Science Fiction Studies

#10 = Volume 3, Part 3 = November 1976

George Locke

Wells in Three Volumes? A Sketch of British Publishing in the 19th Century

It is impossible within the scope of this brief article to explore every tributary of 19th century British publishing which may have provided an occasional outlet for science fiction. I have concentrated instead on a few of the main streams in order to assess their relative importance to the development of the genre.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first issued in 1818 in three volumes, at the tail-end of the "gothic novel" phase of English fiction. The gothic had flourished for some 20 years, and was circulated in the main to people who borrowed rather than bought their reading matter. Most of the novels were issued in more than one volume (the lender thus being able to extract several borrowing fees for a single story), and multi-volume fiction carried merrily on after tales of terror went out of fashion. Lending books became really big business in the 1840s with the growth of Mudie’s circulating library and other chains. The heyday of the multi-volume novel was probably in the 1870s and 1880s, when science fiction was finding a small but significant place in literature. The influence of the libraries was so strong that serious novelists (i.e. those who aspired to something more permanent than the parts-issue working-man’s literature) were obliged to comply with the three-decker length of 700 to 1000 pages, which, although printed in large type, more often than not required considerable padding-out. It required a writer of considerable skill to write a first-lass three-decker novel, and it is worth noting that many of the "classics" that had multi-volume first editions, like Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, were in fact reprints of magazine serials to which the kind of padding acceptable in three-deckers would have been the kiss of death.

The price of these books remained constant throughout their reign: ten shillings and sixpence per volume, typically 31/6 a title. They were thus beyond the reach of the average book-buyer, and most three-deckers found today are escapees from the libraries and consequently in poor condition. Print orders for the less popular authors were undoubtedly small, 500 copies or less, and many titles sought by collectors are today rare to the point of impossibility.

Science fiction as it developed is fundamentally fiction of idea, often of a single idea, and consequently the three-decker was not a good medium for the genre. Even when a small science-fiction boom occurred in the 1870s (stimulated by Erewhon and The Coming Race, both one-volume novels which the public could and did buy, and accompanied by at least a score of other works of modest length), the three-decker movement threw up only three or four examples, such as Edward Maitland’s By and By (1873), a hard-core SF novel of the future; Mortimer Collins’ Transmigration (1873), a fantasy of multiple incarnations of which the middle one is set on a utopian Mars; and Andrew Blair’s anonymously published Annals of the Twenty-Ninth Century (1873), a hodge-podge of interplanetary travel and super-scientific inventions.

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (3v, 1826) and Jane Webb’s The Mummy (3v, 1827) are usually described as gothics. But the tale of terror and the supernatural had by their time gone out of fashion and was soon to be demoted to the minute print of the cheap magazines and parts-issue "penny dreadfuls." Examination of the latter, incidentally, reveals an almost total preoccupation with the past and its horrors, both mundane and supernatural, so that the amount of science fiction to be found there, even in the form of isolated incidents, is infinitesimal. It was only when boys’ periodicals, in the latter part of the century, shook themselves free of the penny-dreadful movement and took on a degree of respectability that science fiction (given an immense push forward by the translations of Jules Verne) began to appear in any quantity in the magazines.

But, to use the favorite words of the three-decker, I digress. Let me now list some of the multi-volume SF novels of the time. The anonymous Eureka: A Prophecy of the Future (3v, 1837) depicts an Africa divided into republics and Britain as a forgotten nation. Richard Eyre Landor’s The Fountain of Arethusa (2v, 1849) has an account of a journey to a species of heaven, a physical world in the center of the earth illuminated by its own sun, followed by a series of philosophical discussions. Arthur Help’s Realmah (2v, 1868) is a utopian curiosity. Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac (2v, 1880) is an acknowledged classic of interplanetary fiction. J.F. McGuire’s The Next Generation (3v, 1871) and the anonymous The Dawn of the Twentieth Century (3v, 1882) are political what-would-happen-if Irish novels set in the near future. W. Minto’s The Crack of Doom (3v, 1886) is a disappointingly light_weight comet_threat novel. I would guess that there are no more than another dozen multi_volume novels to be added to this list, with several of them marginal, like Fergus Hume’s The Island of Fantasy and The Harlequin Opal, Arnold’s Phra the Phoenician, and Mortimer Collins’ Miranda. One, however, stands out as representing a kind o science fiction that could have benefitted from the three-decker long novel concept, the anonymous Annals of the Twenty_Ninth Century (3v, 1874), which for all its lack of style, is a speculation of Stapledonian magnitude.

By the mid_1890s the British public had been weaned into the habit of buying hardcovers. Publishers in the latter part of the century had paid more and more attention to the hard_cover needs of their retail customers, and had reprinted many of the three-deckers in one volume at about 3/6. As more copies were sold to the public, print orders increased and prices came down. The libraries, now unable to make a profit from loaning 31/6 books, changed their policies and three-decker publishing came to an abrupt end. From the 1890s until the first world war, the majority of original hardcover novels had about 300 pages and retailed in one volume at six shillings, with reprints and reissues at 3/6 or even cheaper, while a respectable proportion of lighter-weight material first saw book publication in cloth at 3/6. No longer did a novelist desirous of seeing his work in hard covers have to write to a length unsuited to his theme.

