How One Author’s Bankruptcy Changed the History of the English Novel Forever

In the teens of the 19th century, Walter Scott was enjoying a wave of financial success as a novel-writer that was perhaps unprecedented in the history of literature.  His series of historical novels, published under the pseudonym “The Author of Waverley”, were selling in huge numbers, and his fans were legion, including – among others – the Prince Regent.  His poetry wasn’t doing too badly either, although he would later claim that despite the extraordinary success of such epic poems as Rokeby (which sold 10,000 copies in three months), he was forced out of the market by Lord Byron’s even bigger successes in verse.

the revival of english poetry - lord byron
My versifying brings all the pre-Raphaelites to the yard

But Scott’s novels, at least, were flying out the door as fast as booksellers could get them in:  Waverley (1814), Guy Mannering (1815), The Antiquary (1816), and Rob Roy (1818) were all runaway successes, selling out ever larger print runs in a matter of days upon their publication, and continuing to sell well into the early 1820s*.

Despite this success, or perhaps in part because of it, Walter Scott was heading for a truly enormous crash.

He was a partner in the publishing firm of Scott & Ballantyne; partnership law (unlike limited liability, a later standard) put all business and personal assets at risk… In 1826, a bad year for the economy, Scott and Ballantyne went bankrupt, leaving Scott himself personally or (in his opinion) morally liable for (at least) £126,000.

A hundred and twenty thousand pounds was a stupendous sum of money at the time.  To put this in perspective, just over a decade previously, another individual who was also working for the publishing machine – Jane Austen – had received less than one thousandth of this amount, £110, for the manuscript of Pride and Prejudice, and felt “very rich” at having done so.  Scott was in deep water indeed.

Unlike many a bankrupt businessman of his own (or indeed, our) time period, Scott felt obliged to repay the sum in question.  Even more unusually, he actually had the wherewithal to do so, and although it took him the rest of his life, he did eventually succeed in liquidating this massive debt.  Income from his subsequent novels was applied towards the hundred thousand pounds, but the biggest contribution came from a new kind of publishing project which was developed by Scott and Richard Cadell, another survivor of bankruptcy brought on by the crash: the 1829 Cadell or “Magnum Opus” collected edition of the Waverley novels.  This collection included new material (introductions, notes and illustrations) and a corrected text, and was published in small, attractive, and (comparatively) cheap volumes, one per month, starting in 1829.

The bibliographical scholar Richard D. Altick reports that over the next few years, at least 40,000 copies of Guy Mannering and Rob Roy were sold in this edition.  The Magnum Opus collection was so popular and so common that examples of these editions are still widely available almost two centuries after their first publication.  Here’s an Ebay listing for a complete set, which is a steal at just under £200 sterling!

contents of the waverley novels - ebay
I really feel like someone should buy this

In 1833, the year after Scott’s death, his creditors were finally paid off. Later commentators would criticise Scott for flooding the market with his already-popular works; in 1839 Thomas Carlyle would write (perhaps unfairly) that

…. in this nineteenth century, our highest literary man, who immeasurably beyond all others commanded the world’s ear, had, as it were, no message whatever to deliver to the world … except simply pay him for the books he kept writing.

Yet his relentless writing and publishing had undeniably had results.  A line may have been drawn under Scott’s debt, but his new phenomenon in publishing was about to take on a life of its own.

Another publishing house, Colburn and Bentley, had noted the Victorian public’s appetite for inexpensive volume collections, and decided to release their own authoritative collection of previously-published works.  The publication of Bentley’s Standard Novels began in 1831, reissuing many titles (mostly from the previous generation) that are now considered classics, by authors such as James Fenimore Cooper (whose works were a bit of a show piece for the set), Jane Austen, Frederick Marryat, William Godwin, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Theodore Hook, among others.

