Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text
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Waiting for the death of Little Nell: Gas, flong, and the nineteenth century novel

C. W. R. D. Moseley (Faculty of English University of Cambridge)



In literary history teleologies, even if often unperceived, are seductively attractive. But coincidence and contingency have a more profound effect on the structures with which we think, write and communicate than sometimes we allow. The concatenation of quite unrelated events and material circumstances, having nothing to do whatsoever with writing or literature, can have radical consequences for literary form and for reading. This paper will examine some of the changes in the formal and material structures of the novel in the nineteenth century, and will suggest links between changes in narrative strategies and contemporary technological innovations.


It has been estimated that between 1836 and 1889 at least 192 novels(1) were published serially in England. Serialization, indeed, was the primary mode of novel publication, though not itself a new invention: the first serial, Ned Ward’s scandalous The London Spy, appeared in 1698. What is different in the nineteenth century is the industrialisation of fiction and its production.

The attitudes and strategies of authors towards the constraints this imposed on their craft has been much explored, and I do not propose to go over that again. What I want to do, briefly, now is to suggest that the writing of novels - indeed the whole course of journalism and publishing in nineteenth century Europe and America - could not have happened as it did without a quite fortuitous concatenation of circumstances, many quite unrelated to anything literary at all. The novel’s later nineteenth century taking over of the traditional role of the poem as the primary form for the exploration in fiction of moral and political issues is in some significant measure dependent on factors which have nothing whatever to do with literature.

I start with something that has been noticed before: a facet of English law. An Act of 1712 imposed a tax of ½d on paper used for newspapers. This was intended to curb their growth, or at least raise their price - the same thing, effectively. In 1797, in a time of extreme nervousness about the dissemination of Jacobin ideas, that tax rose to 3½d and in 1815, the year of the Congress of Vienna, to 4d. This raised the cost of most newspapers to 6d or 7d - way beyond what the average working man might afford. However, by using a bigger sheet publishers could call their newspapers technically ‘pamphlets’, which were exempt from that extra tax. So, in the tense atmosphere after 1815, radical journalists began publishing weekly or monthly pamphlets. Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register began as a pamphlet in 1816, unfolded, at 2d per copy. It soon had a circulation of over 40,000. Other journalists like Richard Carlile and Thomas Wooler followed with The Cap of Liberty and The Black Dwarf .

The bigger unfolded sheets needed more text than editorial matter, adverts and letters could supply. Serialised fiction was an easy way to fill them up. Dickens' Pickwick Papers appeared thus during 1836, and by the time the paper tax was repealed in 1855, making possible cheap papers like The Daily Telegraph at 1d, readers were used to serial novels, and newspaper and magazine owners had realised what such serials could do to boost circulation. Making readers wait (in some cases for two years) to learn the outcomes of all a novel’s plot lines was good marketing strategy.

The most well known of the radical journals of the mid-century is the weekly Household Words, which Dickens began editing in 1850, after his Weekly News failed. As well as carrying articles on politics, science and history, in it Dickens serialized novels dealing with social issues: his own Hard Times (1854) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford and North and South, for example. By 1851 Household Words was selling 40,000 copies a week. Its successor, after 1859, All the Year Round, was equally successful.


But turn now to the absolutely fundamental materials and processes: paper and printing. No cheap paper, no fast printing, no mass sales.

Papermaking was for centuries very labour intensive(2). The rags had first to be shredded - effectively reduced to their constituent fibres - then mixed to the right consistency with water and size to form the stock. This was then poured manually into moulds, over a fine screen of wire on which a watermark was woven. Too much and you had cardboard: too little and you had tissue. Then, after draining, the individual sheets had to be hung up to dry, before being finished in a sort of mangle. All this was done, sheet by sheet, by hand.

In 1798 Nicolas Louis Robert, taking advantage of developments in water power, invented a machine to make paper as a continuous roll. In his native France it was hardly noticed; but in England Brian Donkin developed it for Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier(3), and it began operating in 1804. The advantages were so obvious that its use spread rapidly. The revolutionary principle was that instead of pouring the stock onto individual screens, the Fourdrinier machine used a continuous screen, or wire, moving as an endless belt, onto which the stock was sprayed. (This is still the principle used today.) The water drains out, and the stock, usually about 3% solids when sprayed on the wire, is about 7% solids by the time it gets to the end. Then it is picked off from above by a felt moving at the same speed. The stock then goes through a series of rollers that squeeze and/or suck more water out of the stock. By the end of this, the press section, the stock is usually 40-50% solids.

It then moves into the dryer section, made up of a series of dryer rolls or one large dryer. Dryers were heated from the inside by steam and from the outside by hot air. By this point, the stock is usually about 95% solids. Finally, the paper is wound onto the dry end winder.

