[This discussion of Mudie's is taken from the first part of my review of Griest's Mudie's Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel that appeared in Modern Philology, 69 (1972): 367-69.]
Between 1842 and 1894 Charles Edward Mudie's lending library influenced Victorian literature, particularly fiction, in two chief ways: first, by making sure that almost all novels appeared in three volumes, it had important effects on the structure, plot, style, and even imaginative worlds of the Victorian novel; and second, by acting as a censor who demanded fiction suited to the middle-class family, it controlled the subject, scope, and morality of the novel for fifty years,
Left: An advertisement for Mudie’s from The Reader (1864). Right: A cartoon from Judy, the conservative rival, of Punch. Click on images to enlarge them and to see what books the footman are picking up for their employers.
As astute businessman, Mudie had first opened his lending library to make available nonfiction, and in fact, he always devoted a large part of his stock — usually about a third — to such works. But he soon realized the market for novels, and this recognition brought great literary power and financial reward. Mudies' enormous success depended upon a combination of astute tactics. First of all, the famous guinea yearly subscription fee allowed a customer to borrow an unlimited number of volumes one at a time. Second, demanding that publishers produce only three-decker novels allowed him to divide up one novel among three subscribers. Third, by advertising his list of "the principal New and Choice Books in circulation" (Griest 20), he created somethign very like a best-seller list, which simultaneously made a market and firmly established his power to make reputations. Fourth, he ordered books in large quantities, often taking thousands of volumes and occasionally buying up entire printings, thus insuring his power with both publishers and public: his large stock meant that readers did not have to wait long for populiar works.
As one might expect, Mudie's had important effects upon the economics of publishing, for his manner of buying books in quantity in effect subsidized publishers, often making it easier for new authors to enter print — as long, that is, as they conformed to the demands of Mudie's and its audience. The power of his select list was such that it could make a new author's reputation more effectively than could the periodical critics. And since Mudie's and the smaller fry who imitated its methods bought up most, if not all, of an edition, the circulating library acted as a barrier between author and public.
According to Griest, the three-decker novel provided the crucial factor in Mudie's success: by forcing publishers to price their novels at the artificially high price of 31s 6d for three volumes (for which the library paid only 15s), it effectively discouraged several generations of British readers from buying novels — so much so that publishers claimed the British were not a book-buying people. Thus, while Moby Dick sold in America for $1.50, it cost the equivalent of $7.80 when it appeared as The Whale in Great Britain. The three-decker novel, in other words, cost at least five times as much as a standard volume of poetry. Of course, Mudie and his fellow librarians could only work this system — one feels inclined to write "racket" — as long as there no free public libraries and few cheap reprints. Mudie's could do little about public circulating libraries, and in fact, their gradual appearance during the century greatly weakened the power of Mudie's, but for many years it successfully demanded an interval of one year between the appearance of the triple-decker and the a cheaper edition. Although publishers several times tried to appeal directly to the public with cheaper one-volume first editions, these tactics always failed because the reading public had become accustomed to think of novels in such form as either cheap reprints of novels already out of fashion or as unsavory works. Mudie's did not lose its power until it decided itself to abandon the three-volume form.
Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1957.
Griest, Guinevere L. Mudie's Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel. Bloomington and London, Indiana Univ. Press, 1970.
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Images added 13 February 2022