William Lane’s Minerva Press was a prolific publisher of Gothic novels, which, during the closing years of the eighteenth century and the opening of the nineteenth, were more commonly styled Romance, Historical Romance, or “Horrid” novels. Only the last appellation is not in use today. Despite the now-common reference to the “Minerva Press” as inclusive of all of Lane”s operations, in fact, there were three distinct entities, each located in Leadenhall Street, London: the Minerva Office, the Minerva Press and the Minerva General Circulating Library.
The Minerva Office was the sales and distribution arm of the business. The Edinburgh Weekly Journal of November 3, 1802 contains a Minerva Office advertisement attesting that it operated its own printing office ”on a very extensive scale, under their own immediate inspection.” This printing office was called the Minerva Press. (See, e.g., Le Beau Monde, 1 Dec. 1806). This consolidation of book acquisition, production and distribution was not the typical case for the period. (For example, I am in possession of a book from the 1840's whose loosened binding reveals gutters imprinted with the names and addresses of different printers for the various sections of the book.) As used here, then, Minerva Press refers collectively to the books acquired by William Lane (and later by Lane and Newman), printed at the Minerva Press, and distributed by the Minerva Office and the Minerva General Circulating Library.
A Brief Economy of Writing
The Minerva Press provided books to its own circulating library and to other booksellers and stationers throughout Great Britain, Scotland and Ireland. It also made its extensive catalogue available to other subscription libraries. (See, e.g., Weekly Journal, 10 Nov. 1802.) An advertisement in the Times of February 25, 1802 gives an idea of Minerva Press output. On that day alone, the Minerva Office announced the publication of fourteen novels. As a rather broad and speculative comparison to the present day industry, assuming that the Minerva Press released fourteen books per month (or a total of 168 books per year) the Minerva Press would today rank third in number of Romance titles published, behind only Torstar and Kensington. (See, e.g, Hall, RWR) I suspect, but cannot confirm, that in the Minerva Press days, fewer copies per title were printed than today (The average print run for a Romance novel today is 20,000 to 30,000. Total Romance sales in 2003 were in excess of $1.4 billion). Then, as now, the genre was big business. Using sources contemporary to the Minerva Press, it”s possible to reconstruct some of the economics of the Gothic novel business and compare them to those of today.
The Cost of Reading
Minerva Office advertisements show books priced between seven and eighteen shillings, depending on such factors such as the number of volumes. Two-volume works were typically advertised at 7s while four volumes went for as much as 18s. This price range is the US equivalent of $23.00 to $60.00 in 2003 dollars. (The equivalency of historical pounds to 2003 dollars was calculated at http://www.uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm. The value of one British pound in 1800 is the 2003 equivalent of $66.39 US. With 20 shillings to the pound (66.39/20) one 1800 shilling is the 2003 equivalent of $3.32 US.) A subscription library offered a less expensive alternative to purchasing books:
Table 1 Yearly Cost of Minerva General Subscription Library in 1806 Pounds Shillings Pence Books in Town Books in Country
4 4 0 0-18 0-24 3 3 0 0-12 0-18 2 2 0 0-6 0-12 1 11 6 0-4 0-8
Source: Le Beau Monde, advertisement, December 1806.
A Londoner who wished to borrow up to eighteen books would pay the equivalent of about $289.00 US per year to sustain the habit whereas the purchase of that same number of books at the time would cost between $418.00 and $1,076.00 (using the Minerva Press range of 7-18s). In the United States today, books can be had for free via public libraries, a condition which did not yet exist for the readers of Minerva Press books. Further, the price range for books today is substantially broader than in the days of the Minerva Press. Today, eighteen mass-market paperbacks at $5.99 each would cost $107.92 US, excluding tax. The same number of trade paperbacks would come to roughly $270.00. Eighteen hardcover books (at $25.00 each) would cost $450.00.
Table 2. Comparison of Costs of Readership: 1800â€“2003. 1800â€“London (in 2003 $) 2003â€“US Rent up to 18 books: $289 $0 Purchase 18 books: $418-1,076 $108-450
Plainly, the principle difference between the cost of readership in 1800 and the cost today lies in the public library and the mass market paperback. A new, beautifully bound book printed on high quality paper would today cost essentially what it did in 1800.
The Cost of Acquiring Titles
In a capitalist economy, publishers naturally wish to acquire salable titles at the least cost to them while authors wish to obtain the highest possible payment for their work. Lurking in the center of that tension between publisher and author is sales potential. A popular author will likely sell more copies than an unknown or less popular author, and thus publishers are in general willing to pay more for books by popular authors. Before 1800, William Lane paid between five and twenty pounds ($332 to $1327.00) to acquire a novel. After 1800, the upper range increased to as much as forty pounds ($2655.60) with some authors obtaining even more. (Copeland, 204). This range represented an outright purchase of the book. Except under unusual and risky (for the author) circumstances, authors received no further payments, that is, no royalties.