Even though the original Fourdrinier machines had no dry end winders, and had to hang the paper in very long sheets to dry, after their introduction, the price of paper immediately fell sharply and was available in much larger quantities. And as the demand for paper grew, other sources of stock had to be found: this is when wood pulp, made from the fibres from milled wood - mechanical pulps - begins to be used. Caustic soda was also used to digest the cellulose, to make what is called a chemical pulp. Obviously, such papers were and are much cheaper and much less durable than rag paper. There is an interesting historical footnote to this: at Cowan’s mill at Penicuik, operated by them until the late 1960s, prisoners from the French wars were interned, and helped increase the supply of paper. Indeed, many of the terms in papermaking used to be called by names of French origin - the sale, for example where paper is sorted and packed.


Concurrently and wholly coincidentally, the firm of Firmin Didot, one of the oldest family printers in France, invented what, from good Greek words, they called the Stereotype(4).

Now the classical manner of printing is to set loose type (sorts) into a chaise, and to print the text from this. Didot’s revolutionary development was to set up the type in the chaise like this, then to press the flong - thick felt-like papier-mâché - against the type, to form a reverse impression of the text, which is then dried. Then one makes a ‘stereotype’ of the original type by casting lead into the flong - I myself can remember doing this at the Pitt Press in Cambridge in the 1960s. This solid sheet of type metal can be surfaced electrolytically with copper, and will allow far more copies to be taken from it than the original sorts, which will wear out and need recasting after about 1000 copies.

These contemporary but unrelated technical advances would immediately have allowed longer runs on much cheaper paper, but they could not be exploited until steam power replaced the laborious hand-operation of printing presses. Furthermore, the old wooden presses were very sensitive to ambient humidity and temperature, and so needed constant adjustment. Around 1800 the third Earl of Stanhope made an all-metal printing press to get round these disadvantages, but even so t he absolute maximum speed of a hand press with three men working it is no more than about 150 copies an hour: steam driven machinery when it came in immediately got the speeds up to over 1000 an hour. In 1810, in London, Friedrich Koenigh used steam to drive a press for the first time, and his system got right away from the old flat bed and platen method of printing by rolling a cylinder over paper lying on top of inked type. Koenigh's method, rapidly adopted, marked the end of commercial viability for the hand press, which had changed little since Gutenberg. Koenigh’s method is in fact the ancestor of all modern rotary printing - the first fully rotary press was patented by Richard Hoe in 1846, and increased speeds still further.

There was still, of course, the obstacle to production of the hand-composition of type, each tiny metal sort being taken from the case and set in the composing stick. Even though William Church as early as 1822 had invented a mechanical typesetting device, it never caught on. Typesetting was n ot mechanised until Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the Linotype in 1886, a hot-metal process that produced a line of type in a solid slug.


These technical advances only take us part of the way. Try reading 6 or eight point type, which is the size most nineteenth century journals used - simply because, cost-effectively, you get more on the page - by candlelight, or even by the whale oil (train oil) light that was coming into vogue around 1800. To make really small type a viable option, we need cheap and really effective lighting. Now as early as 1733 a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society had explored the flammability of coal gas, and the Society showed a desultory interest in the gas for some time without seeing any real use for it. But in the 1790s William Murdoch, who worked for Boulton and Watt at their Soho Foundry, began experimenting with coal gas for lighting. In 1792 his house and offices, at Redruth, in Cornwall, was the first domestic building to be lit by gas. In 1798 he used gas to light the main building of the Soho Foundry and in 1802 lit the outside in a public display, the local population being, apparently, duly astonished. One of the employees at the Soho Foundry, Samuel Clegg, saw the potential of this, and left his job to set up his own gas lighting business, the Gas Lighting and Coke Company. Matthew Boulton. ... This article is about the Scottish engineer and inventor. ... In the 1780s, the Earl of Dundonald, father of the great Admiral Thomas Cochrane, had experimented with gas lighting, including a trial at the university of Louvain, and took out a patent for it; in Germany Friedrich Winzer patented coal gas lighting in 1804; in 1801, the auspiciously named Philippe le Bon of Paris also used gas to light his house and gardens, and was considering how to light all of Paris - the city adopted gas street lighting in 1820. London’s Pall Mall was lit by gas on January 28, 1807. In 1812, Parliament granted a charter to the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company, and the first public gas company in the world came into being. On New Year’s Eve, 1813, Westminster Bridge was lit by gas. And this rapid progress - less than two decades - was due simply to the fact that even after the cost of laying the infrastructures of mains and valves, 1810 was a common year starting on Monday (see link for calendar). ... lighting by gas cost 1816 was a leap year starting on Monday (see link for calendar). ... up to 75% less than lighting produced by oil lamps or candles.

