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Mudie’s Select Library And The Three Volume Novel

Charles Edward Mudie

Born in 1818 in Chelsea, London, to newspaper shop keepers originally from Scotland, Charles Edward Mudie wasn’t the first person to create a circulating library but he was the person who brought it to prominence. He had the business background to build his library upon. He opened his first bookshop in 1840, ‘a little shop in Bloombury’ as The Times called it1 (The Times, 1913).

In 1842, Mudie began lending books to students of the University of London. For a guinea a year (equal to 20 shillings – in today’s currency a shilling is roughly 5 pence) a student could borrow one volume at a time. The system was so successful that Mudie moved to a better location and soon had branches of his library in other cities, including Manchester and Birmingham (Wikipedia n.d. a). Deliveries in England were made with vans and trains. Ships took orders overseas (ibid.).

The reason Mudie was so successful is summed up by George Landow in his 2001 [1972] review of Guinevere Griest’s 1970 work, Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel. Landow notes the ‘famous guinea yearly subscription’. (For a higher fee you could borrow more than one at a time.) Landow also notes the advertising that created ‘something very like a best-seller list’, a new market that established Mudie’s power. Mudie also ordered books in large numbers, sometimes entire print runs. (A print run would comprise of up to 1000 copies.)

Readers didn’t have to wait long to read the books they wanted. At the height of the library’s popularity, Mudie boasted over a million titles (Spiegel, 2011). The Library catalogue for January 1860 notes, in letters rather than numbers – possibly so that it looks even better – ‘rate of increase exceeds one hundred and twenty thousand volumes per annum’, and genres include history, biography, religion, philosophy, travel, and, in all its pomp and capitalisation, the ‘HIGHER CLASS of FICTION’ (Catalogue of New and Standard Works, 1860, contents page).

Mudie had originally started lending to provide wider access to non-fiction; the genre was a good amount of the stock, and it was this that made the consumption of scientific volumes a success – Mudie bought 500 copies of Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species; Darwin’s own reading was thanks to Mudie (Wikipedia n.d. a). But Mudie recognised the market for fiction.

It was Mudie’s influence that led to the popularity and full adoption of the three volume novel; Mudie demanded publishers produce only three volume novels, which allowed one work to be divided between multiple subscribers, increasing both stock and the number of borrows. Why Mudie was so successful here is due to the fees he set and the accessibility of his library. Lending libraries were crucial to the middle class’s access to literature. Books were expensive to buy, costing the equivalent of half the weekly income of an average household but the guinea per year set up at Mudie’s was relatively lower cost. Mudie’s influence over publishers, due to this social mobilisation of the middle class, effected the morality, subject, and scope of what was published for the next 50 years (Landow 2001). He was all the more powerful because other libraries began to follow his recommendations. Books were censored or not published at all if Mudie didn’t like them (he took note of his customer’s opinions on books)2. Authors were often contracted for a specific number of pages and if their books weren’t quite in line with the format they were asked to change them so that they were in line. (This is likely why Charlotte Brontë, when writing to her sisters’ publisher – her own potential publisher – noted that Jane Eyre was a work in three volumes, and is also perhaps why Emily and Anne’s novels were sent together as a combined three volumes. Despite a rejected first novel, she knew what needed to be done in order to succeed.) Mudie’s advertising informed subscribers of new works and reminded them of the service in general3.

An advertisement for Mudie's

Thus the three volume novel became the standard in the 1800s; before that there had been novels in volumes of varying numbers. Shorter works were simply divided into chapters. The format had first been produced by publisher Archibald Constable in the early 1800s; however his influence over the three volume novel was small – publisher Henry Colburn (who had worked at a circulating library) made it more popular. The format made it easier for new authors to be published. Their reputations were more in Mudie’s hands than the critics, who in turn often hoped bad novels would just not be ordered by libraries – but the system put a barrier between authors and readers, and discouraged several generations from buying novels (ibid.). In an article published in 1965, Guinvere Griest said that there were single volume novels – mostly books previously published in three – but that there was an ‘aura of dignity and worth’ to three volumes which eclipsed all other forms (1965, p. 117).

The three volume novel remained popular as a form until 1894, when Mudie (the library), along with W H Smith’s (first founded in 1792 as a news vendor and, according to Griest, Mudie’s only rival) stopped buying it.

