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date: 16 August 2017

Circulating Libraries in the Victorian Era

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: authorship, censorship, libraries, novel, publishing, reading

The Origin of Circulating Libraries

Circulating or subscription libraries—businesses that rented books to members who paid annual or per-book fees—have long existed in Great Britain. Beginning in the 18th century, many booksellers, printers, publishers, and stationers added book rental (whether per volume or through subscriptions) to their other money-making activities. The relatively high price of books and the growing demand for reading materials led to these more economical modes of distribution for readers where, for the cost of a single book sometimes, subscribers could borrow dozens. As Robin Alston enumerated, some one thousand subscription libraries existed up to and including 1850, with nearly every sizable town and city having one or more such business (not including various other kinds of libraries, public and private, which numbered in the ten thousands).1 Notable examples of early subscription libraries include the fashionable West End Hookham’s Circulating Library, founded in 1772 by Thomas J. Hookham (father of the Romantic-era publisher), and the notorious Minerva Library, founded by William Lane in 1775. The latter, in particular, became known for its popular fiction, especially the gothic novel, many titles of which were eventually published by Lane himself. With the economic turmoil brought on by the Napoleonic Wars, in particular the rise in paper prices, subscription libraries became the chief means of accessing books grown more and more expensive during the Romantic period. Hence, circulating libraries, by the early 19th century, had become so ubiquitous that Jane Austen makes several passing comments in her letters and novels to their necessity for her upper-middle-class family and characters. In the Victorian period, two libraries in particular, Mudie’s Select Library and W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library, rose to prominence, and both lasted well into the 20th century. These businesses played a key role in the literary marketplace as large buyers of books and they therefore exerted direct and indirect influences over the literature of the period.

Luxuries and Necessities

As Lee Erickson says in The Economy of Literary Form (1996), “the circulating library made books available to readers, and especially to women, when books were very expensive”; thus they served as a necessary convenience for accessing otherwise hard to attain goods.2 For example, when Catherine Gore’s silver-fork novel Cecil: or, The Adventures of a Coxcomb was published anonymously in 1841, the retail price of the three-volume edition was 31s 6d.3 Given that an income of £100 per year popularly marked the lower limit of the Victorian middle class, the guinea-and-a-half price effectively meant only the wealthiest readers could afford to buy the novel outright. Instead, the subscription price of a library might be as low as one guinea (21s) for the entire year (this was the lowest subscription rate for Mudie’s, for example): at that price, a subscriber could borrow one volume at a time, exchanging it for another volume daily if desired, the equivalent of reading over 100 three-volume novels for less than the retail price of one. The circulating library, then, served as an essential middleman between publishers and readers. Historians attribute the success of circulating library businesses, if not their very existence, to the desire for novels by middle-class readers. As the example of Cecil illustrates, major publishers favored small editions of three octavo volumes priced at 31s 6d for new novels, and this practice kept novels prices artificially high, and this high price persisted even when the costs of producing books generally declined during the 19th century: according to Alexis Weedon’s data, though composition costs remained relatively stable, the costs of binding (by 24 percent), machining (by 15 percent), and paper (by 24 percent) all declined between 1866 and 1896.4 Libraries bought the majority of the editions of these high-priced novels and became the chief (if not only) means for accessing new fiction. Thus, for fiction, a curious circular logic set in: because new novels were so expensive, only libraries could afford to buy them; and because libraries readily bought new novels to serve their clients, publishers kept prices artificially high. A novel in three volumes had one more advantage for libraries: its three individual volumes could ideally serve three individual readers at one time as clients exchanged one volume for the next.

Publishers produced the three-volume novel because it was commercially safe, as John Sutherland compellingly illustrated.5 Richard Bentley, one of the leading fiction publishers of the Victorian period, published over 700 three-volume novels between 1835 and 1896: of them, few lost money, many covered their costs, and many more made modest-to-high profits for the publisher.6 The reasons were simple: for a three-volume novel published in a small edition of 500 copies, libraries often bought most of the copies at prices below the retail price due to trade discounts for bulk orders. Even at the reduced price, Bentley could count on Mudie’s (and later Smith) taking at least 100 copies of a typical novel, which alone often covered the costs of paper and printing the book. For instance, Bentley sold 247 out of 500 copies of Jane Carr Bateman’s three-volume novel Netherwoods of Otterpool in 1858, of which Mudie’s itself purchased 150 copies.7 Even this unremarkable novel with poor overall sales paid its way for the publisher due to Mudie’s standing order. As the chief purchaser of novels, the libraries enjoyed a monopoly on circulating new novels, but readers had to subscribe in order to access them. As Erickson argues, since most readers only read a novel once, the library facilitated the prolific reading of novels by allowing readers to economically consume fiction well below the cost of outright purchase. The rates for subscriptions varied. For instance, in the second decade of the century, John Lane’s Library in London charged two guineas (42s) per year to borrow two volumes at a time. In 1840s London, annual subscription rates varied from four guineas (84s) at Churton’s to five guineas at Saunders and Otley to six guineas at Bull’s.8 When Mudie’s began in 1842, his library set a standard for one guinea per year to borrow one volume at a time, two guineas to borrow four volumes, and so on, that other rival libraries, such as W. H. Smith, felt compelled to match. Thus in the case of fiction, for one guinea a reader could read books which might otherwise cost £100 to purchase.