The generally inferior economic position of women during the period being beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that novel writing offered one of the few legitimate ways in which a mid-to-upper class woman might support herself should her male relatives prove unable or unwilling to fulfill their cultural responsibility. It’s probably not a coincidence that women were a significant portion of Minerva Press authors. (See, e.g., Shaffer). In remarking, in verse, on Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, the, at the time, anonymous author of Scribbleomania or, the Printer”s Devil”s Polichronicon, A Sublime Poem composed the following lines: “A stupid, incongruous, blundering tail,/ The rank of whose writer alone caused it’s sale./ Since, had Leadenhall’s Lane seen the work, I’ll be bound,/To possess it he would not have proffer”d five pound.” (138, emphasis in original)
It is perhaps important to note two things about Scribbleomania. The first is that its ”editor,” Anser Pen-Drag-On, Esq., was none other than William Henry Ireland, infamous forger of Shakespearean letters, plays and other notes offered to an initially unsuspecting father and an equally credulous public as being by the bard”s own hand. The second is that Mr. Ireland was himself a Gothic author. Two of his works, The Abbess and Catholick, come in for praise in the footnotes of Scribbleomania. Setting aside the merits of Ireland”s verse and his misspent youth, the extensive footnotes of Scribbleomania are fascinating. He relates, for example, the following incident illustrative of economies of novel-writing women:
The writer [Ireland] was once present at a bookseller”s when Mrs. [Charlotte] Smith drove up to his door in a post-chaise and four and after being for a time closeted with the publisher in question, the chaise was discharged, when it afterwards appeared that she had brought up a manuscript from the country to be disposed of; and until an advance upon the same had been made, she literally was without a shilling to discharge the vehicle which had conveyed her to the metropolis. (Ireland, note (w) p. 156)
Historical References to the Minerva Press (Or Romance Gets No Respect) Just as there are substantial similarities between the publishing industry in the days of William Lane and the industry today, so there are similarities in the reception of the genre. Once again, yesterday and today look very much alike. I”ve elected to let the quotations speak for themselves.
From ”Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.” (originally published in 1898) E. Cobham Brewer, Bartleby.com, on the Minerva Press: A printing establishment in Leadenhall Street, London, famous about a century ago for its trashy, ultra-sentimental novels. These novels were remarkable for their complicated plots, and especially for the labyrinths of difficulties into which the hero and heroine got involved before they could get married to each other.
From The New York Times, April 11, 1857: ”Kingsley”s New Novel.” Review of Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley” … whereas the ”Minerva Press” novels, that were so dear to our mothers, and the ”religious” novels, that are so cheap to ourselves, are ridiculously bad novels…
From a Review of ”The Newcomesâ€“The Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family” edited by Arthur Pendennis, Esq. 25 Oct.1855: In the good old times of the Minerva press the plot of a novel afforded a tolerable meal for the critic, but now a plot is the last thing to be depended upon. Men have ceased to be romantic. What excitement they want is provided to them in the contemplation of real life. The novelist is expected to show them men and women whom they meet in everyday society; men and women in sober habiliment, who smirk and grin at us in a common and familiar manner. If he will have romance he must go down into the kitchen like an English policeman, and eat our cold mutton with the cook.”
From a review of ”The Premier as an Author. Commentary on Benjamin Disraeli”s writing.” The serious thing in Mr. Disraeli”s first book [Vivian Grey] is its lack of natural and healthful juvenality. In opinion, in feeling, in worldly wisdom, it is strangely old. Extravagant, sure enough, it is; but if extravagance of boyish love or of tragic and misguided heroism, as in Schiller”s ”Robbers;” it is the worst extravagance of the Minerva Press, the extravagance of hate, of treachery, of revenge; the extravagance of an impassioned and terrible scorn for humanity.”
From a New York Times review of ”Shelley”s Novels.” 15 Nov. 1886.: His novels are curiosities of literature of the melodramatic and blue-fire type. As works of art they are worthless imitations of the productions of the Minerva Press. Shelley”s machinery consists of inquisitors, bandits, caverns and other accouterments from the property room of Mrs. Radcliffe. … In these scenes of lurid ghastliness he sought that curdling of the soul, whether produced by the quiver of delight or the shudder of pain, which he craved as stimulant.
From ”Smollett” a review of the latest edition to ”Nimmo”s Library Edition of Standard Works, The Works of Tobias Smollett” by David Herbert, MA. ed. The Edinburgh Evening Courant. 27 Dec.1869: Our lively author too has the reputation of being ”vulgar” and nasty in his language; and wise fathers and mothers, and sedate maidenly aunts, who in their youth may have read with no small amount of pleasure the adventures of ”Roderick Random” or the gallantries of ”Peregrine Pickle,” and come out of the ordeal untarnished, shake their heads and deprecate the reading of ”such bad books” by the more squeamish youth of an age which as produced the sickly namby-pambyism of the Minerva Press literature, the unhealthy sensation works of a Braddon, and the brazen-faced, dull, dramatic carpentry work of a ”Formosa.” As a selection of the works of Smollett the book is almost faultless, and is a marvel of cheapness.
