Tag Archives: 19th Century Literature

Richard Bentley, Victorian Publisher Extraordinaire

Born on London’s Fleet Street on October 24, 1794, Richard Bentley came into the publishing world thanks to his family. When Bentley started a firm with his brother in 1819, he was the third generation to enter the profession. Bentley would go on to pursue a number of partnerships and weather the volatile economic climate of Victorian England to become, according to the DNB, “arguably one of the finest printers in London.”

In 1829, Bentley undertook a partnership with Henry Colburn, who had encountered financial difficulty and owed Bentley money. Rather than watch Colburn default, Bentley entered a rather lopsided agreement. They merged their firms. For a period of three years, Bentley would act as bookkeeper and procure new manuscripts for publication. He would also invest £2,500 over that time period and receive 40% of the firm’s profits. Colburn, meanwhile, would provide 60% of the capital and receive 60% of the profits. If the partnership failed in less than three years, Bentley would buy out Colburn for £10,000. Colburn would then publish only what he’d published before the partnership.

From the start, however, the partnership was quite profitable, largely because they chose to cater to public taste. They took advantage of the interest in “silver fork novels,” that is, fashionable novels about the lives of aristocrats and other high-society members. For instance, Colburn and Bentley published works by Catherine Gore and Benjamin Disraeli. They also published a fair number of novels in the triple-decker format, because this was the format preferred by circulating libraries, and they advertised heavily (indeed, in three years, the firm spent over £27,000 on advertising).


From Colburn & Bentley’s edition of ‘Frankenstein’ (1832). Photo: Knox College Library

Perhaps their greatest triumph was the Standard Novels series. They focused on popular titles that were previously available only in the expensive triple-decker set, publishing them for the first time in inexpensive single volumes. Colburn and Bentley came up with an ingenious approach to publishing popular works of the era; they solicited the authors to revise their novels enough that the works would be eligible for a new copyright–and short enough to publish in a single volume. One such author was Mary Shelley, who was more than happy to get a new audience for Frankenstein. (There was one caveat, however: when Shelley assigned copyright to the Standard Novels series, she precluded the novel’s publication elsewhere, and it wasn’t published in England again until the 1860’s.)

The first Standard Novels book was The Pilot by James Fenimore Cooper. From there, the series went on to include the first inexpensive reprints of Jane Austen’s novels and a number of American titles. Colburn and Bentley published the first nineteen titles together, but after the partnership fell apart Bentley continued the series on his own. It was incredibly successful, making the firm £1,160 in the first year. And over the course of 124 years, the series came to include 126 titles.

Not all of Colburn and Bentley’s endeavors proved equally profitable. They ended up selling over half the 550,000 books in the National Library of General Knowledge series as remainders. And the Juvenile Library lost the firm £900. The Library of Modern Travels and Discoveries never even made it to the printing press, and the firm passed up Sartor Resartus by the then-unknown Thomas Carlyle. Meanwhile the cost of copyrights continued to rise. By 1832, Colburn and Bentley had stopped speaking, relying on lawyers and clerks to manage their affairs.

On September 1, 1832, Colburn and Bentley’s partnership was officially dissolved. Bentley bought out Colburn for £1,500. He got to keep the office and drop “Henry Colburn” from the firm’s name. He also paid Colburn £5,580 for copyrights and other materials. For his part, Colburn agreed to limit his publication activities…but violated this part of the agreement almost immediately. Thus Colburn and Bentley went from business partners to bitter rivals. Bentley received a boost in reputation when he was named Publisher in Ordinary to the king in 1833, but that appointment brought him no additional business of any significance.

Nevertheless, Bentley enjoyed early success on his own. He published Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), which sold well for years on end. Bentley also published William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood the same year. The novel was a bestseller and required two more editions. Bentley soon gained a reputation for publishing excellent literature, and he named such respected writers as Frances Trollope, William Hazlitt, and Maria Edgeworth among his authors. Bentley expanded his audience by publishing works in multiple formats, serializing them in Bentley’s Miscellany in addition to publishing them in single-volume or triple-decker editions.


Here Dickens “paraphrased the average Royal speech, and by the use of bombastic and ponderous expressions announced the coming of ‘Oliver Twist'” (Eckel).