Though fiction garners the most attention from scholars of Victorian literature, most libraries carried more than just novels. Libraries often printed catalogues of their collections to give or sell to subscribers, and surviving catalogues show most libraries carried large collections of biography, fiction, drama, history, periodicals, poetry, religion, and foreign works. For instance, a 292-page catalogue for Mudie’s Select Library issued in November 1857 has one page of periodicals, 19 pages of juvenile works, 53 pages of fiction, 61 pages of foreign works (in French, German, and Italian), and 158 pages of everything else. Of the novels, many of the listed titles are in the expensive two- or three-volume editions. According to a note in the catalogue, the library claimed to add 90,000 volumes per year.9 The 1885 Catalogue of W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library contains 254 pages of titles, divided into two sections: “works of history, biography, travel, poetry, science, [and] theology” and “works of fiction.” The nonfiction listings occupy 162 pages, with each book double listed under author and title, whereas the fiction listings occupy 92 pages, with selected (but not all) authors (e.g., Austen and Dickens) receiving double listing. A rough calculation shows fiction titles made up over a third of the titles listed in the 1885 catalogue, with 36.2 percent of pages listing fiction titles and 63.8 percent of pages listing nonfiction titles. In contrast to Mudie’s, fewer of the novels listed are in the expensive two- or three-volume editions.10 Simon Eliot examines twelve surviving Mudie’s catalogues from 1857 to 1894 and finds fiction ranging from a quarter to two-fifths of the titles listed (which does not reveal how many copies of each title Mudie’s held).11 As these catalogues represent, most libraries in the Victorian period, including the two largest, generally built for their subscribers comprehensive collections of general literature.

Scores, if not hundreds, of subscription libraries flourished throughout the Victorian period. As mentioned, two circulating libraries dominated the marketplace: Mudie’s Select Library (1842–1937) and W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library (1860–1961). Other smaller libraries existed in their shadows. In the London area, the Library Company (1862–1865) aimed to rival Mudie and Smith and enjoyed a brief existence before succumbing to bankruptcy (publisher William Tinsley, for one, lost heavily on the venture). Other libraries in and around London included, for example: Cawthorn and Hutt’s British Library in Cockspur Street (1744–c. 1890s); Chiswick Library in the High Road, Chiswick (c. 1870s–1880s); Day’s Library (later called Rice’s Library) in Mount Street (1776–c. 1890s); Grosvenor Gallery Library in New Bond Street (later South Molton Street) (1880–c. 1906); Marshall’s British and Foreign Public Subscription Library on Edgware Road (c. 1860s); Miles’s Library on Upper Street, Islington (c. 1860s–c. 1890s); and Scholl’s Circulating Library on Kennington Road (c. 1860s). Outside of London, examples such as Lovejoys Library in Reading (c. 1840s–c. 1850s); J. Needham’s Circulating Library in Gloucester (c. 1850s); James A. Acock’s Subscription Circulating Library in Oxford (c. 1870s); Bentley’s Library in Castle Cary, Somersetshire (c. 1880s); Iredale’s Library in Torquay, Devonshire (c. 1880s–c. 1906); George Smith’s Circulating Library in Pershore, Worcestershire (c. 1890); and H. C. Copson’s Circulating Library in Lowesmoor, Worcestershire (c. 1880s) give a sense of the range and variety of subscription libraries.12 Outside of England, circulating libraries existed in nearly every city or large town in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Mudie’s offered a service to provide books to provincial libraries for a price—for instance, the labels for the Chiswick Library report “in connection with Mudie’s,” suggesting one such partnership. In addition, many smaller libraries purchased the used copies of books from the larger libraries. Each of these libraries marked their books with printed labels—in the case of Mudie’s, distinctive bright yellow labels on the cover of each volume; in the case of Smith, more discreet purple labels on the endpapers. On the rare book market, it is not uncommon to find a 19th-century book with circulating library labels and some with multiple labels, one pasted on top of the other as they passed from library to library. Unfortunately, the history of these smaller libraries is mostly lost, save for their names and some fleeting evidence of their existence.

Many of these libraries were pedestrian affairs, but some libraries located in resort areas became fashionable places to see and be seen. According to a paragraph in The Publishers’ Circular in 1893, Iredale’s Library in the resort area of Torquay on the south coast of England boasted 50,000 volumes and issued 400 books per day during the “reading season” from October to April.13 In addition, many of these libraries dealt in other money-making activities. Iredale’s Library, for instance, sold stationery and refreshments and rented its lounges to hold club meetings. However, the biggest money-making enterprise for most libraries after subscriptions was selling old stock. As noted above, Mudie’s offered to provide stock (new and used) for other libraries for a price. But their building on Oxford Street contained many books available for borrowing as well as purchase to customers, and Mudie’s issued sale catalogues to sell their excess stock, sometimes for prices as low as a few pence per volume. In particular, selling excess copies of novels once their initial popularity waned served as both an additional revenue stream and a way to free up space for new stock. At a W. H. Smith newsstand, a customer could borrow a book from the library or buy new books, used books, remaindered books, newspapers, magazines, and stationary. As Simon Eliot argues after examining the surviving records of W. H. Smith, the libraries depended significantly on sales of no longer needed copies of three volume novels to bolster their bottom lines, “an activity which frequently determined the difference between a profit and a loss” every year.14 This resale market, especially for fiction, suffered from competition from cheap reprints, where readers were faced with a choice between a used three-volume copy or a new one-volume copy: even when the price of the former was lowered dramatically, readers preferred the smaller size of the latter. Eliot samples a number of fiction titles to find that the first reprints of three-volume novels varied widely in price (ranging from 2s to 6s) and time of issue (from a few months to a few years), but generally the “premature issue of cheap first reprints” of the popular authors he examines (for instance, those written by popular authors Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ouida, and Ellen Wood) had become “commonplace” by the 1890s.15 This practice made potentially significant inroads in the resale revenues of both Mudie’s and W. H. Smith.

