Railway Reading and Late-Victorian Literary Series (2018)

Apr 16, 2021 | Reviews

Railway Reading and Late-Victorian Literary Series (2018) by Paul Raphael Rooney

Albert Sears

Wilkie Collins’s fiction and sensational literature in general remained a prominent staple in the reading diet of Victorians through the final days of the nineteenth century. Indeed, during the last decades of the century, many titles by Collins in the Chatto & Windus Cheap Editions of Popular Novels yellowback series were prevailing bestsellers. Such evidence leads Paul Raphael Rooney to underscore in his recent study Railway Reading and Late-Victorian Literary Series that “Collins’ writing had remained a vital presence in the late nineteenth-century popular reading landscape” (126). The Chatto & Windus records of aggregate print runs of this late yellowback series are an example of the many archival sources that Rooney analyzes. His compelling study, in the Routledge Literary Texts and the Popular Marketplace series, gives a complex and multi-layered response to the question, “How did late-Victorian readers, especially train travelers, come to read what they read?”

One of the strengths of Rooney’s study is his use of various methodologies to unfold the late-Victorian popular fiction marketplace. The introduction situates his contribution to the field with other pioneers, such as Leslie Howsam and John Spiers. Rooney then takes up a brief discussion of scenes of reading and writing as represented in late-Victorian texts, notably George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), among others. Thereafter, he mines deeply a variety of archives, periodically relying on such New Humanities methods as distant reading and macroanalysis to make deductions about publishers’ title lists. 

Rooney’s first chapter presents an overview of the reading landscape in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. He demarcates 1870 as a boundary for studying “light” recreational reading, a kind of literature that expanded in the late nineteenth century, partly because of the Forster Act of 1870, which helped increase access to elementary education. Growing literacy rates helped to promote reading as an enjoyable leisure activity. Rooney surveys the attitudes about this post-1870 reading climate, seeking to complicate “[t]he belief that the enhanced educational provisions enacted by the 1870 legislation created a class equipped only to engage in the kind of cultural consumption that was exclusively recreational and did not extend beyond the most trivial and disposable of literary texts . . .” (27). His subsequent analysis of the railway bookstall provides evidence that late-Victorian reading practices were more complex.

One of Rooney’s richest chapters, provocatively titled “‘Food for the Mind’: Consumer Choices and the Railway Bookstall Environment,” is the investigation of the W. H. Smith & Son railway bookstall network. Relying on important documents in the official archive of the firm, Rooney “examine[s] the role that the Smith employees who ran the individual stalls played in disseminating books to the firm’s consumers” (48-9). While railway bookstalls certainly made available popular bestsellers such as Called Back (1883), these spaces were places for cultural dissemination; archival evidence shows that some bookstall workers took seriously “cultivat[ing] . . . a love of literature rooted in a core set of cultural touchstones,” including such writers as John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, and George Gissing (52). Furthermore, advertising, bookstall organization, and creating a pleasing environment all contributed to the ways in which the train-traveling Victorian reader found texts to consume.   

Rooney’s remaining chapters provide analyses of three different late-Victorian publishers’ series, all fine examples of cheap reading material the late Victorian might have purchased in a railway bookstall. As noted earlier, the discussion of Chatto & Windus’s second-generation yellowback series (1877-1899) is of particular interest to scholars of Wilkie Collins and sensation fiction. The publisher secured publishing rights to earlier-generation “marquee name popular novelists” (71), notably Ouida, Collins, and Charles Reade, all with their major titles on Chatto & Windus’s top-fifty-greatest-sellers list. Rooney’s chart of aggregate print runs, showing total sales and number of impressions, will provide scholars of the Victorian literary marketplace much to consider. In addition, Rooney’s fascinating macroscopic study of titles in the series provides a sense of what was attractive to the late-Victorian reader shopping for something to read.

The Routledge Detective Books (1887-1888) were a genre-based series within the Routledge catalogue of sixpenny novels; it featured transnational crime writing, particularly by Anna Katharine Green and Emile Gaboriau. Rooney examines the publisher’s strategy to create spin-off series from its already successful sixpenny catalogue. The study shows that Routledge’s focus on American and French detective-oriented titles “prove[d] significant in the longer-term history of the crime fiction genre” (115).

Rooney concludes with an investigation of the literary taste-making venture of Arrowsmith’s Bristol Library (1884-1901), a series that emphasized readability and exposed readers to a variety of genres. The Bristol Library might be described as an early middlebrow literary enterprise: “The series was situated at a cultural interchange. More upmarket than the characteristically lurid reading matter circulating within the shilling fiction, but it still offered escapism while existing on a more intelligible plan than contemporaneous writing by the likes of Henry James” (136). In spite of the series’ eclecticism, its foremost literary property was the sensational crime story Called Back by ‘Hugh Conway’ (Frederick John Fargus): “Although this was a series that effectively owed its existence to a literary work that was perhaps the prototypical example of the late-nineteenth-century shilling shocker, Called Back, the library’s volumes did not trade exclusively on an arresting air of yellowness” (138). Rooney’s text is important reading for scholars of popular literature and the literary marketplace.  Well-documented, data-rich, and innovative in its methodology, Railway Reading and Late-Victorian Literary Series is a valuable addition to scholarship in the field.