Mudie himself died in 1890. His libraries continued to run until the 1930s when public libraries began to rise with services that were even cheaper. (They had first begun to gain traction in the late 1800s and thus Mudie had experienced the lessening of his empire.) But interestingly, as Landow says, Mudie’s lost its power in particular due to its own decision to abandon the three volume novel (2001). ‘The end of the Victorian circulating libraries, however, does not coincide’ says Griest, ‘with the end of [Mudie’s and W H Smith and Sons] but rather with the extinction of the three-decker, a method… so closely entwined with [circulating library] prosperity that the end of the one spelled doom of the other’ (1965, p. 104)4. As publishers began publishing very cheap second editions comprising of all three volumes, the libraries had trouble keeping their capital and not finding themselves faced with a ton of books that were no longer being borrowed. They tried to tie publishers’ hands but now the publishers were worried about the effect a return to higher prices would have on the industry and readers. Mudie’s successor, his son, Arthur, chose to kill off the three volume novel rather than raise subscription prices, believing higher prices would not help (ibid, p. 123). He said later that he didn’t believe in the three volume novel. How his father would have taken that, we can never know.


1 The Times notes that circulating libraries had been in existence since at least the Middle Ages, though they state as the pioneer one Samuel Fancourt (1678-1768).
2 Straight after the list of genres included, and the Catalogue says, in italics, ‘Cheap reprints, Serials, Costly Books of Plates, Works of merely Professional or Local Interest, and Novels of objectionable character or inferior ability, are almost invariably excluded’. (At least they gave a capital letter to those Novels!)
3 Landow’s referenced writer, Griest, said in an earlier article about Mudie, ‘Publishers’ advertisements of newly issued fiction in the middle and late years of the nineteenth century frequently proclaimed to interested readers, “Popular New Novels, at all the libraries, each in three volumes, crown octavo,” or “This say, at all libraries, in three volumes…,” thus revealing the importance of these great lending organizations in book distribution and, by implication, the dominance in the fiction lists at the libraries of the novel in three volumes. In other words, novels were announced not for sale, but as available to the public through lending organizations.’ (Griest, 1965, p. 103).
4 We can assume Griest meant W H Smith’s in its historical form – Smith’s survives still today though it is now a combination of bookshop, newsagents, stationers, and often post office.

Book References

Catalogue Of New And Standard Works In Circulation At Mudie’s Select Library (1860) Charles Edward Mudie, New Oxford Street London

Article References

Griest, Guinevere (September 1965) A Victorian Leviathan: Mudie’s Select Library, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 103-126, University Of California Press, accessed 10th May 2019.
Landow, George (2001 [1972]) Mudie’s Select Library and the Form of Victorian Fiction, The Victorian Web, accessed 10th May 2019.
Spiegel, Nancy (2011) Circulating libraries: library history and architecture, University Of Chicago Library News, accessed 10th May 2019.
The Times (2nd September 1913) London Circulating Libraries, accessed 10th May 2019.
Wikipedia (n.d.-a) Charles Edward Mudie, accessed 8th May 2019.
Wikipedia (n.d.-b) Three-volume novel, accessed 10th May 2019.

The Crossway: An Overview

A photograph of a copy of The Crossway on a wooden surface

On the Rathbones Folio Prize 2019 shortlist is Guy Stagg’s The Crossway, a narrative non-fiction account of his journey on foot from Canterbury to Jerusalem. It’s the book I have been championing for the Prize on Twitter.

On New Year’s Day 2013, Stagg begins a pilgrimage that has been done for a great many years by Christians for varying reasons; it’s a journey not taken lightly but in Stagg’s case is all the more significant for the season in which he departs. Along the way, particularly during those months where the winter is cutting and the snow will hinder progress, the people he meets exclaim their surprise and often advise pausing the pilgrimage until the weather improves; or perhaps he should be using transport – most pilgrims start in spring, autumn at the latest. But Stagg is driven by the feeling that if he stops he won’t continue; he began his journey when he did because he knew that to wait would result in never beginning. There is of course irony in his hosts’ advise – to stop what is supposed to be a difficult journey – but the determination Stagg has, at once wonderful and foolhardy (though it pays off), is what keeps him going. And the events during his journey provide a present day context for the stories he tells of historical, religious, figures.

Stagg is not religious, though his attention to detail in regards to the various saints and other pilgrims shows a great interest in the facts regardless; the specifications of stories about pilgrims, both those cannonised (or beatified) and others who were simply popular, include a good amount of research. Presumably first conceptualised at the time of his introduction to the figures through conversation with those along the road, and later researched in greater detail, these stories form one third of the overall content of the book.

