Blog Post: The Publishers of Sarah Burney [Rachel Sargent]
by Rachel Sargeant
In SFU’s ENGL320 Letters of Eminent Women course, we were to pick an author to study for the semester - I chose Sarah Harriet Burney (1772-1844). Over the last few months, I have transcribed her letter in Upcott’s album, dived into her biography, and analyzed paratext in her novel Traits of Nature (2nd ed., 1818). For my final project, I present to you an exploration of the history of Romantic-era publishing practices of three houses Burney herself published under.
As someone involved in the publishing industry, I’m aware of the undertakings that contemporary authors have to go through to publish with a publishing house. It’s also easy to pick out my next read based on the prestige and reputation of certain imprints - for example, Entangled is Harper Collins’ romance division, whereas TorForge is MacMillan’s fantasy sector. When we began studying eminent women writers in the Romantic era, I was just as interested in the behind-the-scenes processes as I was in their content, and after our first assignment learning how to read into what paratext can reveal about the circumstances surrounding the book’s standing in the market and the author’s reputation, I began wondering what the ladies of our studies had to go through to have their works published. I have laid out the history and reputation of three publishers belonging to Sarah Harriet Burney, but other notable names pop up as well, like Maria Edgeworth, Anna Seward, Lady Caroline Lamb, and two of Sarah’s sisters, Frances Burney and Elizabeth Meeke.
Before we begin, a quick history of Romantic-era publishing practises:
How Did We Get Here?
The last quarter of the 18th century saw major changes in copyright laws and an emergence of circulating libraries that expanded the publishing networks of Britain and literacy of the public (Mandal, 2018). This rapidly growing market gap paved the way for the explosion of fiction titles, with 701 works being published in the 1790s, 778 through the 1800s, 667 in the 1810s, and 827 in the 1820s (Garside, 2000, through Mandal). By the mid-1820s, the novel had replaced poetry as the dominant literary network, and an emerging middle-class female reader base meant that many women writers also began to flourish. Between 1790 and 1829, identifiable female novelists published 1,291 new titles, both of original works and translations of foreign books, as compared to 1,145 by identifiable male writers (Mandal, 2018).
Triple Decker Novels
First produced by Edinburgh publisher Archibald Constable in the early 19th century, the three-volume novel was at its height during the time our eminent women published. These volumes started out as costing 5-6 shillings per volume, but Constable took advantage of his popularity by increasing prices, putting the cost of a single volume at 10 shillings and sixpence (half a guinea), or 31 shillings and sixpence (a guinea and a half) for all three volumes (Barrett, 2012). This was the cost of the average middle-class household’s weekly income, and so books were not easily accessible to purchase unless you were of the upper class. Instead, public readers frequented circulating commercial libraries, the most popular of the time being operated by Charles Mudie (Barrett, 2012). Mudie charged his subscribers one guinea (21 shillings) a year to borrow one volume at a time, or two guineas a year (£2 2s.) to borrow four volumes at a time (Wikimedia, 2021). The high price meant both the publisher and the author could split the profits on the limited sales - as most books at the time had print runs of under 1000 copies - and the divided format created demand for more content. Plus, the librarian would have more volumes bringing in money, rather than one, to cover overhead costs. According to The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, a normal three volume novel clocked in at around 900 pages, or a total of 150,000-200,000 words (Eliot, 2001), much larger than novels today that clock in at 50,000-120,000 words for a standard fiction book. Knowing this, it makes sense that reading Romantic era novels with a modern lens makes them seem rambling and oddly-paced compared to our books today. Now, a set of Western novels are sold as a series, which includes two or more full books, not multiple parts of one novel in serialization.
This triple-decker format was further adapted and popularized by publisher Henry Colburn - who we will talk about later - in the mid 1820s after Constable’s company folded in 1826 (Wikimedia, 2021). This price and format remained unaltered for nearly 70 years, until the triple-decker structure went out of fashion in the late 1890s.
Authors in general were not in the practise of placing names on their works until the 1800s - between 1660-1750, ~50% of published fiction did not mention an author on the title page, and the percentage of novels published anonymously between 1750-1790 was over 80% (Buzwell, 2020)! Also, at the time, it was considered unseemly for a woman to write, as women were supposed to be practising to be good wives, not selling their wares (a comparison to sex work). To keep their good reputations intact, plenty of women writers used male pen names, their initials, or fully remained anonymous. Many female authors who did publish anonymously had the tag “By a Lady” (Buzwell, 2020) in their works to indicate not only the sex of the author but also the class, so the public knew it was respectable reading material. This practise makes it especially difficult for modern scholars to identify what books were written by whom: for example, Sarah Burney published her first two books anonymously, only using her real name after her writing had gained a decent reputation, and her sister Elizabeth Meeke published under three different personae (which were “largely successful in masking her true identity for two centuries” (Buzwell, 2020)). Nowadays it is common practice for authors to have all of their publications listed on the second page. I can’t imagine someone being anonymous now, especially with social media and personal branding playing such a huge part in marketing!