Mudie’s Select Library

Mudie’s Select Library became the largest and most famous circulating library of the Victorian period. Charles Edward Mudie (1818–1890) was the son of a Chelsea stationer who sold newspapers and rented a few books on the side for a penny per volume. The younger Mudie eventually opened his own stationer business in Bloomsbury Square and added a small circulating library business in 1842. Originally, Mudie only circulated books he himself found proper reading for a middle-class family audience and hence named his business “Mudie’s Select Library” to emphasize its higher standards and respectability as compared to his competitors. This name represents more than a nod to morality: Mudie himself took care to only circulate books of a superior kind, such as works by the American transcendentalists, rather than the fashionable novels more prevalent in other libraries. Though Mudie did carry novels (about a third of his stock by his own estimates), he went to great pains to assure his customers that they would be safe for the family circle. The censoriousness of Mudie, who would refuse to circulate books he deemed improper, would put him at odds with authors, publishers, and readers at times, but clearly his many subscribers appreciated his actions as an unofficial protector of public morals. More important, he undercut the subscription rates of his chief competitors, settling on the iconic one guinea per year to borrow one volume. Early advertisements touted that the rate “allows of a constant succession of the best and newest Works.”16 A few years later, advertisements promised, “Every good New Work is added on the day of publication in sufficient numbers to meet the first demand.”17

By the late 1840s, Mudie’s business thrived, assisted by the economic difficulties (the “hungry forties”) experienced throughout England which led many middle-class patrons to economize by curtailing book purchases and joining the more affordable Mudie’s. In 1852, he moved the library to larger premises in New Oxford Street. As Guinevere L. Griest’s study Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel (1970) argues, Mudie’s success rested on two factors. First, he advertised widely in many of the leading newspapers and weekly reviews by listing the newly published works available for borrowing and emphasizing his low subscription rates. Readers flocked to Mudie’s for the newest titles, and authors and publishers appreciated the free advertisements. The selection of a title to appear or not appear in a Mudie’s advertisement could affect its success, as witnessed by the anxiety George Eliot felt when her Scenes of Clerical Life failed to appear in Mudie’s advertised lists.18 Second, in order to meet the demands of his readers for the newest titles, Mudie made large orders from publishers. For instance, Mudie bought 2500 copies of Thomas Macaulay’s History of England (volumes 3 and 4) in 1855, 3250 copies of Stanley Livingstone’s Travels in 1857, and 1000 copies of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in 1859. By purchasing such large quantities, Mudie guaranteed his subscribers at most a short wait to borrow the book they desired, and he received deep discounts from the publishers for the bulk orders (sometimes half the retail price). In the 1850s, the stock of the library grew rapidly from 100,000 volumes in 1858 to more than 180,000 volumes in 1861, which led Mudie to build an even larger premise.19 Mudie’s Great Hall (also on New Oxford Street), which included a large interior room with a 45-foot ceiling and a circular counter for patrons, opened in December 1860. A few years later, Mudie opened branches in Birmingham and Manchester and partnered with other provincial circulating libraries to supply his stock outside of these large cities. By 1860, Mudie’s Select Library earned the epithet of the “Leviathan” and Mudie himself the “King of Librarians.”

But such rapid expansion could not last forever or without pains. While his business succeeded, Mudie acquired new rivals in W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library and the short-lived Library Company Limited. The latter circulating library began in 1862 with great fanfare and the capital backing of several publishers who deliberately aimed to supplant Mudie. Its chief appeal to the public was offering annual subscriptions as low as half-a-guinea, or free for stockholders in the company—a direct attack on Mudie’s already low subscription rates. However, the lower rates offered by the Library Company proved untenable to fund the start of such a large operation. Despite an encouraging start, the Library Company smashed in 1864, unable to survive on such a crippling business plan. But the damage to Mudie’s was already done, since the competition both led to a short-term decline in subscriptions and forced Mudie to aggressively buy new stock as a means to compete—these financial difficulties arrived on top of the monies already spent on his new building and expanded operations. As David Finkelstein uncovered in several publishers’ archives, Mudie’s came close to financial collapse itself in the early 1860s, running up debts into the tens of thousand pounds.20 Large publishers, such as Bentley, Blackwood, Hurst and Blackett, Longman, and Smith, Elder, stood to lose the most in the event of a Mudie’s bankruptcy: in January 1863, for instance, Mudie owed Hurst and Blackett £7000, Murray £3000, and Longmans £2000 for already purchased books.21 Several of these publishers began secretly meeting with Mudie’s to work out an arrangement to save the library, both to get the monies owed to them and to save their chief means of book distribution. More publishers learned the “secret” of Mudie’s financial difficulties and generally agreed to forego or delay payments, except for Bentley, who initially refused to accept an accommodation before taking a marked downed amount. The library limped on for a year and then made the decision to become a limited liability company in July 1864: half of the £100,000 in shares went to Mudie and the other half went mainly to publishers in exchange for what Mudie owed them. As a result, many publishers entered into a strange relationship with the library by both selling books to it and receiving dividends from it—in the end, the economic fate of both became even more intertwined. After issuing stock, Mudie’s Select Library soon recovered and began to edge or buy out its rivals to become the dominant circulating library in the London area.

