The popularity of the first volumes of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s History of England in 1848 took everyone by surprise. Less than two months after their publication the author casually mentioned in his journal how he was correcting the proofs for a stereotyped edition. Stereotyping was one of the several technological innovations that influenced book production during the nineteenth century. The technology itself had been invented already during the eighteenth century, but it was the nineteenth century that took full advantage of its possibilities. What was significant in this new technology was that the plates could be used time and again. There was no longer a need for a new setting of type whenever a new issue was printed from stereos. This cut significantly the production costs of later issues and reprints. Since the initial costs of making the plates were relatively high, publishers were reluctant to invest in them unless they either predicted high demand for a new title or issued a new edition of a proven title. Because of this, stereotyping as a method of book production carried a concealed meaning of success. It is likely not a coincidence that Macaulay continuously alluded to stereotyping in his correspondence and journal during the months that proceeded the launch of the History of England. He was overwhelmed by his success and, against the virtues of modesty and moderation, did not hide his exultation.
Historians welcomed stereotyping with mixed feelings. They took great pride in correcting errors, adding new details, and improving their narratives whenever a new issue was published. Stereotyping, however, set limits to this because the use of existing plates significantly restricted the possibilities for making substantial alterations to an existing text. Thus, Edward Freeman demanded in 1872 to know what the “exact effect” of this specific production method was when Macmillan brought up the matter. Freeman suspected that stereotyping would hinder him from making “any further improvements” and reminded Macmillan how there had been a good number of additions and corrections in every volume and edition of his magnum opus, the History of the Norman Conquest. It was obvious that the famous historian was not thrilled about the prospect of his Norman Conquest of being stereotyped.
Freeman was right in a sense that stereotyping did not allow profound alterations, but it did not mean that any corrections were beyond historians. Blunders in dates, names, typos, and other similar blemishes were easy to correct in stereo plates. Other changes were possible as long as they did not alter the pagination and thus did not require casting new plates. Publishers tended to be less eager to make such investments. Creativity, thus, was needed when historians wished to make revisions to a stereotyped text. Edith Thompson, the author of History of England, learned to shorten and rearrange sentences in order to make room for some additional details and emendations she wished to insert into her book. Although stereotyping introduced limitations to revisions, historians grasped its symbolical function: being stereotyped was a subtle indication of their success and popularity. Macaulay was not unique in planting passing references to their stereotyped books in correspondence. In March 1873 Freeman wrote John Richard Green recounting his ongoing projects. Offhandedly he also mentioned how his General Sketch of European History happened to be at the moment “a-stereotyping or something.”
While stereos became shorthand for success, for some they became also a sign of shallowness. The persistent notion that a book’s popularity goes hand in hand with pedestrian taste was firmly in place in Victorian Britain. The commercialization of the book market was feared to lead to an inevitably lower literary and intellectual quality. Freeman accused the “chatterers and joke-mongers” for spoiling the public taste and refused to lower himself to the level of the “vulgar public.” Since publishers mostly stereotyped their popular titles, some used stereotyping as an indication of a book’s lower cultural value. The Tablet published a critical review of Macaulay’s History of England in March 1849 and the writer concluded that the book was being stereotyped precisely because Macaulay was “at once shallow and brilliant.” Macaulay, the reviewer complained, did not instruct his readers, but rather gave “utterances to the current thought of every man’s mind” and did this in such brilliance of style that deserved to be called “the Dickens of historians”. Macaulay did not write history, but romance, the reviewer concluded. The book being stereotyped was a strong proof of this questionable scholarly quality.
Macaulay read the review, but considered it to be “trash.” Instead of wasting more time with it, he chose to boast his success to Charles Macaulay by noting how none of Walter Scott’s novels had sold faster than the History of England. If this and the sales figures were not enough to prove his popularity, he added how “we are going to stereotype” to once more verify his success.
The Macmillan Papers, British Library.
The Papers of Edward A. Freeman, The John Rylands Library, Manchester.
The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, vol. V. Ed. Thomas Pinney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
“Mr. Macaulay and his History”, Tablet 3 March 1849. Quoted in Thomas, William (ed.), The Journals of Thomas Babington Macaulay, vol. II (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008).
Dooley, Allan C. Author and Printer in Victorian England (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1992).
Guy, Josephine, “Authors and authorship”, The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1830-1914, ed. Joanne Shattock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 9-29.
Miller, Laura J., Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Weedon, Alexis, Victorian Publishing: The Economics of Book Production for a Mass Market, 1836-1916 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2003).