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.

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It’s a fair cop gov but I blame that Bentley geezer…

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, published in 1913.

Trent's Last Case

Writing in the The Saturday Review of August the 3rd, 1929, Dorothy L.Sayers, commenting on the few times that love has featured in the detective novel, wrote:

E. C. Bentley in “Trent’ s Last Case,” has dealt finely with the still harder problem of the detective in love. Trent’s love for Mrs. Manderson is a legitimate part of the plot; while it does not prevent him from drawing the proper conclusion from the evidence before him, it does prevent him from acting upon his conclusions, and so prepares the way for the real explanation. Incidentally, the love story is handled artistically and with persuasive emotion.

Under the heading of THE PLANTATION MURDER, the Derby Daily Telegraph of Tuesday the 24th, 1913, was this report:

William Burton, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Winifred Mary Mitchell in a plantation at Gussage St.Michael was executed at Dorchester Prison this morning.

Burton walked firmly to the scaffold and maintained an indifferent demeanour. He made a full confession to the vicar of Gussage.

Local English newspapers were filled with these brief accounts of murder, trial and execution. 1913, the year in which Trent’s Last Case was published, was as marked as any other year by the repetition of these three sentences of human experience at its most bleak: John Vickers Amos, guilty of the murder of two policemen and a woman, hung by Pierrepoint, at Newcastle Gaol; Jeannie Baxter accused of murdering the aviator Julian Bernard Hall by shooting him and, in Allalabad in India, Lieutenant Clark confessed that it was he, and not Mrs. Fulham, who murdered Mr. Fulham by giving him antipyrine, a toxic analgesic, (the jury found them both guilty: he was hung, she died in prison a year later). True, the Derby Daily Telegraph, three years earlier, had reported in detail the arrest, trial and execution of Dr.Crippen. But he was, well, Dr.Crippen. Unlike the execution of William Burton the report of Crippen’s execution included the fact that he was given a seven foot drop, a detail that my dad always mentioned when talking about reports of executions he had read as a child.

The homicide rate per 100,000 in England and Wales in 1913 was 0.91 (the current U.K. homicide rate is 1.2; in 1913 in the U.S.A. it was 6.1/100,000). Which in a graph looks like this:

Homicide Rate England and Wales

So, Bentley was writing at a time when, overall, the homicide rate was dropping. If we turn to the country he lived in:

Buy phonographs!

We can see it is a country of growing prosperity (as measured by the purchase of phonographs, cameras and bicycles and so on). Perhaps that is why the run-of-the-mill murders merited only a paragraph in the English provincial press (even exotic murderers, such as Lieutenant Clark – the press felt obliged to describe him as “Eurasian” – were only given this space). England was secure enough to look on murder as something that happened to other people, and very often not the best sort of people at that.

But despite this prosperity and security Bentley did write Trent’s Last Case and it was a success. It is possible, of course, that Edwardian stability could easily lend itself to a delight in the sordid, just as in the 1920s, which saw a further fall in the homicide rate, instability could just as easily lend itself to the sordid as long as someone came along to set it all right again. On the other hand, the Victorians loved being scared silly by stories in the press of murder, violence and plots to take over the world, or least as laid out in The Battle of Dorking (1871), the invasion of England. As the poor continued to traipse through the courts (women forming a disproportionately large group, normally for repeated offences of petty theft and prostitution) there was added that extra frisson of social unrest that arose from this newly defined criminal class. Trent’s Last Case, published twelve years after the death of Queen Victoria,  in which the poor, the working classes, the middle classes, journalists (apart from Trent), the police, the judiciary and the penal system appear only briefly or not at all, would have allowed a reader a literary account of violent death, madness and a metaphor of a jigsaw set badly put together.

From the letters written by Lieutenant Clark and Mrs. Fulham they were, if not in love, in a passionate, and ultimately, murderous relationship. This did not stop Mrs. Fulham from offering to turn King’s Evidence and testify against her lover (the offer was rejected). The case was infamous in its day (an account of it was written by Sir Cecil Walsh, King’s Counsel) but it seemed to play more in the metropolitan and colonial press than in the provinces. In the case of the murder of Winifred Mary Mitchell by William Burton we can be certain that no one, as Trent was want to do, quoted from Keats or Shelley. It was fragments from her false teeth that led police to her grave (Burton had shot her in the face with a shotgun when she threatened to speak publicly about their relationship – one of many he had pursued with women in the village). What would be the appropriate line of poetry to quote when a decomposing and faceless corpse is being dug up?

Am I missing the point here? Am I forgetting Bentley’s friendship with G. K. Chesterton, writer of the Father Brown stories, and his challenge to Bentley to write of a flawed detective? Have I misunderstood the literary themes underpinning Dorothy L. Sayers’ comments quoted above? No. Am I willfully missing all of these points? Ah, that is a horse of a different colour.

Our man Bennett was an admirer of the thrillers written by Edgar Wallace, not least because they featured policemen who knew what they were doing. One of his complaints of the many crime novels he reviewed in the 1920s was that the detectives that featured in them were:

…lacking in all human characteristics save the minor and comparatively rare characteristics of self conceit, blindness to the obvious, and perfect idiocy.