The expansion of Mudie’s continued, eventually including a shipping service transporting books both domestically and internationally, especially to British readers in the colonies. Unfortunately, the business records of the library have not survived, but many publishers note that by the 1860s and after, Mudie was their largest customer for books. The library also sold used copies of its books, especially novels, as a secondary stream of income. At its height, Mudie’s employed 250 men, counted as many as 50,000 subscribers, and held perhaps a million volumes. Mudie himself passed day-to-day control of the business to his second son, Arthur Oliver Mudie (1854–1936), in 1884 (his first son Charles Henry, the intended heir, died suddenly in 1879). Despite the rise of the literary mass market at the turn of the century—in particular, the decrease in book prices, the increase in readership, and the burgeoning of larger competitors such as the Times Book Club and Boots Book-Lovers’ Library—most Victorian circulating libraries, including Mudie’s in particular, maintained a central position in the literary marketplace into the inner-war years. But as the new century wore on, Mudie’s had difficulty competing with larger operations. In 1937, after years of decline and the death of Arthur Oliver Mudie, Mudie’s Select Library declared bankruptcy, selling its stock to the younger competitor Boots. Even its grand headquarters in New Oxford Street failed to survive, being destroyed in the London Blitz. Without a doubt, Mudie’s occupied an important place in the Victorian literary marketplace as both a distributor of literature and a cultural institution.

W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library

The chief rival to Mudie’s during the Victorian period was W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library. The future W. H. Smith and Son business began in 1792 with Henry Walton Smith (1738–1792) and wife Anna Eastaugh opening a newsstand in Little Grosvenor Street, London. When Henry Walton Smith died later that same year, his wife carried on the business until their son William Henry Smith (1792–1865) (hereafter designated W. H. Smith I) took over the business under his own name in 1812, which by then included numerous newsstands in London. In 1846, his son William Henry Smith (1825–1891) (hereafter designated W. H. Smith II) joined his father, and the business became known as W. H. Smith and Son. Two years later, the business bought a bookstall concession for the Euston railway station and expanded rapidly over the next decade, including concessions for most of the major railway lines in Great Britain, with depots in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester. To this existing network, W. H. Smith and Son added a subscription library in 1860. After the death of W. H. Smith I, his son took over as sole director of the business. Later, the younger Smith parlayed his business success into a political career, being first elected to parliament in 1868 and holding a number of offices, including First Lord of the Admiralty, First Lord of the Treasury, and Leader of the House of Commons. (W. S. Gilbert gently satirized Smith’s tenure as the First Lord of the Admiralty in the character of Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter in H. M. S. Pinafore, both men lacking any experience with the sea.) On his death in 1891, the business passed to his son William Frederick Danvers Smith (1868–1928). The business remained a family concern through much of the 20th century before becoming a limited liability company and then a publically traded company.

Like other libraries, W. H. Smith and Son’s circulating library was one part of a much larger business: in this case, W. H. Smith and Son encompassed bookselling, newspaper delivery, retail, printing, publishing, and wholesaling (among other activities). As Stephen Colcough details, W. H. Smith I himself did not intend to begin a circulating library: he originally approached Mudie to supply circulating stock for his newsstands, an arrangement Mudie made with several other libraries. This evolved into a second plan: Mudie and Smith initially agreed to jointly open a Midland Counties’ Branch of Mudie’s Select Library in Birmingham in November 1859, with Mudie supplying the stock from his London library and Smith providing the building.22 But even this modest plan fell through at the last minute, and Mudie went on to open his own branch of his Select Library in Birmingham in July 1860 shortly after Smith began his own circulating library in June 1860.23 From that moment on, the two librarians would be direct rivals in London and the provinces. According to anecdotal evidence at least, Mudie generally dominated in the former and Smith prevailed in the latter. As business records attest, W. H. Smith and Son invested heavily in its library operation (especially to acquire stock), and the library operation suffered losses for several years before first posting a profit in 1866. Thereafter, the library remained a small yet modestly profitable part of the overall business.

Effectively, W. H. Smith and Son established a circulating library wherever it had a pre-existing railway newsstand—of which there were 185 in 1862 and over 500 by 1880, according to advertisements in contemporary periodicals such as the Athenaeum. In addition, W. H. Smith created larger branch operations in London, Birmingham, and Manchester. Subscribers could commence their subscriptions at any time at any W. H. Smith branch (e.g., the main headquarters at 186, Strand, London) or railway newsstand. Following the practice of Mudie’s Select Library, W. H. Smith and Son set its lowest annual subscription rates for London at one guinea (£1.1.0, or 21s) for one volume at a time—but explicitly stated, “Novels in more than one volume are not available for this class of subscription.” The corresponding annual subscription rates for borrowing more volumes were set at one and a half guineas (£1.11.6) for two volumes at a time (but “novels in more than two volumes are not available for this class of subscription”), two guineas (£2.2.0) for four volumes at a time, and so on. Subscribers obtaining their books from a country newsstand (i.e., a railway station outside London) were limited to fewer volumes at a time at the corresponding London subscription rates (e.g., two guineas for three volumes at a time rather than four in London), presumably to account for Smith’s shipping costs. W. H. Smith compelled readers of multi-volume fiction, then, to subscribe to at least the two-guinea annual rate in order to borrow complete sets of a three-volume novel. In addition, much like Mudie’s Select Library, W. H. Smith offered annual rates for “country book clubs, reading societies, etc.” for borrowing anywhere from twenty-four volumes at a time (£9.9.0 annually) to eighty-four volumes at a time (£32.15.0).

The place of subscription established the place of borrowing: as their subscription rules noted, “Subscribers can only change their Books at the Depôt where their names are registered,” but “the Clerk in Charge will obtain from London any Work in the Library which Subscriber may desire to have” free of delivery charges to the subscriber. These requests may not have always been met, since “Messrs. W. H. Smith & Son beg to impress upon their Library Subscribers the fact that much disappointment and inconvenience would be avoided if they would, in all cases, give to the Clerk in Charge a List comprising at least twice as many titles of Works as they wish to exchange” (the emphasis in the original). In practice, subscribers could only exchange once per day, with novels exchanged “only in unbroken and complete sets” (again, underlining how the library singled out fiction). In light of these rules, subscribers could not take out a volume at one bookstall, read it on their railway journey, and exchange it for another volume at the next station, as is often popularly imagined, since exchanges could only be made at the place where the subscriber registered.

