Writers, Readers, and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain, 1870-1918

Writers, Readers, and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain, 1870-1918

Writers, Readers, and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain, 1870-1918

Writers, Readers, and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain, 1870-1918


Charles Dickens died in 1870, the same year in which universal elementary education was introduced. During the following generation a mass reading public emerged, and the term "best-seller" was coined. In new and cheap editions Dickens's stories sold hugely, but these were progressively outstripped in quantity by the likes of Hall Caine and Marie Corelli, Charles Garvice and Nat Gould. Who has now heard of these writers? Yet Hall Caine, for one, boasted of having made more money from his pen than any previous author.

This book presents a panoramic view of literary life in Britain over half a century from 1870 to 1914, teasing out authors' relations with the reading public and tracing how reputations were made and unmade. It surveys readers' habits, the book trade, popular literary magazines and the role of reviewers, and examines the construction of a classical canon by critics concerned about the supposed corruption of popular taste. Certain writers were elevated as national heroes, yet Britain drew its writers from abroad as well as from home.

Authors became stars and celebrities, and a literary tourism grew around their haunts. They advertised products from cigarettes to toothpaste; they were fashion-conscious and promoted themselves via profiles, interviews, and carefully posed photographs; they went on lecture tours to America; and their names were pushed by a new professional breed: the literary agent. Some angled for knighthoods, even peerages, and cut a figure in high society and London clubland. They debated public issues of the day and campaigned on all manner of things from questions of faith and women's rights to censorship and conscription. During the Great War they penned propaganda. Meanwhile the cinema was developing to challenge the supremacy of the written word over the imagination. Authors took to that too, as an opportunity for new adventure. Writers, Readers, and Reputationsis richly entertaining and informative, amounting to a collective biography of a generation of writers and their world.


This book conjures up aspects of literary life in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England. It was then that a genuine mass market for literature arose, and with it the phenomenon of the best-seller. Authors' behaviour and standing, the public's responses, and the images created, are the uniting themes of what follows.

The book was conceived, I blush to admit, in the early 1980s, and the material in it has been compiled systematically, though too often desultorily, over the years. Other commissions and duties have supervened: 'The life of the tutor of a college is so incessantly disturbed, so minutely subdivided, that it is difficult indeed for him to produce the least example of a work of “long breath”.' That was written a century ago by Edmund Gosse about the bishop and ecclesiastical historian Mandell Creighton, who, curiously, had also been a Fellow of Merton and (founding) editor of the English Historical Review. Spells as Senior Tutor and Sub-Warden have slowed the production of this work; yet the College has also provided support and stimulation, and the secretarial help given by Clare Bass, by Julie Gerhardi, and above all by Judith Kirby has been invaluable. The encouragement of Tony Morris, Ruth Parr, and Anne Gelling at the Oxford University Press is likewise much appreciated; and Laurien Berkeley's help has been especially important in the final stages. I must also thank the Radcliffe Trust for appointing me to a History Fellowship, which relieved me of tutorial teaching for the academic year 1997–8. The University of Oxford's Modern History Faculty Board assisted in the preparation of the typescript for publication by equipping me with the services of Jeff New, whom I wish particularly to thank. He went through the entire text, which, extensive though it remains, was once much longer still; accordingly, considerable areas have been truncated or excluded altogether—among them, authors' involvement in the theatre, their relations with the literature of other countries, and their explorations in the realm of unorthodox religion—which can be examined in a succeeding volume.

When this study was started, the subject was eccentric to most concerns, certainly in history faculties, largely in literature faculties too, both seized with sundry '-isms'. Since then it has stealthily 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. This book is designed to entertain as well as inform.


Merton College, Oxford

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