Saturday, December 08, 2007

BOOK: James Nelson, "The Early Nineties"

James Nelson: The Early Nineties: A View from the Bodley Head. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971. SBN 674222253. xvii + 387 pp.


The Bodley Head was a London publishing house, started in 1887 as a partnership between Elkin Mathews and John Lane. They became famous in the early 1890s for both the content and the production values of their books, many of which were written by young avantgarde authors of that period — aesthetes, decadents, and the like. In addition, the Bodley Head books were typically produced to a high standard, often on handmade paper, issued in limited editions, illustrated by daring and innovative artists such as Ricketts and Beardsley, etc. Thus, these publishers were one of the main representatives (and instigators) of the 1890s trend for books that were self-consciously aesthetic and elitist not just in terms of content but also technical aspects, print runs, and often in price.

This book is a history of the Bodley Head from the beginning until 1894, when the two partners split and went their separate ways (though they both continued to work as publishers). I first heard of this book a couple of years ago, when I read James Nelson's 2000 book about Leonard Smithers, Publisher to the Decadents. There I saw that Nelson had also written two other books about notable 1890s publishers, namely The Early Nineties (1971) and Elkin Mathews: Publisher to Yeats, Joyce, Pound (1989). So now I've read the Early Nineties, and I plan to read his book about Elkin Mathews eventually as well.

Overall, The Early Nineties was a fairly interesting read. My main complaint is that a lot of the material here, maybe as much as half of the text (after you exclude the appendices and the notes and the like) deals with the authors and contents of the books published by the Bodley Head, rather than just with the aspects directly related to the publishing and production side of the books. Along the way we learn a little bit about a large number of English fin-de-siecle writers and poets, many of whom are relatively little known nowadays. Nelson often quotes passages from their works and discusses the responses of the critics. All this is interesting in a way, but often I was also bored and felt that the author was going into more detail than I cared to read about. My general impression of these parts of the book is that they were pleasant in moderate doses, but if you try to read too much at once you might get bored. But anyway, I shouldn't complain; the title of the book is honest enough: it isn't purely a book about the Bodley Head, but about the early 1890s in English literature, as seen through the books published by the Bodley Head.

The business side of publishing

My favourite chapter is probably chapter 3, which focuses on the economics of the Bodley Head's publishing. See e.g. p. 77: “Toward the close of the 1880s there were signs which suggested that there was a relatively large group of persons who were willing to buy not only rare and exotic volumes from the antiquarian bookseller but also choice limited editions of contemporary authors. [. . .] I have already shown that in the 1880s there was an increasing interest in antiquarian books. Auction records and sale catalogues amply indicate the fact that prices for book rarities were rising rapidly because of a surprisingly widespread demand.” Mathews would have been aware of these trends, having been an antiquarian bookseller himself.

Later, the vogue for “rare and exotic volumes” even gave a new lease of life to some older books. “So certain was the Bodley Head of its ability to sell these books that it was later to buy up the remainders of books which, having been published in the early 1880s and therefore lacking the advantage of vogue, did not find sufficient buyers.” (P. 79; for example, they bought 220 copies of Oscar Wilde's 1881 Poems, from its original publisher, who had gone bankrupt.) Similarly, the Bodley Head had considerable success with reissues of works by Lord De Tabley which had all largely flopped in the 1880s (p. 132). The story of the Bodley Head's publication of De Tabley's poems is told at great length on pp. 132–47; I doubt I have ever seen an author express such pessimism about his own work and its chances of success. When trying to decide which poems to include in the book, De Tabley made two lists titled “Dustbin I” and “Dustbin II” (p. 135) :)

Publishers such as the Bodley Head also benefited from the relatively low production costs of the time. “Although today it is an extremely expensive — almost prohibitive — affair to print fine editions of belles-lettres in very small quantities, the cost of book production in the early nineties was so low that the Bodley Head not only printed editions of 350 copies and made a profit but charged on the average no more than five shillings net per copy.” (P. 84; see more about production costs later on the same page.)

This is really remarkable; according to this inflation calculator, five shillings in 1890 is equivalent to approx. £19 nowadays — which is quite a typical price for a new trade hardcover of non-genre fiction, but a fine-press edition would be much more expensive.

Another interesting thing was that poetry books were cheaper to produce than books of prose, because the printers charged less for setting type in larger sizes and with more spacing, both of which was more likely to happen with poems than with prose (p. 85).

Lane and Mathews also sold some of their books in the USA, through various U.S.-based publishers such as Copeland and Day. Interestingly, “these copies sold at considerably higher prices than those on sale in England” (p. 105). Nowadays we are used to seeing books cost considerably less in the U.S. than in Britain.