Bentley launched Bentley’s Miscellany in January 1836. He invited Charles Dickens, then known for Pickwick Papers, to act as editor. Dickens took the job, which came with a salary of £40 a month. He also agreed to provide novels for serialization in the periodical. But Dickens soon enjoyed celebrity status and believed he deserved higher pay. Dickens and Bentley would negotiate Dickens’ contract a total of nine times. In their final agreement, Dickens was to receive £1,000 per year, plus additional payment for his novels. Yet the two had other differences that proved insurmountable, and in the end Dickens bought out his contract for £2,250 and purchased the copyright to Oliver Twist, serialized in 1837 and largely responsible for the periodical’s success.

When Dickens stepped down in February 1839, William Harrison Ainsworth took the editorial helm. Almost immediately, circulation dropped and costs shot up. Ainsworth lacked Dickens’ following–and his eye for engaging content. The quality of Bentley’s Miscellany decreased considerably. Through the 1840’s and 1850’s, Bentley used Miscellany to promote his own publications, which did include the occasional literary masterpiece like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Then in 1843, the Crimean War broke out. England’s economy took a nosedive, and the book trade suffered considerably. Bentley would struggle for the next two decades. He started a sixpenny newspaper, Young England, which lasted only fourteen issues. In 1849, the House of Lords ruled that copyrights on foreign works were no longer valid, so other firms began publishing cheap versions of works that Bentley had paid for the rights to publish. Though this decision was overturned in 1851, it still did damage not only to Bentley, but to the publishing industry at large. By 1853, Bentley had reduced the price of his books in an attempt to increase sales volume. The tactic didn’t work. In 1857 Bentley sold off copyrights, plates, steel etchings, and other materials to stave off bankruptcy.

Then in 1859, Bentley made a risky move. He decided to compete with the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review with his own Bentley’s Quarterly. Robert Cecil, John Douglas Cook, and William Scott were named editors. Though critics praised the periodical, the public expressed little interest and only four issues were published. In June of the same year, Bentley tried again with Tales from Bentley, where he reprinted stories that had already appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany. This was a more successful venture.

Bentley purchased Temple Bar Magazine in January 1866, naming his son George the editor. Two years later, Ainsworth ran into financial difficulties and sold back Bentley’s Miscellany to Bentley for a mere £250. Bentley merged the two publications and built himself an excellent roster of authors: Anthony Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Wilkie Collins all appeared. But then tragedy struck. Bentley fell from the railway platform at Chepstow station and broke his leg. His son George immediately took over daily operations at the firm. Bentley would never recover from the injury, and he passed away four years later in September 1871.

Today Bentley perhaps best remembered, as related above, as the man who first brought to the public, in his  Miscellany, Dickens’ classic novel, Oliver Twist.  For that one publication, we are eternally grateful.


Irwin and Erastus Beadle, Innovators in Publishing Popular Literature

Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, the story papers started giving way to a new publication format: the dime novel. Though a number of American publishers capitalized on the trend, Irwin and Erastus Beadle were likely the most successful. The fruits of their publishing company include numerous series, constituting a unique category of collecting.

Erastus Flavel Beadle was born on September 9, 1821 in Oswego County, New York. Five years later, his brother, Irwin Pedro Beadle, was born. After various apprenticeships, the brothers eventually set up their own stereotype foundry in 1850. The following year, Erastus teamed up with engraver Benjamin Vanduzee to publish the youth magazine The Youth’s Casket. Though Vanduzee would leave the project a few years later, publication continued until 1856. Meanwhile, in 1855, Erastus started his next project: The Home: A Fireside Companion and Guide for the Wife, the Mother, the Sister, and the Daughter.

New City, New Venture

Beadles_Metta_Victoria_Fuller_VictorThe following year, however, Erastus decided to head west. He hoped to take advantage of the land boom in Kansas and Nebraska. It’s likely that his former apprentice Robert Adams took over publication until his return in 1857. Then in 1858, both Beadle brothers and Adams relocated to New York City. Erastus continued publishing The Home from there, and he brought on Metta Victoria Fuller Victor as the new editor in December, 1858. Victor would become a notable author of several Beadle’s dime novels, including The Dead Letter and Maum Guinea. Her husband would also become an editor for the publishing house for several years.

The late 1850’s also saw a new interest in sheet music and popular songs. Irwin capitalized with the Dime Song Book (1859), a paper-bound set of ballads that had previously been published separately. The book sold quite well, so Irwin undertook a series of dime booklets on a wide variety of subjects, from cookery to baseball. At the end of that year, Irwin and Adams formed Irwin P Beadle & Co. Though Irwin would come up with the innovation of publishing dime novels serially, it would be Erastus who got most of the credit–and the profit.

