University of Virginia Library

Search this document 


collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section8. 
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section2. 
collapse section 
Nineteenth-Century English Best-Sellers: A Further List by Richard D. Altick
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section2. 
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section 
collapse section2.0. 
collapse section2.1. 
collapse section2.2. 

collapse section 


Page 197

Nineteenth-Century English Best-Sellers: A Further List
Richard D. Altick

In THE ENGLISH COMMON READER (Chicago, 1957) I printed, as Appendixes B and C, lists of best-selling books and of the sales of certain mass-circulation newspapers and periodicals in nineteenth-century England. The following pages contain additions to these lists, with data supplementing entries in the original compilations designated by asterisks. As before, prospective users of these figures should be warned that "no attempt has been made to sift and check them" (for the sufficient reason that the disappearance of the relevant business records makes final verification impossible) and that therefore "they are presented here simply for whatever they are worth." Caveat emptor: the vendor is unable to guarantee his wares.

The absence of a number of famous best-sellers from this and the original list is due to the lack of hard figures representing the total copies sold. A roster several times as large as the two lists combined could be assembled from reports of books that sold many editions, the number often being specified. Contemporary statements of this kind may be accepted readily enough as evidence that the books were indeed popular according to the standards then prevailing. But for purposes of comparison, exacting modern scholarship requires to know how many copies were actually sold, and this information cannot be inferred from the bare number of editions.

The point is worth brief consideration for the sake of inquirers into the history of nineteenth-century English publishing and popular culture who are confronted, as they often are, with the statement that Mrs. Sherwood's notorious History of the Fairchild Family, for example, or Dean Farrar's Eric, or Little by Little went through "many


Page 198
editions."[1] Two essential points must be kept in mind, one a fact of publishing history, the other of semantics. As to the first, the laconic sentences in the preface to a valuable retrospective catalogue of Macmillan publications (1891) are the best possible summary: "The number of Editions or Reprints of any given book is no accurate guide as to its sale. An Edition may consist of 250 or of 100,000 copies."[2] At the beginning of the century, "750 copies was evidently the standard figure for a serious book of some general interest."[3] In 1818 a Longman partner, Owen Rees, told the Copyright Committee of the House of Commons that the usual first impression (normally synonymous with "edition" at this time) ranged from 500 to 1,000, a statement corroborated before the same body by John Murray.[4] Thirty-six years later, according to a writer in The Times, the figure had hardly increased: "The average edition of works sent forth by our principal publishers," he asserted, "varies from 500 to 1,500 copies, and . . . the sale of 1,500 of a new work is really considered a triumphant speculation."[5] There is abundant evidence that this modest size was typical of the great majority of original editions down into the 1890's, which witnessed the overdue demise of the circulating libraries which had for half a century enforced an economy of scarcity upon the original-edition trade.

Meanwhile, however, a combination of circumstances — technological improvements which made possible the cheap mass production of books, the great expansion of the reading public, the appearance of mass-appeal authors like Dickens, and the spreading practice of issuing cheap reprints of standard and recent works — rendered the edition comprising tens of thousands of copies increasingly common. Very occasionally, first editions were of this magnitude. Dickens' part issues


Page 199
are an obvious example, as are Tennyson's volumes after his reputation was established: although the first five editions of In Memoriam seem to have averaged about 5,000 copies each (a fact which immediately placed Tennyson among the best-selling poets), the first edition of the first four books of Idylls of the King (1859) comprised 40,000 copies, a figure matched when four new books of the same poem were published ten years later and far exceeded by Enoch Arden (1864), which had an initial edition of 60,000 copies.[6] Subsequently (1900) the publishers of Marie Corelli's The Master Christian claimed a new first-edition record of 75,000.[7] But these, to repeat, were remarkable exceptions to the prevailing practice. It was in cheap reprint editions, not the original high-priced ones, that a book (if fate so favored it) was produced in multiple thousands of copies. The actual number of thousands depended on various factors — the nature of the book's popularity (it might appeal to a relatively small audience or to an enormous one), the policies of the particular firm involved, and the precise time in the century. Certainly it can be said that each successive decade from the 1830's onward witnessed an increase in the number of large-quantity reprints issued for the expanding mass market as well, generally speaking, as in the size of such editions.