According to surviving business records, W. H. Smith and Son’s library operation was only about half the size of Mudie’s Select Library. Once, as part of the accounts for the years 1881 and 1882, W. H. Smith made some internal comparison between successive years of financial records.24 In it, the business reports that the library owned 227,650 volumes in 1881 and 230,217 volumes in 1882 (an increase of 2,567 volumes). Clearly, this calculation includes multiple copies of many titles, not just the number of titles carried. Of the volumes in stock, subscribers asked to borrow 47,954 volumes in 1881 and 47,568 volumes in 1882. Surprisingly, if these records are truly accurate, only about a fifth of the library’s stock actually circulated in these two years, fewer than 1000 volumes per week. For instance, the 1885 Catalogue of W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library lists approximately 11,000 titles so, assuming only gradual changes in the stock, on average Smith owned about 20 copies of each title. The same comparison reports 12,298 subscriptions in 1881 and 12,199 subscriptions in 1882, which gives an average subscription rate of a little more than two guineas (£2.2.0) per subscription (which implies a large number of subscribers paid more than the minimum rate). By 1890, assuming similar subscription patterns, W. H. Smith’s library had at least 15,000 individual subscribers. That same year Mudie’s had 25,000 subscribers.

Despite the common belief that circulating libraries failed to succeed in the 20th century with the end of the three-volume novel and the advent of cheaper books, Nicola Wilson persuasively shows that a few large circulating libraries thrived in the new century. While Mudie’s went out of business in 1937, W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library survived until 1961. The chain of chemist shops Boots added a subscription library operation to their business in 1899, called Boots Book-Lovers’ Library, which had 200 branches by 1920, 460 branches by 1938, and lasted until 1966.25 The Times newspaper added a lending library operation in 1905 called The Times Book Club, which lasted until 1962. The position of these circulating libraries in the early 20th century can be gauged by a report issued by the Society of Bookmen in 1928, which estimated that four circulating libraries (Boots, Mudie’s, Smith, and the Times) collectively bought one-quarter to one-third of all books published, the vast majority being fiction.26 Clearly, readers continued to find circulating libraries valuable well past the Victorian period. Even today the W. H. Smith company continues to operate a successful chain of newsstands and book shops throughout the United Kingdom, continuing the literary legacy begun by the family in the late 18th century.

Effect on Literature

Most research and discussion of Victorian circulating libraries centers on their effect on literature, especially fiction. Two areas draw the most attention: the relationship between the libraries (notably Mudie’s and W. H. Smith) and the three-volume novel format, and the connection between the libraries and literary censorship.

Beginning in the late 18th century, novels often appeared in multi-volume editions, which predominantly settled on three octavo volumes priced at 31s 6d by the early 19th century due to the popularity of Walter Scott’s historical novels that utilized that format and price. The three-volume novel format and the circulating libraries created a high degree of economic synergy which, at least in the early- to mid-Victorian period, created a nation of book borrowers rather than buyers. Even after the costs of book production declined, the three-volume novel continued to be produced: between 1835 and 1898, publishers issued more than 2000 two-volume titles, 5200 three-volume titles, and 20 four-volume titles. Clearly, the main purchasers of these expensive books were the libraries, with Mudie’s often taking the majority of copies at a discounted rate and W. H. Smith usually a distant second. The “procrustean bed” of the three-volume format, in the words of novelist George Gissing, placed seemingly arbitrary constraints on the English novel for would-be novelists. But due to the economic and cultural prestige of the format, authors willingly or grudgingly submitted to its constraints.

First and foremost, the format required lengthy texts to fill the requisite nine hundred printed pages of the typical triple-decker. A study of a large sample of three-volume novels found, on average, the typical length ranged from 158,000 to 200,000 words, with a few examples considerably shorter or longer.27 Publishers often explicitly stated these length requirements in their contracts with authors. For instance, Bentley’s agreements with authors encouraged them to produce manuscripts to fit three octavo volumes of about 300 pages each with twenty-five lines of text per page.28 Some authors struggled to meet such requirements. Royal Gettmann observes that “a novel in three volumes commanded a substantially higher price than a shorter one” from Bentley, which he attributes to “pressure from the circulating libraries,” Mudie’s in particular, to produce them.29 Rhoda Broughton, one of Bentley’s most popular novelists, twice lost money when her novels barely stretched to two volumes rather than the expected three, hence leading to a reduced payment from her publisher. Authors, printers, and publishers developed several methods to stretch otherwise short texts to fill the bulky volumes. Enterprising authors could utilize frequent chapter breaks, chapter epigraphs, excessive dialogue, or quoted songs or poems to fill lines. Printers, at the behest of publishers, could set the pages with wide margins, generous leading (the space between lines of text), or graphics. As one anonymous author noted in the “Mudie Measure,” writing a three-volume novel could be accomplished mechanically: “Ten lines make one page; Ten pages make one point; Two points make one chapter; Five chapters make one episode; Two episodes make one volume; Three volumes make one tired.”30