Beadle's Singer's Library-I'm the Boy That's Bound to Blaze1860 saw the inception of the first Beadle novel series. It kicked off with Ann Stephens’ Maleaska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, which had first appeared in Ladies’ Companion magazine (February-April 1839). The story was advertised as “a dollar book for a dime.” In dime novel form, Stephens’ work sold more than 65,000 copies in the first few months. Erastus would later estimate that the eighth novel, Edward Sylvester Ellis’ Seth Jones, sold over twice that, though some experts believe he exaggerated. At any rate, the dime novels, with their orange paper wrappers and patriotic stories, were popular sellers.

The Civil War temporarily slowed sales of Beadle’s Dime Novels, but the Union troops were soon reading them as voraciously as ever. Nevertheless, in 1861, Beadle’s American Library was launched in London. It mostly included reprints from the American editions and lasted for five years. In 1862, Erastus and Adams actually bought out Irwin. They didn’t rename the firm Beadle & Adams until 1870, four years after Adams had died and his two brothers, David and William Adams, had assumed his ownership. In the meantime, publications would be issued under several subsidiary names: Frank Starr & Co; Adams, Victor, & Co; and Adams & Co.

Irwin tried his hand at publishing dime novels on his own, but he couldn’t match the efforts of his brother. He gave up the endeavor in 1868. But 31 more novel series would be published, many of these reprints of earlier publications.

Beadle’s New York Dime Library

Beadles_Dime_Chess_InstructorThe longest running of these was Beadle’s New York Dime Library. The series actually began as Frank Starr’s New York Library, and Numbers 1 through 26 were were originally published under this title. Then Number 27 appeared on February 18, 1878 with the title Beadle’s New York Dime Library. When Numbers 1 through 26 ran out, they were reprinted with the new name. Now, it’s almost impossible to find printings with the original name, though occasionally a copy will surface with the new title pasted over the old one. In advertisements, the “New York” was often omitted from the name, likely because it was considered rather insignificant.

Stories in Beadle’s Dime Library generally hadn’t been published anywhere else first, except for a few serials from story papers. The content was largely the same: stories of adventure, of pioneers and cowboys, of criminals and war heroes. An occasional tale of the sea would be included (notably the pirate stories of the two Ingrahams), but for the most part this genre was considered past its prime. In the late 1870’s and 1880’s, stories of street boys who made their way in the world became increasingly popular. Horatio Alger, Jr was a frequent contributor of these.

Beadle’s Half-Dime Novels

Just five months after Beadle’s Dime Library was launched, Beadle & Adams started the Beadle’s Half-Dime Library. It was geared toward children, who couldn’t always get a dime, but could often scrape together five cents. Experts believe that the first Number most likely appeared on Monday, October 15, 1877, which is actually the same day that the advertisement stating that the series was “coming soon” appeared in Beadle’s Dime Library.

Beadles_California_Joes_War_TrialBeadle’s Half-Dime Library was published twice a week until the end of 1877. Starting in 1878, the publication appeared once a week, on Tuesdays, so long as Beadle remained publisher. Some early Numbers have multiple illustrations. For the most part, however, they are illustrated with a single woodcut on the front page. Beadle also squeezed quite a bit of text on each page–often twelve lines of type per inch.

Earlier Half-Dime stories were of adventurers, backwoodsmen, trappers, and hunters. The majority of the stories ran as series. These included Broadway Billy and Joe Phoenix. Deadwood Dick was probably the most successful of these, continuing for over 100 Numbers.

The End of an Era

In 1891, two other similar libraries emerged: Nick Carter Library and Gem Library. Then 1893 saw the establishment of the Bob Brooks Library. And the Tip Top Library and the Diamond Dick Library both started in 1896. But these would be short lived in comparison to Beadle’s Dime Library, which continued a few more years, until 1905. By the end of the 1930’s the dime novel had mostly given way to the pulp magazine.

