This is primarily the study of a literature; the literature published for the working classes in the towns of England from about 1830--when the delayed effects of the paper-making machine and the rotary press drastically reduced the cost of publication and thus made possible a new phase of mass literature--to 1850, when the 'popular press' had begun to find its feet in the new field. It has been based on a wider range of cheap fiction than has ever before, I believe, been available to a single researcher in this subject. Its aims are therefore different from those of Professor Richard Altick, Mr. R. K. Webb and Mr. Raymond Williams, who have been preoccupied primarily with the working-class reader. Nor does it attempt to be a sociological study in the manner of Professor Richard Hoggart The Uses of Literacy. However, it has been written with the social, economic, and historical background always in mind, and with a strict attention to chronology, since this period, often treated as a unity, saw the situations changing even from year to year. This I believe differentiates the work from previous literary studies in this field.
While the works examined are generally of too low a quality to be usefully judged except by their own limited standards, this study is of importance to the literary student. For by revealing the extent and nature of the field, it throws new light on the lower levels of literature that inevitably shifts the perspective of the total scene. This is particularly so with Dickens, who is finally divested of the myth of a universal readership; but the contemporary significance of the Romantics, Scott, Ainsworth, and other upper-class writers is also clarified. The study should turn scholars to reconsider certain aspects of upper-class Victorian literature--in particular the importance of French and American fiction, and domestic romance.
While concerned with literature, the study has wider implications. The sociologist, for example, while he will not surmise from the analysis of Ada the Betrayed that orphans, seized from the flames of burning smithies and kept by the murderers of their fathers, are a common part of the Victorian scene, will find much to interest him concerning the imaginations, moral attitudes, and sensibilities of the readers who made it one of the best-sellers of the century. Moreover, since the period covered is crucial to the emergence of mass literature in the modern industrial context, it poses a number of contemporary questions. Is lower-class culture . . .