The other two thirds are comprised of the journey itself and Stagg’s reason for walking – he hopes the ritual of pilgrimage will help him as he heals from mental illness. The journey doesn’t get as much time as you might expect – this is somewhat accounted for by Stagg’s stories of the kindness of those who gave him shelter and the way of pilgrimages where the path is trodden enough that there are systems in place – but where the road is particularly difficult, the details are fleshed out.

Catholics, Christians from other denominations, and those with the knowledge (whether religious themselves or not) may be the most obvious readers for this book, but the stories included are valuable also simply for history’s sake, particularly where the stories concern times when religion was more important than it is now; quite a bit of the information required to understand the religious references is included and the rest easy to find online. The pilgrimage, as a journey, also pits the book alongside others that are about similar sorts of travels. The aspect of mental illness is compelling and a reason in its own right.

The Prize winner will be announced on 20th May.

Classics Referencing Other Works (And The Problem With Dated Books)

A painting of Maria Edgeworth

This month has brought with it the constant urge to read the book(s) that inspired the book(s). Last year I read Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote first and foremost because the author was a Charlotte but in the time between deciding I would read it and the moment I started it, I discovered the connection to Jane Austen. If it wasn’t for the fact that the favourite novel of Lennox’s bookish heroine is 13,000 pages long, I would likely have moved on to it. But as it is, and as the other referenced books weren’t so memorable, I began and ended with Lennox’s work.

“I am no novel-reader – I seldom look into novels – Do not imagine that I often read novels – It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant.
“And what are you reading, Miss-?”
“Oh! It is only a novel” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. (Northanger Abbey, chapter 5)

Presently I’m reading Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, mostly due to the above reference to it in Austen’s work; I am effectively now on my second read of a book that Austen was inspired by when writing Northanger Abbey. And through Belinda, as well as, if I recall correctly, the Oxford’s World Classics edition of Charlotte Brontë’s letters, I’ve been introduced to Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar Of Wakefield, which was apparently very famous in its day (less so now). I’d like to read that, too.

I have the exact problem I spied when I originally thought of reading books referenced in other books – I don’t know where I should stop. ‘Should’ is not quite right – I can read what I want, of course; it’s getting the right balance between choosing what you reading with a thought to time limits and increasing your literary knowledge in the way you’d like to. I’m personally yet to work out what is right for me; I wonder whether my interest in reading secondary sources will help or hinder. One thing I do know: considering the Goldsmith is a new addition to my list I may well not get to it, but if I do (it is apparently a riot) I’m very much hoping Goldsmith does not reference anyone himself.

Of course all this contextual reading – if at this point it can be called so – has taught me something I wasn’t aware of: the sheer number of past authors who haven’t worried about the longevity of their books. We talk nowadays of authors dating their books, putting in references to current culture that will mean they’ll likely be difficult to understand within a few years, but authors have been doing this since the early days of novels. I wonder if perhaps, with the fewer number of publications and the way it’s likely that authors were far closer to each other for the same reason, the idea of referencing wasn’t something to analyse prior to use. Definitely, if we look at works referenced, there was a strong element of trying to please those they admired (when the references were contemporary) and helping to form in-jokes that readers would understand (when references were a little older). This is where footnotes are of value; I’ve changed my mind on footnotes in books. I saw the value particularly when I checked a second, noted, edition of a book I was reading to find out who a referenced person was and found there was no entry for them.

There is a difference between then and now, however. References to popular books of yore are easy to look up, at least in the age of the Internet, and there were fewer books to start with. Nowadays there are many and the references to culture are more often digital, things that will likely have a short shelf life. The author most referenced in the classics I’m reading is Frances Burney, who was popular for a great many years, so much so that even if her books weren’t read today it’d be easy enough to find out about her. And that she wrote books is an easy concept to understand. I wonder if Twitter, which requires understanding of the Internet, will be as easy to understand in centuries to come.

Social media in books is the likely-to-be-dated-soon element I always note because of Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, which I’ve heard a lot about and would like to read at some point. I know that it deals with familiarity and obsession with famous people, and whilst these themes are longterm, I wonder how understanding and empathy in a reader will change when social media is long gone.

