by Wilkie Collins
THE UNKNOWN PUBLIC.
Do the customers at publishing houses, the members of book-clubs and circulating libraries, and the purchasers and borrowers of newspapers and reviews, compose altogether the great bulk of the reading public of England? There was a time when, if anybody had put this question to me, I, for one, should certainly have answered Yes.
I know better now. So far from composing the bulk of English readers, the public just mentioned represents nothing more than the minority.
This startling discovery dawned upon me gradually. I made my first approaches toward it in walking about London, more especially in the second and third rate neighborhoods. At such times, whenever I passed a small stationer's or small tobacconist's shop, I became mechanically conscious of certain publications which invariably occupied the windows. These publications all appeared to be of the same small quarto size: they seemed to consist merely of a few unbound pages; each one of them had a picture on the upper half of the front leaf, and a quantity of small print on the under. I noticed just as much as this, for some time, and no more. None of the gentlemen who profess to guide my taste in literary matters had ever directed my attention toward these mysterious publications. My favorite Review is, as I firmly believe, at this very day, unconscious of their existence. My enterprising librarian--who forces all sorts of books on my attention that I don't want to read, because he has bought whole editions of them a great bargain--has never yet tried me with the limp, unbound picture-quarto of the small shops. Day after day, and week after week, the mysterious publications haunted my walks, go where I might; and still I was too careless to stop and notice them in detail. I left London, and traveled about England. The neglected publications followed me. There they were in every town, large or small. I saw them in fruit-shops, in oyster-shops, in cigar-shops, in lozenge-shops. Villages even--picturesque, strong-smelling villages--were not free from them. Wherever the speculative daring of one man could open a shop, and the human appetites and necessities of his fellow-mortals could keep it from shutting up again, there, as it appeared to me, the unbound picture-quarto instantly entered, set itself up obtrusively in the window, and insisted on being looked at by everybody. "Buy me, borrow me, stare at me, steal me. Oh, inattentive stranger, do anything but pass me by!"
Under this sort of compulsion, it was not long before I began to stop at shop-windows and look attentively at these all-pervading specimen of what was to me a new species of literary production. I made acquaintance with one of them among the deserts of West Cornwall; with another in a populous thoroughfare of Whitechapel; with a third in a dreary little lost town at the north of Scotland. I went into a lovely county of South Wales; the modest railway had not penetrated to it, but the audacious picture-quarto had found it out. Who could resist this perpetual, this inevitable, this magnificently unlimited appeal to notice and patronage? From looking in at the windows of the shops, I got on to entering the shops themselves--to buying specimens of this locust-flight of small publications--to making strict examination of them from the first page to the last--and finally, to instituting inquiries about them in all sorts of well-informed quarters. The result has been the discovery of an Unknown Public; a public to be counted by millions; the mysterious, the unfathomable, the universal public of the penny-novel-journals.*
* It may be as well to explain that I use this awkward compound word in order to mark the distinction between a penny journal and a penny newspaper. The "journal" is what I am now writing about. The "newspaper" is an entirely different subject, with which this article has no connection.
I have five of these journals now before me, represented by one sample copy, bought haphazard, of each. There are many more; but these five represent the successful and well-established members of the literary family. The eldest of them is a stout lad of fifteen years' standing; the youngest is an infant of three months old. All five are sold at the same price of one penny; all five are published regularly once a week; all five contain about the same quantity of matter. The weekly circulation of the most successful of the five is now publicly advertised (and, as I am informed, without exaggeration) at half a million. Taking the other four as attaining altogether to a circulation of another half-million (which is probably much under the right estimate) we have a sale of a million weekly for five penny journals. Reckoning only three readers to each copy sold, the result is a public of three millions--a public unknown to the literary world; unknown, as disciples, to the whole body of professed critics; unknown, as customers, at the great libraries and the great publishing houses; unknown, as an audience, to the distinguished English writers of our own time. A reading public of three millions which lies right out of the pale of literary civilization is a phenomenon worth examining--a mystery which the sharpest man among us may not find it easy to solve.