I also found out that a derogatory term for female writers was “female quill-driver” (Buzwell, 2020), which is maybe the best description of a writer I can think of, and something I will be sharing with all my writer friends.
Spilling the Tea on Romantic Era Publishers
George Robinson, “The King of Booksellers”
Arguably the nicest and most generous of the three we’re discussing was George Robinson, a bookseller and later publisher who worked on Paternoster Row, London. In 1763~, Robinson and his friend John Roberts went into business as ‘G.G. and J. Robinson’, with great support from fellow publisher Thomas Longman and bookseller William West, the latter calling Robinson "the Prince, nay, the King of Booksellers" (Wikimedia, 2021). He circulated a high ratio of women’s works, both fiction and non-fiction, and published the respected The Lady’s Magazine and the New Annual Register (Wikimedia, 2021). He was considered a radical but also widely admired, publishing high-profile authors like Helen Maria Williams’s Letters from France (1790) and A Tour in Switzerland (1798), Anna Seward’s Poem to the Memory of Lady Miller (1782), and Ann Radcliff’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), the latter of which he paid a generous sum of £500 (equivalent to £58,700~ in 2020, larger than most modern author advances!) (Wikimedia, 2021). Though the company started by promoting travel memoirs and political works, the commercial success of Udolpho had Robinson spearheading the gothic romance movement (Sharren, 2020). Nonetheless, he was considered high-class and reputable. Sarah Burney started off her career with Robinson by publishing Clarentine with him in 1796, and later Geraldine Fauconberg in 1808. Unfortunately, the company began declining after Robinson’s death in 1801, despite the efforts of his son and brother, and after changing hands multiple times (and constantly rebranding), the company declined in the 1810s and fully closed in 1830. Burney ended up switching to publishing Traits of Nature with Henry Colburn. Speaking of which…
Henry Colburn, the “Prince of Puffers”
In modern terms, we’d call Henry Colburn ‘a sleazebag’. Nicknamed “Prince of Puffers” - ‘puff’ meaning ‘fluff’ - Colburn began his career in tandem with partner Richard Bentley in 1816 and was known for his scandalous low literature (Melnyk, 2002). Originally an assistant to Morgan’s Library, a circulating library like mentioned above, he took over and then sold the library in 1816~ to Saunders and Otley (Melynk, 2002) and set up his own establishment in New Burlington Street. He founded a frankly absurd amount of magazines: the New Monthly in 1814, the Literary Gazette in 1817, the Athenaeum in 1828, the Court Journal in 1828~, and the United Service Journal in 1829 (Melnyk, 2002). Hilariously, the sources I found not here magazines tell that the primary purpose of these magazines was to promote his other magazines - the cheek! Colburn was seen as “an unscrupulous rogue, using dirty tricks and dishonest ploys to foist his wares upon the unsuspecting public” (Melnyk, p. 13). However, his commercial strategies worked, as he popularized the "Silver Fork Novel” (Wikimedia, 2021), a type of work that focused on the glitz and glamour of aristocracy, that began with Lady Caroline Lamb’s 1816 novel, Glenarvon. Despite his lousy reputation, he also published some of the biggest names we recognize today, including Mary Shelley‘s only introduction to Frankenstein, Frances Burney‘s Diary and Letters, and Charles Darwin‘s Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle.
Following in her sister’s footsteps, Sarah Burney published her 1818 Traits of Nature under Colburn’s imprint, notably the first time her name was featured on her work. The first edition sold out within four months (Brown, 2006), and Geraldine Fauconberg was reprinted with him the same year. This increase in sales could have been readers, knowing his penchant for scandalous novels, being excited for a new author, or her previous audience realizing Burney was the author and being excited for her new book - regardless, she must have gotten a good return because she went on to publish The Shipwreck (1816), Country Neighbors (1820), and The Renunciation (1839) with Colburn, despite knowing his reputation and hers would be linked from then on. I don’t think this is that different from celebrities nowadays, because the adage ‘all press is good press’ means that while their reputation may be bad, those pictures of them partying in gossip magazines are earning them lots of money. Sarah was possibly doing something similar, and I can’t blame her for it when she was struggling to make money (as she was not married and was working on and off as a governess).
Minerva Press, aka A. K. Newman & Co, pioneer of the Female Gothic
Minerva Press (founded 1773) dominated the novel market with its wide array of genres and incredibly popular ‘potboilers’, issuing 819 new novels between 1780 and 1829 (Mandal, 2018). Publishing romance, gothic horror, and domestic melodramas, founder William Lane accepted manuscripts from many less-known female authors, though almost all under pseudonyms. ‘Potboiler’ novels were a “creative work of dubious literary or artistic merit” (Wikimedia, 2021) whose purpose was to sell quickly and cheaply, with the boiling of the pot being synonymous with “[providing] one’s livelihood” (Wikimedia, 2021). I love the name ‘potboiler’, it calls up such a specific mental image! The amount of female authors he had on roster and the publication of romances meant his company was considered low-brow entertainment, but not disreputable, if that isn’t an oxymoron.
