Troy J. Bassett
Beginning in the 18th century and continuing throughout the 19th century, circulating libraries became an integral part of the literary marketplace as the chief means of distributing books. Subscribers paid an annual or per-book fee to rent volumes: during the Victorian period, the typical subscription rate was one guinea (21s) per year to borrow one volume at a time. The relatively high price of books made circulating libraries an economical means for many middle-class families to access books: for less than the price of one three-volume novel (one-and-a-half guineas, or 31s 6d), a subscriber could borrow dozens if not more volumes. Hundreds of circulating libraries existed during the Victorian period, but the two largest were Mudie’s Select Library (1842–1937) and W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library (1860–1961). Mudie’s, headquartered in London, had upwards of 50,000 subscribers, established branches in other major cities, and shipped books around the world. W. H. Smith added a library department to its pre-existing network of railway bookstalls with larger branches in major cities. Between them, Mudie’s and W. H. Smith became the largest purchasers of books and thereby had a direct and indirect effect on Victorian literature. In particular, the three-volume novel system—whereby the high price limited sales to the libraries who then had a monopoly on new fiction—encouraged British readers to become book borrowers instead of book buyers. The format of the three-volume novel led to certain generic conventions influencing areas such as characterization, plot, and style, which remained until the format was abolished in 1894. Since the libraries, especially Mudie’s and W. H. Smith, largely controlled the distribution of literature, they often exerted an informal censorship on literature which some authors, such as George Moore, advocated against.