In the first place, who are the three millions--the Unknown Public--as I have ventured to call them?
The known reading public--the minority already referred to--are easily discovered and classified. There is the religious public, with booksellers and literature of its own, which includes reviews and newspapers as well as books. There is the public which reads for information, and devotes itself to Histories, Biographies, Essays, Treatises, Voyages and Travels. There is the public which reads for amusement, and patronizes the Circulating Libraries and the railway bookstalls. There is, lastly, the public which reads nothing but newspapers. We all know where to lay our hands on the people who represent these various classes. We see the books they like on their tables. We meet them out at dinner, and hear them talk of their favorite authors. We know, if we are at all conversant with literary matters, even the very districts of London in which certain classes of people live who are to be depended upon beforehand as the picked readers for certain kinds of books. But what do we know of the enormous, outlawed majority--of the lost literary tribes--of the prodigious, the overwhelming three millions? Absolutely nothing.
I myself--and I say it to my sorrow--have a very large circle of acquaintance. Ever since I undertook the interesting task of exploring the Unknown Public, I have been trying to discover among my dear friends and my bitter enemies (both alike on my visiting-list), a subscriber to a penny-novel-journal--and I have never yet succeeded in the attempt. I have heard theories started as to the probable existence of penny-novel-journals in kitchen dressers, in the back parlors of Easy-shaving Shops, in the greasy seclusion of the boxes at the small Chop-houses. But I have never yet met with any man, woman or child who could answer the inquiry: "Do you subscribe to a penny journal?" plainly in the affirmative, and who could produce the periodical in question. I have learned, years ago, to despair of ever meeting with a single woman, after a certain age, who has not had an offer of marriage. I have given up long since all idea of ever discovering a man who has himself seen a ghost, as distinguished from that other inevitable man who has had a bosom friend who has unquestionably seen one. These are two among many other aspirations of a wasted life which I have definitely resigned. I have now to add one more to the number of my vanished illusions.
In the absence, therefore, of any positive information on the subject, it is only possible to pursue the present investigation by accepting such negative evidence as may help us to guess, with more or less accuracy, at the social position, the habits, the tastes, and the average intelligence of the Unknown Public. Arguing carefully by inference, we may hope, in this matter, to arrive at something like a safe, if not a satisfactory, conclusion.
To begin with, it may be fairly assumed--seeing that the staple commodity of each one of the five journals before me is composed of stories-- that the Unknown Public reads for its amusement more than for its information.
Judging by my own experience, I should be inclined to add that the Unknown Public looks to quantity rather than quality in spending its penny a week on literature. In buying my five specimen copies at five different shops, I purposely approached the individual behind the counter on each occasion in the character of a member of the Unknown Public--say, Number Three Million and One--who wished to be guided in laying out a penny entirely by the recommendation of the shop-keeper himself. I expected, by this course of proceeding, to hear a little popular criticism, and to get at what the conditions of success might be, in a branch of literature which was quite new to me. No such result rewarded my efforts in any case. The dialogue between buyer and seller always took some such practical turn as this:
Reader, Number Three Million and One. "I want to take in one of the penny journals. Which do you recommend?"
Enterprising Publisher. "Some likes one, and some likes another. They're all good pennurths. Seen this one?"
"Seen that one?"
"Look what a pennurth!"
"Yes--but about the stories in this one? Are they as good, now, as the stories in that one?"
"Well, you see, some likes one, and some likes another. Sometimes I sells more of one, and sometimes I sells more of another. Take 'em all the year round, and there an't a pin, as I knows of, to choose between 'em. There's just about as much in one as there is in another. All good pennurths. Bless your soul, just take 'em up and look for yourself! All good pennurths, choose where you like!"