Among the immediate impacts of gas lighting was that factories could work much longer hours. And the much brighter lighting, as it spread into places of public assembly and then into private homes, allowed people to read more easily and for longer. I would contend that without that better light, the smaller type, of which the economic advantages were obvious, could not have been comfortably read by people whose leisure was constrained by the shape of the industrial day, confining leisure reading to the darker hours. And without that smaller type, the journals as we know them would have been impossible(5).


It would be worth another much longer paper, for which there is no time, to re-examine the growth of working class literacy, noted by many commentators(6), in the early nineteenth century. It is enough to say that without such literacy, the mass circulation papers could have had no market, and the role played by the Sunday Schools in ensuring that literacy is important. They existed of course before Robert Raikes(7) opened his in Gloucester in 1780: but the rapid growth of the Sunday School Society (founded in 1785), reached the masses of children in the new towns. By 1784 there were said to be 1800 pupils in Manchester and Salford, and Leeds the same. Significantly, it was a characteristic of Sunday schools in both the North of England and in Wales that they were attended by adults (8) as well as children. The ‘National Schools’ of Andrew Bell, and Joseph Lancaster’s non-sectarian schools, had also spread, but patchily(9). In 1831 a nondenominational n ational school system was established by government in Ireland, but England had to wait till 1870, and Scotland till 1872, for anything comparable. But though Raikes, nor Lancaster, nor Bell’s National Schools Society, nor other reformers like Hannah More, had any idea of providing a readership for novels and journals, in effect this is what they did.

The final bit of the jigsaw is the railway. By the 1840s all the big industrial cities were connected by rail, a distribution network that was beginning to equal the reliability of the canals and far exceeded their speed. The systematisation of this network and its reliable timetabling is a big factor in the planning of communication and distribution. George Bradshaw (1801-53), cartographer and engraver, spotted the potential demand for a comprehensive collection of the various schedules offered by the railway companies, and Bradshaw's Railway Time-Tables first appeared in 1839. In 1841 it became Bradshaw's Monthly Railway Guide. The regularity and speed which the railways could offer, with the establishment of precise timetables, allowed reliable distribution of papers and journals as well as post at definite times: without this, regular issues of periodicals would have been hard put to it to sustain their readership(10). But the timetables themselves are a very remarkable invention, as anyone who has had anything to do with the positioning of freight carriers, ships or buses knows well. An already very complex network has got to be comprehensively understood not just in terms of its layout and branches and signalling, but also in its time dimension: the variables introduced by different sorts of trains, from express to goods and parliamentary, on the same lines, impose a huge intellectual burden, as the mathematics of relative speeds have to be taken into account. Furthermore, with many railway companies operating to and in different areas, the definition of time becomes a problem and an important element in safety, to ensure separation of moving rolling stock. For every municipality set its clock, if it had one, by the local position of the sun. It was railways that eventually forced a uniform time on the country. The idea was originally that of Dr. William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828), the chemist and Secretary of the Royal Society. The first railway to adopt London time was the Great Western, running to Bristol, in November 1840; other railways followed, and by 1847 most (though not all) railways used London time. On September 22, 1847 the Railway Clearing House, the industry standards body, recommended that what was called GMT be adopted at all stations as soon as the General Post Office permitted it: in 1852 the Royal Observatory began to transmit the time signal telegraphically. The January 1848 Bradshaw lists many railways as using GMT. By 1855 the vast majority of public clocks in Britain were set to GMT (though some, like the one on Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford, had two minute hands, one for local time and one for GMT). The last area to change was the legal system, which stuck to local time for many years, leading to oddities like polls opening at 08:13 and closing at 16:13(11).


The material circumstances - paper making, printing, steam, gas, railways - I have described each originate independently, though there is of course an element of push me pull you in it all. Without any one of them in place at this particular time, literary history would have been vastly different. Each of those circumstances, of course, like the literary developments themselves, developed positive feedback loops, reinforcing their own position to the point where we take their inevitability for granted. But, like the nineteenth century development of fish and chips(12) as a popular cheap food, in which things as remote as pogroms in Poland, waste cotton seed oil, and railways interact, they were not inevitable: each had its own aetiology and limited application, but as happy coincidences, in combination they radically altered the mental and physical world of modern men and women.