Lane was an entrepreneur who began his career by moving his circulating library to the permanent residence of No. 33 Leadenhall Street, London, in 1790 (Wikimedia, 2021). Here, he set up his publishing house and turned more of a profit by carrying his own books in his “Minerva Library”. He wanted to make books more accessible to the public and encourage recreational reading (Mandal, 2018), and has been called “one of the most astute and enterprising publishers of the eighteenth century” (Feather, 2006, from Mandal, 2018). Authoress and Sarah Burney’s half-sister, Elizabeth Meeke, was a favourite of Lane’s, publishing 30 works with Minerva Press under various pseudonyms (Mandal, 2018). She described Lane as “humane and supportive”, which is likely why he was so popular with smaller female authors, especially since Meeke’s sisters Sarah and Frances published under bigger, more high-class booksellers like Robinson.
When Burney published with them, the company was under the name A. K. Newman, named after retired navy officer Anthony King Newman, who had taken over the company from Lane in 1809 (Bassett, 2020). Newman added his name in 1811 and officially dropped "Minerva" in 1820, moving away from supplying to libraries and turning instead to children’s fiction and ‘remainders’, printed copies of books that are no longer selling well and are sold instead at a greatly reduced price. In my opinion, this was a bad business move for Newman, and we can see that by the time Sarah moved over to him, the company was starting to wobble. For reasons unknown even after my research, she left Henry Colburn to republish The Renunciation (originally out in 1839) with Newman in 1844, and then published her last novel, The Hermitage (1839), a decade before Newman’s officially closed in 1849 (Brown, 2006). It seems that the last two works of hers were not as popular as her previous novels, which could be because of the company’s decline.
Fun fact: some of Minerva Press’s titles have been reprinted through Valancourt Books! Valancourt, an independent American publishing house founded by James Jenkins and Ryan Cagle in 2005, specializes in "the rediscovery of rare, neglected, and out-of-print fiction" (Wikimedia, 2021), particularly gay titles and gothic/horror novels from the 1700s through the 1980s. Starting in 2005 with The Animated Skeleton (originally 1798), they’ve reprinted over 20 titles, most with introductions by various scholars.
So there you have it! Romantic-era publishing is familiar, having laid the ground work for cash advances, lending libraries, and imprint specializations, but foreign, such as the amount of author anonymity. If I had to publish under one of the three houses mentioned, I think I would choose Robinson’s!
Information on the rest of Sarah Burney’s life can be found in this exhibition, including with her transcribed Upcott letter and a bibliographical analysis. Please check out the link below for more on each individual publishing house (Melnyk and Mandal have particularly informative articles).
Barrett, Charlotte. “Victorian Publishing History.” Great Writers Inspire, University of Oxford, July 2012, https://writersinspire.org/content/victorian-publishing-history.
Bassett, Troy. “At the Circulating Library Publisher Information: A. K. Newman.” At the Circulating Library, Purdue University, 2020, https://www.victorianresearch.org/atcl/show_publisher.php?pid=52.
Brown, Susan, et al. “Sarah Harriet Burney”. The Orlando Project, Cambridge University Press, 2006, http://orlando.cambridge.org/public/svPeople?person_id=burnsa.y=0&submit.x=0&name_entry=Burney, Sarah Harriet&subform=1&results_type=entries.Â
Buzwell, Greg. “Women Writers, Anonymity and Pseudonyms .” Women's Histories, British Library, Oct. 2020, https://www.bl.uk/womens-rights/articles/women-authors-and-anonymity.
Mandal, Anthony. “Mrs. Meeke and Minerva: The mystery of the marketplace”. Eighteenth-Century Life 42 (2), 2008, https://orca.cardiff.ac.uk/104126/1/MANDAL_Marketplace_post-print%5B1%5D%20%283%29.pdf
Melnyk, V. “HALF FASHION AND HALF PASSION”: THE LIFE OF PUBLISHER HENRY COLBURN”. University of Birmingham thesis, Sept 2002, http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/163/1/Melnyk02PhD.pdf
Murley, Claire. “Corvey: Adopt an Author.” Corvey | Adopt an Author, Sheffield Hallam University, May 1998, https://extra.shu.ac.uk/corvey/corinne/Corinne authors/1Burney/BioBurney.htm.
Sharren, Kandice. "The Romances of Robinsons." The Women's Print History Project, 8 Oct 2020, https://womensprinthistoryproject.com/blog/post/39.
Wikimedia. “Three-Volume Novel.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Oct. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-volume_novel.
Wikimedia. “Valancourt Books.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 July 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valancourt_Books.
Wikimedia. “Minerva Press.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 May 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minerva_Press.
Wikimedia. “Henry Colburn.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Dec. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Colburn.
Wikimedia. “George Robinson (Bookseller).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Oct. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Robinson_(bookseller).