I never got any further than this, try as I might. And yet I found the shop-keepers, both men and women, ready enough to talk on other topics. On each occasion, so far from receiving any practical hints that I was interrupting business, I found myself sociably delayed in the shop, after I had made my purchase, as if I had been an old acquaintance. I got all sorts of curious information on all sorts of subjects--excepting the good pennurth of print in my pocket. Does the reader know the singular facts in connection with Everton Toffey? It is like eau de Cologne. There is only one genuine receipt for making it in the world. It has been a family inheritance from remote antiquity. You may go here, there, and everywhere, and buy what you think is Everton Toffey (or eau de Cologne); but there is only one place in London, as there is only one place in Cologne, at which you can obtain the genuine article. That information was given me at one penny journal shop. At another, the proprietor explained his new system of Stay-making to me. He offered to provide my wife with something that would support her muscles and not pinch her flesh; and, what was more, he was not the man to ask for his bill afterward, except in the case of giving both of us perfect satisfaction. This man was so talkative and intelligent; he could tell me all about so many other things besides stays, that I took it for granted he could give me the information of which I stood in need. But here, again, I was disappointed. He had a perfect snow-drift of penny journals all over his counter; he snatched them up by handfuls, and gesticulated with them cheerfully; he smacked and patted them, and brushed them all up in a heap, to express to me that "the whole lot would be worked off by the evening"; but he, too, when I brought him to close quarters, only repeated the one inevitable form of words: "A good pennurth; that's all I can say! Bless your soul, look at any one of them for yourself, and see what a pennurth it is!"
Having, inferentially, arrived at the two conclusions that the Unknown Public reads for amusement, and that it looks to quantity in its reading, rather than to quality, I might have found it difficult to proceed further toward the making of new discoveries but for the existence of a very remarkable aid to inquiry, which is common to all the penny-novel-journals alike.
The peculiar facilities to which I now refer are presented in the Answers to Correspondents. The page containing these is, beyond all comparison, the most interesting page in the penny journals. There is no earthly subject that it is possible to discuss, no private affair that it is possible to conceive, which the inscrutable Unknown Public will not confide to the editor in the form of a question, and which the editor will not set himself seriously and resolutely to answer. Hidden under cover of initials, or Christian names, or conventional signatures--such as Subscriber, Constant Reader, and so forth--the editor's correspondents seem, many of them, to judge by the published answers to their questions, utterly impervious to the senses of ridicule or shame. Young girls beset by perplexities which are usually supposed to be reserved for a mother's or an elder sister's ear, consult the editor. Married women who have committed little frailties, consult the editor. Male jilts in deadly fear of actions for breach of promise of marriage, consult the editor. Ladies whose complexions are on the wane, and who wish to know the best artificial means of restoring them, consult the editor. Gentlemen who want to dye their hair and get rid of their corns consult the editor. Inconceivably dense ignorance, inconceivably petty malice, and inconceivably complacent vanity, all consult the editor, and all, wonderful to relate, get serious answers from him. No mortal position is too difficult for this wonderful man; there is no change of character as general referee which he is not prepared to assume on the instant. Now he is a father, now a mother, now a schoolmaster, now a confessor, now a doctor, now a lawyer, now a young lady's confidante, now a young gentleman's bosom friend, now a lecturer on morals, and now an authority in cookery.
However, our present business is not with the editor, but with his readers. As a means of getting at the average intelligence of the Unknown Public--as a means of testing the general amount of education which they have acquired, and of ascertaining what share of taste and delicacy they have inherited from Nature--these extraordinary Answers to Correspondents may fairly be produced in detail, to serve us for a guide. I must premise that I have not maliciously hunted them up out of many numbers; I have merely looked into my five sample copies of five separate journals--all, I repeat, bought accidentally, just as they happened to catch my attention in the shop windows. I have not waited for bad specimens, or anxiously watched for good; I have impartially taken my chance. And now, just as impartially, I dip into one journal after another, on the Correspondents' page, exactly as the five happen to lie on my desk. The result is, that I have the pleasure of presenting to those ladies and gentlemen who may honor me with their attention the following members of the Unknown Public who are in a condition to speak quite unreservedly for themselves:
A reader of a penny-novel-journal who wants a recipe for gingerbread. A reader who complains of fullness in his throat. Several readers who want cures for gray hair, for warts, for sores on the head, for nervousness, and for worms. Two readers who have trifled with Woman's Affections, and who want to know if Woman can sue them for breach of promise of marriage. A reader who wants to know what the sacred initials I. H. S. mean, and how to get rid of small-pox marks. Another reader who desires to be informed what an esquire is. Another who cannot tell how to pronounce picturesque and acquiescence. Another who requires to be told that chiaroscuro is a term used by painters. Three readers who want to know how to soften ivory, how to get a divorce, and how to make black varnish. A reader who is not certain what the word poems means; not certain that "Mazeppa" was written by Lord Byron; not certain whether there are such things in the world as printed and published Lives of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Two afflicted readers, well worthy of a place by themselves, who want a recipe apiece for the cure of knock-knees; and who are referred (it is to be hoped, by a straight-legged editor) to a former answer, addressed to other sufferers, which contains the information they require.