On a narrative level, the length of the typical Victorian novel often accommodated numerous characters and scenes, detailed scenic descriptions, authorial digressions, and one or more subplots in addition to the main plot. In the hands of good authors, such as George Eliot or Anthony Trollope, the three volumes provided a large canvas to fill with the vibrant, detailed lives of their characters. However, less-gifted authors predominated, and their novels seem thin in comparison. Book reviewers routinely lamented three-volume novels which could, with necessary editing, fit more effectively in the shorter space of one or two volumes. The three physical volumes themselves influenced the narrative construction of plots. In Ella Hepworth Dixon’s novel The Story of a Modern Woman (1894), an editor advises the narrator to write “three-volume novels on the old lines—a dying man in a hospital and a forged will in the first volume; a ball and a picnic in the second; and an elopement, which must, of course, be prevented at the last moment by the opportune death of the wife, or the husband . . . in the last.”31 The existence of such a bald narrative formula became a common critical complaint in book reviews of fiction in the Victorian period, with the second volume often singled out as narrative filler to delay the denouement to the third volume. Certainly by the later years of the Victorian period, the term “three-volume novel” came to describe not just the physical format but also the formulaic contents, usually a domestic romance popularly believed to be written by a woman for woman readers.

Going further, the libraries also had a more direct effect on the contents of the Victorian novel. As the “select” in the name of “Mudie’s Select Library” indicates, circulating libraries exercised unabashed control over the books they bought and lent. In a country without strong censorship laws—the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 applied only to outright pornography—the libraries became the de facto literary police. Mudie in particular took this responsibility seriously: he only circulated books that he felt appropriate to the whole family, especially the daughters of the family (what would become the “young girl” standard). Because of his dominant place in the literary marketplace, publishers frequently bowed to his demands, and other libraries followed his lead. In practice, books adhered to a strict moral code where any sexual or social lapses by characters—especially by women characters—must be met with severe punishments. If books dealt with painful topics, whether marital difficulties or vice, the author must use “delicacy” and circumspection, if not outright obfuscation, to describe it.32 This censorship was not absolute, since several novels, including now-classics such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1848) and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1896), caused critical fervors yet still found a place on library shelves. But in general, the fear that a young female reader would be exposed to anything improper, even accidentally, created a caution in libraries which would be passed on to authors and publishers. The libraries argued, in their own defense, that they did not create the standards for this censorship but instead merely represented the wishes of the vast majority of their customers, many of whom appreciated their careful selection practices. Whatever the sources of these censorious views, the libraries were ultimately businesses governed by the profit/loss statement: if that meant catering to their customers’ prejudices by refusing to circulate books, then so be it.33

Over the course of the century, circulating libraries, in particular Mudie’s, refused to carry several high-profile novels. Mudie dropped George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) from his lists after complaints about the novel’s sexual frankness. The sensation novels of the 1860s and 1870s often ran afoul of the libraries and led to public discussions about the health effects on women of reading such over-stimulating fiction. Early novels by both George Gissing and Thomas Hardy were rejected by their publishers, who anticipated the libraries’ likely negative reaction to the books. No doubt even more books fell victim to the librarians. When Mudie refused to circulate George Moore’s first novel, A Modern Lover (1883), after a complaint from “two ladies from the country,” Moore launched a blistering attack in the periodical press against Mudie and his library. His primary argument painted Mudie as a hypocrite: Moore compared passages from his novel to selections from popular novels circulated freely by the library, finding similar, if not worse, depiction of sexual relations. Whereas Moore treats sexual themes in a realistic way, the other authors romanticize or oversimplify these themes, thereby giving a false sense of life, which had the depressing effect of infantilizing the English novel in Moore’s view. Several authors and critics joined his crusade by writing letters to the leading newspapers, but Mudie remained unmoved. Several years later, a group of essays by novelists Walter Besant, Eliza Lynn Linton, and Thomas Hardy in the pages of the New Review (January 1890) addressed “Candour in English Fiction,” and the views expressed illustrated the conflicting motivations under which authors wrote. Besant accepted that writers for pay must respect the views of readers as a practical matter, but both Linton and Hardy lamented the control the libraries and periodicals authoritatively exerted over their literary art. Despite the arguments by these authors and others, libraries continued to exercise a check on English fiction.

In 1894, librarians Mudie and Smith sent a joint letter to the leading publishers calling for changes in the three-volume novel system: first, to lower the per-volume price of fiction from 6s. to 4s.; and second, to delay cheap reprints for one year to allow for the libraries to earn back their outlay. Though a few publishers, such as Chatto & Windus, agreed to these demands, the majority decided to give up the three-volume novel, which may have been the libraries’ preferred outcome. Several factors motivated the libraries’ decision. For several years, maybe decades, the three-volume novel struggled to pay for itself due to over-production of titles by publishers. In the 1880s, between 150 and 200 multi-volume titles appeared each year, and most lost money for the library by failing to circulate or sell as used. As Simon Eliot illustrates, the increasing rapidity of cheap reprints of popular novels (some within one or two months) undercut the libraries’ monopoly on new fiction in both circulation and used sales (that is, a new 6s. one-volume edition compared to a used three-volume edition). In addition, newer publishers less dependent on the three-volume novel found a growing market of readers willing to buy inexpensive books, thereby bypassing the expensive format and circulating libraries. Though many authors, publishers, and readers welcomed the end of the old-fashioned and expensive format, some felt nostalgia for what had been nearly a century-long tradition. Surprisingly, the three-volume novel lingered for a few more years, the last one appearing in 1897, to be supplanted ultimately by the one-volume novel priced at 6s.