The above said, for all our worries about dating today’s books, it has been going on for centuries. And what we think usual today may not be usual tomorrow; but we think about what is going into a book and how the future may consider it. I think it’s fair to say that authors today know well how future-proof their work will be. Reading older books, one gets the sense that that wasn’t often considered.

What is your opinion on books that include today’s technology?

On Books About Books, Characters Who Read, And The Pros And Cons

Book cover of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, every major character, and some minor characters, read, and a number actively write. But so often in books characters don’t read or aren’t readers, which is interesting: authors are readers, and whilst many books include bookish characters, it’s perhaps surprising that there aren’t even more of them. Lawrence’s use of reading, particularly his extending it to characters of different backgrounds and classes, is compelling.

A point before I continue: I don’t mean to infer that it’s bad when books aren’t about books in any way – all topics make for good reading. Everyone has different hobbies and the variety of characters in the world of literature reflect that. Characters in films don’t often watch films – in fact if they did, given the relative shortness of films, viewers might have something to say about it, particularly as watching a film means quiet whereas people can group together to read books out loud. (TV characters can easily watch TV, though the ‘quiet’ is likely the reason why sports is often used in this respect – it’s acceptable to talk over it, if just to shout at the players on the field. A group of people watching sport is also a very easy way to show friendship in an instant.) A related point: some stories are just not the place for books to be included. Katniss did not have time to read flash fiction, never mind War And Peace, and incidentally her world likely would not have had any copies to offer her.

Book cover of Jo Walton's Among Others

The idea of reading being a solitary pursuit has been widely debunked in recent years, which perhaps explains why more books about books are being published. Shaffers and Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society showed that the solitary is easy to get around; Jo Walton’s Among Others showed that the solitary could be an active part of it. Other books such as Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P which use literary culture rather than specific books, offer a different means as well. It’s perhaps easy to look on the surface and think that reading about someone else reading – which is exactly what Among Others is all about – would be dull, however such books continue to be successful.

I cite Walton’s book in particular because it showed how interesting reading about reading can be1. It showed that discussion – even if in the form of one person’s reflections on what they are reading – is what makes it work. The author explains the reading in her book thus:

“This isn’t a book about reading one book, it’s a book about the reading [sic] the way teenagers do, indiscriminately, developing taste as they go along. She reads a lot, and some of it is tosh.” (Walton, n.d.)

This process of development requires a lot of thought – Walton’s character, Mori, reflects on what she reads constantly (the book is written in the form of a diary) – and whilst a lot of the book is autobiographical, particularly in regards to reading (the books are those Walton read in the years in which the book is set), in situations that are not so related to an author’s life, discussion might take a while to complete.

Walton also says the following:

“However, reading reviews and especially what I call ‘naive reviews’ – people on Goodreads and so on who are just burbling adorably about what they like – it seems clear that people who’ve read very little of what Mori has read can still enjoy it because they identify with a love of reading. I do think, though, that the more overlap you have the more you’ll get out of it: in so far as it’s a coming of age story, it’s about coming of age through reading science fiction.” (Walton, 2012)

Book cover of Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P

People may – do? – expect to have some discussion of the books referred to in the book they’re actively reading. If there are a lot of books referred to that they haven’t read, it might put them off – knowing about a book referred to most often leads to a deeper understanding of the book you’re actively reading, and knowing that you might be missing something, even if it’s more nuance than big point, could have an impact. (And of course encountering a referred book you’ve not read can also lead you wanting to read it.) The love of reading itself is of general understanding, but that’s not always enough.

When I made a list of the most bookish books I’d read, I noted how many ‘types’ were involved; most often multiple categories applied. There are books that discuss in detail, books that simply note titles, books that are somewhere between the two. There are books that use literary culture, or that use book groups or similar. There are academic professions and professors and students, and bookshops. And there are characters who write, and characters who write about other writers. (In the spirit of this post, I’ve added my list to the end.)

One more category deserves question: bookish books that are classics. On my list this category is served by Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote. Whilst Lennox discusses the books her heroine reads, both her book and Austen’s (which in itself was partly inspired by Lennox’s novel) largely look at the books included as a place for comedy. Notably, they use books not of their own era, which we could consider down to the idea that poking fun at contemporary novels might not have been acceptable. Certainly it’s interesting that the books made fun of are also in the main by women or naturally of semi-comedic value, and that the heroes of both work to tamp down their lover’s thoughts on their fiction. Austen’s Henry Tilney calms Catherine Morley’s scares (that have been created by her avid reading of Gothic fiction), and Lennox’s Glanville works to teach Arabella that everything she has learned (through epic romances that were, by Lennox’s day, considered ridiculous) is wrong. (Lennox also includes an extra male teacher, the person who actually teaches Arabella about reality when Glanville and company fail2.)

