A Century of Best Sellers

All quiet on the western front coverThe century was 1830 – 1930 and the compiler was book maven Desmond Flower, who also supplied an introduction. Flower’s booklet, which we found in Jot 101’s capacious storage facility, was published by the National Book Council in 1934. It’s a riveting read, encompassing as it does the hundred years in which there was the biggest reading public for fiction that ever existed in the UK.

Every one of the writers on the list of 94 authors wrote fiction, be it a novel of manners, an adventure or science fiction story, a detective story, or a satire or other type of comic fiction. No poetry ( if the list had covered the  century up to 1830 there would be a lot of this) , no memoirs, no true crime or travel literature. Just fiction. Much of this, despite the recent academic reassessment of Victorian popular literature written by women, could hardly be described as good, never mind, great literature. But as Flower remarks in his Introduction, ‘it is easy to be snobbish about books which we imagine to be bad literature.’ And as the critic H. W. Garrod has observed,’ There are a great many books in the world which are poor literature, but which afford none the less the means of agreeable and harmless recreation; and to brush them aside, to pretend that one does not like them, that they count for nothing in the sum of life’s conveniences, is to be first pedantic and then dishonest.’ Not sure the Leavises would agree with you, Henry, old son, but there you are.

Anyway, some of the names on this list might surprise a few. In some cases, perhaps only second hand booksellers would have heard of a handful of these writers. But let’s start with some of the big (or biggish) names.

Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers (1836 – 37). In my opinion,  by far the funniest of his books. Only 400 copies of the first part were printed, but by the last part of 20 this edition had risen to 29,000! In all, Dickens earned £3,000 from Pickwick.


Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby(1844). A thousand copies went in a fortnight, and three editions in three months, according to Philip Guedalla.


Charles Kingsley, Westward Ho !(1855). Arnold Bennett is said once to have remarked that he would not read Westward Ho !a second time for £100.


George Eliot, Adam Bede(1859). Ten editions in four years. Blackwood paid Mrs Lewis £800 for four years copyright, but sales so exceeded their estimation that they paid a further £800 and gave the copyright back to the author. Now that’s what I call generous. Poor old Oliver Goldsmith sold all rights to his bestselling Vicar of Wakefieldfor a measly £50.


Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White(1860). A crowd used to gather around the editorial offices of Dickens’ All the Year Roundawaiting the next instalment of the novel.


Anna Sewell, Black Beauty(1877). According to Flower, ‘the only recorded copy of the first edition appeared at Sotheby’s on April 25th1935; previous to that, Black Beautyshared with Lady Audley’s Secretthe distinction of baffling all collectors. This copy was a presentation copy from the author to Catherine Eyles, whose daughter placed the book in the sale room.

The sales are now something over 10,000,000.


Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island(1885). According to Flower, Stevenson, with no confidence that it was publishable, casually left the MS at Cassells with no name or address attached to it. After some time he returned to pick it up and discovered to his surprise that Cassells had decided to publish it.

Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines(1885). Another Cassell best seller published in the same year as the above. Apparently, Haggard did not like Treasure Island and said so to his brother, who bet him that he could not write a better book. King Solomon’s Mines was the result.


Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat(1889). Along with the stunning (and I mean stunning) Garman Ryan collection of art, the only other reason for visiting Walsall. Jerome was born there and his book made a fortune for the obscure Arrowsmith Press in Bristol.


A Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes(1892).

According to Life and Letters(1930) ‘ Sherlock Holmes (is) without rival or successor’. No question about that, but Conan Doyle was, after all, a genius in his own way.


Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes(1925). One ‘ point’ with this book is that in the first edition the printer corrected the deliberately misspelt ‘ devine ‘ for divine. When the author saw this a cancel had to be printed, so the first issue with ‘divine’ is a scarce book.


Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front(1929). According to Flower, ‘Remarque’s MS was first ‘discovered’ in Germany by Ullstein. In a few months 1,870,000 copies were sold in twelve countries, of which 300,000 went to England’.

Other big name best sellers on Flower’s list were.

Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book(1894), Marie Corelli’s Sorrows of Satan(1895), Jack London’s Call of the Wild(1903), Baroness Orczy’s, Scarlet Pimpernel(1905), and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes(1914).


A later Jot will be  devoted to ‘one hit wonder ‘best sellers and other less well known authors. [R.M.Healey]



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