Popularity of the Realistic Victorian Novel
How is popularity categorized? Is it taken from the years a book is on market? The amount of copies sold? Or the amount of fame an author can garner over their career? Technically, according to Merriam Webster that is, popularity is the “state of being liked, enjoyed, accepted, or done by a large number of people”. So, in that sense, the popularity of the realistic Victorian Novel would be entirely dependent on the people who read them.
Back In the Day
One very important source of information on the realistic novel’s popularity are the newspapers that wrote about them. In the Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times there are two different instances, with two different articles, where Charles Dickens’s popularity and worth are celebrated, years after his death in 1870 (1892 and 1894).
“The continued popularity of Charles Dickens’s novels, at a period when the printing-press is turning out an unprecedentedly large crop of new fiction, is one of the most encouraging signs of the times.”
And it was not just the prolific Dickens who made it into the papers. The Derby Mercury wrote about George Eliot’s, the author of Adam Bede, new book, calling Eliot “famous” and the novel “charming”.
The next best source of information on the realistic novel’s popularity are the number of copies sold over a certain number of years.
Again, Dickens will be the main focus, with his Pickwick Papers having sold 40,000 copies per issue at the time Part 15 came into print, and then selling 140,000 copies by 1863 in book form and 800,000 by 1879.
The first issue of David Copperfield sold 25,000 copies between 1849 and 1850.
To add a bit of perspective to these numbers, at the beginning of the 19th century, books were a luxury. The price had recently rose to unprecedented heights, cutting out the middle class, even though they could have been the biggest consumers. Between 1828 and 1853 the average price of a book was said to have declined by forty percent, but that forty percent was off of an abnormally high starting price. At around the time of Dickens ninety to ninety-five percent of new publications were selling around five hundred copies or less (though this did not account for every new
publication, considering Dickens’s statistics stated above, and other best selling authors)
The realistic Victorian novel’s popularity today would be even harder to parse out, mainly because there are so many ways to buy reading material that
there really isn’t a definitive statistic that can be attached. The popularity seems to have since died down, settling more into the literary studies or academic areas instead of the general public’s grasp. That does not mean that there are not shelves in book stores or tabs on internet shopping sites dedicated to just these types of classics. It is also not to say that these books are not still well loved, just that they are from a different time, a different context, and there for garner a different kind of popularity, one classified by respect and a healthy dose of wonder.