From a review of ”True Nobility or the Blacksmith”s Daughter” by Mrs. Emma C. Embury. Alton [Illinois] Telegraph & Democratic Review Vol VII, No 33. 20 Aug. 1842.: … Are you shocked, friend reader, that a heroine should know how to cook a dinner? I know it is contrary to all established rules; for the suffering damsels of the Minerva Press never even condescend to eat or drink, through the thick volumes of distressful adventure. They may sometimes ”snatch a morsel of refreshment” or ”sip some wine from a richly chased antique goblet,” but to eat a vulgar dinner, would be destructive of all heroic and sentimental ideas. The heroines of those times were superior to the common wants of humanity. Their immaculate white dresses never became soiled, even if they were plunged in the most loathsome dungeons; their tresses never hung in other than rich ringlets, even if they were just snatched from a watery grave; and their appetites never led them to commit such an outrage upon delicate sensibility, as to eat a really grand dinner.”
Excerpt from Parliamentary speech by Sir C. Wetherall, in the (London) Times 22 Sep. 1831. In this report of a Parliamentary address, the key phrase occurs when the another member”s speech was dismissed as having ”done honor to the most perfect melodramatic abortion of the Minerva Press.”
From ”The Yelverton Trial.” New York Daily Times. 25 Mar 1861. The context is the sensational trial of Mr. Yelverton who was the heir to a viscount. Over the course of six years, he led a woman to believe she was his wife, even to the point of undergoing a Scottish and then a Roman Catholic ceremony. Much to his ”wife”s” surprise, Yelverton married an heiress and upon being sued by the woman who believed she was already his wife, he testified that since the plaintiff was not of gentle birth, she ought to have been flattered by his intention to ”obtain her person.” He was acquitted. What makes this mention of the Minerva Press so fascinating is that it is nearly complimentary. As we live and grow older, it seems that all the pleasant illusions fostered in youth by the minor drama and the romantic novels of the Minerva Press are destined to obliteration. …Through how many lachrymose pages of sentimental novels have our young eyes traced the dazzling careers of colonels, captains and lieutenants, all of them clad in scarlet, all the very souls of honor, and all eventually succeeding, after incredible difficulties, in bringing their stern parents to smile on their respective marriages with girls beautiful and virtuous, though dowerless ” poor and obscure, though of high or at least respectable parentage.”
Anser Pen-Drag-on, Esq., Ed., [W[illiam] H[enry] Ireland] Scribbleomania or, the Printer”s Devil”s Polichronicon, A Sublime Poem. Sherwood, Neely and Jones, Paternoster-Row, London, 1815.
Copeland, Edward, Women Writing About Money, Women”s Fiction in England 1790-1820, Cambridge: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1995.
Edinburgh Weekly Journal. Advertisement. 3 Nov. 1802
Edinburgh Weekly Journal. Advertisement. 10 Nov. 1802.
Hall, Libby. ”ROMStat Report. Romance-Publishing Sales Statistics for 2002" Romance Writer”s Report Oct 2003, 17-20.
Le Beau Monde or Literary and Fashionable Magazine, [London] Advertisement. 1 Dec. 1806
Nye, Eric. ”Convert Historical Pounds to Dollars” 26 Oct. 2003 http://uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm.
Shaffer, Julie. ”I Once was Lost But Now I”m Found: Recovering Rare Woman-penned Novels in the Corvey Collection” presented at the 24th annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, (1993) 9 Sep. 2003. http://www.uwosh.edu/faculty_staff/shaffer/PROVIDEN.html.
Times [London] Series of three contiguous advertisements. 25 Feb.1802
Times [London] Advertisement. 7 Oct. 1802
Tracy, Ann B, The Gothic Novel 1790-1830, Plot Summaries and Index to
Motifs, Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1981.
Carolyn Jewel is the author of The Spare (Leisure Books, February 2004) Lord Ruin (Leisure Books, December 2002), Stolen Love (1991, Harper-Collins) and Passion's Song (1989, St. Martin's Press). A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, she lives in Northern California with her young son, three cats, a border collie, several chickens, two turkeys and some peacocks who just decided to move in. She loves history and imagining the lives of people who lived in years past. Writing about them is a dream come true. She welcomes letters from readers on any subject. Don't hesitate to email her! In addition to writing, she is pursuing a Master's Degree in English at Sonoma State University. Be sure to visit her website at http://carolynjewel.com/