In an article published in The Saturday Review on the 26th of September, 1931 Christopher Morley questioned if Trent’s Last Case, along with The Lady in White, was one of the best crime novels ever written. He suggested that A Study in Scarlet, The Red House Mystery or the wonderfully titled Seven Keys to Baldpate were perhaps its equals. He also included Dashiell Hammett in that list. Along with Georges Simeon he is my favourite crime writer. Their detectives, private and professional, have right on their side, you might say righteousness. Sam Spade’s righteousness, I would argue, is Old Testament in nature while Inspector Maigret’s is much more New Testament. Perhaps that is why, given the chance, I would invite Trent into the Library, point to the loaded revolver on the table, remind him that as a gentleman he would know what is expected of him, close the door behind me and wait for a single gunshot.

No literary taste here then, instead I cast him over into Virginia Woolf territory. (3,9) seems a suitable punishment.

Firm but fair.

Next time, I ask Elizabeth Bowen what she did in the (Second World) War (she wrote English Novelists in the Britain in Pictures series)?

The revolution will be minuted

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, The Left Book Club, whose books looked like this:

                                                                                source: http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk

It would be easy to look on the 1920s and 30s as a golden era of middlebrow literature. The novels of Arnold Bennett, Frank Swinnerton, Horace Walpole and L.A.G. Strong all forming part of a big metaphorical lens through which to view these two decades. Being the easy thing I would normally recommend strongly that we all look through that lens and not think too deeply about Stephen Spender’s study of modern literature The Destructive Element published in 1935 (he was twenty six when he wrote it – I read it when I was fifty and felt I was in the company of a giant).

Auden, sitting in a bar on Fifty-second Street in New York, called the 1930s a low dishonest decade. But in the redraft of the poem that he never did, I feel sure he would have included the 1920s too. Characterised by a failure of political leadership and a feeling shared by many people in Europe and  America that maybe the Jews had it coming, the inter-war years were just that, a brief pause in the slaughter. Apart from driving ambulances in Civil War Spain or taking on Oswald Mosley’s fascists in the East End of London, what else could a person do to show that modern democracy was not moribund?

If you were Victor Gollancz, owner of the publishing firm that he founded and gave his name to, you set up the Left Book Club. Like many of the writers mentioned above (and the majority of those not mentioned), it has largely been forgotten. But from its foundation in 1936 until the opening years of the war, it was incredibly popular. The idea was simple. For two shillings and sixpence, you received each month a book on a political theme. Gollancz’s idea was to help create a politically literate class that would put pressure on the British government to participate in a Popular Front against fascism. The 9,000 members who had joined by the end of the second month agreed and added the extra component of setting up discussion groups in which to debate the issues raised in the books they read.

Announcing Left Book Club meetings could be a problem. The Hull Daily Mail of October the 17th, 1937 reported that it took a motion by Councillor Wray to allow the local Left Book Club to display its meeting cards in the public libraries. The Popular Front had to be explained. At the Nottingham branch of the Left Book Club, and as reported by the Nottinghan Evening Post in October 1936, Mr. R. Bishop, who had travelled from London, used the example of the divisions in the German working class and how they were exploited by the Nazis in their rise to power to argue for the creation of a Popular Front which, having defeated Hitler, could focus its energies on creating Socialism. There were, of course, those that opposed it. J. Baker White of the right wing Economic  League wrote to The Hull Daily Mail in April 1937 accusing it of being a “..vehicle for Communist propaganda.”  There was even a Right Book Club. But books continued to be ordered in their thousands and discussed. At Uglow’s Cafe in Plymouth Mr. John Foot led the discussion on Stephen Spender’s latest book Forward from Liberalism. As reported in The Western Morning News and Daily Gazette of March the 20th, 1937, Mr. Foot argued that the objective of mankind was happiness allied to liberty. My mother remembers her father and his friends, like him miners or ex-miners, discussing that month’s book.

The Left Book Club was, however, overwhelmingly middle class. Seventy five percent of its members, who at the club’s peak in 1939 numbered 57,000, worked in white collar jobs. Members of the working class, on the whole, did not come along to the club’s discussion groups or attend its sell-out rally in the Albert Hall in the summer of 1937. If Stephen Spender had wanted to share his ideas with the working classes, he would have been as well as to go along to the nearest Gaumont cinema and buy a ticket for the next showing of the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup because that’s where he would have found them (the British working classes were notorious for their hatred of  the quota quickies, films the American studios were legally obliged to make in Britain so as to be able to show movies made in Hollywood; the quota quickies had titles such as To Brighton with Gladys and Oh No, Doctor! and had actors who pronounced bath as baaath.) I’d have been as keen as the next person to see fascism defeated, but if it came down to it, and I had to decide between that Friday night lecture on Stalin’s socialist paradise and the late showing of After the Thin Man starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, I’d have gone with American wisecracks, the drinking of cocktails on an industrial scale and pretty nifty gun play from Mr. Powell.

In my beginning is my end. I began this post with a dismissal of the middlebrow, domain of the middle classes, and here they are again at the end. Perhaps by being on the left they would not have read Bennett’s Literary Taste: How to Form It, although they did want to be appear intellectual and well-read. But they shared that defining middle class tenet that tomorrow would be better than today.

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