Review of R.M. Wiles and M.R. Watson.

[Review of R.M. Wiles, Serial Publication in England before 1750 and M.R. Watson, Magazine Serials and the Essay Tradition, 1746-1820. Queen's Quarterly 57. 1 (1960): 141-2.]


These two books deal with two very different kinds of serial publication.  Mr. Watson discusses the essays that appeared in series in various English miscellanies at regular or irregular intervals, for a longer or shorter time, written by one or more people under a single nom-de-plume or in a single character.  He shows how these “serial essays” were connected with the essay of morals and manners established by Addison and Steele, and how from this genre the “familiar essay” of Hunt, Lamb, and Hazlitt emerged.  His book, despite an occasional touch of dry merriment, is more methodical than stimulating.  It brings together a number of facts not elsewhere recorded, and at the end gives a “Register of Essay Serials” comprising 280 series with notes on authors (when known, which is not usually the case) and comments upon the nature and quality of contents; he also gives a “Check List of Magazines containing Essay Serials”.  It is difficult to believe that, though the names of Christopher Smart, Tobias Smollett, and James Boswell appear among contributors to the essay serial, Mr. Watson had much exciting or rewarding reading to do.  One is the more grateful for the field notes on a patient piece of machete work.

Mr. Watson’s book is modestly (and neatly) produced by lithography from typescript.  Professor Wiles’s book, in marked contrast, is published by the Cambridge University Press, printed by Joh. Enschedé en Zonen, Haarlem, in van Krimpen’s Lutetia types, crisply machined, and elegant enough in its solution of the many typographical problems to have been designed (shortly before his death) by Jan van Krimpen himself.  This book, which grew from “a brief introductory essay” to be prefixed to a list of some 150 titles of “number” books, deserves perhaps such excellent if recondite design: for it marks what must be one of the major discoveries of this century in the history of book production.

The device of the “number books” was a simple one, familiar to all students of Dickens and the Victorian novelists; it was a discovery in marketing technique rather than in the craft of book-production.  If a complete book was too expensive for those of modest means to buy, or too unattractive to tempt those of languid interest, the book could be sold in parts.  As each signature (or sheet) or group of signatures was printed, the “numbers” would be issued at regular intervals, suitably numbered and temporarily protected by a heavy blue paper wrapper; the price of a single part would be as low as a penny, or sixpence, or a shilling.  At the end, when all the parts of the book had been issued, the subscriber could have the complete sheets bound into a normal book.  If there were unsold sheets left, these could be bound up and sold as books; for a number-book bound looks like any other book, and only the well-informed bibliographer will be able to identify a bound book as having been originally issued in numbers.  Sometimes the books were large and thick; sometimes in several volumes; sometimes they took years to complete in weekly or monthly parts.  The object was to catch and hold a group of steady buyers, by inducing them to pay for an expensive book in very small sums.  At each payment the subscriber had something tangible and legible; and in the end he owned something substantial.

It was a market that favoured the publisher or bookseller rather than the author.  There were some notable struggles between publisher and author; “congers” of booksellers formed, cornering the profits, forcing the small dealers out of the trade; shares in the profits were negotiated, bought, sold, bequeathed; there was some litigation; there were wrangles over copyright until the first ambiguous Copyright Act was passed in 1709; then more wrangling and some more litigation; and occasionally – as in the case of the notorious Teresia Constantia Phillips – an author defied publishers, booksellers, and the whole trade to control all the returns from a provocative or scandalous book.  Our knowledge of the 18th century book trade is greatly enriched by the wealth of detail marshalled on these and such topics.

Professor Wiles’s “Short-title Catalogue of Books Published in Fascicules before 1750” (Appendix B) comprises some 381 titles; his “List of Booksellers, Printers, and others who shared in the Production or Distribution of the Number books in London and Westminster before 1750” runs to almost 300 names.  But compared to the content of the essay serials, described by Mr. Watson, the number books make an impressive showing.  Fielding spoke of the “heavy, unread, folio lump . . . piecemealed into numbers, [that] runs nimbly through the nation”; and Johnson (who was not beyond issuing the second edition of his Dictionary in parts) spoke of his contemporaries being “flattered with repeated promises of growing wise on easier terms than our progenitors”.  There were some badly produced number books and some badly written and some dull ones; and though most seem to have flourished, some certainly failed.  Some of the books (like the modern paperbacks) were reprints of earlier books, and many were hack translations or compilations: but there was some original work too, and not all the translators and compilers were undistinguished scribblers writing with the pen-arm thrust (for poverty) through a hole in a blanket.  Everybody bought number books: the wealthy, the scholars, the curious, the cultivated, the middle-class, the scarcely literate; and the books sold in what for those days were large numbers.  Considering everything, the range and quality is astonishing.  There were biographies, histories, books of travel (sometimes collections of these in folio), encyclopedias, commentaries on Holy Writ, translations of Latin classics, collections of songs, treatises on mathematics, topography, astronomy, architecture, officinal herbs, cooking, painting, calligraphy.  There was Rapin’s History and the Acta Regia, the Harleian Miscellany, the eleventh edition of Ralegh’s Historie of the World, Foxe’s Martyrs, and a study of funerary monuments, and Albinus’s Tables of the Skeleton and Muscles of the Human Body with plates of an unprecedented size (22 x 29 inches), complete with the earliest (if incidental and gratuitous) drawing of a 2-year-old female rhinoceros.  At one time (1733-4) two translations of Josephus were being issued simultaneously: as soon as these were finished, a third and rival translation was offered.  Perhaps the range and variety of paperbacks in our time is less flattering to our civilization than this impressive movement towards disseminated learning.  Authors did not always profit greatly; publishers and booksellers usually did.  But best of all, as the Grub-Street Journal for 26th October 1732 observed: “This Method of Weekly Publication allured Multitudes to peruse Books into which they would otherwise never have looked.”