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Victorian women novelists – racier than you might think

It’s a persuasive and persistent myth that in Victorian times it was difficult for women to get novels published.  It doesn’t help that some of the best known women novelists of the period, notably George Eliot and the Brontë sisters, used pseudonyms that were male, or at least in the case of the Brontës, gender neutral.  From there it’s a small jump to conclude that it was only by pretending to be male that they could get published.

NPG 1405; George Eliot (Mary Ann Cross (nÈe Evans)) replica by FranÁois D'Albert Durade

George Eliot from a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery

Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in the mid-Victorian period.   I use as evidence the Tauchnitz Collection of British Authors, which is as near as you can get to a representative coverage of English Literature at the time.   For the 25 year period from roughly 1864 to 1889 the collection included more volumes by female authors than male authors.   In the early Victorian period, it’s true that female authors were much less common (and undoubtedly subject to some prejudice as well), and after 1890 the balance also swung back some way towards the men.  But overall the evidence is clear – there were large numbers of Victorian women novelists – and they did get published.

But there’s another myth that needs puncturing – the myth of Victorian Values.  It’s easy to think that Victorian women novelists were a straight-laced bunch, upholding in their lives as well as their writing, a strict moral code, that certainly involved no sex outside marriage.   In practice many women writers were writing ‘sensation novels’, in which it seemed almost every character had a guilty secret.   The dramatic tension came from the contrast between the values that society seemed to expect and the rather messier lives led under the surface.

Maguerite,_Countess_of_Blessington

The Countess of Blessington, from a portrait by Thomas Lawrence

And the authors certainly had messy lives themselves. I’ve written before about the Countess of Blessington, the first female author to be published by Tauchnitz in 1843.  She was in an abusive marriage, then lived as the mistress of the Earl of Blessington, before eventually marrying him.   It was later strongly rumoured that she was in a relationship with the Count d’Orsay, who married her step-daughter.

Caroline_Norton_by_Frank_Stone

Caroline Norton from a portrait by Frank Stone in the National Portrait Gallery

Or take Caroline Norton, another of the early Tauchnitz authors (and the daughter of another women novelist).  She had left her husband in 1836 and was involved in a close friendship with the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.  After attempting unsuccessfully to blackmail Melbourne, Caroline’s husband sued the Prime Minister for ‘criminal conversation’ with his wife.  This was rejected by the court, but the scandal nearly brought down the Government.  Caroline is then said to have had a five year affair with a Conservative politician, Sidney Herbert.  She was, perhaps pointedly, referred to on the title pages of her Tauchnitz novels, as The Honourable Caroline Norton.

NPG x21214; Florence Marryat by Unknown photographer

From the National Portrait Gallery

Florence Marryat, one of the most prolific Victorian authors, also left her husband to live with another man.  Her husband eventually sued for divorce, citing his wife’s adultery, and Florence re-married.  Mary Elizabeth Braddon, even more prolific with over 100 volumes to her name in the Tauchnitz series, lived for many years with John Maxwell who was already married to someone else.  And of course George Eliot famously lived with another married man (and another Tauchnitz author), George Henry Lewes.

Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim

One of the more prominent women authors towards the end of the Victorian era, Elizabeth von Arnim, writing as Countess Russell, was for several years the mistress of H.G. Wells.  And it wasn’t just the British.  Léonie d’Aunet, possibly the only French woman author whose work appeared in the Tauchnitz series (her work ‘Un mariage en province’ was translated / adapted by Lady Georgiana Fullerton), had a seven year affair with Victor Hugo, for which she was arrested and spent time in prison and in a convent.

Tauchnitz 1769 Leonie D'Aunet

Portrait of Léonie d’Aunet by her husband François-Auguste Biard

There are no doubt many other examples.  I don’t of course want to imply that the men were any better.  Amongst others, Dickens left his wife for an 18 year old actress and the unmarried Wilkie Collins seems to have split his affections between two women simultaneously.   My point is just that Victorian women writers were not only numerous, but racier than you might think.  Victorian Values were just another myth.

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A lesson for Harvard Business School

Bernhard Tauchnitz started young in the publishing industry, apprenticed to his uncle, Karl Tauchnitz, who specialised in publishing dictionaries, bibles and classical texts in Greek and Latin.   Karl died in 1836, and although the firm was carried on by his son, Bernhard seems to have decided at this point to launch his own publishing company. He was just 20 years old when the company was created on 1st February 1837.