Two readers, respectively, unaware, until the editor has enlightened them, that the author of "Robinson Crusoe" was Daniel Defoe, and the author of the "Irish Melodies," Thomas Moore. Another reader, a trifle denser, who requires to be told that the histories of Greece and Rome are ancient histories, and the histories of France and England modern histories.
A reader who wants to know the right hour of the day at which to visit a newly-married couple. A reader who wants a recipe for liquid blacking. A lady reader who expresses her sentiments prettily on crinoline. Another lady reader, who wants to know how to make crumpets. Another, who has received presents from a gentleman to whom she is not engaged, and who wants the editor to tell her whether she is right or wrong. Two lady readers who require lovers, and wish the editor to provide them. Two timid girls, who are respectively afraid of a French invasion and dragon-flies.
A Don Juan of a reader, who wants the private address of a certain actress. A reader with a noble ambition who wishes to lecture, and wants to hear of an establishment at which he can buy discourses ready-made. A natty reader, who wants German polish for boots and shoes. A sore-headed reader, who is editorially advised to use soap and warm water. A virtuous reader, who writes to condemn married women for listening to compliments, and who is informed by an equally virtuous editor that his remarks are neatly expressed. A guilty (female) reader, who confides her frailties to a moral editor and shocks him. A pale-faced reader, who asks if she shall darken her skin. Another pale-faced reader, who asks if she shall put on rouge. An undecided reader, who asks if there is any inconsistency in a dancing-mistress being a teacher at a Sunday-school. A bashful reader, who has been four years in love with a lady, and has not yet mentioned it to her. A speculative reader, who wishes to know if he can sell lemonade without a license. An uncertain reader, who wants to be told whether he had better declare his feelings frankly and honorably at once. An indignant female reader, who reviles all the gentlemen in her neighborhood because they don't take the ladies out. A scorbutic reader, who wants to be cured. A pimply reader, in the same condition. A jilted reader, who writes to know what his best revenge may be, and who is advised by a wary editor to try indifference. A domestic reader, who wishes to be told the weight of a newly-born child. An inquisitive reader, who wants to know if the name of David's mother is mentioned in the Scriptures.
Here are ten editorial sentiments on things in general, which are pronounced at the express request of correspondents, and which are therefore likely to be of use in assisting us to form an estimate of the intellectual condition of the Unknown Public:
1. All months are lucky to marry in, when your union is hallowed by love.
2. When you have a sad trick of blushing on being introduced to a young lady, and when you want to correct the habit, summon to your aid a manly confidence.
3. If you want to write neatly, do not bestow too much ink on occasional strokes.
4. You should not shake hands with a lady on your first introduction to her.
5. You can sell ointment without a patent.
6. A widow should at once and most decidedly discourage the lightest attentions on the part of a married man.
7. A rash and thoughtless girl will scarcely make a steady, thoughtful wife.
8. We do not object to a moderate quantity of crinoline.
9. A sensible and honorable man never flirts himself, and ever despises flirts of the other sex.
10. A collier will not better his condition by going to Prussia.
At the risk of being wearisome, I must once more repeat that these selections from the Answers to Correspondents, incredibly absurd as they may appear, are presented exactly as I find them. Nothing is exaggerated for the sake of a joke; nothing is invented, or misquoted, to serve the purpose of any pet theory of my own. The sample produced of the three million penny readers is left to speak for itself; to give some idea of the social and intellectual materials of which a portion, at least, of the Unknown Public may fairly be presumed to be composed. Having so far disposed of this first part of the matter in hand, the second part follows, naturally enough, of its own accord. We have all of us formed some opinion by this time on the subject of the Public itself: the next thing to do is to find out what that Public reads.
