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2001-03, 329, Bibliography, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

Book Review

Chester W. Topp. Victorian Yellowbacks & Paperbacks. Vol. 3, John Camden Hotten and Chatto & Windus, Chapman and Hall; Vol. 4, Frederick Warne & Co., Sampson Low & Co. Denver, Colo.: Hermitage Antiquarian Bookshop, 1997-1999. ISBN 0963392026 (v.3) 0963392034 (v.4). US$150 each.

Readers of Biblionews do not need to be reminded that ‘bibliography’ can mean anything from a list of sources used in an essay to an attempt to describe the entire history of the production and dissemination of a book or set of books. Chester Topp’s Victorian Yellowbacks and Paperbacks 1849-1905 is an example of the latter, on a monumental scale.

Now extending to four volumes, Topp’s work seeks to record the output of the major popular publishers in England during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Volume One, issued in 1993, dealt with George Routledge; Volume Two, issued in 1995, dealt with Ward and Lock. Volumes Three and Four cover the output of several publishers: Hotten, Chatto & Windus, Chapman & Hall, Frederick Warne, and Sampson Low. Projected volumes will cover Macmillan, Longmans, and some ten other smaller publishers – so we can expect at least two further volumes, probably more. From Volume Two, Topp adopted the practice of assigning item numbers, thus enhancing the readability and referability of his bibliography. The four volumes issued to date have been beautifully produced – clean, uncluttered typography, fine off-white paper, and a generous selection of full colour illustrations –, worth every cent of the US$150 price tag.

The introduction to Volume One provides a concise history of the ‘yellowback’ and the ‘paperback’, and each volume includes an outline history of the publishing companies that it covers. These are often complexly interconnected: for example, Frederick Warne was a brother-in-law and sometime business partner of George Routledge. The entry for each individual item provides a minimal physical description (format and pagination), cover price, and a commentary on its publishing history. In other words the focus is very much on publishers rather than authors – indeed, to track a particular title, or the works of a particular author, it is necessary to consult the indexes to each publisher. And Topp displays absolutely no interest in the content of any of the books he de-scribes. One can hardly blame Dr Topp for failing to dip into The Albion Temperance Reciter or the three volumes of John C. Motley‟s Rise of the Dutch Republic, but this reviewer‟s curiosity was aroused by such titles as Ready-Money Mortiboy, Tinkletop’s Crime, and The Casting Away of Mrs Leeks and Mrs Aleshine.

A few more trivial points.

Topp’s principles for inclusion are not always clear. For example, Little Women, Warne no.693, is described, and illustrated, as bound ‘in green silk grain cloth elaborately decorated on the front and spine in gold and black’ – emphatically not a yellowback or a paperback by any regular definition. The only justification for its inclusion appears to be the series title, ‘Warne’s Star Series’. There are numerous other examples of cloth-bound books included apparently on the grounds that they were issued as ‘cheap editions’.

Frank Fowler’s The Wreck of the Royal Charter (1859), Sampson Low no.49, is described as 12mo on the basis of an entry in The English Catalogue. Topp notes, ‘I cannot trace this.’ Ferguson’s Bibliography of Australia, however, records five copies of this item in Australian libraries alone – six if you count the one subsequently acquired by the University of Melbourne – the only caveat being that Ferguson describes it (accurately) as octavo rather than duodecimo. How could Dr Topp have known to look in Ferguson, you ask? Well, the Royal Charter was bound for Australia, and Fowler was a Civil Servant in New South Wales, not to mention the tragic part played by Robert FitzRoy of Beagle fame … Topp, in fact, does not consult Antipodean sources at all, despite the fact that ‘the colonies’ comprised a major – disproportionately so – market for British publishers well into the twentieth century. Hopefully one of the forthcoming volumes will cover the prolific Melbourne publisher George Robertson, whose output included original works as well as reprints of British and American bestsellers.

To be really pernickety, I should note a minor error: the caption for the illustration of A Bad Boy’s Diary should read ‘821’, not ‘155’. And the illustrations in Volume Four could have been better placed. They appear in the middle of the volume; they could have been separated into Warne and Sampson Low, or placed at the end of Warne to act as a handy marker between sections.

All that said, Topp’s work is a major addition to our under-standing of Victorian popular culture. If you have the faintest interest in the history of reading, or mass publishing, or how we came to differentiate Literature from ‘popular fiction’ in the first place, you cannot be without access to Chester Topp‟s Victorian Yellowbacks and Paperbacks 1849-1905.

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