To launch a publishing company under your own name at the age of 20 needs a lot of chutzpah, but it must also need a lot of money. Presumably the young Tauchnitz came from a comfortable background himself, but he was also by then engaged to be married to a wealthy young lady, Henriette Morgenstern, which no doubt helped.

baron BT low

For the first few years he continued in the family tradition.   Among the snappily titled works published in 1838 were ‘Bibliotheca Patrum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum Selecta’ and the ‘Zeitschrift fuer Rechtspflege und Verwaltung zunaechst fuer das Koenigreich Sachsen’, a legal journal.   It was not until 1841 that he turned to the publication of novels in English, the idea that was to make his name and his fortune.   There was no copyright law at the time and he was able to print copies of the latest novels published in England without any restriction, or any need to pay the authors.   Others were already doing so, and he started off in the same way.

Whether this practice troubled his conscience, or whether he saw from the start that there could be commercial advantage in doing things differently, we can never know.   But he quickly came to the conclusion that he should offer voluntary payment to the authors, in return for which he would be able to describe his editions as ‘sanctioned by the author’, and he set off for London to make this proposal to a number of leading novelists.  The first to agree to it, in July 1843, were Bulwer Lytton, G.P.R. James and Lady Blessington.  They were quickly followed by others, including Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli.

By this time, the Tauchnitz ‘Collection of British Authors’ had already reached 50 volumes, all published with no authorisation or payment at all, including 15 volumes by Lytton and 7 by Dickens.   It’s perhaps not surprising that both authors were quick to accept the proposal, even if no retrospective payments were on offer.

Title page 47 Nicholas Nickleby I

Nicholas Nickleby was an early publication by Tauchnitz, with no approval and no payment.

In practice the proposal Tauchnitz made was a masterstroke. Although he was anticipating the law by only about three years (Anglo-German treaties established copyright protection in Prussia and Saxony in 1846), by being the first mover he was able both to set the terms and to establish a reputation for fair dealing. Both advantages lasted a long time.

Having been offered voluntary payment, where none was legally required, authors were in no position to negotiate the terms, and most were simply grateful for the offer, so grateful indeed that they allowed Tauchnitz to continue to set the terms throughout their relationship. Charles Dickens was clear about this in much of their correspondence. For example in 1860, almost twenty years later, he wrote:
“I cannot consent to name the sum you shall pay for ‘Great Expectations’. I have too great a regard for you and too high a sense of your honourable dealing, to wish to depart from the custom we have always observed. Whatever price you put upon it will satisfy me. You have always proposed the terms yourself, on former occasions, and I entreat you to do so now.”

George Henry Lewes, the partner of George Eliot, as well as an author in his own right, similarly wrote “As to remuneration, from your having transmitted English authors an honorarium at the time when no law of copyright rendered such an action imperative, I have conceived such an idea of your liberality and probity as to leave it to you to send me whatever sum you consider the success of the work may justify.”

The advantage that a publisher might achieve from such a privileged position can only be surmised. Publishers today would be open-mouthed at the idea of being offered a new work such as ‘Great Expectations’ for whatever sum they wanted to pay. Presumably Tauchnitz had to be careful not to abuse his position, but it was certainly one of considerable power. It even extended to his son Christian, who eventually took on the business after the founder died in 1895, with Mark Twain writing “This father and this son have one prodigious distinction which I believe no other publishers have ever enjoyed – to whit, that they were never thieves”. Twain presumably was unaware that the first 50 volumes in the series had been unauthorised.

Title page 57 Martin Chuzzlewit I    Title page 175 David Copperfield I

Later publications – Martin Chuzzlewit in 1843 ‘Edition sanctioned by the author’ and David Copperfield in 1849  ‘Copyright Edition’

There was another advantage too from the reputation and the relationships that Tauchnitz had established. He was able to obtain new novels as soon as they were completed, often working from early proofs produced by the UK publishers, or from the serialisation in monthly magazines, and in many cases even issuing them before UK publication, so that the Tauchnitz Editions are in practice often the true worldwide first editions. Through his direct relationships with authors, he could effectively bypass the UK publishers, who would have preferred a delay before allowing continental publications that would undercut their more expensive editions.

That initial proposal by Tauchnitz, even if motivated by guilt rather than hard business calculation, was undoubtedly a stroke of genius. I almost feel it should be written up as a case study by Harvard Business School. It’s a wonderful example of what the British economist John Kay, has called ‘obliquity’ – that the best results in one direction are often obtained by starting off in another, and the companies most focused on delivering ‘shareholder value’ are often the least successful in doing so.