I have already said that the staple commodity of the journals appears to be formed of stories. The five specimen copies of the five separate weekly publications now before me contain, altogether, ten serial stories, one reprint of a famous novel (to be hereafter referred to), and seven short tales, each of which begins and ends in one number. The remaining pages are filled up with miscellaneous contributions, in literature and art, drawn from every conceivable source; pickings from Punch and Plato; wood engravings, representing notorious people and views of famous places, which strongly suggest that the original blocks have seen better days in other periodicals; modern and ancient anecdotes; short memoirs; scraps of poetry; choice morsels of general information; household receipts, riddles, and extracts from moral writers--all appear in the most orderly manner, arranged under separate heads, and cut up neatly into short paragraphs. However, the prominent feature in each journal is the serial story, which is placed in every case as the first article, and which is illustrated by the only wood-engraving that appears to have been expressly cut for the purpose. To the serial story, therefore, we may fairly devote our chief attention, because it is clearly regarded as the chief attraction of these very singular publications.
Two of my specimen copies contained, respectively, the first chapters of new stories. In the case of the other three, I found the stories in various stages of progress. The first thing that struck me, after reading the separate weekly portions of all five, was their extraordinary sameness. Each portion purported to be written (and no doubt was written) by a different author, and yet all five might have been produced by the same man. Each part of each successive story settled down in turn, as I read it, to the same dead level of the smoothest and flattest conventionality. A combination of fierce melodrama and meek domestic sentiment; short dialogues and paragraphs on the French pattern, with moral English reflections of the sort that occur on the top lines of children's copy-books; incidents and characters taken from the old exhausted mines of the circulating library, and presented as complacently and confidently as if they were original ideas; descriptions and reflections for the beginning of the number, and a "strong situation," dragged in by the neck and shoulders, for the end--formed the common literary sources from which the five authors drew their weekly supply; all collecting it by the same means; all carrying it in the same quantities; all pouring it out before the attentive public in the same way. After reading my samples of these stories, I understood why it was that the fictions of the regularly established writers for the penny journals are never republished. There is, I honestly believe, no man, woman, or child in England, not a member of the Unknown Public, who could be got to read them. The one thing which it is possible to advance in their favor is, that there is apparently no wickedness in them. There seems to be an intense indwelling respectability in their dullness. If they lead to no intellectual result, even of the humblest kind, they may have at least this negative advantage, that they can do no harm.
If it be objected that I am condemning these stories after having merely read one number of each of them, I have only to ask, in return, whether anybody ever waits to go all through a novel before passing an opinion on the goodness or the badness of it? In the latter case, we throw the story down before we get through it, and that is its condemnation. There is room enough for promise, if not for performance, in any one part of any one genuine work of fiction. If I had found the smallest promise in the style, in the dialogue, in the presentation of character, in the arrangement of incident, in any of the five specimens of cheap fiction before me, each one of which extended, on the average, to ten columns of small print, I should have gone on gladly to the next number. But I discovered nothing of the kind; and I put down my weekly sample, just as an editor, under similar circumstances, puts down a manuscript, after getting through a certain number of pages, or a reader a book.
