Novels & Human Rights Part 6: Historical Context (The Book Trade)

When I started this project, I had no idea what a radical century I’d be examining. The 1700s bore a host of social changes and crazy new thoughts coming out of the Enlightenment that started around 1650. One day I’ll read about it more comprehensively, but my year is 1740, and I’ll focus on factors allowing Pamela to have a major social impact. First, the more technical changes regarding the book trade.

The century saw a substantial increase in literacy. Previously, with many people illiterate or semi-literate, the pool of potential readers was a small minority of the total population. Printers at the beginning of the 18th century published fewer than 100 books per year. Yet by 1800, the annual average increased to approximately 370 books. Publishers still issued no more than 10,000 copies of most books, but contemporaries felt the reading population was expanding dramatically. (And it was, comparatively speaking). Reports from Daniel Defoe and Gregory King indicate that at least half the population lived at or below the poverty level in 1700, earning less than 20 pounds each year. One quarter of the population constituted the upper classes. The final quarter made up a middle class of tradesmen, successful farmers, and similar occupations, earning between 38 and 60 pounds per year. The middle class, which expanded over the 1700s, became the source of the new readership.

A Young Girl Reading
A Young Girl Reading (1776), Jean Honore Fragonard

These people were shopkeepers, independent businessmen, administrators, and clerks – all with some level of literacy and disposable income. Women formed a disproportionate number of these readers, since upper-class women had always had the most leisure time and, as they became able, lower-class families imitated the upper classes.

Technological innovations also assisted the explosion of the book industry. Efficiency in book production spiked dramatically in the early 18th century. Authors were commonly paid by the page, so they switched from traditional poetry to natural, stream-of-consciousness prose that was quicker and easier to write. Writers could earn more money for the same amount of time, and include much more exposition if they chose. Richardson would’ve had a lot of trouble with his painstaking realism otherwise — his later book, Clarissa, is over 1,000 pages long! I believe he wanted to include those details for stylistic reasons, but it also can’t have hurt that he’d make more money for longer books.

It’s also no coincidence that when large numbers of books could be printed, booksellers became interested in books that would sell to large numbers of people! Books entered the capitalistic marketplace, now appealing to the masses rather than wealthy patrons. Booksellers had the final say on which books to promote. Contemporaries worried that this system simply appealed to the lowest common denominator of readers and disregarded established conventions… In reality, numerous experimental publications existed, and booksellers did not exert tyrannical control over what authors could write. Authors conducted experiments without urging from booksellers, and when they surprised themselves with success, booksellers jumped on the bandwagon. The upper classes were concerned that their monopoly on books would be replaced by a bookseller monopoly, and I guess it sort of was… But in general authors had wide leeway for experimentation, representative of the growing power and confidence of the middle class overall. Defoe and Richardson, both middle-class tradesmen, appealed effectively to middle- and lower-class interests.

Apprentices and household servants often merged into one upwardly-mobile group in contemporary discourse. These young adults possessed leisure time, could access books in their employers’ houses, received wages along with room and board, and needed to be literate in order to carry out their daily tasks. These people also spent more time with the upper classes, absorbing aristocratic habits. Pamela, a member of the “household servant” class, references a variety of contemporary books in her letters. She lists “a little Time for Reading” as one of the qualifications she hopes for in a new job, and says she will often occupy herself with books after she is married. All of this is realistic, down to the specific titles she would have been able to purchase, making her instantly relatable to much of Richardson’s audience. Again, circumstantial empathy is the easiest to produce.

Next week we’ll cover more of the important social changes in the 1700s!

2 thoughts on “Novels & Human Rights Part 6: Historical Context (The Book Trade)

  1. This sounds like a fascinating time period to study. Whether you could read or not almost used to be a status symbol. If you could, then you must be somebody. These days it’s sort-of the opposite and it’s sad if you can’t read. Unfortunately, there are still places in the world where literacy is uncommon, and a number of languages in Africa where there isn’t even an alphabet yet.



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