Review: Mudie’s Circulating Library

Or to give it it’s full title: Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel.

I think I just lost people, didn’t I?

I honestly can’t remember why I went searching for books on the most famous of Victorian circulating libraries, so I’m going to put it down to my tendency to drift toward Victoriana like a moth to flame. The curiosity prompting me to buy this had faded by the time it arrived, and the book languished on my shelf til I decided to take on my Reading Challenge.

Hard as it may be for us to imagine, the Victorians rarely bought new books. They were prohibitively expensive, and why buy a novel you might not like, when you could instead borrow it from Mudie’s Select Circulating Library? Mudie’s combined a relatively cheap subscription rate with an assurance of quality literature, and at it’s height sent books to all corners of the Empire. It was so ubiquitous that it was frequently referenced in the very works it stocked.

The opening chapters of Griest’s book are devoted to the history of Mudie’s. She then takes a look at how the omnipotence of Mudie’s affected the writing and publishing of novels, particularly focussing on the standard triple-decker, or novel in 3 volumes. It ends by showing how the library forced publishers to move away from the triple-decker form in the later 19th century, with the effect of bringing about the demise of the library a few decades later.

The book includes a number of prints of 19th century advertising and letters, and unfortunately it is not always clear what these are meant to illustrate. Also some of Griest’s quotations feel overlong, almost as though she were padding out the text in the manner of a Victorian novelist trying to fill the requisite 3 volumes. This may of course be a matter of academic convention at the time of writing.

The book was first published in 1970, and I notice that it follows the older academic convention of not translating from French (rare in these less polyphonic times but standard back when every scholar would presumably have passable Greek, Latin, French and German). It’s age indicates that it may have limited value as an academic resource now; Victorian libraries and publishing are not an area I’ve researched in any depth, but this is not a title I came across in my studies, suggesting it’s either not highly regarded or incredibly niche.

That said, I found this to be a very enjoyable read. It’s fun to watch the familiar cast of Victorian novelists simultaneously flattering and railing against the self-appointed arbiter of literary taste, and fascinating to trace the interplay of writer, publisher, and librarian in establishing what novels reached the Victorian public. The arguments over how the demise of the triple-decker might harm aspiring novelists and prevent them from breaking into publishing seems to have a relevance to 21st century publishing woes, and leaves one hopeful that, whatever form it takes, the novel and it’s author(s) will survive.