outdoors novel was offered byGoogle Scholar
  23. George Borrow’s Lavengro (1851), in which the hero puts on the gloves with his gipsy friend, Jasper Petulengro. These rural adventures were continued in Romany Rye (1857).Google Scholar
  24. 27.
    School and university stories were popular well before Thomas Hughes’s classics. College life with its bullying tutors, venial scouts and merry student pranksters exactly fitted the Punch style. See Theodore Hook, Peter Priggins, the College Scout, illustrated by ‘Phiz’ (1841);Google Scholar
  25. Charles Lister, The College Chums (1845). After Cuthbert Bede’s contribution in the fifties and Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) came many more, includingGoogle Scholar
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  27. 30.
    George Alfred Lawrence (1827–76) was a prolific author whose romantic adventure stories were much in vogue in the period covered by this study. The son of Alfred Charnley Lawrence, rector of Sandhurst, Kent, and Emily Mary Finch-Hatton, sister of the ninth Earl of Winchilsea, he was educated at Rugby and Balliol College, Oxford, and called to the bar in 1852, but forsook law for literature and a roving life. See Dictionary of National Biography, XI, ed. Sidney Lee (London, 1909) 695–6; Ernest Baker, Half-Forgotten Books (London, 1903) vol. 4, and introduction to Guy Livingstone. Google Scholar
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    S. M. Ellis, Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu and Others (London, 1931) p. 198.Google Scholar
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    Gordon H. Fleming, ‘George Alfred Lawrence and the Victorian Sensation Novel’, University of Arizona Bulletin, XXIII, no. 16 (4 Oct 1952) 29.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© R. C. Terry 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. C. Terry
    • 1
  1. 1.VictoriaCanada

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