But what was an "edition"? The term might apply to a printing intended for a short-term sale to take care of immediate demand, as in the case of most topical or vogue literature; or it might apply to one of the numerous forms in which standard works — Bulwer-Lytton's novels, for instance, or Macaulay's essays — were simultaneously kept in print to accommodate the wide variety of purses with which the Victorian book-buying public was equipped. "Edition" in this merchandising usage simply designated format and had no necessary reference to a single press run; the plates were put back on the press whenever stock ran low, but no matter how many times reprinting occurred, "edition" — singular — it remained. A single edition in this sense could last for many years and comprehend any number of copies. On the other hand, and more important in respect to contemporary computation of a book's popularity, the same flexible terminology permitted publishers, especially in their advertising, to count every fresh impression, no matter how small, as a new edition.


Page 200

For these reasons, the statement on the title page of a nineteenth-century book that it belongs to the "25th edition" is of little significance except as a general indication of popularity. The quantitative and semantic variables are such as to make translation into an explicit number of copies, or even into a useful order of magnitude, almost impossible. Under these circumstances there is little point in admitting to any list of best-sellers books whose publishing record as it comes down to us consists only of an unelaborated statement of the editions through which it passed.

    (Political squibs and other propaganda; sermons)

  • 1838 Walter Farquhar Hook's sermon to the Queen, "Hear the Church": 100,000 copies.[8]
  • 1864 Charles H. Spurgeon's sermon, "Baptism Regeneration": 225,000 to 1896.[9]
  • 1871 *Rev. H. W. Pullen's "The Fight at Dame Europa's School": "eventually exceeded 400,000 copies."[10]
  • 1874 W. E. Gladstone's pamphlet, "The Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance," published in November, sold 150,000 "by the end of the year."[11]
  • 1876 Gladstone's pamphlet, "The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East," published September 6, sold 200,000 "by the end of the month."[12]
  • 1885 John Lobb's "Extravagance and Mismanagement of the London School Board: Three Years' Experience": 96,000 in six weeks.[13]
  • 1887 Annie Besant's leaflet "The Police and the Public" (on police brutality at Trafalgar Square on Bloody Sunday) circulated (not necessarily sold) 100,000 copies.[14]
  • 1890 William Booth's In Darkest England and the Way Out: 200,000 in a year. (An additional?) 100,000 copies of a shilling edition were ordered by January, 1891.[15]

  • 201

    Page 201
  • 1894 Robert Blatchford's Merrie England: 20,000 copies of the shilling edition, and "three quarters of a million in less than a year" of the penny edition.[16]


  • Hannah More
  • 1809 Coelebs in Search of a Wife: 14,000 in eight months.[17]
  • [Dickens]
  • 1841 "Reoriginated" (i.e., pirated and abridged) editions of The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge in Parley's Library or Treasury of Knowledge, Entertainment and Delight: 70,000.[18]
  • G. W. M. Reynolds
  • 1847 Mysteries of London: "nearly 40,000 copies a week."[19]
  • "Cuthbert Bede" (Edward Bradley)
  • 1853-57 The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green (three series): "by 1854, when the second book of the . . . series appeared, the first had reached a Fourth Edition; in twenty years 107,000 copies had been sold, and today more than a quarter of a million."[20]
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • 1856 Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp: 100,000 in four weeks, 165,000 in a year.[21]
  • Frederic William Farrar
  • 1859 Julian Home: 13,000 copies within a few months.
  • 1873 The Three Homes: 30,000 copies to 1903.[22]
  • *George Eliot
  • 1866-76 Total sales in the first ten years of Blackwood's lease of her books, 73,398 copies (46,765 of which were sold in the second half of this period).[23]

