Eight graphs in search of an answer

Have I got a real graphathon in store for you graphateers! Eight, that’s right – eight, graphs! I may even have a conclusion too. Just who the heck bought all those books in the nineteenth century?

William Gladstone (1809-19898), prime minister on four occasions, had he looked back on his century would have wondered how there was space for everyone to fit on the country. In his lifetime the population of Great Britain almost doubled:

Population growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring worth.com

Population growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring worth.com

It was also a much wealthier country, as measured by GDP, and not by our Dickensian images of urban poverty:

Nominal GDP growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring worth.com

Nominal GDP growth 1830-1900. Source: measuring worth.com

Wages, after a rocky start at the beginning of the century and following the victory over Napoleon, either kept inline with prices or, after 1850, often ahead of them:

Changes in prices and wages 1790-1914. Source: 'A History of the Cost of Living' John Burnett

Changes in prices and wages 1790-1914. Source: ‘A History of the Cost of Living’ John Burnett

Railways covered the country. The bursting of the railway bubble in the 1840s was followed by a second burst of railway building in the 1860s and every decade until the First World War, more line was laid:

Construction of railway lines  1827-1910. Source: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Construction of railway lines 1827-1910. Source: National Bureau of Economic Research.

As a result transport costs dropped by 97% (and all the clocks marked noon at the same time throughout the country):

Freight costs shillings per ton mile 1800 - 1865. Source:  'The Transport Revolution in Industrializing Britain: A Survey' Dan Bogart-

Freight costs shillings per ton mile 1800 – 1865. Source: ‘The Transport Revolution in Industrializing Britain: A Survey’ Dan Bogart-

At the same time literacy rates, as measured as bridegrooms and brides who could sign their own names, rose. In the case of women, almost doubling:

Literacy rates among bridegrooms and brides 1841-1900. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

Literacy rates among bridegrooms and brides 1841-1900. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

More people, more wealth, a national railway network, falling transport costs, rising wages and more people who could read all had their impact on the world of books. From being the preserve of the rich, they became available to, well, almost everyone:

Price Structure of Books Published 1811-1895. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

Price Structure of Books Published 1811-1895. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

With more to choose from:

Published Titles Listed in 'Publishers' Circular' 1840-1901. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

Published Titles Listed in ‘Publishers’ Circular’ 1840-1901. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

People chose novels. As the graph shows, although they may have attended church every Sunday, unlike their grand parents at the beginning of the century, they did not want to read about it:

Market share by genre 1814-1899. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

Market share by genre 1814-1899. Source: http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_novel.html

So, these are the statistics behind the publishing successes of Dickens, Trollope, Oliphant, Hardy, Gissing, Butler and Eliot; and the even greater, but largely forgotten, successes of Annie S. Swan, Florence Marryat and Frederick William Robinson. A cultural revolution in which the people decided they wanted, above all, to be entertained by what they read.

Are the any flies in that particular ointment? I certainly hope so. If memory serves me right (and it never has up to now) Arthur Marwick in his study of the changes wrought to British society in the First World War, The Deluge, calculated the size of the middle class prior to 1914 as 10 or 11%, approximately 4,600,000 people. That comes to less than the population of Madrid in 2013 and expressed thus, seems too small a statistic with which to factor in to explain the publishing revolution of the previous century. Go further back and it seems even less certain as a cause for the rise of the moderately priced novel. In The History of the Cost Living, John Burnett numbers as 300,000 the new professional class who in the 1850s

constituted the risk-takers and innovators who made the major economic decisions on which Victorian prosperity rested.

Are 300,000 businessmen, industrialists, scientists, metallurgists, bankers and accountants enough to kickstart a middle class literary revolution? Simon Elliot in Some Patterns and Trends in British Publishing 1800-1919 argued that:

[this] simple fact ising population and increasing literacy] alone cannot account for the size and nature of the increase recorded [of book sales in the United Kingdom]

So, probably not.

Possibly it was all to do with purchasing power. The young married couple mentioned by Burnett, living in London, no children, had £200 a year left out of an income of £700 (worth in 2013 £16,200 and  £59,000 respectively) allowing them to not only buy whatever book they wanted but also enjoy a dozen oysters at 1/- and a bottle of champagne at 6/- 6d. An urban workman in 1902-3, weekly wage 29/- 10d (£125 in 2013), after spending 22/- 6d on the weekly food budget still had 7/- 4d (£30.70). Enough perhaps to buy an occasional 1/- Yellowback from a W.H.Smith bookstall in a railway station. Our man Arnold Bennett, on the other hand, grew up in a middle class household (by virtue of his father qualifying as a solicitor when Arnold was nine) with few books. Had he grown up in a working class household, as a previous post showed, there would equally have been no guarantee that he would have grown up surrounded by, at least, the best sellers of the day. The English common reader: a social history of the mass reading public, 1800-1900 has been on my Alibris wishlist for a while. Perhaps it is time to buy it.

Next time. H.G.Wells’ Tono Bungay has been read and a graph will be plotted.

It’s a graph-based Bennett-themed frenzy!

If you’re like me (and I hope to God you’re not) then there’s nothing you like better than looking at data presented in the form of graphs. There is the insightful. For example, what better way to illuminate the impact and immensity of the Great Depression in the US than the drop in job adverts:

Or there is the whimsical, as in French steam power of the twentieth century:

Although it would be easy to dismiss all this as ironic, the leitmotif of this blog, I am quite serious. This graph makes me smile, in a whimsical way.