While this series again served to make works of fiction more affordable for the public, and provided an alternative to the circulating libraries for at least some readers, scholar Richard Maxwell has argued that in the long term, the Standard Novels may, counterintuitively, have suppressed the circulation of many of the novels it featured – particularly works from Scott’s contemporaries, writing in the Romantic period.

…St Clair notes that whereas the price of the Waverley novels kept dropping in the decades after 1830, Bentley seems to have been much more reluctant to broaden his audience still further by narrowing profit margins on individual volumes.  The result was that, if Scott’s fiction had dominated the market during his lifetime, it dominated it even more after his death.  Bentley sat on the rights he had bought (and which he kept, in many cases, for a generation)…

Frankenstein is one novel that may have been a (temporary) casualty of this circumstance.  Although Mary Shelley had welcomed the opportunity to bring her book to a wider audience through the Standard Novels series, the terms of copyright meant that it would not be published again in England until the 1860s.

 …[M]eanwhile, the Waverley novels circulated through the anglophone world in every imaginable form (as though the tormented ghost of their author were still doing everything it could to pay off debts).

the dairy of the farm - complete edition of scott
Here’s one example: an edition of Scott’s works in 5-inch tall volumes, being advertised in the back pages of an 1885 American manual on dairy farrming.

The ubiquity of Walter Scott’s works, compared to others from the period, can be summed up by the fact that a single work from the Bentley collection – the 1833 edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility – is on sale on Abebooks.com, at the time of writing this blog post, for more than $500.  That’s almost twice the cost of the entire Magnum Opus edition of Scott!

The results of this, for both Scott’s legacy and that of Romantic-era fiction in general, have been dramatic.  As Maxwell states, “It is a slight overstatement to say that prose fiction in the Romantic period became the novels of Walter Scott.  But there were noticeable tendencies in that direction.”  Meanwhile, many popular authors whose works were published  in Bentley’s Standard Novels – including Captain Marryat, who was represented by 11 novels – have never entirely recovered their popularity.

The moral of the story?  Well, not all novels – even those we consider some of the world’s greatest classics – are created equal.  Historical contingencies, and circumstances in the publishing industry, play a major role in a novel’s path through history.  While the Waverley novels absolutely deserve their reputation as both groundbreaking and fun to read, it’s worth remembering that their continued fame has a lot to do with the ebbs and flows of the 19th century economy… as well as the personal circumstances of their author, and his bank account.

In other news: many happy returns to Sir Walter Scott, on his 245th birthday!

walter scott with party hat copy


*Waverley sold 1000 copies in 5 weeks, but subsequent works went much faster. Guy Mannering sold its entire print run of 2000 on its first day, while The Antiquary – which brought in the very respectable sum of about £1682 from the first edition – sold 6000 copies in six days, and Rob Roy sold 10,000 copies in two weeks.
All of these figures are cited in Altick’s articles (below).


Relevant works:

This post owes a lot to Richard Maxwell’s excellent article from The Cambridge Companion to Fiction in the Romantic Period, 2008.  The entry on Walter Scott in the Dictionary of National Bibliography, by David Hewitt, was also extremely helpful.

Here is a great blog post on Richard Bentley and his Standard Novels.

Richard D. Altick (lots of Richards in this post!) and his meticulously gathered data on sales of 19th fiction were again extremely helpful.  (I’ve written more on this topic here.)  Here are the specific sources:
Altick, Richard D., ‘Nineteenth-Century English Bestsellers: A Further List’, Studies in Bibliography, 22 (1969), 197–205
———, ‘Nineteenth-Century English Bestsellers: A Third List’, Studies in Bibliography, 39 (1986), 235–41
———, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (Chicago, Illinois, USA: University Of Chicago Press, 1957)

Robert Hume’s fascinating article provided the quote about Jane Austen’s finances:

Hume, Robert D., ‘Money in Jane Austen’, Review of English Studies, 64 (2013), 289
Finally, Thomas Carlyle’s rather surly quote on Walter Scott’s heroic efforts to pay off his debts comes from his Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, London: Chapman and Hall, 1869.

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