  • 202

    Page 202
  • Benjamin Disraeli
  • 1870 Lothair: 5,000 in first five days (May 2-6).[24]
  • Helen Reeves
  • 1875 Comin' thro' the Rye: 35,000 copies to 1898.[25]
  • John Henry Shorthouse
  • 1881 John Inglesant: 80,000 copies in twenty years.[26]
  • H. Rider Haggard
  • 1885 King Solomon's Mines: 31,000 in first fifteen months; 100,000 by 1895; 650,000 by 1925.
  • 1887 She: 1,000 in a week.
  • 1887 Allan Quatermain: 15,000 (including 1,700 in a ten-day period).
  • 1888 Maiwa's Revenge: 20,000 copies sold on publication day.[27]
  • Robert Louis Stevenson
  • 1886 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: 40,000 in six months after a favorable review in The Times.[28]
  • Fergus Hume
  • 1887 The Mystery of a Hansom Cab: 377,000 copies to 1898.[29]
  • James M. Barrie
  • 1891 The Little Minister: 24,000 in first fourteen months, including 7,000 sent to the colonies.
  • 1896 Sentimental Tommy: 37,000 "in all" in Britain and the colonies.
  • 1896 Margaret Ogilvy: "topped 40,000 copies almost at once."[30]
  • "Ian Maclaren" (John Watson)
  • 1894 Beside the Bonnie Briar Bush: 256,000 copies to 1907.[31]
  • *Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  • Of her novels, "over three and a half million copies have been sold."[32]


Page 203


  • Robert Bloomfield
  • 1800 The Farmer's Boy: 26,000 copies within three years.[33]
  • Robert Southey
  • 1817 Wat Tyler: 60,000 in short period.[34]
  • John Keble
  • 1827 *The Christian Year: sales 1827-37, 26,500; 1838-47, 39,000; 1848-57, 63,000; 1858-67, 119,500; 1868-73 (copyright expired in latter year), 57,500. Between April, 1873, and December, 1875, the publishers issued 70,000 copies of a cheap edition.[35]
  • Samuel Rogers
  • 1830 Italy: 6,800 sold by May 17, 1832.[36]
  • Richard Harris Barham
  • 1840-47 *Ingoldsby Legends (three series): approximately 450,000 copies of authorized editions to 1895. The 6d. People's Edition (1881) had a printing of 100,000 copies, of which 60,513 were sold on the day of publication.[37]
  • Thomas Babington Macaulay
  • 1842 *Lays of Ancient Rome: 18,000 in ten years; 40,000 in twenty years; by June, 1875, a total of over 100,000 copies.[38]
  • Coventry Patmore
  • 1854-62 The Angel in the House: between 200,000 and 250,000 copies to 1896. In addition, there was a popular edition by Cassell which sold 40,000 in the first fortnight.[39]

  • 204

    Page 204
  • *Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • 1858 The Courtship of Miles Standish: 10,000 copies sold on first day.
  • 1867 Translation of The Divine Comedy: "over 70,000 copies of the whole or of the separate parts up to the year 1900."[40]
  • James Russell Lowell
  • 1859 The Biglow Papers: John Camden Hotton sold 50,000 copies between this date and 1873.[41]
  • *Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  • 1889 Demeter and Other Poems: 20,000 in first week.[42]


  • 1833-42 Sir Archibald Alison's History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution to the Restoration of the Bourbons (10 volumes): 108,000 volumes of the Library Edition and 439,000 volumes of the Popular Edition sold to 1867.[43]
  • 1843 Macaulay's Essays: over 120,000 copies of collected volumes sold by single publisher to about 1875; over 130,000 copies of separate essays in Traveler's Library series. Average annual sale of collected editions 1843-53, 1,230; 1853-64, 4,700; after 1864, over 6,000.[44]


