Middlemarching away. The story of Asher’s Collection
For almost a century, from 1840 to 1940, the Tauchnitz Editions dominated English language publishing in Europe. Almost every significant work of English Literature from the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century appeared in their familiar buff covers.
By almost any measure, George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ was one of the most significant English language novels of the 19th century, but it never appeared in a Tauchnitz Edition. At first sight this is odd, as all Eliot’s other novels did – ‘Adam Bede’, ‘The mill on the floss’, ‘Silas Marner’, ‘Romola’, ‘Felix Holt’, ‘Daniel Deronda’ – they’re all there, along with various other works. Surely Bernhard Tauchnitz, usually such a sure judge of literary merit as well as sales popularity, wasn’t blind to the merits of ‘Middlemarch’?
Of course the answer is no. He would have loved to publish ‘Middlemarch’ but he was denied the opportunity. It went instead to a rival publisher, A. Asher & Co. in Berlin, who presumably outbid Tauchnitz and used the novel as the basis on which to launch a new series of English language novels in competition to Tauchnitz.
‘Asher’s Collection of English Authors – British and American’ was launched in 1872 with the first two books of ‘Middlemarch’ as Volumes I and II. The title of the series was perhaps a bit of a dig at Tauchnitz, whose own ‘Collection of British Authors’ failed to give any recognition to the nationality of the many American authors in its ranks. However, other than a token appearance of one novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne (who had died several years earlier), the early authors published seemed to be almost all British, and the American reference was later quietly dropped.
There was no doubt that ‘Middlemarch’ was Asher’s trophy asset and the firm must have paid heavily to acquire it. The novel is split into eight ‘books’ and each of them was published as a separately numbered volume in the series, spread out over the following year, with each volume priced at a premium 20 Groschen (2/3 Thaler), compared to 15 Groschen (1/2 Thaler) for all other volumes in the series. So the price for all eight volumes was over 5 Thalers, compared to 1 Thaler for the Tauchnitz Edition of ‘Felix Holt’, or 2 Thalers for the later 4-volume edition of ‘Daniel Deronda’.
Confusingly, the eight books of ‘Middlemarch’ were also grouped in twos into four ‘volumes’. This resulted in an almost surreal numbering system, where for instance book 7 of the novel is also part 1 of the 4th volume, but is volume 52 of the Asher series.
However peculiar the numbering, the series was a serious rival to Tauchnitz. In its first year in 1872 it published around 50 volumes, almost all of them by authors who had previously had works published by Tauchnitz. As well as Eliot, other authors who defected to the new series in that first year included George Whyte-Melville, Henry Kingsley, George MacDonald, Rhoda Broughton, Ouida, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Margaret Oliphant, Louisa Parr, Harriet Parr (Holme Lee), Sheridan Le Fanu, William Hepworth Dixon and Matilda Betham-Edwards.
And yet Tauchnitz survived, and rather more than survived. In 1871 the firm had published a total of 66 volumes in its series, many of them by the authors listed above. Despite their defection, it managed in 1872 a total of 93 new volumes, which seems to have been a record number. Presumably there was some loss of sales, and it had to increase payments to authors to avoid losing more, but Tauchnitz clearly wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
Bernhard Tauchnitz was certainly determined not to lose Bulwer Lytton, to whom he wrote in a letter on 3 October 1872 ‘I could not bear the thought to see your name in any other publisher’s hand’. As a result he paid Bulwer a record 8000 Marks (£400) for ‘Kenelm Chillingley’, published in early 1873 and recorded in the 50 year history of the firm as being the largest fee paid for a single novel. To protect margins, the price to customers was effectively increased by spreading the novel out over four volumes. To achieve this, the number of lines to a page went right down to 23, from a more normal 30 or so.
There was no immediate let up in the pressure on Tauchnitz in the early part of 1873. Further defections included Annie Thomas, Anthony Trollope and Charlotte Riddell, but gradually the outflow was stemmed. The number of volumes published by Asher in 1873 reduced a little to around 37, while Tauchnitz’s total remained around 90. Perhaps even more encouragingly, authors started to return. Some like Rhoda Broughton, Holme Lee, William Hepworth Dixon and Margaret Oliphant, having flirted briefly with Asher, came back to the Tauchnitz fold. Others like Trollope, Mary Braddon and Henry Kingsley continued to play one off against the other, publishing books under both imprints.
In 1874 the number of volumes published in the Asher series reduced again to 12 and it began to look as though it might have shot its bolt. Tauchnitz wouldn’t have been pleased though to see that the books published included one by Florence Marryat, who had previously been loyal to his firm, and whose father had been published by Tauchnitz since 1842.
In the later part of 1874, the books started to feature the name of Albert Cohn as publisher on the title page in place of A. Asher, although the series title continued to be ‘Asher’s Collection’. Adolf Asher himself had died long before and the business had been run by Albert Cohn for many years, but some of the business seems to have been sold in 1874, with other parts continuing under Cohn’s name. Could the sale have been partly the result of losses from the new venture?
Adolf Asher had been an antiquarian bookdealer and bibliographer as well as a publisher. He seems to have had a particular attachment to England and became one of the principal suppliers of books to the British Museum, so it was appropriate enough that the series bore his name. Albert Cohn too was a book dealer and literary scholar as well as a publisher and may have concentrated more on his antiquarian interests after 1874. After a brief period during which the books carried his name on the title page, they re-appeared in 1875 under yet another new name.
The first phase of ‘Asher’s Collection’ was over. It had certainly given Tauchnitz a scare, and forced it to pay higher fees to its authors. It had cost it ‘Middlemarch’ and a handful of other titles that it would regret, perhaps most notably ‘Lorna Doone’ and ‘Under the greenwood tree’. But it had failed to end the domination of Tauchnitz in continental Europe.
And if the first phase had ended, the full story of Asher’s Collection certainly had not. It would still be adding books, and causing irritation to Tauchnitz more than 15 years later. I’ll come back to the second phase of its story in another post.