Hollywood’s Grandmas Part 1

An enormous amount of work has been done on the global circulation of culture via electric and electronic media, but it’s becoming realised more and more that there was a set of narratives and imagery shared globally in the nineteenth century too. What I want to do over the next few blog posts is to mark the commercial importance of serial novels by American women writers to a specific but huge sector of British mass-market fiction between 1855 and 1883.

from The London Reader 1899; my thanks to John Adcock's splendid blog for this image

Key to the idea of “commercial importance” is whether the stories these women wrote were pirated or paid for by the British publishing industry. As we know from Dickens, the issue of transatlantic piracy was very important to writers. American publishers waiting at the dockside for new British books could produce an edition almost within hours, as they did in 1823 with Sir Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak. In the absence of international copyright agreements, the British author usually received nothing, although Harper Brothers, for instance, paid considerable royalties to Dickens and Macaulay, among others, and later on in the century Lippincott was generous to British authors he published, including Ouida. Accounts of British pirating of American serials commonly refer to how about 1.5 million copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were published in Britain without Harriet Beecher Stowe’s consent, but not much else. In fact there was a huge trans-Atlantic exchange.

I’m not going to write about well-known cases here. Furthermore, rather than talking of the piracy of books (quite expensive at the time) , I’ll focus on serials in cheap fiction magazines. Instead of the high-profit-per-unit-sold model which books operated on, penny periodicals made profit through the quantity sold. Most mid-nineteenth-century British mass-market fiction was published according to the latter model in penny weeklies such as The Family Herald, The London Journal, Reynolds’s Miscellany, The London Reader and so forth. America had its analogues in 4 cent weeklies such as the New York Ledger and the Philadelphia-based Saturday Evening Post. The circulation of all these magazines was enormous, with sales in the 1850s and 60s of 500,000 each (Dickens at his most popular, remember, managed 40,000). Given the usual calculations that are used to calculate readership from sales, in 1860 just the three best-selling magazines amounted to a 50% penetration of the entire population of Britain. Given that then the literacy rate in Britain was around 60%, that means that c. 83% of the literate population of Britain was reading one of these three magazines. The analogous American magazines had comparable sales figures, though given the much higher literacy and population of American – some 31 million as opposed to 19 million in 1860 – their percentage penetration was actually rather lower, if still hugely significant.

Example of a typical cover page of The London Journal

If what I’m saying is not as well-known as it should be it’s because, despite a few academic studies (most recently of American women writers), there are no bibliographical guides or descriptions of any of these periodicals. Some are available through ProQuest’s Periodical Archives Online but one still needs a bibliographical map to find one’s way around. Unless one knows what to look for one cannot find it.  Hence the importance of aids such as the Victorian Fiction Research Guides.

The points I am making come out specifically of my bibliographical mapping of primarily the British mass-market: what I found was that I also needed maps of the American and even Australian mass markets too. A focus on one does not give an adequate picture of how the market operated.

That said, in the British market there was a quite strict form of market segmentation along national lines. While some penny periodicals such as Bow Bells, Reynolds’s Miscellany and The Family Herald gave consumers mainly home-grown British fiction, there was another set that from 1855 offered stories written primarily by a mixture of American women and British men. This set comprises three closely related magazines: The London Journal, its offshoot The Guide, and its rival from 1862 The 7 Days Journal renamed in 1863 as The London Reader. These published a very large number of serials by three American women authors: E.D.E.N. Southworth, Harriet Lewis and May Agnes Fleming. The London Journal alone published 237 serials of various lengths – some in fact lasting only a few episodes. At least 50 of these serials, all of them long (and sometimes very long), were by 4 American women: 2 were by Caroline Lee Hentz in the mid 1850s, 13 by Southworth between 1855-1868, at least 22 serials by Harriet Lewis between 1868 and 1883, and at least 13 by May Agnes Fleming over the same period (I say at least as some are not attributed and others which are given signatures I haven’t been able to trace elsewhere).

While Southworth and Fleming have recently become visible again through the work of Nina Baym, Lorraine McMullen and others, it is Lewis in fact who has the largest number of novels published in this market sector as a whole, not just in The London Journal though she is most dominant there. Indeed, there is not a single number of The London Journal without one of her serials for 12 years from 1868, a succession of tales halted only by her death. When I discovered from perusal of her letters that she wrote a large number of serials that appeared under husband’s name Leon and his pseudonym “Illion Costellano”, her market share rose even higher.

The Uncle Tom mania in Britain over 1851-2 is well known and Louis James has pointed out the importance of American fiction in the 1830s British mass market. Susan Warner’s Wide Wide World (December 1850) and later Queechy (1852) had considerable sales on both sides of the Atlantic. Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter created a sensation in 1854 with sales of 40,000 in its first 8 weeks and 70,000 in its first year. But it’s 1855 that is the key date for the beginning of a sustained massive import of American women writers into the British mass-market periodical. That year Margaret Oliphant realised the potency of American fiction in the “sensation” market and the Saturday Review commented on the popularity of American women writers early the following year.

There are several reasons for stressing 1855.

First, there had been recent changes in the law of copyright in Britain. In the 1840s, France had been seen as leading the way in mass-market periodical fiction, and British publishers mercilessly pirated French serials. The economics of mass-market publishing in Britain meant that there was no money to pay authors much: publishing translations of French works already known to sell well was a much safer speculation than publishing work that was untried in the market. But in 1852, there was a change in the copyright agreement with France. Now no longer could publishers in Britain simply take and translate a French work without paying the author. Fortunately, this was also the period when home-grown British writers such as J.F. Smith, Percy B. St John and Pierce Egan the Younger were selling so well there was enough profit on sales to pay them quite well, but of course it was still more profitable to publish works you didn’t have to pay for – and that would also sell well. The problem was now where to find them.