In transcribing the following material from The Reader, an interesting, unfortunately short-lived intellectual magazine of the 1860s, I have used the Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. The full-text version is generally accurate, and the most common OCR error here takes the form of turning the letter “e” as “o.” I corrected the scanning errors, and for ease of reading I have added a few paragraph breaks. If you come upon any errors I have missed, please do not hesitate to let the editors of this site know. — George P. Landow

THE question raised by the Archbishop of York in his recent Charge is one which must have frequently presented itself to the mind of any one who has ever examined the popular literature of the present day. Is the tendency of the reading provided for the million good or bad? This is the question which the Archbishop endeavoured to answer. Disagreeing, as we do, with the conclusion arrivod at by the archi-episcopal censor, we wish to explain some of the grounds on which we dissent from it. The subject is too wide a one to bo exhausted in one or even in many articles; but still we can show some considerations which incline us to take a hopeful view of the influence of this class of literature. Let us admit that his Grace was far from exaggerating the power of this new agency. Probably it is only those practically acquainted with literature as a trade who are at all aware of the magnitude of this popular literature. Every now and then we see paragraphs in the newspapers announcing the unprecedented sale of some successful work like Macaulay's History or Tennyson's "Enoch Arden;" but all these bookselling triumphs are trifling, as far as numbers go, compared with those daily achieved by works whose very names are unknown to circulating libraries.

Some years ago a very clever article was published in Household Words — written, we believe, by Mr. Wilkie Collins — called the "Unknown Public." This public has authors, classics, publishers, alike unknown to ordinary readers. Very few, we suspect, of the subscribers to ever heard of "Woman and her Master;" yet the author of this work probably addressed a larger public than any writer of our generation. There are, at the present day, penny serials, never seen in drawing-rooms or heard of in clubs, which count their subscribers by hundreds of thousands. Between the public who read three-volume novels and that which takes its mental food in penny numbers there is a great gulf. With the exception of Charles Dickens, no modern writer has ever succeeded in attracting both sections of the reading world; and even his success has been a partial one. In literature, as well as other matters, it is impossible to serve two masters; and, whenever a writer, who, like Miss Braddon, has made his first success amongst the unknown public, begins to rise into the notice of the upper ten thousand of readers, he is obliged to alter his style in a manner which alienates from him the affections of his first love. The experiment of creating a literature which shall attract the educated and uneducated alike has been frequently tried and has universally proved a failure. The Penny Magazine, Good Words, and theBritish Workman may be mentioned, amongst other cheap periodicals, as having most nearly achieved the object in view; but even the most enthusiastic admirers of these publications must admit that they have failed in reaching the unknown public of "Woman and her Master." It is, we think, hopeless to expect any sudden change in the popular taste. The million knows well enough what it wants, and cannot be cajoled into believing it is amused by works designed to impart instruction. The wisest plan, therefore, is to look at facts as they are, and, admitting the existence of sensational literature as an unalterable fact, to see whether it is as great an evil as the Archbishop of York imagines it to be.

First of all, then, it must be granted by all who have studied the subject that this people's literature is, according to its own standard, eminently moral. It is a fact worth recording that no avowedly licentious publication, however low in price, has ever succeeded to late years. The almost prudish distaste to anything "which can call a blush on the cheek of a young person" is not confined to the homes of Podsnappery, but is shared in by the inmates of cellars and garrets. The purchasers of genuine Holywell Street publications, of the Lives of the Women of London and works of a similar character, are not found amongst the working classes, but amongst a somewhat higher order of readers. The truth is that the frame of mind which derives pleasure from reading voluptuous descriptions is almost incompatible with hard daily labour. There is vice enough amongst men and women who labour with their hands; but dissoluteness, in the true sense of the word, is a sin which must be sought for amongst persons who have a certain amount of leisure and luxury. A sort of moral gout, it only afflicts those who can afford to indulge their desires. In the same way, the places of entertainment where licentious singing of any kind is tolerated are never those frequented by a very low-class audience.