  • 1833 *Favell Lee Bevan's Peep of Day: "the copies . . . sold seem certainly to have reached to over a million."[45]
  • 1849 Favell Lee Bevan's Near Home sold 33,000 by 1860.[46]
  • 1854 Maria Louisa Charlesworth's Ministering Children: 276,000 to 1895.[47]


  • 1853-55 James F. W. Johnston's The Chemistry of Common Life: part issue, between 5,000 and 30,000 per number; in volume form (1855), "about 10,000."[48]
  • 1856 R. K. Philip's Enquire Within Upon Everything: "over one million copies have been sold" to about 1906-12.[49]

  • 205

    Page 205
  • 1861 Charles Francatelli's The Cook's Guide: 8,000 in first two or three months; 64,000 to 1898.[50]
  • 1877 Edward Dowden's Shakespeare (Macmillan's History and Literature Primers): 10,000 in three months.[51]
  • 1886 Hugh Arnold-Forster's Citizen Reader ("adopted by almost all the School Boards in Great Britain"): 250,000 in five years, 500,000 in twenty.[52]


  • 1827 The Keepsake: 15,000 copies.[53]
  • 1835 Cruikshank's Comic Almanac: "eventually attained a sale of nearly 20,000 copies."[54]
  • 1844 Robert Chambers' Vestiges of Creation: 24,000 to 1860.[55]
  • 1847 Albert Smith's The Natural History of a Gent: 10,000 copies in a short time.[56]
  • 1851 The Illustrated Exhibitor: A Tribute to the World's Industrial Jubilee: 100,000 copies per number.[57]
  • 1865?-? Artemus Ward's works, pirated by John Camden Hotten, "sold a quarter of a million" in an unspecified period.[58]
  • 1866 *Carlyle's Sartor Resartus: shilling edition sold 20,000 copies "instantly on its publication."[59]
  • 1875 Hannah Whitall Smith's The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life: more than 330,000 copies "in the 'seventies and 'eighties."[60]
  • 1877 Charles Knowlton's "Malthusian" pamphlet, The Fruits of Philosophy (first English edition, 1841): over 130,000 copies from June to August 26. By 1879, 185,000 copies had been printed.[61]

  • 206

    Page 206
  • 1878 Annie Besant's Law of Population: "50,000 copies were in print" by 1881, and eventually hundreds of thousands of copies were sold "all over the English-speaking world."[62]


  • Attention should be called to the valuable lists of mid-Victorian periodicals (including circulation, price, and descriptive notes on contents) in Alvar Ellegård's "The Readership of the Periodical Press in Mid-Victorian Britain," Göteborgs Universitets Arsskrift, LXIII (1957), No. 3, 1-41.
  • 1831-36 Figaro in London: 70,000.[63]
  • 1843 Lloyd's Penny Sunday Times: 95,000.[64]
  • 1848-58 The Family Friend: 40,000.[65]
  • 1851 The Working Man's Friend: 100,000.[66]
  • 1867 The Tomahawk's issue for August 10, containing a cartoon referring to the Queen's unseemly partiality for John Brown: 50,000.[67]
  • 1870 Cassell's Magazine: over 70,000 during serialization of Wilkie Collins' Man and Wife.[68]
  • 1873 Scribner's Magazine (English edition): 20,000.[69]
  • 1882 Harper's Magazine (English edition): 24,000.[70]
  • 1883 The War Cry (Salvation Army): 350,000, falling to below 290,000 in 1890.[71]
  • 1885 The Sentinel's June issue, containing "a report of a speech by a Mr. Wookey at Luton" alleging that the Prince of Wales patronized a bawdy house in Church Street, Chelsea: 200,000.[72]



In the latter case, access to the truth is not noticeably facilitated by inconsistencies in the source. In the bibliography of Farrar's works prefaced to his biography (Reginald Farrar, The Life of Frederic William Farrar [1904], p. xiii) Eric is said to be in its "Thirty-sixth edition, 1903"; yet the text itself asserts (p. 73) that "'Eric' has gone through more than fifty editions." A similar discrepancy is found in connection with Farrar's other famous best-seller, his Life of Christ (1874). The bibliography says (p. xiv): "Ninth edition now [i.e., 1903] being published." The text says (p. 196): "Since its first appearance the work has gone through thirty editions in England alone."


