"Victorian Bestsellers": Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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"Victorian Bestsellers" Morgan Library & Museum, New York. January 26-May 6, 2007

"Bestseller" is a relatively recent coinage. It doesn't even appear in the first edition of the OED. The Supplement's first citation is from 1911, given an American origin, and pejorative: "His book had passed into the abhorred class of best sellers." I think the OED is late by at least twenty years, but this is clearly a case where life cried out for a new word.

The wonderful new exhibit at the Morgan Library officially covers the period from 1837-1901, Victoria's reign, but it sneaks in some forerunners, like the Gothic novelists Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis. Their effect can be judged by Gillray's print "Tales of Wonder!," in which even the drawing-room ornaments are agog at the thrilling horrors read aloud into the wee hours of the morning to the female audience. Thus the birth of the trashy bestseller. As Oscar Wilde said of their racy descendant Rhoda Broughton, such authors posess "that one touch of vulgarity that makes the whole world kin." There's a lot of money to be had if you can appeal to the appetite of the whole world, and the first thing that greets you when you enter the shot, is a contract signed--and cannily amended--by Charles Dickens.

By 1837, all the preconditions for bestsellerdom were in place: cheap paper strong enough for rotary steam presses, competing publishing houses, a sizable literate public, and a bit of extra time. The reader as consumer was born. And as a wall text notes and the Gillray illustrates, there were "more consumers than purchasers." Publishers tried to give you good value for money, cramming text in double-columns of tiny print. Illustrations were an important break for all readers. The Morgan show includes typically exuberant examples by Dickens's illustrators Phiz and Cruikshank, the more genteel Millais for Trollope, and the sophisticated winks with which Thackeray himself illustrated Vanity Fair. The artwork could be aesthetically appealing even for cheaper productions and the lower orders. Yellowbacks--price two shillings--were designed specifically as railway reading: the proto-paperback. On display are both draft yellow-back covers and a portfolio of finished products by Arthur Crowquill. If you think his name is too apt, congratulations. Crowquill, a pseudonym shared by two brothers, but mostly associated with one of them, Alfred Henry Forrester, drew comic pictures for Punch, and also designed book jackets. The filigreed detail is meant to be savored: Alexis Soyer's Shilling Cookery for the People (perhaps based on his cooking for the troops in the Crimea), Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, and The Roving Englshman (Crowquill corrected this mistake by the final proof; the Morgan, alas, seems to have misspelled his real surname). Precisely because Yellowbacks and Shilling Shockers were so popular and affordable, these cheaply made books were read to death. …