A Selection of Beadle’s Dime and Half-Dime Publications

Beadles_Dime_Baseball_PlayerBeadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player (1867)

Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player was published as a continuous series from 1860 to 1881 (none were issued in 1861 or 1863). This is the sixth example. Author Henry Chadwick, is generally regarded as the first sports writer in the US. According to DAB, “the rules of baseball are largely his work.” The series gave rise to the many iterations and laborious study that baseball fans still love today. All of these guides are quite scarce; OCLC shows only one listing of the seventh issue for the nine editions through 1870, and none have come to auction in the last three decades. Details>>

Deadwood_Dick The Deadwood Dick Library

Published in 64 issues, the Deadwood Dick series was penned by Edward Lytton Wheeler. The eponymous protagonist, whose real name is Edward Harris, is considered the quintessential dime-novel hero. Written from 1877 to 1895, the series began publication in Beadle’s Half-Dime Library and was later republished multiple times. This Westwood set is quite rare because it’s complete. Details>>

Beadles_Denver_DollDenver Doll, the Detective Queen

Our research indicates that the “Denver Doll” was one of the earliest female detective characters in American fiction. Wheeler (also responsible for the Deadwood Dick series, above) describes her as “a splendid specimen of young womanhood.” Despite the protagonist’s charm, the series failed to capture the attention of Beadle’s Half-Dime Library readers. The fourth, and last, part of the series was published in March 1883. The series’ short life-span has undoubtedly contributed to its current scarcity. Indeed, even avid mystery collectors are unaware of the Denver Doll and believe that Katherine Green’s Amelia Butterworth (The Affair Next Door, 1897) is the first female detective in US literature. This is the first of the Denver Doll series and can be said to be quite rare. Details>>


Beadles_Double_Curve_Dan_Pitcher_DetectiveDouble Curve Dan, the Pitcher Detective

George Jenks penned three stories for the Double Curve Dan series. This is the first in the series. OCLC shows only three institutional holdings, and no copies have been at auction in the past thirty years. This copy shows evidence of previous binding, but is otherwise a very good copy of a quite fragile item. Details>>


Beadles_Biographical_GaribaldiThe Life of Joseph Garibaldi, the Liberator of Italy

In addition to the popular dime novel series, Beadle & Co launched another series in 1860. Beadle’s Dime Biographical Library presented biographies of famous figures from all over the world. This first edition of The Life of Joseph Garibaldi (1860) has proven a quite rare Beadle publication, especially in this cloth binding (which is not mentioned in Johannsen). It includes an engraving of Garibaldi on the frontis. Details>>

Beadles_Dime_Fortune_TellerBeadle’s Dime Fortune-Teller

The woodcut on the front of this pamphlet depicts an old crone telling the fortune of a young maid. The book promises to demystify dreams and instruct the reader to discern his fortune in everything from tea leaves to egg whites. First published in October 1868, this is an early reprint, circa December 1868. OCLC records just one institutional holding, at NIU. Details>>


Happy Birthday, Washington Irving!

April 3 marks the birthday of Washington Irving, American author, historian, and diplomat. Though best known for his short stories “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving was a prolific writer who also penned several historical fiction books and biographies.

Washington-IrvingChildhood and Education

Irving was born the same week that Britain’s ceasefire ended the American Revolution, and his joyful parents decided to name their new son after George Washington. Young Irving got to meet his namesake when Washington was inaugurated president in 1789, an event that Irving would later commemorate with a watercolor painting. Irving was an unenthusiastic student; by age fourteen, he was already skipping evening classes to attend the theater. Luckily for him, his older brothers were successful merchants who would later support his budding career as a writer.

Irving began submitting pieces to the New York Morning Chronicle in 1802, when he was nineteen years old. Published under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle, the articles focused on New York’s theater and social scenes. They were quite an impressive debut: Aaron Burr, then the magazine’s co-publisher, snipped several of the articles to send to his daughter Theodosia. And Charles Brockden Brown journeyed from Philadelphia to New York to convince Oldstyle to write for Brown’s literary magazine.

Shortly thereafter his brothers sent him to Europe–only to be disappointed that Irving skipped all the “high spots.” He concentrated instead on accumulating an impressive social circle. The charismatic young man soon earned a reputation for congeniality and was a much sought after dinner guest. Irving also forged a close friendship with Washington Allston, who almost convinced him to give up writing for a career as a painter.

Authorial Success

Irving returned to New York, where he founded “The Lads of Kilkenny,” a group of young literati from the city. In 1807, he founded the literary magazine Salmagundi with his brother William and fellow Lad James Kirke Paulding. Even though Irving again wrote under pseudonyms, the magazine helped spread his name outside of New York. And it was in the November 11, 1807 issue of Salmagundi that Irving referred to New York as “Gotham.” Anglo-Saxon for “Goat’s Town,” the nickname wasn’t intended to be flattering. But for some reason it stuck, and Gotham has been used to refer to New York ever since.

