“Reading Novels in the Regency and Victorian Eras”
Susanna Craig, author of The Companion’s Secret
Book 1 in the Rogues and Rebels series
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” Henry Tilney’s praise of novel-reading cements his status as the hero of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, both in the heroine’s eyes and in our own. But in truth, the English novel, born in the early eighteenth century, was still in its awkward adolescence in the 1790s, when Austen began writing the book. Although she described her own family as “great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so,” many of her contemporaries found novels at best a waste of time and, at worst, a sign of readers’ moral depravity. In the early nineteenth century, when Northanger Abbey was published, novel reading was far from a universal pastime. As a writer and an avid reader, I wondered who really read novels in those days. And how did they get their books?
In 1750, Samuel Johnson famously claimed that “the young, the ignorant, and the idle” read novels. In other words, novels were consumed primarily by people with leisure time, especially young women, who were believed to be particularly susceptible to the dangers of reading and likely to mistake fiction for reality. Clergymen railed against novels from the pulpit, and conduct manuals advised against reading them. But those critiques tended to have the opposite of the intended effect, and novels continued to increase in popularity.
Books were expensive to own (a single novel could cost half a week’s wages for a working-class person), so they were often shared among friends, borrowed from an employer, or checked out from a circulating library, to which an individual could subscribe for a relatively small fee. Since most novels were purchased by circulating libraries, they were published in multiple volumes so more than one library patron could have a portion of the same book checked out at one time. This meant that a reader might not find the volume she was hoping for at any given time; she might be forced to skip from volume one to volume three, or begin a popular tale at volume two!
By the Victorian period, circulating libraries were being replaced by public libraries. Writers such as Charles Dickens made their names through serial publication: issuing novels in weekly or monthly installments that were within the budget of almost any reader. The first attempts at serial publication actually began earlier, however. In France, intrepid publishers created feuilleton or “talk of the town” supplements to political newspapers that included gossip, fashion, and literature. That earlier version of serial publication is featured in my historical romance The Companion’s Secret, about a novelist whose story, gradually being released to the public, has the potential to get the hero in a great deal of trouble.
As the nineteenth century wore on, novels enjoyed an increasingly favorable reputation, seen as offering both entertainment and instruction, displaying “a thorough knowledge of human nature” in “the best chosen language,” just as Jane Austen promised in Northanger Abbey.
Have you read any good novels lately?
ABOUT THE COMPANION’S SECRET
In Susanna Craig’s tempestuous new series, The Companion’s Secret, rebellious hearts prove hard to tame—but can England’s most dangerous rake be captured by a wild Irish rose?
They call him Lord Ash, for his desires burn hot and leave devastation in their wake. But Gabriel Finch, Marquess of Ashborough, knows the fortune he’s made at the card table won’t be enough to save his family estate. For that he needs a bride with a sterling reputation to distract from his tarnished past, a woman who’ll be proof against the fires of his dark passion. Fate deals him the perfect lady. So why can’t Gabriel keep his eyes from wandering to her outspoken, infuriatingly independent Irish cousin?
Camellia Burke came to London as her aunt’s companion, and she’s brought a secret with her: She’s written a scandalous novel. Now, her publisher demands that she make her fictional villain more realistic. Who better than the notorious Lord Ash as a model? Though Cami feels duty-bound to prevent her cousin from making a disastrous match, she never meant to gamble her own heart away. But when she’s called home, Ash follows. And though they’re surrounded by the flames of rebellion, the sparks between them may be the most dangerous of all . . .
About the Author
A love affair with historical romances led SUSANNA CRAIG to pursue three degrees in literature and a career as an English professor. When she’s not teaching or writing academic essays about Jane Austen and her contemporaries, she enjoys putting her fascination with words and knowledge of the period to better use: writing Regency-era romances. She makes her home among the rolling hills of Kentucky horse country, along with her historian husband, their unstoppable little girl, and a genuinely grumpy cat. Visit her at susannacraig.com, or on the social media platforms below.