A Bibliographical Catalogue of Macmillan and Co.'s Publications from 1843 to 1889 (1891), p. v.


Theodore Besterman, ed., The Publishing Firm of Cadell & Davies: Select Correspondence and Accounts, 1793-1836 (1938), p. xxxi.


Report from the Select Committee on the Copyright Acts . . . (1818), pp. 12, 60.


"Literature for the People," The Times, February 9, 1854, p. 10.


Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., Tennyson and the Reviewers (1952), pp. 146, 156; Charles Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson (1949), pp. 319, 351, 383. For a large sampling of the size of editions of best-selling books during the century, see The English Common Reader, pp. 381-90.


Publishers' Circular, LXXIII (1900), 93.


The Greville Memoirs, 1814-1860, ed. Lytton Strachey and Roger Fulford (1938), IV, 81 n. 3.


G. M. Young, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age (1936), p. 119 n. 1; verified in British Museum Catalogue, CCXXVII, 929.


Joseph Shaylor, The Fascination of Books (Toronto, n.d.), p. 217.


Philip Magnus, Gladstone: A Biography (1954), p. 235.


Ibid., p. 242.


Helen Merrell Lynd, England in the Eighteen-Eighties (1945), pp. 378, 457.


Arthur H. Nethercot, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant (1960), p. 247.


Herman Ausubel, In Hard Times: Reformers Among the Late Victorians (1960), pp. 108-109.


Amy Cruse, After the Victorians (1938), p. 95; Ausubel, just cited, p. 111.


John E. Jordan, DeQuincey to Words-worth: A Biography of a Relationship (1962), p. 252.


Edward T. Jaques, Dickens in Chancery (1914), p. 71.


Reynolds's Miscellany, I (1847), 175.


Carroll A. Wilson, "Verdant Green," American Oxonian, XX (1933), 29-30.


Amy Cruse, The Victorians and Their Reading (1936), p. 255; Forrest Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline (1941), p. 419.


Farrar, The Life of Frederic William Farrar, pp. 77, 71.


The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S. Haight, VI (1955), 299-300. Thanks to the preservation and publication of the correspondence between the author and her publishers, the firm of Blackwood, the commercial side of George Eliot's career as a successful author is probably more fully documented than is that of any other nineteenth-century author who approached best-seller status. The letters and accounts shed much valuable light on the size of various impressions and editions in the 1860's and '70's and the speed — or lack thereof — with which they were exhausted. Access to these data is made easy by the index to the George Eliot Letters; see under the title of each novel.


[William F. Monypenny and] George E. Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, V (1920), 165.


Royal A. Gettmann, A Victorian Publisher: A Study of the Bentley Papers (1960), p. 84.


Andrew L. Drummond, The Churches in English Fiction (1950), p. 87.


Simon Nowell-Smith, The House of Cassell (1958), p. 136; Lilias Rider Haggard, The Cloak That I Left (1951), pp. 134, 136.


Graham Balfour, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson (1901), II, 17.


Victorian Detective Fiction: A Catalogue of the Collection Made by Dorothy Glover and Graham Greene, Bibliographically Arranged by Eric Osborne (1966), p. 124. This figure is for English editions only: it does not include the 35,000 copies previously printed in Melbourne.


Nowell-Smith, The House of Cassell, p. 189 n. 1; Denis Mackail, The Story of J. M. B. (1941), pp. 185, 255.


Drummond, The Churches in English Fiction, p. 231 n. 2.


Shaylor, The Fascination of Books, p. 217.


Rayner Unwin, The Rural Muse (1954), p. 92. In letters of November 30, 1801, and January 31, 1802, Bloomfield wrote that the fifth and sixth editions of the volume together comprised 10,000 copies (Selections from the Correspondence of Robert Bloomfield, ed. William H. Hart [1870], pp. 17, 21).


Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, ed. Cuthbert Southey (1849-50), IV, 251.


John Keble, Occasional Papers and Reviews (1877), p. ix. These figures, unlike the overwhelming majority of those derived from contemporary sources, are taken directly from the records of the publishers.


P. W. Clayden, Rogers and His Contemporaries (1889), II, 4. Of Rogers' earlier work, The Pleasures of Memory (1792), "more than 7,000 copies had been sold" before the end of the century, and "before 1816, when the nineteenth edition was published, this figure was more than trebled" (R. Ellis Roberts, Samuel Rogers and His Circle [1910], p. 22).


William G. Lane, "The Primitive Muse of Thomas Ingoldsby," Harvard Library Bulletin, XII (1958), 229. For breakdowns of the various editions, see Gettmann, A Victorian Publisher, p. 80.


George Otto Trevelyan, Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (1876), II, 111.


Basil Champneys, Memoirs and Correspondence of Coventry Patmore (1900), I, 177; II, 341.


Clarence Gohdes, American Literature in Nineteenth-Century England (1944), pp. 110, 102 n. 12.


Ibid., p. 83.


Hallam Tennyson, Alfred, Lord Tennyson: A Memoir (1897), I, xxi.


James Westfall Thompson and Bernard J. Holm, A History of Historical Writing (1942), II, 292 n. 37.


Trevelyan, Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, II, 113.


Edwyn Bevan, "A Law-Giver in the Nursery," The Times, June 27, 1933, p. 15.


Drummond, The Churches in English Fiction, p. 111 n. 3.


Esmé Wingfield-Stratford, The Squire and His Relations (1956), p. 313.


Trial of Madeleine Smith, ed. F. Tennyson Jesse (1927), p. 172.


Shaylor, The Fascination of Books, p. 75.


Gettmann, A Victorian Publisher, p. 82.


Fragments from Old Letters, E[dward] D[owden] to E. D. W. 1869-1892 (2nd ser., 1914), pp. 136-37.


Nowell-Smith, The House of Cassell, p. 108.


Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, V, 323.


[William M. Thackeray], "George Cruikshank," Westminster Review, XXXIV (1840), 46.


Alvar Ellegård, Darwin and the General Reader (Göteborg, 1958), p. [11].


Henry Vizetelly, Glances Back Through Seventy Years (1893), I, 136.


Nowell-Smith, The House of Cassell, p. 32.


George Haven Putnam, George Palmer Putnam: A Memoir (1912), p. 380.


James Anthony Froude, Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London, 1834-1881 (1885), II, 306-307.


E. E. Kellett, "The Religious Biography," Life and Letters, IX (1933-34), 237 n. 2.


J. A. Banks, Prosperity and Parenthood: A Study of Family Planning among the Victorian Middle Classes (1954), p. 154; Walter L. Arnstein, The Bradlaugh Case: A Study in Late Victorian Opinion and Politics (1965), p. 22. The sudden burst of interest in this hitherto obscure birth-control treatise was due to its republication as a test of a governmental ruling on obscene literature. Its sponsors were Charles Bradlaugh and the indefatigable Annie Besant.


Nethercot, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant, pp. 179, 128.


Frederic Boase, Modern English Biography (Truro, 1901), III, 789.


Louis James, Fiction for the Working Man (1963), p. 36.


Banks, Prosperity and Parenthood, p. 53 n. 2.


Nowell-Smith, The House of Cassell, p. 23.


Elizabeth Longford, Victoria R. I. (1964), p. 330.


Kenneth Robinson, Wilkie Collins (1952), p. 236.


Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines 1865-1885 (1938), p. 467.


Gohdes, American Literature in Nineteenth-Century England, p. 66.


K. S. Inglis, Churches and the Working Classes in Victorian England (1963), pp. 194, 197.


Charles Terrot, The Maiden Tribute: A Study of the White Slave Traffic of the Nineteenth Century (1959), p. 91.