Review of the Literature

The scholarship on Victorian circulating libraries remains rather limited but falls into two general threads. The first thread discusses the business history and practices of Victorian circulating libraries. Guinevere L. Griest’s Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel (1970) is the first extended study of a circulating library, and it focuses, as the title notes, mainly on Mudie’s relationship with fiction, in particular the three-volume novel. Though hampered by the lack of any surviving archival records, her study draws on a wide range of contemporary letters, memoirs, and periodicals to give a general history of the leading library of the period. Charles Wilson’s First with the News: The History of W. H. Smith 1792–1972 (1986) gives a history of W. H. Smith’s business from a newsstand in the 18th century to an international corporation in the later 20th century. The book dedicates one chapter to the library operation, but the library was an integral part of the overall company with deep connections to their network of railway bookstalls. Wilson had the benefit of full access to the W. H. Smith corporate archives, and his study utilizes much financial data and statistics. Besides these two books, now each several decades old, there have been no further book-length studies of any Victorian circulating libraries in the meantime.

Since the 1980s, several significant article-length examinations of circulating library business practices have been published, which draw on archival sources and generally show the influence of the growing field of book history. Simon Eliot, in a series of articles, discusses the effect of cheap reprints on the finances of the three-volume novel (1985), the role of used book sales on libraries’ profits (1995), and the mix of fiction and nonfiction on library shelves (2009). David Finkelstein, through an examination of publishers’ archives, first uncovered the close business relationships between Mudie’s Select Library and the major publishers of the period in the light of Mudie’s near bankruptcy. And Stephen Colclough, in two articles, traces the early development of Smith’s library business (2003) and the growth of Smith’s bookstall empire beginning with the London and North Western Railway (2005). Each of these articles elucidates or challenges one or more assumptions about circulating library business practices, and each draws heavily on archival research to reach its conclusions.

The second general thread of scholarship views Victorian circulating libraries in relation to larger cultural and literary practices. Broadly speaking, these scholars consider the circulating libraries as part of a larger social fabric, beyond just the publishing and distribution aspects. For instance, much of Griest’s study of Mudie’s Select Library deals with how the library affected the literary history of the Victorian novel, from narrative techniques to censorship. Several works touch on this thread of scholarship, such as Richard D. Altick’s The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800–1900 (1958; rev. 1998), which sees the libraries as integral to creating a British mass market; Peter Keating’s (1989), which places the library as the antagonist to the development of the modern novel; Lee Erickson’s The Economy of Literary Form: English Literature and the Industry of Publishing, 1800–1850 (1995), which argues that libraries facilitated the rise of novel reading in England; and Patrick Brantlinger’s (1998), which sees the libraries as one part of a larger system controlling both literacy and reading. Lewis Robert’s article “Trafficking in Literary Authority: Mudie’s Select Library and the Commodification of the Victorian Novel” (2006) discusses how the three-volume novel system blurred the lines between literary and economic value. A chapter in Mary Hammond’s Reading, Publishing and the Formation of Literary Taste in England, 1880–1914 (2006) considers W. H. Smith’s bookstalls as sites of reading, being both public and disruptive places. Such works illustrate how the libraries contributed to the lived realities of readers in the Victorian period.

More narrowly, the censorship of the libraries and George Moore’s challenges to it has commanded much attention on its own. Besides biographies and dedicated studies of George Moore, a handful of articles address the conflict between Moore and Mudie: Sara Keith’s (1973) gives a general overview of Mudie’s effect on literature; Troy J. Bassett’s “Circulating Morals: George Moore’s Attack on Late-Victorian Literary Censorship” (2005) discusses library censorship as part of a wider social control of literature; and Jane Jordan’s “Literature at Nurse: George Moore, Ouida, and Fin-de-Siècle Literary Censorship” (2014) considers Moore’s challenge in relation to the challenges made by other authors such as Ouida. All of these works point to an active interest in the circulating libraries and their effects on the literary marketplace, but much further work yet remains to be done.

Primary Sources

The business records of Mudie’s Select Library do not survive. Only some of the business records of W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library survive, in the W. H. Smith archive in the Special Collections of the University of Reading. Of primary importance are the end-of-year account books, which give a general sense of the number of subscribers, expenditures on books, and receipts from sales. Other documents include a detailed comparison of 1881 and 1882, the detailed valuation of the company in 1891 after the death of W. H. Smith I, and miscellaneous documents. However, the day-to-day records were not retained. The business records of some of the chief Victorian publishers survive and cast an indirect light on the business of Mudie’s, Smith, and other circulating libraries. Notable collections include the Bentley papers at the British Library and the University of Illinois; the Blackwood archive at the National Library of Scotland [NLS]; Chatto & Windus archives at the University of Reading; the John Murray archive at the NLS; and the Smith, Elder archive at the NLS.

Library catalogues, as ephemeral literature, rarely survive. The British Library owns about a dozen Mudie’s catalogues, and several other libraries around the world own one or two each. W. H. Smith catalogues are even rarer: only three are known to survive, with one each held by Oxford University, the University of Leeds, and University of Regina. The Bodleian Library, as part of its John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, holds numerous circulating library catalogues and labels that, as of this date, have not been catalogued or indexed.

