5 Mega-Bestsellers from the 19th Century (That You’ve Probably Never Heard Of)

I started putting together the figures for this post more than two years ago, when we were in the early stages of compiling our list of works that we wanted to look at on the project.  Back then, I sat down at my desk with the thought of looking into what I naively assumed at the time was a simple question: which 19th-century novels were the biggest bestsellers in their own time?

the essays of leigh hunt - writing
“When I glance up at Christian Grey, he’s watching us like a hawk, his eyes hooded and questioning… no.  Thoughtful?  I know, speculative!”

It turns out this is NOT a simple question.

Many people have compiled lists of “the most popular 19th-century novels”, but these tend to include data from their entire lifespans – from their time of writing to the present day.  Generally these lists are more reflective of what we think of the novels now, after years of varying-quality reprints, screen adaptations, and ham-fisted literary allusions, rather than what was popular in its own time.

In order to find some info on what your average Scrooge really had on his nightstand, or what volume Lady Audley would keep in her reticule for a bit of light reading on the coach, I went looking for contemporary sales figures.  The main source of information that I found was contained in a series of articles by the scholar Richard Altick, which were compiled from his extensive research into author biographies over a lifetime of scholarship.  (References at the end!)  Making sense of these figures often involves comparing apples to oranges, though; if Alice In Wonderland sold 180,000 copies over its first 33 years of publication, does that it make it more or less of a bestseller than H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, which sold 1700 copies in its first ten days?*

A number of factors would have affected the sales of a novel in 19th century Britain.  Literacy rates varied greatly at different times, from as low as 50% (by some estimates) in 1800, to near 100% by the late 1890s.  So, J. M. Barrie’s Margaret Ogilvy would have had a far larger potential audience when it came out in 1896 (selling 40,000 copies “almost at once”) than Hannah Moore’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife, published in 1809 (“14,000 in eight months”).

As well as this, the introduction of cheap and penny editions, the appearance of novels in serial format in magazines, and the rise and fall of subscription libraries such as Mudie’s all meant that as time went on, fiction – in various forms – could be consumed by a wider cross-section of the public.  A person in Victorian England would not necessarily have had to own a book to enjoy it, or even been literate themselves; books could have been shared between friends or borrowed from a circulating library (or later on, a public one), and reading aloud to a group was still a common pastime.  Sales figures, then, aren’t an entirely reliable indicator of how popular a novel was in the 19th century.  In fact, early in the century, books were so difficult for anyone except the extremely rich (who could, and often did, buy them solely for decorative purposes) to afford, that most of the reading population relied entirely on libraries for their reading material.  As the poet Robert Southey stated in 1814, “they who buy books do not read them, and … they who read them do not buy them.”

All that being said, we can fairly safely say that these works were among the Dan Browns of their time, if not the Harry Potters.

a new library of poetry and song - bookstall
I want the new Jack Reacher, or maybe something with that Robert Langdon guy in it, I like him

  1. Guy Mannering (1815), Sir Walter Scott: Two Thousand Copies in its First Day

    Tastes change, and there are quite a few authors who were absolute celebrities in the Victorian era that somehow failed to make it out of the 19th century (what do you mean, you’ve never heard of Thomas Henry Hall Caine’s The Christian?)  And if you had your heart sent on immortality through inexplicable paranormal reimaginings of your books, then the first few years of the 1800s were for some reason a particularly bad time to be writing.  Don’t believe me?  Here are 869 books published between 1800 and 1810, and not a big-budget period drama among them.

farther excursions of the observant pedestrian
Coming soon to a cinema near you: Farther Excursions of the Observant Pedestrian and Zombies

Sir Walter Scott’s first novels appear just at the point where this is starting to change.  His meticulously-researched historical novels burst onto a literary scene which was maybe ever so slightly jaded with increasingly silly Gothic excess, and they sold at a frantic pace.  And (contrary to the point of this list, I realise!) they’re still popular today,  and mostly still in print This is actually true for Guy Mannering, even if it wouldn’t be Scott’s most famous work.

the novels of walter scott - guy mannering
Father, I made my pitch to the director like you said, but he told me to come back when we’re Ivanhoe

A year after seeing his first novel, Waverly (1814), become a huge success, Scott brought out Guy Mannering, a novel of crime and adventure set in the 1700s, and saw its first edition of 2000 copies sell out in a single day.  By 1820 it had sold 10,000 copies, and by 1836 this had risen to 50,000 copies.  His subsequent novels The Antiquary (1816) and Rob Roy (1818) also did rather well, selling a respectable 6000 copies in six days and 10,000 copies in two weeks respectively.