Then there is the nitty-gritty, that shale of economic data which has to be blasted with high pressure analysis to release its precious gassy conclusions. Or, to simplify the process, make it up as you go along, something which has always paid dividends for me. For example there is this:

Or, if the fancy takes you there is this:

Not forgetting:


All, I hope, to be self-explanatory when it comes to Arnold Bennett, life and works. But to summarise: our man Bennett liked money. He liked making it and spending it, making him suspect in the eyes of those for whom making money, having money and spending money had historically not been a problem. Wyndham Lewis, in a letter to Time and Tide, wrote that Bennett had

capitulated so thoroughly to those conditions of his new Big Business employment, that he would…praise any book put under his nose.

Worse, and this perhaps his gravest financial offence, was his lack of shame when it came to money, the making of and the spending of. His clothes were colourful, his homes comfortable, his taste in art modern, his stays in the best hotels long and he had an omellete named after him. The Woolf Banana Fritter anyone? Or a slice of Eliot Pecan Pie? I thought not.

His childhood poverty has been put forward as an explanation for this delight in wealth and comfort. Although as a son of solicitor I’m not sure if poverty is the apt word. By hard work his father, Enoch Bennett, had qualified as a solicitor in the 1870s. Although not a generous man towards Arnold, he did dismiss the spectre of hunger, the poor house and early death from the family’s front door. Bennett, however, liked to note in his journals his income for each year, and the number of words written. In 1912 he recorded an income of £16,000 (worth £1,240,000 in purchasing power in 2012). Over the weekend of March 5th, 1918 he earned  £300 (worth  £11,400 in 2012), through, as he wrote, “hard work.”

And the graphs? Our man was lucky enough to be wealthy at a time of increasing access to consumer goods, apart from the war years when industrial production naturally had to be switched from gramophones to heavy artillery shells and machine guns; and apart from the leap in inflation following peace in 1918, he benefited from a decade of falling prices. Wages fell also and unemployment in the last years of his life rose, but neither of these would have affected our man, unless he had to employ a servant or two: there was a large pool to draw from and wages would not make a dent in his income. But towards the end of his life economic worries did affect his life. Not because of the international economic depression. It was all because of this:

Taken from “Olympic Britain. Social and economic change since the 1908 and 1948 London Games.” Published by the House of Commons Library.

His marriage to Marguerite Soulié in 1907 ended in separation in 1921. Apart from declaring himself or Marguerite an adulterer, admitting to acts of cruelty or abandoning Marguerite there was little he could do given her refusal to consider a divorce. He supported her financially and also Dorothy Cheston with whom he had fallen in love and who, despite changing her name by deed poll to Bennett and bearing him a daughter, would, legally, have been considered his mistress. With two households to support, he found himself in the unaccustomed position of being financially hard-pressed. When he died in 1931 he left £36,000, £7,000 in securities, £4,225 in royalties and £7,500 in manuscripts. That £36,000 in cash, reduced to £31,000 after willing £5,000 to Marguerite, would have been equal in purchasing power to £1,910,000 in 2012. If you remember his earnings for 1911 had amounted to the equivalent of £1,240,000. That was for one year’s work. His will was the testament of a lifetime’s work. There is a moral in all this. Unfortunately, as it is not available in the form of a graph, I am at a loss to say what it is.

Today, a surfeit of graphs and economic data. We shall return nostalgically to a simpler form when I write of Stella Benson’s The Little World.

Literary Taste: how much is worth?

When Literary Taste was republished in 1938 as a Pelican Special it contained an Appendix written by Frank Swinnerton in which he noted editions of books that were available in either the Penguin or Pelican libraries. Swinnerton wrote “In themselves, the titles here listed form a remarkable library, particularly of what is immediately outstanding in modern literature….” A reader keen to form a literary taste in 1938 was advised, among others, to buy Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. They would have paid 6d for the Pelican edition of Literary Taste and, had they bought all thirty three books on the list, would have spent a further 17/-.

Using the MeasuringWorth website I can see that 6d in 1938 would have been worth £1.19 in 2010, using the Retail Price Index as a guide. The 17/- spent on buying all the books on the list would, by the same criteria be worth £40.50. The average nominal wage in 1938, decimal not pre-decimal, was £161.87. To buy a copy of Literary Taste, possibly from Boots which had agreed to stock Allen Lane’s Penguin and Pelican books, you would be spending just under 10% of your monthly wage, while all thirty three books would have represented 25% of your annual income.

It would be easy to draw the conclusion that forming a literary taste was a matter of economics. Easy and simplistic. There is the role also played by education, expectations and class, sometime in unexpected combinations. You could borrow books if you did not want to buy them. Public and subscription libraries were popular, but often because they stocked large numbers of best sellers by L.A.Strong or Daphne du Maurier. Going to the cinema was also popular throughout the decade: a ticket would cost the same as Penguin or Pelican book. Working class audience enjoyed Hollywood films such as those made by the Marx brothers and disliked the quota quickies, British films made by American studios; a legal obligation if they were to show their own. Nor would any of the above have been mutually exclusive. There’s no reason to think that someone who read Literary Taste could not also enjoy A Day at the Races. 

No graph I’m afraid. I’m still reading The Love Letters of Dorothy Osbourne and will have it finished for the New Year.

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