A tailpiece: every author seems to have complained of serials. Some simply padded with subplots and superfluous characters to reach their word quota. George Eliot hated having to ‘to drill myself into writing according to set lengths.’ As a critic for the London Morning Herald observed in 1843, ‘In writing, or rather publishing periodically, the author has no time to be idle; ... he must always be lively, pathetic, amusing, or instructive; his pen must never flag - his imagination never tire.’ Reviews of each instalment by leading newspapers and magazines could make or break a serial's popularity; it was like having the novel reviewed over and over, as Captain Marryat said: ‘When every portion is severally presented to be analyzed and criticized for thirty days, the author dare not flag. He must keep up to his mark, or he can never encounter an ordeal so severe.’ Each instalment had to keep up the demand for the next. Writers who faltered could lose contracts from magazines and the security that went with a two-year serialization.

Moreover, a writer had no chance to revise if he wanted to a character to take a new direction, for earlier instalments could not be altered. Trollope is the only author of whom I know who seems to have written and revised his entire novels before their serialization. Most authors tried to stay a few instalments ahead, but very often they would submit each instalment on the deadline or even fall a month behind. Dickens was hag-ridden by approaching deadlines and repeatedly wrote to friends and in his notebooks, ‘I MUST write.’

Against this background, and the material background I have described, the remarkable artistic achievements of the novelists of this period stand out as even more remarkable. There could be no finer example of constraint generating an excellence that might never had existed without those difficulties. But then, many things might not have existed: the other routes not taken, the journeys not made, remain forever unknowable.

© C. W. R. D. Moseley (Faculty of English University of Cambridge)


(1) Shawn Crawford. ‘No time to be idle: the serial novel and popular imagination’, Vol 13 November 1999 p222ff. Crawford’s title is taken, of course, from the comments of a critic for the London Morning Herald in 1843: see below.

(2) Dard Hunter’s classic 1947 study, Papermaking: the History and technique of an ancient craft (Dover), is still indispensable

(3) There is a painting of the Fourdrinier family in the National Portrait Gallery, attributed to Downman. See also David McKitterick, Language Arts and Disciplines,(London, 2002) p.191f.

(4) 1798 Ann. Reg. Chron. 22: ‘The celebrated Didot, the French printer, with a German, named Herman, have announced a new discovery in printing, which they term stereotype’ .

(5) See H. Cunningham, (1980) Leisure in the Industrial Revolution, (Beckenham:Croom Helm, 1980); T. W. Laqueur, Religion and Respectability. Sunday schools and working class culture, (New Haven: Yale University Press,1976); G. Sutherland, 'Education', in F. M. L. Thompson (ed.) The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950 Volume 3: Social Agencies and Institutions, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1990); and the outstanding E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, (London: Penguin,1968).

(6) Richard Brown , Society and Economy in Modern Britain, 1700-1850 (Routledge)

(7) K. D. M. Snell and Paul S. Ell, Rival Jerusalems: the Geography of Victorian Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 281; F. Booth, Robert Raikes of Gloucester, (Redhill, 1980)

(8)The Penny Cyclopaedia for the Dissemination of Useful Knowledge (1843), p.290, is among many sources that note this.

(9) The Quaker Joseph Lancaster’s (1778-1838) ‘monitorial’ system, non sectarian in religion, where the master taught the senior pupils and they taught those below them, had a lot of support, and a Royal Lancasterian Society was formed in 1808. Much of London was served by these schools. In opposition, in 1808 the Church of England founded the National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Establish Church, and some of the schools then built still stand in the parishes of England.

(10) Bradshaw in 1841 timetables the London to Birmingham mail trains covering the 112.5 miles in about 4 hours forty five minutes (first class cost £1, third 14/-, which is quite a lot). London Paddington to Bristol (151 miles) is about 4 hours 30 minutes (30/- First class, 12/6 third). Manchester to Birmingham, via Crewe, took four hours, connecting with the London train. So a packet despatched on the morning mail train from London would be in Manchester late that afternoon.

(11) The legal system finally switched to GMT when the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act took effect in 1880.

(12) Dickens in Oliver Twist (1837-9) gives the first literary mention of a fried fish shop. The deep fried potato was added later to the small back street trade of frying leftover fish from fishmongers’ stalls. This fascinating subject has been discussed by Gerald Priestland, Frying Tonight (London, 1972), and in Chapter 12 of L. Zuckermann, The Potato, (London, 1998). The Jewish connection with fish frying was noticed by ‘Chatchip’ (William Loftas) in the Fish Trades Gazette, 14 October 1911.


Asa Briggs, Victorian Things, (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1990)

N.N. Feltes, Modes of Production of Victorian Novels, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986.

Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund, The Victorian Serial, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1991.

Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, Dickens: A Life, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

Henry Stone, ed., Dickens' Writing Notes for His Novels, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987.

J. Don Vann, Victorian Novels in Serial, MLA, New York, 1985

9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text

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C. W. R. D. Moseley (Faculty of English University of Cambridge): Waiting for the death of Little Nell: Gas, flong, and the nineteenth century novel
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