Scott’s books were so well-received, in fact, that in 1815, the Prince Regent (later King George IV) requested a meeting with “the author of Waverly“.  (Despite his continued domination of the early-19th-century-historical-fiction market, Scott preferred to publish his novels anonymously, saving his real name for his poetry instead.)

the christian year - cantos
Real literature comes in cantos.

In a final proof of Guy Mannering‘s appeal, a breed of terrier was named after the character Dandy Dinmont.  As everyone knows, you’re nobody in fiction until you have a dog breed named after you.  You hear that, Edward Cullen?

Guy Mannering is available for free – legally! – via the wonderful Project Gutenberg.

  1. The Murder of Delicia (1899), Marie Corelli: 52,000 in its First Year

Eccentric British author Marie Corelli wrote a number of melodramatic novels at the end of the 19th century that were received poorly by critics, but were hugely popular with the public.  The Murder of Delicia, her tenth book, has an attractive, wildly successful writer for a protagonist (a tradition that certain modern writers continue to uphold *cough* Steven King *cough*).  Although this character went down okay with readers, contemporary critics considered Delicia to be a poorly-disguised and self-aggrandising portrait of the author, and the book apparently inspired “open mockery”.

This is definitely not a picture of an un-murdered Delicia.  No, sir

Why would that be, I wonder?

As a writer, she stood quite apart from the rank and file of modern fictionists.  Something of the spirit of the Immortals was in her blood – the spirit that moved Shakespeare, Shelley and Byron to proclaim truths in the face of a world of lies…

The public responded to her voice and clamoured for her work, and, as a natural result of this, all ambitious and aspiring publishers were her very humble suppliants… and yet she was neither vain nor greedy.  She was, strange to say, though an authoress and a “celebrity”, still an unspoilt, womanly woman.
The Murder of Delicia, page 19

Sounds legit.

…Her eyes were bright, – her cheeks delicately flushed.  She had no idea of her own poetic and unique loveliness, which was utterly unlike all the various admitted types of beauty in women.
The Murder of Delicia, page 20

Yes.  I’m sure she had absolutely no idea.

Corelli seems to have been a prickly character with a bit of a talent for offending her contemporaries in British high society, but her readership was unaffected by this, and the introduction of the new publishing format of “sixpenny editions” gave sales of her later works an additional boost.  By 1901, it was estimated that each of her novels was bringing in a massive £10,000.

You can get a copy of The Murder of Delicia at the Internet Archive.

  1. Trilby (1894), George du Maurier: 80,000 in Three Months

This portrait of bohemian Paris gave us the term “Svengali”, and apparently inspired lots of American ladies of the 1890s to become artists, and to take up smoking and drinking Chianti.  It also gave us a famous hat.

For some reason, it’s not one of these hats.

Written by the grandfather of the famous novelist Daphne du Maurier, this was one of the most popular books of the 1890s, selling 200,000 copies in the United States alone.  It features on this list because of its staggering success in the first three months after publication: 80,000 copies sold.

You can download Trilby from Project Gutenberg.

  1. The Soldier’s Wife (1852), G. M. W. Reynolds:  First Two Penny Numbers, 60,000 Each in One Day


the soldier's wife hat club
As Mario Klingemann has pointed out, a hat on the floor means only one thing: trouble.

Although he’s practically forgotten nowadays, Reynolds’ fiction was more popular than Dickens or Thackeray in his day; he’s been described as “the most published man of the 19th century” and “the most popular writer of his time”.  His massive serial work Mysteries of London sold 40,000 copies a week in penny instalments, and has gained a surprising literary afterlife in translation as a major influence on 19th century Marathi literature.  He’s also the author of one of the earliest werewolf novels, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, and (some argue) the first soap opera, Rosa Lambert.

Wildly prolific, Reynolds is thought to have produced some thirty to forty million words of fiction during his peak writing phase.  However, many of both his own contemporaries and the (few) scholars who still read his works are ambivalent as to how good most of these words were.

Dickens was definitely not a Reynolds fan, and may have been alluding to him when he described writers of popular serial fiction as

Bastards of the Mountain, draggled fringe on the Red Cap, Panders to the basest passions of the lowest natures…

Despite his massive sales, poor old Reynolds has never quite been able to escape from under the weight of this Dickensian scorn.

The Soldier’s Wife is hard to come by in a digital format – probably because Reynolds published so much during his lifetime that much of it simply hasn’t been scanned yet! – but you can download the scanned book as a PDF from the British Library Labs Images collection, here.  You can also find some of his other works, including Wagner the Wehr-Wolf and volumes of Mysteries of London, on Project Gutenberg.

Speaking of Dickens…

  1. Master Humphrey’s Clock (1840-1), Charles Dickens: circulation of 100,000 in its last few issues

the letters of charles dickens - master humphrey
You call that a pipe? Back in my day, a man could steer a barge down the Thames with his pipe

In his appraisal of this rather odd, hybrid piece of Dickens’s writing – a magazine, slash short story collection, slash vehicle for serial-format novels – G. K. Chesterton doesn’t exactly gush.