“The costs of materials and labor were very low, and authors asked very litle in the way of payment so that the average price of the Bodley Head book was a very competitive five shillings [. . .] These factors plus a literary and artistic milieu which fostered an interest in belles-lettres and a desire for beautiful things were the grounds for success” (p. 106). For further interesting details about their prices, see p. 108. Their typical books cost less than comparable books earlier in the 19th century. Of course, there were also exceptions: their most expensive book was Wilde's Sphinx, which cost two guineas for the ordinary issue and five for the de luxe issue. Wilde's Salome was also more expensive thatn the average (15 and 30 shillings, respectively).

Although the Bodley Head is nowadays usually remembered for publishing the works of ‘decadents’ and similar then-controversial authors, it is only fair to point out that they also published many mainstream books: “it is doubtful that the firm could actually have survived if their ‘nest of singing birds’ had been made up solely of those whom the English public considered as one with the French poètes maudits.” (P. 211.) The more conventional works were more popular and sold better (p. 215).


A hilarious passage from a letter that the writer Le Gallienne wrote to John Lane, complaining about Lane's partner: “If there is, & decidedly there is, one person to blame in this matter it is that incarnation of all that is vacillating, procrastinating, old-maidish & [?] in human nature, that Elkin Mathews that never answered a letter till it was a month overdue, that attends to no report without the prod of a telegram, that — well, god knows you should know him” (p. 32).

Nelson's somewhat cruel opinion of Le Gallienne: “most of the pleasure his earliest books of verse afford us today comes from their external appearance, which derives from the pre-Victorian book” (p. 71) :-]

Norman Gale's 1893 book, Orchard Songs, is described on p. 65 as “a mediocre little book of verse about glow-worms, nightingales, first kisses, budding orchards and babies” :))

The poet Lionel Johnson was apparently a very nocturnal person and slept through most of the day. “Calling on Johnson one afternoon about five, Yeats, much to his surprise, was told that his new friend was not up. ‘He is always up for dinner at seven’ the servant added by way of encouragement.” (P. 179.)

On p. 211, Nelson quotes from a letter of Le Gallienne's thus: “carcas[s]es”. I'm not sure why he thought it necessary to insert the ‘s’; after all, ‘carcase’ is (or at least was) a perfectly regular alternative form of ‘carcass’.

Another good thing about The Early Nineties are the illustrations — there are many reproductions of title pages (and sometimes also of cover designs) of Bodley Head books.

The book also makes some unusual design decisions: in a typical book there would be page headers showing the title of the current chapter, but here this is shown in the footers instead. Additionally, on the first page of each chapter, the chapter title is not at the top of the page, above the text, as you would expect, but at bottom, below the text of that page. I suppose this was somebody's idea of bold, avant-garde design. I can't say that I was terribly excited by it.

Incidentally, this book also carries a price on the dust jacket — I thought it was uncommon for books published by academic presses to include a price on the dust jacket. Now I remember that the two volumes of Amadis of Gaul, published by Kentucky University Press in the 1970s, also carry prices on the jackets. So maybe this habit of not showing the price on the jacket of academic-press books is a relatively recent thing. Anyway, the other interesting thing about the price on the DJ is that it shows us that this book cost $15 in 1971! According to the inflation calculator, this would be equivalent to approx. $75 in present-day dollars, which strikes me as very expensive even for an academic press book. Fortunately I got it via for just $10.


  • Richard Le Gallienne: The Book-Bills of Narcissus. An “autobiographical story” (p. 17). Le Gallienne was a writer; the Bodley Head published several of his books, and he also worked for them as a reader, giving his opinion of the manuscripts they had received.

  • Richard Le Gallienne: Young Lives. An “autobiographical novel” (p. 212).

  • Andrew Lang: The Library (1881); Percy Fitzgerald: The Book Fancier; John Burton: The Book-Hunter. Mentioned here on p. 22 as part of a growing 1880s interest in bibliophilism.

  • Charles T. Jacobi: On the Making and Issuing of Books (1891). By the director of Chiswick Press, the printers of numerous fine-press books, including many published by the Bodley Head. Mentioned on p. 36.

  • Interesting-sounding memoirs:

  • W. H. Mallock: The New Republic (1878). Mentioned on p. 212 as containing a “satirical and jaundiced account of the Victorian intellectual elite”.

  • Florence Farr: The Dancing Fawn. “[A] notable example of the aesthetic novel of the day, which was often difficult to distinguish from novelistic parodies such as Robert Hichens' The Green Carnation” (p. 263).

  • Other parodies mentioned later on the same page: John Davidson's Earl Lavender (1895) and G. S. Street's The Autobiography of a Boy.

  • Katherine Lyon Mix: A Study in Yellow (U. of Kansas Press, 1960). A study of The Yellow Book (p. 298).

  • Ruari McLean: Victorian Book Design and Colour Printing (1963); mentioned on p. 335. And: Modern Book Design from William Morris to the Present Day (1959), mentioned on p. 337.

  • J. Lewis May: John Lane and the Nineties (1936). Mentioned on p. 342.

  • John Russell Taylor: The Art Nouveau Book in Britain (MIT Press, 1966). Mentioned on p. 338.

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