Visitors to the Dark Imaginings exhibition may find themselves drawn to two hand-sized books, immediately distinguishable by their melodramatic titles, and exaggerated illustrations in splashes of bright colour.
These engaging pamphlets—known for their plain paper bindings as ‘bluebooks’—can tell us much about how gothic fiction was popularised and consumed by a late-18th century reading public.
In counterpoint to the wave of classic gothic novels published in the period 1764–1820, a lively ancillary trade in shorter gothic fiction arose in the 1790s to 1830s, most successfully by publishers Ann Lemoine and Thomas Tegg. Bluebooks evolved from the tradition of popular street literature, including single-sheet ballads and broadsides, and political libels (little books) and chapbooks (cheap books) issued in pamphlet form. Of these, chapbooks had the broadest appeal with their tales of bravery and adventure, and accounts of dastardly crimes interspersed with practical household advice. During the 1790s bluebooks emerged as a specialist offshoot of the chapbook tradition, containing short versions of gothic romances, which were then at their height of popularity.
The typical bluebook was printed on low-cost paper, 24–72 pages in length, and sold for sixpence or a shilling at book stalls. Early examples were illustrated with rudimentary woodcuts (though their sophistication evolved over time), usually depicting a scene featuring the hero–villain or heroine in one of the more agitated episodes from the storyline. As well as being affordable to the labouring classes, the relative brevity of bluebooks made them quicker to read, an important factor when there was little leisure in the working day.
By the early 1800s, the production of gothic fiction had segmented in three broad areas: full-length novels published in standard three or four volume sets (affordable only to the wealthier middle and upper classes); serialised stories published in monthly periodicals (also priced for mainstream audience); and the inexpensive bluebook trade (within reach of the working class). A fourth option was also available to those who could afford it: borrowing novels from one of the many subscription libraries, by paying annual or overnight fees. Bluebooks were stocked by some of these private lending libraries and could be rented overnight for one penny. Despite the stratification of the market, evidence suggests that bluebooks were readily consumed by the middle and upper classes, providing the same lighter entertainment as they did for a humbler readership.
A large proportion of bluebook stories were unapologetic re-workings of standard-length fashionable novels, with titles and authors names altered to avoid copyright breaches. For instance, Tegg’s 1810 version of The Daemon of Venice is a redaction of Zofloya by Charlotte Dacre (1806), with many of the major characters’ names changed: the heroine Victoria di Loredini is renamed Arabella di Lenardi, and her brother Leonardo becomes Orlando. In other instances the proper attributions were retained where copyright had expired, as in the case of Mary Robinson’s Vancenza: or The Dangers of Credulity (another Tegg 1810 bluebook), to take advantage of the continued popularity of the original novel (published in 1792).
Although bluebooks as a genre were disregarded as serious literature, it is important to recognise that the short format allowed for a measure of creativity and many new titles were written specifically for the bluebook trade, including some by Lemoine and (possibly) Tegg. As Potter observes ‘new evidence suggests that the gothic bluebook industry was itself a large secondary market for the gothic, and not merely a passive inheritor of gothic subjects and styles from legitimate novels, but instead was a developer and producer of gothic material that had particular patterns of inflection’.
Lemoine’s birth place and date are unrecorded, but she married the writer and chapbook seller Henry Lemoine in London in January 1786. After assisting her husband to build a successful publishing enterprise, they became estranged in 1795 when the business faltered and he was incarcerated in debtor’s prison. This timing proved fortuitous for Ann as it coincided with a spike in popularity of gothic reading spurred by Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and M.G. Lewis’s The Monk (1796), providing a ready market for her fledging publishing concern.
Although Ann Lemoine’s publishing output was not limited to bluebooks, a 2002 survey found that she had published 67 of 217 gothic titles issued in the years 1794–1815 (almost a third of the market). This success was directly attributable to her business acumen, an inclination for experimentation and ability to deliver a product that appealed to buyers. Lemoine modelled her books on more expensive volumes, and cultivated a stable of popular authors. She exploited the use of long titles as marketing tools, invested in the new technology of copperplate engraving (resulting in more elegant frontispieces), and imitated trends found in higher end publishing (including the early adoption of aquatint). Another sales innovation was the binding of several stories into larger volumes, which allowed for the acquittal of unsold stock such as the compilation Romances and Gothic Tales (1801).
Like Lemoine, bluebooks comprised one branch of Thomas Tegg’s publishing empire. After a period as an itinerant auctioneer (buying up books at cheap prices and selling them at nightly and weekend auctions), Tegg moved to Cheapside in the early 1800s where he traded for 40 years, publishing two books a week (or approximately 4000 titles). Like Ann Lemoine, Tegg embraced technological advances and his bluebooks were higher quality productions, with some such as the Castle of the Appennines (1810) boasting frontispieces by the artist Thomas Rowlandson.
- Barnes, James J. & Patience P. Barnes. ‘Reassessing the Reputation of Thomas Tegg, London Publisher, 1776–1846’,Book History, Vol. 3 (2000), pp. 45-60. Accessed 24 January 2018 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/30227311>
- Bearden-White, Roy. ‘A History of Guilty Pleasure: Chapbooks and the Lemoines’, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Vol. 103, No. 3 (September 2009), pp. 284–318. Accessed 24 January 2018 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/24293816>
- Bearden-White, Roy. How the Wind Sits: The History of Henry and Ann Lemoine, Chapbook Writers and Publishers of the Late Eighteenth Century. Lulu.com, 2017.
- Milbank, Alison. Gothic Satires, Histories and Chap-Books. Marlborough: Adam Matthew Publications. Accessed 24 January 2018 <http://www.ampltd.co.uk/digital_guides/gothic_fiction/AlisonMilbank3.aspx>
- Potter, Franz. The History of Gothic Publishing, 1800–1835: Exhuming the Trade. Houndmills, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
- Summers, Montagu. The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel. London: Russell & Russell, 1964.
- Milbank, Alison. Gothic Satires, Histories and Chap-Books, p.2.
- Potter, Franz. The History of Gothic Publishing, 1800-1835: Exhuming the Trade, p. 43.
- Ibid, p. 37.
- Milbank, Alison. Op cit, p. 3.
- Summers, Montagu. The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel, p. 84.
- Summers, Montagu. The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel, p. 84.
- Potter, Franz. Op cit, p. 10.
- Bearden-White, Roy. ‘A History of Guilty Pleasure: Chapbooks and the Lemoines’, p. 292.
- Ibid, p. 310.
- Barnes, James J. & Patience P. Barnes. ‘Reassessing the Reputation of Thomas Tegg, London Publisher, 1776-1846’, pp. 45-46.
- Summers, Montagu. Op cit, p. 83.