The best New Works in every department of Literature

Well before Netflix, there was the circulating library. Although circulating libraries large and small were well-established in Britain by the middle of the eighteenth century–some of them, perhaps most (in)famously the Minerva Press, becoming publishing houses themselves–the most powerful circulating libraries came into being during the Victorian era.

Of all the circulating libraries, the most famous was Mudie’s Circulating Library (or Mudie’s Select Library), founded by Charles Edward Mudie. A devout Christian (he also wrote hymns), Mudie refused to stock anything he found offensive, with disastrous results for novelists like George Meredith. Just as importantly, or even more so, Mudie’s was one of the key players responsible for the omnipresence of the Victorian three-volume novel, or triple-decker: circulating libraries (which found the multivolume format highly advantageous for their business approach) were the primary markets for triple-deckers, not individuals. (See Troy Bassett [pdf] for more detail.) Eventually, the circulating libraries also tanked the format on which they once relied.

Troy Bassett’s At the Circulating Library catalogs the kinds of fiction that, well, circulated (some titles are annotated). A number of Mudie’s catalogs have been digitized. And to get a sense of just how many libraries were out there, see the late Robin Alston’s list, covering England to 1850.

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