Two years later, Irving perpetrated what was one of the greatest literary hoaxes of his time. He placed a series of missing person advertisements in the local papers, asking for information about the whereabouts of historian Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving also fabricated a notice from a hotel proprietor, threatening to publish the manuscript that Knickerbocker left behind in the hotel room, if the historian failed to surface and pay his bill. The ploy was so effective that New York officials actually considered offering a reward for Knickerbocker’s safe return.

Irving published A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker on December 6, 1809. The book was an instant success. “It took with the public and gave me celebrity, as an original work was something remarkable uncommon in America,” Irving commented. Over time the name “Knickerbocker” became a name for New Yorkers in general; it has since been shortened to “Knicks,” for which the city’s basketball franchise is named.

Financial Struggles and International Copyright Battles

Despite Irving’s fame, he still struggled financially. For a time Irving was editor of Analectic Magazine, where he wrote biographies of naval war heroes. He was among the first to reprint Francis Scott Key’s “Defense of Fort McHenry,” now famous as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then the War of 1812 destroyed his family’s finances, and he went to England to keep the family trade business afloat. Irving would remain in Europe for the next seventeen years.

Irving declared bankruptcy and had trouble finding a job. In the meantime, he kept writing at a furious pace. In summer of 1817, he penned “Rip Van Winkle” during an overnight stay with his sister and her husband in Birmingham. By spring of 1819, Irving had sent a set of short stories to his brother Ebenezer. These would become the first installment of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. It met with instant success, and Irving published seven more installments in New York. The stories were reprinted in two volumes in London.

Irving’s bi-continental reputation introduced a significant challenge: literary bootleggers, who would republish his works without permission, particularly in England. Like Charles Dickens, Irving spoke out about the need for international copyright law, but made little progress. Dickens and Irving corresponded on the topic, and Dickens would stay with Irving during his 1842 American tour. But they still grappled with international copyright issues on both sides of the pond. Irving’s stopgap solution: he hired London publisher John Murray to distribute his books in England and made sure to release all his works concurrently in both the US and Britain.

Travel to Spain

Thanks to an invitation from Alexander Hill Everett, the American Minister to Spain, Irving found himself in Spain in 1826. Many manuscripts regarding the Spanish conquests in America had recently gone public, and soon Irving was working on multiple books simultaneously. He wrote The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828; his first work not published using a pseudonym); Chronicles of the Conquest of Granada (1829); and Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus (1831). These books were historical fiction, rather than biography or history. Irving made one mistake; he helped to perpetuate the myth that scholars of the Middle Ages thought the world was flat. But he wasn’t alone; other authors who promoted this misconception were John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White.

Irving soon moved into the Alhambra, where he expected to finish several writing projects. Instead he was appointed to the American Legation in London. He returned to England to serve as an aide-de-campe to American Minister Louis McLane. Irving helped to negotiate a trade agreement between the US and the British West Indies. He resigned from the post in 1832, returning to the States to publish Tales of the Alhambra.

Western Exploration

That same year, Irving accompanied US Commissioners for Indian Affairs Henry Leavitt Ellsworth and Charles la Trobe, along with his friend Count Albert-Alexandre de Pourtales to survey Indian Territory. The expedition inspired A Tour of the Prairies. Irving also met fur magnate John Jacob Astor during the trip, and Astor convinced Irving to write his biography. Astoria was published in February 1836. Meanwhile Irving encountered Benjamin Bonneville and, fascinated with his tales, convinced Bonneville to sell his maps and notes for $1,000. Irving used these as the basis for The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837).

Irving undertook these works, often called his Western series, for a few reasons. First, he was broke. Second, he’d been criticized for becoming a more European writer. Both James Fenimore Cooper and Philip Freneau thought he’d turned his back on America. Fortunately for Irving, the books were received well in the States, though predictably less so in Britain.

After a stint as the American Minister to Spain, Irving returned to his Tarrytown, NY property, called Sunnyside, in 1846. He worked on the “Author’s Revised Edition” of his works for publisher George Palmer Putnam. Irving also turned his attention to biographies, writing about Oliver Goldsmith, the Islamic prophet Muhammed, and George Washington. His biography of Washington was released in five volumes, and Irving died within months of its completion.