…[Master Humphrey’s Clock] is not one of the books of which his admirers would chiefly boast; although perhaps it is almost the only one of which he would not have boasted himself… Dickens might have written it in his sleep. That is to say, it is written by a sluggish Dickens, a half automatic Dickens, a dreaming and drifting Dickens; but still by the enduring Dickens.

Dickens had reached a point in his career where, Chesterton tells us (if not in so many words), his works were so popular that his publishers were happy to print anything he felt like churning out.  In fact, for Master Humphrey’s Clock, which was a weekly periodical featuring short stories (some of which eventually developed into The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge), they made him his own editor.

So, a famous creator of exceptionally popular works gets the sign-off from his publishers to do whatever he pleases, without much oversight, and produces work of a rather… eccentric character.  Hmm, where have we heard this story before?

star wars master humphrey
The year 1840 saw Dickens’s little-remembered Prequels phase

According to Chesterton, Dickens was having a great time being his own boss:

The omnipotence of the editor helped the eccentricities of the author. He could excuse himself for all his own shortcomings. He could begin a novel, get tired of it, and turn it into a short story. He could begin a short story, get fond of it, and turn it into a novel.

This odd little magazine started out well, possibly on the back of Nicholas Nickleby‘s popularity, with sales of 70,000 per issue.  It then slumped, badly.  However, Dickens hit his stride again, and with the introduction of The Old Curiosity Shop, the periodical recovered and was reaching circulation figures of 100,000 by its conclusion.

You can read Master Humphrey’s Clock at Project Gutenberg.

Yeah, but who sold the most books?

Well, Richard Altick seems to have spent most of his career trying to answer that question, and we’re still not sure.  There seems to be a general consensus that Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) blew everything else out of the water, but again, it depends on what time period you count these things – if you look at sales figures for its first three months after publication, it was actually outsold by Trilby!

I am still plugging away at this question, but my info (and Altick’s!) comes in dribs and drabs (usually from letters or author biographies), and in different formats.  For example, Deborah May Alcock’s The Spanish Brothers (1871 – another forgotten bestseller!) earned her enough money to buy two carriages with – which is a lot.  But it’s hard to know where “a lot” is supposed to go on my spreadsheet!

In short: if anyone has any information on sales figures for any novel from the long 19th century, I’d be delighted to hear it!

*I don’t have an answer to this question!  However, you might be interested to learn that Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, published 10 years after Alice, sold twice as fast, at 180,000 copies in only 17 years.  I’m eagerly awaiting Tim Burton’s Black Beauty, starring Helena Bonham Carter…

Figures from this post can be found in these articles by Richard Altick:

Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader: a social history of the mass reading public, 1800-1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Altick, Richard D.  “Nineteenth-Century English Bestsellers: A Further List”.  In Studies in Bibliography 22, 1969, pp197-205.

Altick, Richard D.  “Nineteenth-Century English Bestsellers: A Third List”.  In Studies in Bibliography 39, 1986, pp235-41.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Very interesting stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi there, this was an incredibly interesting article. I was wondering if when it comes to best-sellers in the 19th century where would Bulwer-Lyton’s Last Days of Pompeii be?


    1. Karen says:

      Hi Michael, thanks for your comment – and sorry for the delayed reply! Unfortunately, we don’t have any information on The Last Days of Pompeii (which is a shame, because it’s on our list of Texts of Interest for this project)! The three articles mentioned above are the primary sources for our figures, and they represent whatever Richard Altick could find over the course of his long career. There could well have been novels which sold more – or indeed were read more, by way of circulating libraries, for example – but we don’t have information on these.

      If it’s any use, however, Bulwer-Lytton’s first novel Pelham (1828) does make its way onto our list of longer-term bestsellers. According to Altick, the 1853 “railway edition” reprint of Pelham sold 46,000 copies over the following five years. Averaged out (unscientifically) over this period, to 9200 copies sold a year, this makes it our 14th most popular novel in terms of long-term sales – just behind Charles Reade’s 1856 It Is Never Too Late To Mend, and just ahead of Blackwood’s lease of all books by George Eliot (!) for the years between 1866 and 1876. (However, our ranking is subject to the same proviso as before – our book sales data is very incomplete and just reflects what we were able to find!)

      Bulwer-Lytton was very successful by any measure, but it seems unlikely that The Last Days of Pompeii sold better than this particular cheap edition of Pelham, which seems like a bit of a runaway success. I could be wrong, though! Perhaps the archives of the original publisher (Richard Bentley, I think?) might have some more info on this? If you find out more, we’d be delighted to hear about it!


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