The 25 years preceding the first world war saw many SF novels appear as single-volume hardcovers: future war and political speculations, interplanetary and lost-race stories, tales of the future, disaster stories (always popular with the British!), mad-scientist extravaganzas, etc. This aspect of Victorian SF publishing has perhaps been as well researched as any, for individual titles had a greater chance of survival than their multi-volume ancestors. The only comment I would like to make is that as research continues it becomes increasingly clear that a large proportion of these apparently original novels in truth saw previous publication in periodicals of one sort or another. I shall come to these in a moment.

One aspect of Victorian publishing, astonishingly analogous to the present vigorous original-paperback industry, has been largely neglected. Between 1880 and 1900 the railway bookstalls were stuffed to the brim with original paperback novels, known as "shilling shockers." The shilling shocker is often lumped by collectors of cheap Victorian literature with the "yellowback," a book published in paper-covered boards at, usually, two shillings. There is some logic to that; they were both products of the huge demand of the rapidly expanding railway-travelling public for inexpensive fiction. The yellowbacks, which began to develop mid-century and continued into the early 20th century, contributed little to the development of science fiction. A large proportion, particularly those published after 1870, were reprints of books previously published in cloth, Although titles like Hugh MacColl’s Mr Stranger’s Sealed Packet, Collins’ Transmigration, and Arnold’s Phra the Phoenician had yellowback editions, very few original yellowback SF works have so far been located.

The shilling shockers, on the other hand, were mainly original and usually short novels or short-story collections. Although shilling paperback originals existed earlier, contemporary writers suggest that the public’s appetite for that sort of thing was whetted by the publication in 1883 of Hugh Conway’s weird mystery thriller, Called Back. Sensationalism was the key to a successful shilling paperback, and among the most popular were an import from Australia, Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1887) and Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The latter is, of course, pure science fiction, and surely showed the way the genre would go.

The short-novel length favored by shilling-shocker publishers was ideal for exploitation by writers who had an idea for an SF story, and the following representative sample illustrates what I mean: "Grip," How John Bull Lost London (1882), scare story of an invasion through a channel tunnel; Stanley and Ritson Stewart, The Professor’s Last Experiment (1888), in which a vivisectionist, motivated by Darwin’s theories, gets to work on a winged, furry visitor from Mars; W. Grove, A Mexican Mystery (1889), of an engineer who creates a mechanical steam engine that comes to life; Grove, The Wreck of a World (1889), of a world in the future in which machines come to life, reproduce, and start slaughtering mankind; Fergus Hume, The Year of Miracle (1891), a plague-disaster story; Delaval North, The Last Man in London (1887), a dream story of the wanderings of the last man on earth, something of a predecessor to Shiel’s Purple Cloud. Sensational plots, all.

Although often leaving much to be desired from the literary point of view, the shilling shocker seems to me to be one of the most important media in which SF developed in the 19th century. Research into this area of publishing has been minimal, because of the poor survival of those ephemeral little paperbacks. Even a bestseller like the detective story The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is exceedingly difficult to find in its original wrappers, and the fact that a good many had simultaneous editions in hardcover (usually at 1/6) does not appear to make them any easier to find.

I have already hazarded the guess that the total number of multi-volume SF works issued between 1818 and 1895 was about two dozen. I venture to suggest that when research into shilling paperbacks issued between 1880 and 1900 can claim a reasonable degree of comprehensiveness, the number of SF titles will be between 50 and 100.

(In parenthesis it may be noted that Wells’ The Time Machine [1895] was issued in wraps at 1/6 and cloth at 2/6—in a format transitional between the shilling shocker and the more expensive hardback.)

Periodicals for adults had very little influence on the development of science fiction for most of the 19th century. Until the 1880s magazines were rather sharply divided between the cheap penny periodicals and the smarter shilling monthlies. The former, as indicated earlier, are poor sources for SF. The shilling monthlies, like Blackwood’s Magazine, Fraser’s Magazine, and Dublin University Magazine, and the later Belgravia, London Society, and Cornhill magazines, are more fruitful: an occasional story or satire definable as SF can be found in their pages, and once in a while an influential story appeared there, notably Chesney’s "The Battle of Dorking" (Blackwood’s, May 1871). But it was not until after two revolutions in magazine publication that the scene became favorable for the publication of SF as a deliberate, circulation policy rather than as an incidental oddity.

