Books multiplied as the middle class and the reading public grew. Publishing became sufficiently profitable to be an independent business, separate from bookselling. Publishers competed for authors, paid them better, feted them at literary salons. So Joseph Johnson wined and published Godwin, Paine, and Blake; Archibald Constable shared his debts with Walter Scott; Thomas Norton Longman took Wordsworth; Joseph Cottle, at Bristol, kept Coleridge and Southey; and John Murray, from London, held wandering Byron in leash. Meanwhile the old firm of Longmans spent three hundred thousand pounds publishing a new edition (1819) of Chambers’ Cyclopoedia, in thirty-nine volumes; and the Encyclopaedia Britannica issued three new editions in this brief period—the third, in eighteen volumes, in 1788–97, the fourth in twenty volumes in 1810, the fifth in twenty-five volumes in 1815.
Instead of royalties, publishers paid lump sums for manuscripts, and added something if further editions were printed and sold; nevertheless very few authors lived by their pens—Thomas Moore comfortably, Southey and Hazlitt precariously, Scott through riches and ruin. Publishers succeeded patricians as patrons of literature, but some moneyed men still held out a hand; so the Wedgwoods subsidized Coleridge, and Raisley Calvert bequeathed nine hundred pounds to Wordsworth. The government sent occasional honorariums to well-behaved authors, and maintained a poet laureate at a hundred pounds; for this he was expected to compose on the instant a poem celebrating a victory of the armed forces, or a royal birth, marriage, or death.
The growth of the reading public was checked by the high price of books, but was promoted by book clubs and lending libraries. Best of the latter were the Athenaeum and the Lyceum, both at Liverpool, the one with eight thousand volumes, the other with eleven thousand. Subscribers paid an annual fee, from one to two and a half guineas, for the right to borrow any book on the shelves. Every town had its lending library. Something was lost in taste and standards as reading spread from the aristocracy through the commonalty. The transition from classic tradition to Romantic sentiment was fed by this spreading audience, and by the growing emancipation of youthful love from parental control and property bonds; and one love affair could do for a hundred plots. Richardson’s tearful themes were gaining ground from Fielding’s lusty lovers and Smollett’s virile adventurers.
Women predominated among the novelists, except for Matthew “Monk” Lewis and his chamber of horrors, Ambrosio, or The Monk (1795). Next only to him in the terror and mystery school was Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, with her succession of successes: A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Romance of the Forest (1791), and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Usually the English public called such books romances (from the French word roman, meaning a story), and kept the term novel for extended narratives of naturalhappenings in ordinary life, as in Fielding and Jane Austen; Scott’s Waverley Novels bridge the definitions. In Romantic fiction the women authors naturally excelled. Frances (Fanny) Burney, who, at twenty-six, had made a stir with Evelina (1778), went on to sparkle with Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796), and The Wanderer (1814); and after her death (1840) her Diary (1842) charmed another generation.
Even more famous was Maria Edgeworth, whose Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (1812?) gave in fictional but realistic form such powerful descriptions of Irish exploitation by English landlords that England itself was stirred to mitigate these evils. Only one woman writer of her generation surpassed her, and that woman surpassed the men as well.