Book cover of Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote

Modern books might laugh at other books sometimes – certainly Hanif Kureishi’s The Last Word parodies another writer, and a contemporary at that – but we don’t dismiss them so readily.

Looking at my list, and considering Walton’s book and her words, one thing stands out – the majority of these books about books/book culture are excellent, often lauded by their readers. The books include a lot of detail and thought. They help broaden your knowledge whether by adding new knowledge or adding to what you already knew. They bring that literary thrill. They leave you with a whole new list of books to read, that might lead to another list when you pick up the first one referenced, and so forth.

As such, they’re not likely to be good candidates for readers who are looking to escape to another world and to relax. They depend upon references to books that have been around for centuries or are very likely to be in future, or else risk accessibility. And knowledge requires your time.

To end, going back to Lawrence, the writer seeps his book in literature yet never goes beyond the surface of the culture. But the class-no-barrier-to-entry is something in itself. Even now reading is seen as somewhat of an activity for those with time and money; books are expensive and can be viewed as unproductive to spend time with, and right now libraries are closing. Looking at the sorts of books that include bookish characters, a great number involve people with time and money, often status. On my list, only a few do not conform. It is an unfortunate reflection of reality.

My List Of Books

Charlotte Lennox: The Female Quixote (1752)
Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey (1818)
D H Lawrence: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)
Dodie Smith: I Capture The Castle (1949)
Bernhard Schlink: The Reader (1995)
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen: The Rabbit Back Literature Society (2006)
Mikhail Elizarov: The Librarian (2007)
Mary Ann Shaffers and Annie Barrows: The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (2008)
Jo Walton: Among Others (2011)
Valeria Luiselli: Faces In The Crowd (2011)
Adelle Waldman: The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P (2013)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah (2013)
Hanif Kureishi: The Last Word (2013)
Max Porter: Grief Is The Thing With Feathers (2015)
Sarah Ladipo Manyika: Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun (2016)
Claire Fuller: Swimming Lessons (2017)
Phillip Lewis: The Barrowfields (2017)
Laura Pearson: Missing Pieces (2018)


1 I have somewhat changed my views on Walton’s book recently. At the time of reading I found it veered towards name-dropping but having read about it further I see how different interpretations and prior knowledge alter that. I intend to update my thoughts in depth soon.
2 It has been noted that Samuel Johnson most likely wrote the penultimate chapters of Lennox’s book wherein a doctor – a thinly-veiled Johnson himself – goes through Arabella’s bookish problems with her. I wrote about this in my post about the book in regards to the value of reading.


Walton, Jo (n.d.) Among Others, Jo, accessed 12th March 2019
Walton, Jo (2012) Jo Walton’s Among Others: ‘It’s a mythologisation of part of my life’, The Guardian, accessed 12th March 2019

Musings On The Importance Of Contexts When Forming An Opinion Of Characters

A photograph of three books: Vanity Fair, Anna Karenina, and David Copperfield

In trying to write about a particular character, I reached a point where I couldn’t continue without considering the author’s reason for including that character. This of course led me to consider the oft-debated topic of whether we should view a text in the context of its writer. And due to the fact that what I’d been working on had been inspired by a discussion about a character from not only a different book but different type of book, I’d also recognised the difficulties in applying any sort of template to a character study.

Of backgrounds, if we use my inspiration (Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) and the character I wanted to write about (Diana Gabaldon’s Claire Fraser/Randall), it’s immediately obvious; you can’t apply or, generally, so much as consider, the characters from a similar perspective without soon finding yourself in a bit of a quandary. Anna Karenina is – spoilers incoming – a way for Tolstoy to discuss the different ways society treated infidelity depending on gender – and Claire Fraser is the way in which Gabaldon explores the idea of romance in the context of time travel. It would be difficult to compare the two characters – there’s little reason to – and likewise, it’s difficult to apply the same modes of thinking to a character study for each, beyond insignificant (to their stories) details. How they takes their tea? Perhaps.

Context of all kinds allows us to give reason for motivations and thinking, and the author context is a part of that. Both need establishing for the rest to work.

In terms of my plans, they’ll require a bit more research.

Who is one of your favourite characters in terms of their role in the book?


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