And this sort of writing appeals to a monster audience of at least three millions! Has a better sort ever been tried? It has. The former proprietor of one of these penny journals commissioned a thoroughly competent person to translate "The Count of Monte Christo" for his periodical. He knew that there was hardly a language in the civilized world into which that consummate specimen of the rare and difficult art of story-telling had not been translated. In France, in England, in America, in Russia, in Germany, in Italy, in Spain, Alexandre Dumas had held hundreds of thousands of readers breathless. The proprietor of the penny journal naturally thought that he could do as much with the Unknown Public. Strange to say, the result of this apparently certain experiment was a failure. The circulation of the journal in question seriously decreased from the time when the first of living story-tellers became a contributor to it! The same experiment was tried with the "Mysteries of Paris" and "The Wandering Jew," only to produce the same result. Another penny journal gave Dumas a commission to write a new story, expressly for translation in its columns. The speculation was tried, and once again the inscrutable Unknown Public held back the hand of welcome from the spoiled child of a whole world of novel-readers.
How is this to be accounted for?
Does a rigid moral sense permeate the Unknown Public from one end of it to the other, and did the productions of the French novelists shock that sense from the very outset? The page containing the Answers to Correspondents would be enough in itself to dispose of this theory. But there are other and better means of arriving at the truth, which render any further reference to the Correspondents' page unnecessary. Some time since, an eminent novelist (the only living English author with a literary position who had at that time written for the Unknown Public) produced his new novel in a penny journal. No shadow of a moral objection has ever been urged by any readers against the works published by the author of "It is Never Too Late to Mend"; but even he, unless I have been greatly misinformed, failed to make the impression that had been anticipated on the impenetrable Three Millions. The great success of his novel was not obtained in its original serial form, but in its re-published form, when it appealed from the Unknown to the Known Public. Clearly, the moral obstacle was not the obstacle which militated against the success of Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Sue.
What was it, then? Plainly this, as I believe. The Unknown Public is, in a literary sense, hardly beginning, as yet, to learn to read. The members of it are evidently, in the mass, from no fault of theirs, still ignorant of almost everything which is generally known and understood among readers whom circumstances have placed, socially and intellectually, in the rank above them. The mere references in "Monte Christo," "The Mysteries of Paris," and "White Lies" (the scene of this last English fiction having been laid on French ground), to foreign names, titles, manners, and customs, puzzled the Unknown Public on the threshold. Look back at the answers to correspondents, and then say, out of fifty subscribers to a penny journal, how many are likely to know, for example, that mademoiselle means miss? Besides the difficulty in appealing to the penny audience caused at the beginning by such simple obstacles as this, there was the great additional difficulty, in the case of all three of the fictions just mentioned, of accustoming untried readers to the delicacies and subtleties of literary art. An immense public has been discovered; the next thing to be done is, in a literary sense, to teach that public how to read.
An attempt, to the credit of one of the penny journals, has already been made. I have mentioned in one place a reprint of a novel, and later, a remarkable exception to the drearily commonplace character of the rest of the stories. In both these cases I refer to one and the same fiction--to the "Kenilworth" of Sir Walter Scott, which is reprinted as a new serial experiment in a penny journal. Here is the great master of modern fiction appealing, at this time of day, to a new public, and (amazing anomaly!) marching in company with writers who have the rudiments of their craft still to learn! To my mind, one result seems certain. If "Kenilworth" be appreciated by the Unknown Public, then the very best men among living English writers will one of these days be called on, as a matter of necessity, to make their appearance in the pages of the penny journals.
Meanwhile, it is perhaps hardly too much to say that the future of English fiction may rest with this Unknown Public, which is now waiting to be taught the difference between a good book and a bad. It is probably a question of time only. The largest audience for periodical literature, in this age of periodicals, must obey the universal law of progress, and must, sooner or later, learn to discriminate. When that period comes, the readers who rank by millions will be the readers who give the widest reputations, who return the richest rewards, and who will, therefore, command the service of the best writers of their time. A great, an unparalleled prospect awaits, perhaps, the coming generation of English novelists. To the penny journals of the present time belongs the credit of having discovered a new public. When that public shall discover its need of a great writer, the great writer will have such an audience as has never yet been known.*
* Five years have passed since this article was first published, and no signs of progress in the Unknown Public have made their appearance as yet. Patience! patience! (September, 1863),