A novel designed to attract the million must be moral; virtue must always triumph in the end; and, if a somewhat sentimental tone is thrown in, so much the better. The real objections to this class of literature we take to be the following: — They inculcate no high moral lesson; they impart no valuable information; they describe an unreal life, such as never has existed and never can exist; their subject-matter is almost always some tale of thrilling horror or startling crime. Now the last of these objections seems to us the only serious one. If it could be shown that more murders or robberies were committed in consequence of the perusal of sensational literature, there would be much to say against it. The denouncers of this class of novels always quote with exultation a story that Curvoisier said the idea of murdering Lord William Russell was first suggested to him by reading Harrison Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard. If the story is true, which we much doubt, it proves nothing, as the only possible moral to be derived from Jack Sheppard is that the cleverest and most adroit of criminals gets hung at last. But the real truth is that the class of crimes on which sensational stories are based is not one that offers any temptation to the bulk of their readers.

To forge a will, to substitute a changeling for the real heir to a dukedom, to poison a wealthy uncle, or to lock up your wife in a madhouse, are all crimes whose commission presupposes certain conditions of life which are eminently not those of the reading million. The acts of wife-beating, of pocket-picking, or of getting drunk in a pothouse, are never depicted in those stories as surrounded with a halo of sontimentalism. Vulgar every-day offences are a great deal too common for the taste of the unknown public. Descriptions of the sordid daily life around them have no charms for them. The virtuous milliner who, in the novel, resists the advances of the wicked baronet must either die a death of sentimental beauty, or else must be discovered to be the lost daughter of a peer. The whole object of these books is to take their readers into an imaginary world. For our own part, we think that the object is not only unobjectionable, but praiseworthy. The instinct of poetry which exists in every human breast indicates itself in this love of poor readers for stories of lords and ladies and palatial mansions and sparkling coronets and wild adventure — for descriptions, in fact, of a life far other from that in which those who read them have been born and bred and have to die. It is all very well to say that people ought to be contented with their lot, and that happiness, on the whole, is equally apportioned to every class; but the time will never come when people will learn to believe that flat beer is as nice a beverage as champagne, or that an attic in St. Giles's is as comfortable as a first floor in Belgravia. If every sensational romance could be suppressed to-morrow, the working classes would not become at once converted to the creed that everything was the best for them in the bost possible of worlds.

A question might be raised, with somewhat more reason, as to whethor the popular passion for reading the narratives of criminal trials was a hopeful sign for the progress of civilization. There is no doubt that the trial of Müller created for the time a new world of newspaper-readers. We doubt, however, whether this desire to learn the details of a great crime can really be called morbid. A divorce-court case, however scandalous the particulars given, never creates a sudden domand for the newspapers which publish the fullest reports. The issue of life and death is required to stimulate the popular curiosity. There is something, to use a cant expression of the day, "intensely human" about a murder. The fate of the murdered man and of the criminal tried for his life comes home to every one, high or low, rich or poor, in a way which no other event ever approaches to. Moreover, whether for good or bad, this morbid curiosity is by no means confined to the uneducated classes. The readers of the high-class papers took quite as deep an interest in the Müller case as the purchasers of the cheapest of periodicals; and it would be gross injustice to ascribe the interest felt in this memorable trial to the influence of sensational literature.

Is it possible — can any body conceive it possible — that any sane person was excited by a perusal of the trial to imitate Müller's offence and acquire a similar evil notoriety to that which has ended in his consignment to the gallows? If such a person exists, his state of mind must be so utterly exceptional that it is impossible to predict how any given cause might or might not influence him; and, if the effect referred to is not produced by the reports of this or similar trials, it is hard to see how their influence can really be injurious. Indeed, if the reports of murder trials were necessarily pernicious in their influence on the community, it is clear that newspapers ought not to be allowed to reproduce them at all. Our own impression is that, if trials are to be reported, if the object of punishment is to deter men from the commission of crimes, the wider the circulation given to the proceedings of justice the better for the interests of society. The truth is that, in certain minds, there still exists a prejudice, of which the Archbishop of York has unwittingly made himself the exponent, that it is not safe to give exciting mental food of any kind to the great mass of the labouring classes. The prejudice we believe to be an erroneous one. At any rate, as long as cheap periodicals exist, tales of thrilling interest will form the staple of their produce; and it is idle to complain that men in their leisure hours wish to be amused and not instructed.

Related material


“Sensational Literature.” The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. (November 1864): 597-98. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street.” Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 23 July 2016.

Last modified 10 March 2018