Cheap Serial Fiction of the 1840s and 1850s

King, Andrew.  “Cheap Serial Fiction of the 1840s and 1850s.”

Chapter 3 of the Blackwell Companion.  This chapter introduces us to two important figures in the serial publication market: John Frederick Smith and Edward Lloyd.  John Frederick Smith may have been the inspiration for Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s character, Sigismund Smith, in The Doctor’s Wife.  His most famous novel is Minnigrey, which was dramatized numerous times, with Mary Elizabeth Braddon among the cast of actors.  Edward Lloyd was a serial publisher.

Before discussing these figures, however, the essay outlines the state of the penny fiction market, which became more popular in the 1830s and 1840s (although the serial form dates back to the eighteenth century) because the costs of paper and printing dropped.  A new business model emerged based on “economic literature,” “whereby profit could be sought through small margins per item and high circulation as opposed to through the previous norm, high prices and limited circulation” (40-41).  Economic literature appeared in both periodical form and through part-issue novels.  By the mid-1850s, the periodical press dominated the publishing scene, and King estimates that the collective audience of the four major weeklies (the Family Herald, the London Journal, Reynold’s Miscellany, and Dickens’ Household Words) was over 50 percent of the British population.  This put the owners of these weeklies (Biggs, Johnston, and Lloyd) in the top 1% of Victorian Britain.  King reminds us that while critics are drawn to moments of subversion and unconventionality in these publications, we must remember that “these texts were the result of business models that situated their publishers high amongst the economic elite and their readers in a majority” (41).

Edward Lloyd was one of these “economic elites” who profited from the popularity of the serial press.  He began his career with “bloods,” or Newgate-esque novels that featured the wounding and mutilation of criminals.  One of Lloyd’s most prolific writers was Thomas Peckett Prest, who parodied many of Dickens’ novels under the pseudonym “Bos.”  Also very prolific was writer Malcolm Rymer, whose famous serial The String of Pearls tells the story of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.  Varney the Vampyre and Ela the Outcast are also Edward Lloyd publications.  Lloyd’s publications are marked by hurried typography and unapologetic commodity-status.  The part-issues often end mid-sentence, and his writers make no pretensions to “literary” status for their work.

Interestingly for me, penny serials were intimately linked to the stage.  According to King, they “not only raided the commonplaces of melodrama for their plots and characters but were also often based on plays currently popular on stage” (45).  Many of these serials were also adapted for the stage, and feature illustrations suggestive of their relationship to the theater.

In contrast to Edward Lloyd’s publications, J.F. Smith’s novels look more professional, with clear typography and more cohesive plots.  According to King, “Smith’s plots are affirmative: rather than reminding readers of the hopelessness of their situation they promote action, not just on an individual level but also through the formation of community” (49).  His most famous novel is Minnigrey, which also seems interesting in its relation to the theater.

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