The first was the creation of Tit-Bits by George Newnes in the early 1880s. That penny weekly, publishing a miscellany of odds and ends culled from various sources, was an instant success, and when its format settled down after a year or two of experiment, it published a single short story and an installment of a serial in each issue. Tit-Bits published very little SF that I have been able to discover, and the rival Harmsworth publication Answers, almost equally successful, also published relatively little. A second imitator, however, Pearson’s Weekly, was a leading promoter of the genre in the 1890s, and its publisher, C. Arthur Pearson, probably did more to advance the cause of SF than any other person at that time. Between 1893 and 1899, Pearson’s Weekly published the George Griffith serials "The Angel of the Revolution," "The Syren of the Skies" (i.e. Olga Romanoff), "Briton or Boer?," and "Valdar the Oft_Born" (fantasy rather than SF); Rider Haggard’s lost-race novel "The Heart of the World"; three future-war novels by Louis Tracy, "The Final War," "An American Emperor," and "The Lost Provinces"; and Wells’ "The Invisible Man." Several of these became bestsellers in their book editions. The magazine also published a number of short stories in the genre.

Newnes was not satisfied with one publishing innovation. He took a hard look at the available monthly magazines. He saw a number of dull things that used no illustrations or only a small number of engravings, and he saw some others, like Cassell’s Family Magazine, that used a sprinkling. Knowing that great technological progress was being made in the printing of pictures, he decided that the time was right for a glossy, profusely illustrated general-purpose magazine selling at 6d, and launched The Strand in 1891. It was immediately successful. It published a little SF during its first few years but probably owed much of its early success to the Sherlock Holmes stories it featured. Pearson established his inevitable imitation in 1896, Pearson’s Magazine, and was soon using SF to boost the magazine’s circulation in the same way that "The Angel of the Revolution" had put his Weekly on the map. Nearly the whole of 1897 was taken up with Wells’ magnificent "The War of the Worlds." He followed that with Cutcliffe Hyne’s Atlantis story "The Lost Continent" in 1899, and George Griffith’s "Stories of Other Worlds" (i.e. A Honeymoon in Space) in 1900. By that time, of course, Pearson’s rivals had caught on to the fact that SF was good for business, and The Strand managed to secure Wells’ "The First Men in the Moon." Other magazines modeled on The Strand also featured SF regularly: The Windsor Magazine, Harmsworth’s Magazine (later, The London Magazine), Cassell’s Magazine, The English Illustrated Magazine (serializing E.D. Fawcett’s "Hartman the Anarchist" and G.P. Lathrop’s "In the Deeps of Time"), The Royal Magazine (with the serialization of Shiel’s "The Purple Cloud"), and many others. Researchers have studied this aspect of Victorian SF intensively, but it does no harm to re-emphasize the importance of those periodicals to the evolution of the genre. They provided well-paying, even superbly paying markets to which good science fiction could be sold as readily as detective fiction (which came into its own by courtesy of the same developments in publishing) and it is unlikely that Wells would have made the monumental contributions to the genre that he did without them.

Consideration of 19th_century magazine science fiction does not stop with the Tit-Bits and Strand schools. Weekly and monthly all-fiction periodicals were to be found in abundance on the railway bookstalls. Most of them are so rare today that research into them has been as sketchy as that into shilling shockers, but SF is to be found in their pages when copies do show up. A Pearson (again!) publication called Short Stories was a particularly rich source in the 1890s, with serials such as Griffith’s "Outlaws of the Air" and "Golden Star," Shiel’s "The Empress of the Earth" (i.e. The Yellow Danger), and George C. Wallis’s "The Last King of Atlantis." The last title, which never made it into book form, may well have inspired Pearson to commission Cutcliffe Hyne’s Atlantean novel for the more prestigious Pearson’s Magazine a couple of years later.

Also popular during the latter part of the 19th century were The Illustrated London News and other slick illustrated papers like The Graphic, The Sketch, and Black and White. Science Fiction had its fair share of those markets too: "Phra the Phoenician" occupied the serial slot in The Illustrated London News in the latter half of 1890; the multi-authored "The Great War of 1892" [i.e. The Great War of 189_] gave the newly created Black and White a huge initial boost in 1892; and Wells’ "When the Sleeper Wakes" ran in The Graphic in the latter part of 1898.

To summarize, I believe that British science fiction found its feet in the shilling shockers and their editorial requirements for short novels, and was refined by the high standards demanded for the high fees paid by Pearson’s Magazine, The Strand, and their competitors during the 20 years before the first world war. Suppose the three-decker had not been killed off in the 1890s. Suppose Newnes, Pearson, and Harmsworth had not revolutionized magazine publishing in Britain at the same time. Would Wells then have written all his scientific romances? I suspect not, and venture to suggest that his SF writing would have been confined to a few short stories, The Time Machine, and possibly one or two other novels (most probably The Island of Dr Moreau and The Invisible Man) before he moved on to Kipps and The History of Mr. Polly.

I see Wells’ science fiction as the product of the publishing trends of his time. Wells in three volumes? I shudder to think of the alternate universe where that might be so.

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