Further Reading

Altick, Richard D.The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800–1900. 2d ed. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Bassett, Troy J. “Circulating Morals: George Moore’s Attack on Late-Victorian Literary Censorship.” Pacific Coast Philology 40.2 (2005): 73–89.Find this resource:

Brantlinger, Patrick. The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literary in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Colclough, Stephen. “‘A Larger Outlay Than Any Return’: The Library of W. H. Smith & Son, 1860–1873.” Publishing History 54 (2003): 67–93.Find this resource:

Colclough, Stephen. “Station to Station: The LNWR and the Emergence of the Railway Bookstall, 1840–1875.” In Printing Places: Locations of Book Production & Distribution since 1500. Edited by John Hinks and Catherine Armstrong, 169–184. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Eliot, Simon. “The Three-Decker Novel and its First Cheap Reprint, 1862–94.” Library 7.1 (1985): 38–53.Find this resource:

Eliot, Simon. “Bookselling by the Backdoor: Circulating Libraries, Booksellers and Book Clubs, 1876–1966.” In A Genius for Letters. Edited by Robin Myers and Michael Harris, 145–166. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Eliot, Simon. “Fiction and Non-Fiction: One- and Three-Volume Novels in Some Mudie Catalogues, 1857–94.” Publishing History 66 (2009): 31–47.Find this resource:

Erickson, Lee. The Economy of Literary Form. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Finkelstein, David. “‘The Secret’: British Publishers and Mudie’s Struggle for Economic Survival, 1861–64.” Publishing History 34 (1993): 21–50.Find this resource:

Griest, Guinevere L.Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.Find this resource:

Hammond, Mary. Reading, Publishing and the Formation of Literary Taste in England, 1880–1914. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006.Find this resource:

Jordon, Jane. “Literature at Nurse: George Moore, Ouida, and Fin-de-Siècle Literary Censorship.” In George Moore: Influence and Collaboration. Edited by Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn, 69–81. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Keating, Peter. The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel, 1875–1914. London: Secker and Warburg, 1989.Find this resource:

Keith, Sara. “Literary Censorship and Mudie’s Library.” Colorado Quarterly 21 (1973): 359–372.Find this resource:

Roberts, Lewis. “Trafficking in Literary Authority: Mudie’s Select Library and the Commodification of the Victorian Novel.” Victorian Literature and Culture 34 (2006): 1–25.Find this resource:

Wilson, Charles. First with the News: The History of W. H. Smith, 1792–1972. New York: Doubleday, 1986.Find this resource:


(1.) Robin Alston, Library History Database. Unfortunately, since his death in 2013, the database has yet to find a new digital home. Comparatively speaking, until the 20th century, public libraries remained a rarity.

(2.) Lee Erickson, The Economy of Literary Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 130.

(3.) The website Measuring Worth gives a sense of what amount 31s. 6d. in 1841 would be equivalent to today as a commodity: comparing retail prices, it would be equivalent to about £129; comparing labor values, it would be equivalent to about £1171; and comparing income values, it would be equivalent to about £2416. Regardless of the method employed, the 19th-century retail price of a three-volume novel was relatively high.

(4.) Alexis Weedon, Victorian Publishing: The Economics of Book Production for a Mass Market, 1836–1916 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), 67, 72, 78, 86.

(5.) John Sutherland, “The Economics of the Victorian Three-Volume Novel,” Business Archive 41 (1976): 28.

(6.) Troy J. Bassett, “Living on the Margin: George Bentley and the Economics of the Three-Volume Novel, 1865–70,” Book History 13 (2010): 58–79.

(7.) David Finkelstein, “‘The Secret’: British Publishers and Mudie’s Struggle for Economic Survival, 1861–64,” Publishing History 34 (1993): 45.

(8.) Guinevere L. Griest, Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), 17.

(9.) Catalogue of New and Standard Works in Circulation at Mudie’s Select Library (London: Mudie’s Select Library, 1857). Held by the British Library.

(10.) Held by the University of Regina, Canada.

(11.) Simon Eliot, “Fiction and Non-Fiction: One- and Three-Volume Novels in Some Mudie Catalogues, 1857–94,” Publishing History 66 (2009): 31–47

(12.) This admittedly eclectic sample of libraries comes from an examination of existing library labels on a few dozen surviving Victorian novels. Alston’s list noted above is more definitive.

(13.) Publishers’ Circular, December 9, 1893, 285.

(14.) Simon Eliot, “Bookselling by the Backdoor: Circulating Libraries, Booksellers and Book Clubs, 1876–1966,” in A Genius for Letters, ed. Robin Myers and Michael Harris (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1995), 160.

(15.) Simon Eliot, “The Three-Decker Novel and its First Cheap Reprint, 1862–94,” Library (1985): 51.

(16.) Athenaeum 1103, December16, 1848, 1250.

(17.) Athenaeum 1212, January18, 1851, 65.

(18.) Griest, Mudie’s Circulating Library, 20.

(19.) Griest, Mudie’s Circulating Library, 21.

(20.) Finkelstein, “‘The Secret,’” 21–50.

(21.) Finkelstein, “‘The Secret,’” 25.

(22.) Stephen Colclough, “‘A Larger Outlay Than Any Return’: The Library of W. H. Smith & Son, 1860–1873,” Publishing History 54 (2003): 67–93.

(23.) Mudie would go to establish another branch in Manchester.

(24.) W. H. Smith Archive, Special Collections, University of Reading.

(25.) Nicola Wilson, “Boots Book-Lovers’ Library and the Novel: The Impact of a Circulating Library Market on Twentieth-Century Fiction,” Information & Culture 49.4 (2014): 429.

(26.) Wilson, “Boots Book-Lovers’ Library and the Novel,” 434.

(27.) Charles and Edward Lauterbach, “The Nineteenth Century Three-volume Novel,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 51.4 (1957): 263–302.

(28.) Royal Gettmann, A Victorian Publisher: A Study of the Bentley Papers (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 232.

(29.) Getmann, A Victorian Publisher, 239, 240.

(30.) Pall Mall Magazine 1, 1893, 442.

(31.) Ella Hepworth Dixon, The Story of a Modern Woman (Peterborough, U.K.: Broadview, 2004), 130.

(32.) Griest, Mudie’s Circulating Library, 134–136.

(33.) Charles Wilson, First with the News: The History of W. H. Smith, 1792–1972 (New York: Doubleday, 1986), 372.